As the Democratic National Convention begins in Los Angeles, we at McSweeney’s have decided to pay attention to a matter of important national interest that has been more or less, though not entirely, ignored by the major media. Since the November 1999 WTO riots in Seattle, various local police departments and an amorphous culture of protesters have been at war, with no definite result as yet. We believe that these battles between police and protesters are events of historical significance that test the very limits of our society’s tolerance for dissent. These are serious times, and these protests will eventually have serious consequences.
Recently, Neal Pollack went to Philadelphia to cover the Republican National Convention and the protests surrounding it, on assignment from a major glossy American magazine. He wrote a very long story of which he was quite proud. For various reasons, none of which were unreasonable, the magazine rejected his piece. However, at McSweeney’s, we are not concerned about such things as timeliness, and are certainly not concerned with length. Therefore, we will present Pollack’s piece nearly in full, and with great pride.
Pollack’s work on this site, and in his new book The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, are only a part of his large body of work. Pollack has been reporting on urban-affairs issues for many years in publications like the Chicago Reader, Salon, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine. He is a real person, and this piece, which will be presented in eight or so installments, is also real. The events described within really happened, and no names have been changed. Again, they are the real experiences of a real person. Now, please, no more explanations. We hope you enjoy:
Into the Maw.
It was the steamy cusp of Monday noon, the first day of the Republican National Convention, and some guy was yelling about something that had nothing to do with anything else. A struggle developed, which seemed to involve the guy and several other guys, who might have been undercover cops, or might have been his friends, or maybe they just disagreed with him. The assembled hordes looked on in fear or bewilderment, but most ignored the situation altogether, since they had other concerns. The protesters were worried that the cops would bust open their heads, like so much ripe produce at the 9th Street Market. The cops were worried that anarchists and other invisible marauding threats would lay waste to Broad Street and beyond. The journalists, who were so numerous that they appeared to be emerging from the sewer grates, simply worried, and all of us stewed at the base of Philadelphia’s Gothic monstrosity of a City Hall.
The occasion for this sloppy three-pronged opera was a protest march, without permit, being thrown by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a North Philly organization that makes a lot of trouble, helps a lot of people, and drives the city’s government completely insane. Let me quote from a KWRU press release so I may explain the purpose of our Monday duty dance, as I could not put it better myself: “The Kensington Welfare Rights Union is leading the March for Economic Human Rights to call attention to the fact that poor people have been made to disappear from the political debates, the media, and discussions about the so-called ‘economic boom.’ Both parties-Republicans and Democrats-have abandoned the poor people of this nation.”
“You ain’t gonna knock me down!” the guy screamed.
That did it. The television cameras and the men attached to them were upon the melee. Dozens of boom mikes appeared to soar toward the guy. Digicams were thrust between people’s legs. What had once been a shouting man was now a centrifuge of human confusion, blindly whirling down the street. I made the mistake of placing myself on the fringe, an inessential cog. From the right, a heavy, evil-looking camera whipped toward my head. I ducked and feinted, and tripped over a photographer who was scurrying, beetle-like, close to the ground. I went sprawling onto my ass, toward the middle of the unholy scrum.
As many people moved to photograph me as did to pick me up, and one man tried to do both. Soon I was righted, and, befitting my heroic stature, completely unshaken. But the crazed pinwheel clusterfuck had spun away without me ever finding out how or why it had gone down.
A woman handed me her card.
“Call me if you need anything,” she said. “I’m a legal observer.”
Didn’t they used to be called lawyers? I thought.
Meanwhile, a much larger mass of people surged behind me. They were, in the parlance of my profession, “hoisting banners and chanting colorful slogans.” The hour of the march was upon us.
And so I plunged, deep into the festering maw of the Great American Hoo-Hah.
My experiences started slowly, but engagingly. At 10:30 on the Saturday night before the convention, my wife and I, each four drinks to the wind, encountered an Abraham Lincoln impersonator waiting for his train at the Market East station. His name was Les Carlton, and he looked almost exactly like what one imagines Lincoln must have looked like. He had just returned from the Seaport Museum, where he had been entertaining a group called the New Majority Republicans. But that was it for the week for Les, other than a Wednesday gig in King of Prussia. Apparently, the city’s Democratic establishment had booked all the entertainment for the RNC, and had given the prime Lincoln spots over to some guy who usually plays Ethan Allen and Nathan Hale.
“I thought the fact that the Republican leadership knew me would help,” Les said. “But I was never offered a contract. I finally found out two weeks ago that the people who were running the convention didn’t have the power. All they were in charge of was putting up the stage. I was planning to go to the airport at least. Of course, Abe Lincoln really didn’t have much to do with Philadelphia.”
Les went on to tell us that he was pro-choice, because Lincoln would have been. “I’m the original compassionate conservative,” he said. It was hard, said Les, since he had been a registered Republican for 51 years, and now there was no place for Abraham Lincoln in today’s Republican Party.
“I’m not exactly like him,” he said. “I like to have a beer now and then and he was a teetotaler.”
A man came up to Les and shook his hand.
“Nice to see you again,” he said.
Les sighed. People always said that to him.
On the train, we encountered the inheritors of Lincoln’s great emancipatory tradition: Five recent high-school graduates who were in town to protest the scheduled execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. One kid had flown in from Hawaii. Another was from Vancouver. The rest were from Hyde Park, in Chicago, and had recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Lab School.
One of the girls looked at my wife.
“Hey,” she said. “I know you. You came into Mr. Janus’ class to talk to us about art.”
“Yep,” said Regina. “That was me.”
