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Boston Police Brace for Protesters Ahead of Democratic National Convention - 2004-07-22

The Democratic National Convention is a platform for politicians, but it's also a platform for protestors. Several groups, such as the Black Tea Society, Operation Rescue and the Socialist Party have filed for permits to protest around the city during the convention. Boston police have been training how to handle large demonstrations, especially if they get out of hand.

Dozens of protest groups are preparing to demonstrate around the city during the Democratic Convention. Rallies and marches will take place in several prominent areas of Boston, and a protest zone has been set up near the site of the Convention for those who want to be within earshot of delegates. A 3.5-meter high double fence will keep them from having any physical contact with delegates. Ellie Gillette is with the Black Tea Society, a group of anarchists who are targeting the Democratic