“Right on,” said the girl. She then asked me, with all sincerity, what I thought about Mumia. With all sincerity, I told her that I thought he had probably killed that policeman, but didn’t get a fair trial, and anyway, I’m opposed to the death penalty.
“Right on,” she said.
The kids told us to watch out for Tuesday, which was the scheduled day of “direct action” against the “criminal injustice system.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where you gonna be?”
“We don’t know,” said the guy from Hawaii. “Our leaders won’t tell us exactly.”
“Yeah,” said another kid, “there are gonna be like three hundred thousand people there.”
“Probably not that many,” said the guy from Hawaii, sanely.
They were sweet kids. I didn’t see them on Tuesday. I really hope they didn’t end up going to jail and getting held for five days on $500,000 bail with no phone calls, little food and water, and constant threats of police beating. Because that’s what ended up happening to a lot of their friends.
The next morning, I took the train downtown, where a scheduled, permitted protest parade, thrown by an “umbrella” organization called Unity 2000, was taking shape on the expansive boulevards just northwest of downtown. The air had the approximate consistency of a washing machine on rinse. This had best be good, I thought.
The first people I saw as I approached the back of the parade line were the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, many of whom I recognized from Chicago, where this past winter, they had occupied a doomed building in the Robert Taylor Homes in solidarity with its few dozen remaining residents, produced a banner that read, “Kosovo on State Street,” and proceeded to ensure, despite their good-hearted intentions, that the people inside were treated like rodents by the media and, especially, by the Chicago Housing Authority. But the RCYB was only a blip among thousands of Anarchists, Democratic Socialists, queer activists, abortion-rightists, death-penalty abolitionists, moderate campaign-finance-reform wonks, animal-rights fanatics, and global-warming drum bangers, among so many others. There were a good number of intelligent, concerned people in the crowd, and a lesser number of the evidently deranged, who were obvious targets for the newspaper photographers. Everyone’s favorite was a twitchy gentleman who carried around a large picture of an aborted fetus and a sign that read, “Drunkards and Fornicators Will Join Tupac In Hell.” I spoke to one guy, equally atypical, who was walking around on stilts with a sign around his neck that read, “I Have No Cause. I Am Not a Protester.”
“I had nothing else to do today,” he said.
The protesters marched up JFK Drive onto Ben Franklin Boulevard. They danced and sang and carried on like dopes. In general, the smells were not good, and it was getting hotter.
I hung around the most interesting bunch, a lively crew called Billionaires for Bush and Gore, which is a project of United For A Fair Economy, a Boston-based public-education outfit that tries to call attention to the growing nationwide gap between the rich and the poor. They wear thrift-store cocktail dresses and tuxedos, adopt nicknames, and say funny things that not only parody corporate values, but also the incredible lameness of protest rhetoric. Here are some examples:
“One, two, three, four, we just want to earn much more! Five, six, seven eight, don’t you dare tax our estates!”
“Whose media? Our media!”
And my favorite: “Corporations are people too!”
I talked to Mr. I Owen Tewmuch and his wife, Mrs. Getaway Tewmuch. He was wearing a stovepipe hat and a tuxedo. She was in a dress that appeared to be left over from Titanic rehearsals, and was dragging behind her a suitcase full of fake dollar bills and anti-corporate literature.
“I’m from Long Island,” she said.
“My wife and I are estranged,” he said. “She’s stranger than I am.”
Arriving at the protest area, I found concession stands selling smoothies, soft pretzels, and charbroiled chicken breasts. From there, the event turned into a kind of left-wing state fair, which was fun for about an hour or so.
“The media is disappointed today,” said one speaker, after a round of unendurable folk singing.
Damn right we were.
“But this isn’t an event,” he said. “This is a movement. Every time a politician opens his mouth, one of us will be there.”
Up marched a large group from Chinatown, who were banging a gong and protesting the city’s plans to build a new baseball stadium in their neighborhood. On its face, this seems like the noblest cause in the world, until you actually attend a baseball game at Veterans Stadium, at which point you will conclude that, if necessary, Philadelphia should tear down Independence Hall to give the Phillies a new home.
After they passed, I bought six buttons for five dollars, and a cute sock puppet wearing an American-flag hat and the words “Politics 4 Sale” inside its mouth. Actors playing George W. Bush and Al Gore were scheduled to mud-wrestle on a float to see which one would be elected President, but I was bored and wanted to leave. You kind of have to admire an event where the head of the beleaguered local liquor-store clerks union begs for the crowd’s support and then introduces a gaggle of chanting Tibetan monks, but, trust me, you don’t necessarily want to witness this stuff for yourself.
As I made my merciful escape, I ran into the kids from the train, including the girl who knew my wife.
“Did you see the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade?” said one of them, with all the excitement of a summer-camp CIT. “They burned a flag!”
Later that afternoon, I rode the subway up to Bushville, a makeshift tent city set up by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in a North Side vacant lot. All week, Bushville provided excellent copy for wire-service wage slaves, people from Toronto, and European journalists, the good-hearted sucker types who actually come to political conventions to find out the truth about America.
When I arrived, a group of deaf-rights people was in the main tent, doing a sign-language recitation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No offense to them, I passed, choosing instead to observe two young men with a hardscrabble woman named Katie sitting between them. They were being photographed, looking somber and hot, with signs that read “Give Me Health Care Or Give Me Death.”
“Well, you could smile,” I said.
“I usually do,” said one of them, “but the photographer told me not to.”
Bushville was as advertised: a bunch of camping tents and ramshackle cardboard houses with tarps thrown over them, laying over a cozy landscape of weeds and shattered, discarded brick. The tent city had been a source of melodrama all week, as the KWRU was forced by police to move it from its original location a few blocks away after the owner of the mosque next door complained. Its main purpose, as far as I could limn, was to host a world-record number of press conferences, up to six a day.
The KWRU was also offering “reality tours” for the media to call attention to the “other side” of Philadelphia. The tours were the subject of a hilarious editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer that appeared to have been written by the executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce. The paper warned journalists not to believe that the bombed-out buildings of North Philly represented the whole town. As alternate possible stories, the Inquirer offered up the thrilling possibilities of writing about the local Puerto Rican Association or “Sister Mary Scullion, a local treasure who will give you the unvarnished truth about how the city’s homeless people are doing.”
Despite the establishment’s desperate desire to paint a pretty face at convention time, the tangential media reality tour has become a staple of political gatherings in recent years. In Chicago in 1996, I went around with a literature professor who had covered the ’68 convention for The Evergreen Review. Like a lot of former radicals that year, he was dining out on his former street cred. He gave a dull, rambling performance centered on his memories of the riots in Lincoln Park. Nonetheless, this got him a lot of press.
Bushville was far more immediate, more sophisticated, and more frustrating. I talked to a young guy who told me he had missed the Unity 2000 March because he was on his child-care shift, since the encampment had a lot of kids running around. But the day before, he said, he had been to a health-care march that had really inspired him.
“It’s just amazing to walk down to the commercial area and see people with their shopping bags staring at you,” he said. “It’s that kind of mentality that’s screwed up health care.”
“What kind of mentality?” I said.
“OK. But what does that have to do with health care?”
“I’m against for-profit managed care,” he said.
“Well, Jesus, so am I. But what does that have to do with shopping?”
“It’s all part of the system,” he said.
Under an insane sun, I next talked to some very nice, committed people from DeKalb, Illinois, who were enduring a week in Bushville to make a point. “This is a real people’s movement from the ground up, step by step,” said one of them. “We’re changing the world. People from all around the country are coming here, and the only way the system is going to be changed is if enough people come together and demand change. We have very specific demands. The goal of this organization is to end poverty, not poverty for the welfare moms, not poverty for Philadelphians. It’s to end poverty.”
A contingent of reality tourists arrived in a school bus from the Liberty Bell. The bus was full, but the deaf activists made a stink, so the “Reality Guides” were forced to give up their seats and stand in the aisles. I got on board, and was bombarded with way more reality than is necessary for an ordinary Sunday afternoon.
We passed what you might expect: an abandoned brewery in which homeless people were drying their laundry, desperate slum housing, neighborhood bars at the end of their lines, abominable sidewalks. We also went to a shuttered church and saw a graffiti mural. “For kids who can’t afford to go to the movies or to the mall,” our press sheet assured us, “graffiti is an activity.” We then drove by Elbow Alley, the heroin distribution center of Kensington, which was depressing, but I admired the fact that they showed it to us.
The rest of the tour was overwhelming, but not because of the poverty, of which I have seen plenty in Chicago. Rather, it was wiltingly hot, and the KWRU didn’t seem to care. There is nothing like being on a parked, badly-ventilated school bus in the middle of a hopeless ghetto and listening to rehearsed five-minute-long testimonials from reformed drug addicts to make you want to quit journalism forever.
My seatmate, Gordon Corera, the World Affairs Editor for the BBC, seemed somewhat interested in the goings-on, but he was also obviously very hot. He showed me the scars he had received while covering the IMF protests in D.C., and I was impressed. The other media on the tour were two sneering guys from the National Journal, and a bunch of “independent media” people from such truth-telling organizations as digitalanarchy.org.
Of all the people I met in Philadelphia-and I met a great many people-the independent media were the least appealing, and the least trustworthy. There were hundreds of them, it seemed, always hectoring, always observing you, always taking notes, and always looking for Fifth Columnists. Admittedly, when things got bad on Tuesday, they shot some decent photos and some valuable digital video, but they weren’t reporters. They were more like spies, and not as subtle as the police ones.
I met one Indie Media guy on the bus.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“I don’t know you,” he said.
He asked too see my credentials, because they are always asking to see your credentials. He also informed me that everyone involved in the convention protests had signed nonviolence pledges, “except for the city of Philadelphia.” In this guy’s case, he was largely interested in copying my pass that got me into the convention hall.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “we need information.”
I told him that if he wanted information, he should get a newspaper job and get his own damn credentials. Even if I was wrong, I didn’t care, because that shut him up, and allowed me to gaze quietly out the window at the hideous wreckage of a city passing by.
If you find yourself dropped into an unfamiliar urban American hamlet with reportorial duties, it is often helpful to know people who work in radio news, as they are forced to cover events that other, more esteemed media types can ignore, but with a greater depth than the television twinks. I happened to have a friend, Julia Barton, who was assigned the protest beat for WHYY, Philly’s public-radio station, and was therefore was duty-bound to follow all interlopers. She proved an essential observer as the week inevitably progressed from triumph to tragedy. For instance, in what was widely considered to be the first surprise event of convention week, on Saturday, July 29, a dozen activists burst into Lord & Taylor in downtown Philadelphia and unfurled a banner that read “No More Sweatshops!”
“Of course,” Julie said, " it would have been more effective if anyone shopped at that store."
That’s the kind of perspective that only a local can provide.
Julie and her colleague Jennifer Rehill, a WHYY employee who was acting as a “special correspondent” for KCRW radio in Santa Monica, pretty much saved me at the Monday anti-poverty protest, which was very long and disorienting and full of potted melodrama. It was a Death March, an uninspiring nightmare crush of stereotypes. Again that day, the air was pudding-like, and it didn’t help that I had inexplicably decided to wear a shirt and tie.
The Kensington Welfare Rights Union set off with a group of children in front, who looked terrified and were forced to hold onto a rope. The journalistic horde blocked the children from starting, creating some scary traffic logjams. This put the police in the strange position of protecting the protesters from the media.
At some merciful moment past noon, people began to flow. The children remained in front, followed by a group of wheelchair-bound activists from the radical disabled-rights group ADAPT, followed by a bunch of mothers pushing strollers, which was a miracle in itself because the city had tried to scare them from marching earlier in the week by saying that it had reserved a thousand extra shelter beds to house the children of the arrested.
We crawled forward, with Philly police chief John Timoney and his squad of bike cops at the lead, gently guiding, and hogging the media’s time. Over the week, Timoney, with his white shirt, white helmet, and Terminator sunglasses, logged more camera minutes on a bike than Lance Armstrong had during the Tour de France. This prompted one local columnist to compare the slavish TV media folks with paparazzi stalking Princess Diana.
After a single-file march down Broad Street that seemed to last 48 hours, but in fact only lasted three, and featured well-reported appearances by Johnny Rotten and Newt Gingrich, the protesters finally began to dribble toward the domed paradise of the First Union Center. The Drunkards and Fornicators Will Join Tupac in Hell guy was there to greet them, and he got into a pointed debate with a young woman.
“You’re a whore,” he said.
“I’m a virgin, you stupid fuck!” she said.
“Virgins don’t say the f-word,” he retorted.
Someone then informed him that the Bible was given to us by men, not by God, and that God spoke to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. The man put his hands over his ears, jumped up and down, and shouted, “Nah, nah, nah!”
Then came a tense moment of uncertainty. Around 3 PM, the protesters arrived en masse. Reports began to filter down that the police had talked to the march’s organizers about diverting them to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, which abutted the convention hall, but that the marchers gave no guarantees that they would comply. Ten full-sized buses and ten police vans waited behind a cordon of silent, baton-holding cops. Each one had a dozen plastic handcuffs at the ready. Journalists perched in front of the barricades, on the medians.
The protesters reached the blockade. They stared the cops down. The cops stared back. And then they turned right, most of them, down the most generic South Philly street imaginable. Julie Barton and I followed, but Jen Rehill stayed behind at the standoff, and she later filed this report to us.
“About 200 people were in front of the barricades. Mounted police rode adjacent to the people who were sitting on the grass. The KWRU people were screaming at protesters to keep moving, and the crowd wasn’t moving. It was all the kids, in their black and with their bandanas. They put the bandanas over their faces and sat down in the shade. The pro-lifers stayed with their horrible fetus picture. They were chanting at each other. A pile of giant puppets lay on the ground. There we were, all kind of poised. Then there was this sudden thing where a call came up among the police. They moved the barricades and flying down Broad Street came the cars and the vans and a troupe of bike cops. That kind of broke the moment. The protesters split into two fronts-anarchists and drummers and puppet people-and the puppeteers led the anarchists away. They looked exhausted.”
Meanwhile, Barton and I found ourselves marching down a shadeless street, with middle-class tract housing on one side and vacant lots on the other, with no water, and no place to run. When we reached FDR Park, with maybe 200 remaining marchers, we were forced across a vast expanse of uncut grass, again with no trees. Everyone had gone limp. A few people behind us were wanly chanting “We Shall Overcome.”
We arrived at the designated area. The First Union Center loomed before us, behind a ten-foot fence. On the other side of the fence was a phalanx of bike cops, plastic cuffs at the ready. One kid tried to poke at the fence, and a cop batted him away with a baton. Cheri Honkala, the ever-dramatic leader of the KWRU, launched herself over the hood of a van, and spoke to the crowd.
“Let today be symbolic,” she said, “of us taking over our country, and let America no longer take away our rights to food, clothing, and health care!”
The remaining protesters could only muster a faint reaction. Most of them were sprawled under trees, drinking water and napping. John Timoney, J. Edgar Hoover on a bicycle, showed up, examined the situation, and found it to his liking. Honkala had managed to march without a permit, and Timoney had managed to herd the protesters into a cage without too much trouble. The cops could claim order, and the protesters a radical victory. But it looked to me like the cops had won, substantially.
Then the Adopt A Greyhound Coalition, which was from Maryland, manifested itself. Weeks before, the police and the American Civil Liberties Union had worked out a protest zone inside the park, behind the fence. A set number of groups would be given 50 minutes apiece to speak, until the end of the convention. The police assigned 76 slots, and for the first two months, no one applied. By the time the convention started, only 23 of those slots were filled. The greyhound people were the first to apply, by a month. They brought their doggies, which were hot and panting maniacally, and a scale model of a dead greyhound on an autopsy table.
One man wore a T-shirt that read, “I participated in the National Greyhound Adoption Program’s Republican National Convention 2000 March.” Well, I thought, not too many people can say that, and the greyhound people went to the assigned protest area to begin their rally. Their voices boomed out into the parking lots, over buses full of Republican delegates who couldn’t hear them. But the remaining protesters in the park could.
“Who are you?” said one of them into the air. “Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“They make wonderful pets,” said a disembodied greyhound-owning voice, into the microphone. “They lie in your bed. They lie next to your bed. And then they are fast.”
At 2:30 the next afternoon, Black Tuesday, downtown Philadelphia was preparing to become a war zone. The streets were much quieter than usual. Choppers whirred overhead. On one corner, a dozen mounted police were putting tear-gas shields over their horses’ eyes. Clumps of black-clad kids were everywhere, sitting on park benches, splashing in fountains, walking this direction and that, appearing and disappearing like left-wing wind sprites.
I walked from 16th Street to Eakin’s Oval, at 23rd and the Franklin Parkway, where I was supposed to meet an “activist liaison” who was going to take me and other reporters to various fields of engagement. When I arrived, I found a protest organizer complaining that the cops had raided a warehouse in West Philly, and were engaged in unwarranted acts of puppet confiscation. There were, he said, dioramas depicting police brutality and starving children. These were being held hostage, and the police were threatening to destroy a paper-mache slave ship.
A gang of kids dressed as clowns rode by on their bicycles and honked their horns. The organizer continued to complain, and he spelled his name for about 20 different people. I didn’t know where I wanted to be, but it wasn’t there. Within minutes, I was in a car being driven by Stephanie, a photographer for the Chicago Tribune, along with Flynn McRoberts, a Tribune reporter who I knew from home, and who, coincidentally, was arrested two weeks later by Los Angeles police as he covered a Critical Mass bike rally during the Democratic National Convention.
We arrived at 41st and Haverford, a West Philly street corner where a showdown was ongoing. The police had cordoned off 41st Street for a block, and had established an unsmiling blue wall of silence that no one dared penetrate. The warehouse was behind them. From a window, someone had thrown out what must have been the most hastily constructed banner in the history of banner construction. It read, “Puppeteering Ain’t A Crime. Free the Haverford 70.”
Thank goodness Julie Barton was on the scene. Apparently, she told me, at 10 minutes to 2 PM, the police had arrived on a tip that puppet makers had weapons in the house, which they were planning to use for mass destruction of public property. Whoever was in the warehouse was trapped, and if they emerged, they would be arrested. The police had brought along a couple of buses for that purpose. They had no search warrant, but were trying to get one.
Outside the barricade, the local television crews had set up, along with a number of protesters who had escaped the blockade for one reason or another. The ACLU was there, and was outraged. The residents of the neighborhood had naturally come out to see the fuss, and had a variety of reactions. “The last time somebody got shot around here, how many cops did you see?” asked one woman. Another said, “We’re in a black neighborhood. All we know is that if there had been black people in there, they would have burned that damn building down. They’re negotiating with them, but who’d be talking to us?” Still another had this to say: “This is like Waco! Why they be raiding a building if there aren’t any hostages. What the hell are they doing?”
That was a good question. Nobody was entirely sure, and we all settled in to see how things would play. Some of the hippies were eating a cucumber salad, which was blue. The police didn’t flinch. We learned that Captain William Fisher, the commanding officer of the department’s civil-affairs unit, had been asking people if there were any vehicles inside the warehouse leaking gas. Then he intimated that there might be “tire-puncturing tools” inside. Plastic pipe and chicken wire were also deemed dangerous.
Suddenly, police, protesters, and various neighborhood types ran screaming down Haverford. I followed. Apparently, a “domestic violence dispute” was in full bloom, and the cops were carting away some sorry fellow who had the bad timing to get in a fight with his woman as 100 police officers and an equal number of television cameras were on his front stoop.
I returned to the main action, where I encountered Kenneth Young, an excitable attorney for Oakhart Flooring Corporation, the unfortunate company that owned the warehouse in question. The owners of the building, which, Young added, was a union shop, were renting to the puppeteers for the week, and there had been no problems. “There are no bombs in that building,” Young said, reassuringly.
The metal gate to the warehouse rolled up to reveal dozens of protesters wearing clown noses and paper hats designed to look like prison bars. They were chanting “The People United, Will Never Be Defeated,” and waving their fists in defiance. It was like watching the curtain rise on the opening scene of La Traviata. One at a time, the kids began to emerge from the warehouse; the cops cuffed them and put them on the bus. Their remaining number continued to chant. Some extremely annoying freak, who actually should have gone to jail, stood in front of the cops, banged a drum, and yelled in their faces.
“You wanna see some news?” said an especially lippy neighborhood guy. “Go next door and see the cocaine and crack dealers. Shut some of them people down.”
A middle-aged woman grabbed my arm.
“What’s going on in there?” she said, worriedly.
“I’m not quite sure,” I said.
“My son is in there! He’s the office manager! He was trapped. He called me and said, ‘mom, I’m in a hostage situation. Make sure that the police know that there are other people in there!” Kenneth Young, the attorney, assured her that her son would be saved from the mob.
The chanting, defiant protesters were gradually removed from the warehouse onto the buses. I saw a cop force a girl to remove her party hat and clown nose before he slapped on the cuffs. This little battle had ended, and the cops had won. It was time to go downtown.
I hitched a ride with Julian Borger, a U.S. correspondent for the Guardian of London. “The only newsworthy thing that’s happened all week is Colin Powell,” he said. We arrived downtown in time to see a group of anarchists running back and forth a parking lot, with no particular destination, it seemed. Julian looked at the scene, and said “See you later.” Apparently, he’d seen enough of this crap in London.
But it was fresh to my eyes, and I plunged in without a map. I ran in one direction, following one group, and then in another, following another. I came upon 15th and JFK Boulevard, and found Philadelphia an occupied city. Everywhere I saw protesters. They had overtaken the plaza of a municipal building. They were spilling out into streets. They were blocking traffic. The police were holding them off in some places, and frantically trying to gain control in others. I saw a Department of Recreation vehicle, its tires slashed, its back window covered in yellow paint. A police athletic league van had also been disabled, and bore the spray-painted words “Execute Tom Ridge,” who is Pennsylvania’s Republican governor. These were backed up by a whole line of city vehicles, equally slashed, and equally trashed.
Out of the haze came 500 or so protesters. They were knocking over trashcans and dragging Dumpsters into the middle of the street. They pulled American-flag bunting off the federal building, and were having good sport while kicking and tearing up garbage bags. They headed north onto Broad Street, blocking traffic. The cops used their bicycles to set up a barricade on the west side of Broad and Arch. As Jen Rehill later reported on Pacifica Radio: "Protesters turned right and went the wrong way up Arch Street. Three or four protesters pulled chain-link fencing from a construction site on Arch. They were joined by 10 or 15 more who dragged the fencing down the street. I saw one man pull down a newspaper box and a few others kick over trashcans. Nearby, I saw protesters spray painting the words “Execute Bush” on an empty police cruiser."
Then, to my eyes, events turned violent. The police set up a barricade on 18th Street, so the protesters headed north to Vine Street, which was a big mistake. They turned the corner to find a police car, which they surrounded. To their right was a vacant lot, overgrown with weeds and trees. The police swooped in on their mountain bikes, and they struck, whipping people with batons, pinning them to the sidewalks. I was in the middle, and darted in an out of the lot, trying not to get hit.
“You are hurting me!” I heard and saw a woman scream. “You are hurting me! Oh my God, you just hit me in the fucking face with your baton!”
A kid in brown pants limped toward me.
“Motherfucker hit me in the leg!” he shouted. He headed toward the particular cop in a retaliatory mode, fist raised.
“Sit down, you fucking idiot!” I shouted.
The police arrested a few people, pinning them to the ground. They then secured the street. Meanwhile, a white-shirted police supervisor was pouring water over his face.
“They sprayed some yellow shit in his eyes,” a cop said.
The cops looked scared, too.
“Guys,” I heard one of them say, “keep your head up. They got marbles. They’re throwing marbles.”
The supervisor went up against a chain link fence, where he inexplicably began removing his pants. A photographer, who identified himself to me as Dan McLean from the Brooklyn Bridge Press, leaned past the police to try and get a picture.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” the supervisor said. “Can’t a guy have any privacy?”
A phalanx of cops moved toward the photographer.
“Why you arresting me?” he said.
“Because I want to,” said the cop. “Because I want you in the fucking van.”
An officer turned to me and said, “Why do you people make it harder for us?”
– – - -
About 20 minutes later, I found myself in the middle of the big protest, which was centered at 15th and JFK. A group of people wearing goat’s heads were dancing around, chanting “We’ve got to free. Mumia. Abu. Jamal.” Some other protesters stretched a thick line of yarn across the street to try and stop a troop of horse cops from pushing them away from the center. The horses advanced and I backed into, and tripped over, the string.
“Fucking string,” I said.
The protesters sat down in front of the cops, and someone let off a smoke bomb. A brave cop plunged into the crowd to cut the string, and was seized by a group of protesters, who began clawing at his clothes. Two other cops jumped in to rescue him, and some minor head bashing ensued. Then a group of protesters, dressed as clowns, rode up and began running around and making all kinds of noise. Some people were laughing, some were crying. Some were fleeing in terror. One moron stood in front of a horse-bound cop and said, “Hah, hah. Your horse just took a shit!” For some reason, this person wasn’t harmed.
At this point, you may be asking, as I was: What is this all about? In the middle of the chaos, I was fortunate enough to back into Matt Ruben, one of the organizers of the day’s events, who set me straight. Ruben is 31, and has lived in Philadelphia for nine years. Starting next month, he will be a professor of English and Urban Studies at Bryn Mawr University. He was very excited, and through the smoke delivered unto me the following monologue, seemingly without breathing:
“These are not a bunch of Ivy League elitists out here. Those people are all in the convention hall. These are not empowered kids. They’re working class, or at least many of them are. The fact is that they’re pissed off and they’re dedicated. They’ve got a lot more fucking guts than the people who are criticizing them. We are all worried about the increasing use of repressive measures to write off large portions of our society. We have 35 million people living in poverty, 45 million with no health care, and we have two million people living in prison, which is a record in the history of this country. And it’s a record for the industrialized world. We think that the policymakers have chosen incarceration and vilification and writing people off instead of forthrightly addressing the problems that we have in this country. Economic polarization. Public education is in trouble, especially in cities like this one. Environmental degradation. Institutionalized racism. Seventy percent of the people who are in prison are people of color. Half are African-American. You can’t write these people off and say they’re evil and there’s something wrong with them, because the reality is that there are communities in this country where there are no opportunities, where there’s not equality of investment, access to political power, and we think that needs to be changed. We think that conventions like this are the place to do it, because this convention is a perfect example of a democratic process that’s been corrupted.
“Bob Livingston, the Republican representative from Louisiana, said himself yesterday on network news that this convention is the tying of the lace of a shoe that’s already been bought, polished, and put up for sale. The important thing is to get a lot of customers. And that’s exactly what’s wrong with this political system that we have today. It’s embodied in this convention, and we’re out here as part of organizations and affinity groups that have decided and planned these very protests as part of a consensus-based, democratic process. We are out here in the streets with the democratic process saying no to these kinds of policies of sham democracy and of the use of incarceration and force instead of thoughtful, creative political action to create equality for everyone.”
If that wasn’t enough, Ruben added, “You can’t calculate the amount of time that went into planning all this, in large part because it takes a long time if you do it right. It takes a lot longer to do it democratically than to do it top down. It was a lot of hard work. People had to work through their differences and to come together. It took a really long time. It’s rewarding that it’s paying off today. The people who are determined to do this and put themselves on the line did it, despite everything, and it’s obvious now that we’re getting the message out and we’re saying no to this kind of super-smooth, Swiss-watch orchestrated schedule and PR event that this convention is. Nothing of substance is getting decided this convention. Everything of substance is out here in the street, and I am proud to be a part of it. This is a bottom-up movement. And we want to change this country. I worked my ass off to get this thing off the ground, and I’m gonna enjoy it.”
In front of us, a chant went up.
“Let the horses go! Let the horses go!”
Someone I had never seen before and have not seen since ran up to me in a panic.
“Dude!” he said. “You see them stomp that dude in the red dreads?”
The Billionaires for Bush appeared, and chanted, “No more billy clubs! We want yacht clubs!”
By about 7:30 PM, The politics ended, and the evening quickly degenerated into an uneven game of urban cat-and-mouse. By degrees, the police had broken things up. They began to chase a group of about 200 protesters south, into the fashionable districts. I followed, partly by choice, and partly because I was simply caught in the downcurrent of people. The protesters began knocking over garbage cans and newspaper boxes, and dragging Dumpsters into the streets, which effectively stopped the horse cops. But the bike cops were coming out of every alley and every side street, swiping at protesters, who were swiping right back at them.
At 17th and Chancellor, in front of the extremely swanky Warwick Hotel, the protesters made a stand, with Dumpsters. Then, from down the block, came the roar of motorcycles. The cops screamed down the street and along the sidewalk, and the protesters became consumed by fear. They split up into smaller and smaller groups, fleeing down alleys and tripping over themselves. I found myself at 17th and Locust, in an alley, where the bike cops had formed a wall.
“Get out of here now if you don’t want to get hurt!” one of them shouted.
I got out. I passed a bistro called Chin Chin, where a young woman, bleeding from the temple, grabbed a wine glass off the table and smashed it on the sidewalk. I wandered and ran, gaining and losing speed. Back on 15th street, I saw that the horse cops had backed about 30 protesters into a parking lot. One of the protesters started hitting a horse with a newspaper.
“Horses don’t like pigs!” he shouted.
It was about 8:30 PM, and I saw little more trouble in the streets. On my way to meet my wife for dinner, I happened to pass by the Independent Media Center. An independent media guy was hanging out in front.
“So it’s over, right?” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “We’ve still got people in jail.”
He looked at me suspiciously, as was his wont.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I showed him.
“Corporate media,” he said dismissively.
I wanted to say: No, you goddamn yutz. The corporate media are at the First Union Center getting their legs waxed or sucking Scotch out of the corporate teat at downtown hotels, or transcribing speeches off of television onto their laptops and eating their chicken Caesar salads. They aren’t out here watching you and your buddies getting your collective ass kicked, that’s for sure.
“Well, sorta,” I said, weakly.
“Do you want a press packet?” he asked.
I did not.
Meanwhile, only a few blocks away, Commissioner Timoney was doing battle with his own subset of anarchist enemies. I missed the fracas, during which Timoney got scraped up and a protester rammed Timoney’s partner in the back of the head with a bicycle, giving him a concussion. But my friend Josh, who was tooling around on his own bicycle, got there about ten seconds after protesters knocked Timoney off his bike. “There were two guys being subdued,” Josh told me later. “Timoney was getting up, kinda shaken. There were bikes piled in the middle of the street. His supporting officers were asking him if he was OK. He looked pretty old. It was hilarious; he was in his bicycle shorts and white shirt. He was in the thick of it and he was not in control. Nobody there knew it was Timoney. People were filming it. I said, ‘do you know what you’re filming?’ They said no. I said, ’that’s the chief of police.’”
The throwdown may have seemed funny at the time, but in the days following, Timoney got his revenge, and made great political hay of the fact that he had faced the anarchists, toe-to-toe and lived.
“I want people to go out on a limb,” he said. “Then I’m going to chop that limb off.”
In early July, the Philadelphia Police Department admitted that it had been spying on and photographing protesters. At the time, a policewoman said “just because we are getting information about people who are going to be part of the demonstrations here doesn’t mean we believe they in particular are going to be in any way disruptive or violent.”
On Wednesday, August 2, John Sellers, the head of the Berkeley, CA, based Ruckus Society, was arrested as he walked along JFK Boulevard. A Philadelphia AIDS activist named Paul Davis was arrested on Tuesday as he walked down the street, talking on a cell phone. Several other alleged protest “leaders” were arrested by police, even though the police gave no definitive evidence that they had specifically partaken in violence. In the days after the protest, few people were angry that arrests had occurred. The protesters had expected arrests. And the large number of injured police, including one with a broken arm, showed that the violence had hardly been one-sided. But the random picking-off of organizers had people outraged.
“We disorganized them,” said one officer.
On the Friday after the convention, I stopped by the park across the street from The Roundhouse, a two-building circular jail downtown where many of the arrested protesters had been held. By the time I got there, many of them had been transferred to various locations around the state, making any kind of large-scale protests impossible.
The remaining protesters, 30, maybe 40, desperate souls, sprawled on the grass, looking exhausted, dirty, and hungry. They gave every appearance of a defeated army, which, in a way, they were. I approached a young woman who was obviously nervous and scared. Her name was Jaime Davis, and she is a third-year law student at George Washington University. She is part of the “legal collective” that is working with the protesters.
Davis told stories of people handcuffed foot-to-wrist, of people being dragged from their cells by their hair, by police roughing prisoners up “a little bit.” Her stories seemed to match others that were dribbling out of prison. Of the 300 or so protesters still in jail, 151 had gone on a hunger strike. Many of them had removed their clothes, so police couldn’t identify them. Very few were giving their names. They claimed that they were hungry, and thirsty, and innocent. And throughout the city, people scoffed.
“People who aren’t involved in the movement think we’re paranoid,” Davis said. “But many friends of mine have been approached on the street by police who were carrying their picture. They know our names. Many of our phones have been tapped. Even my best friends are like, ‘oh, come on,’ but basically everyone I know who’s involved in the movement has had this happen to them. At demonstrations, there are police filming not only activists, but also people who are walking by. This has a chilling effect on the First Amendment. People are afraid to hear what we have to say because they think they’re gonna get picked up.”
People were laying about the park in a daze. A small group of plainclothes cops stood by and watched them. One cop said they could stay in the park, but they weren’t allowed to display signs or otherwise “convey a message.” It was quite a nightmare, and quite obviously the end of the line.
At a press conference a few days after the protests, Joseph Rogers, a 48-year-old Quaker, the director of National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse, and hardly a menace to society, gave the following testimony: “I was locked up for two nights myself, and at one point I was hog-tied by plastic restraints from my right arm to my left ankle and told to hop back to my cell. When I told the guard that I had a bad knee on which I had had surgery, they then made me crawl back to my cell. They did this to me because I raised my voice in protest about another prisoner who was being tortured.”
The day I left Philadelphia, I went to the offices of Unity 2000, which was in a barely controlled panic as stories of police abuse of prisoners poured in. I spoke with Jason Capell, from Litchfield, Connecticut, a 20-year-old senior at Johnson State College in Vermont. He was very pale, and seemed desperately sad. He had recently been in police custody for 49 hours. We sat in a third-floor hallway of a North Philly warehouse that has been converted to offices and to artists’ lofts. He told me his story, which is the story of all of those who dared protest the 2000 Republican National Convention.
“I was arrested at the intersection of 15th and JFK Boulevard,” he said. "I was in that area watching everything happen, and I noticed that a group of women had locked down. They really needed the support. They were kinda freaking out. There were a lot of cops around. The women were shouting for solidarity, so I jumped in and locked down with them. We were told that we could get up and go with the cops and comply with them. They said if that didn’t happen, they were gonna force us. And then they moved in. I was the first person to go. They forced me to let go. Three officers picked me up, handcuffed me, and put me in a bus.
“I never was and still haven’t been told that I was being placed under arrest. I was one of the first people taken, so I sat on the bus while they got everybody else. We were yelling out the cracks of the windows, trying to get badge numbers to observers, because they were being really, really rough with people who weren’t complying. They would slam them around, throw them into seats. They would step on the people in the aisleway. Big huge burly SWAT team kinda guys just throwing people around.
“They took us to The Roundhouse, and we ended up sitting on the bus for a couple of hours. Finally, they opened the windows, and we got some air. Once we were taken off the bus, we were put in a garage thing and were given a hose to take water from. That was four and a half hours after I got arrested. They took my picture, put all my belongings, including my shoelaces, into an evidence bag. They took me to a holding cell, and I was in there for a long time, more than 24 hours, before they came and took my fingerprints. A single-person cell was 6X8 feet, and they had six people on average to a cell. Up to 10, we heard of. We had people laying down next to the toilet.
“For some reason, three of the people I was with were targeted early. The police picked out a group of about 12 people from various cells, and from what we could tell, they used them as an example. They dragged them to go and get their fingerprints done. We did a lockdown in our cell, to try and stop that from happening. Just holding our arms together. They came to get the person. I was up against the wall, so nothing happened to me, but they were kicking and elbowing people, and we lost our guy. They removed him and dragged him down the hall. He came back an hour later and told us that while they were dragging him they kicked him in the head and other places.
“We didn’t even get offered food until Wednesday morning at about 8 AM. It was only two slices of bread and a single slice of cheese, and a small milk carton size of iced tea. Shortly after we figured out that was all we were getting for food, we started hearing from the other cellblocks that there was a hunger strike. I immediately joined, and by last count, there were 151 people inside the jail participating.
“The jails are really, really bad. The cops would come in waves. They would wait until you had quieted down at like 3 AM and were trying to get some rest, and that’s when they would come in and start forcing people to get fingerprints or go to arraignments. People that they perceived as our leaders, even though we don’t have leaders, they pulled out and isolated. Everything they did was to try and break the solidarity of all of us. They usually hit the middle cells to try and make them empty to break the communication lines. Even though we couldn’t see most of the stuff that was happening, we could hear it. We could hear the women. We could hear the people chanting for food. Every time we heard somebody screaming because they were being beaten up, we would start a chant.”
Jason Capell kept going, without any prompt from me. If, on the street, some of the protesters were talking in agitprop and lefty code, and they were, I wasn’t getting any of that from him. He just really needed to talk.
“The police’s plans have completely backfired on them, in terms of trying to break our solidarity, our convictions and our personal beliefs. We were all arrested for protesting the prison-industrial complex. Now that we’ve gone through it and been a part of it, our convictions have been completely solidified. We’re struggling to find a way to turn that into something that can be positive and still strengthen the movement. We need to break past the idea of the protesters being the violent ones. It’s the system that’s violent. Not us.
“Looking back on it,” he said, “it’s really tough to try and accept the anger that I’m feeling. It’s so not my personality. But it’s just overtaking me right now. In the jail, it didn’t affect me so much, just because we were focusing on each other and keeping solidarity. We didn’t have time to look at how we were feeling. It was hard, because we were trying to talk to the officers. We understood that a lot of the reason they were acting the way they were was because of their frustration. Our blame is on the superior officers giving the orders, not on the working cops. We talked to them like human beings, and we came to understand their situation. They were all doing mandatory 12-hour shifts. Most of them ended up working much longer with overtime. All the people we talked to hadn’t seen their families for days. They weren’t getting breaks or anything. They were all hungry and thirsty. They were just like us.”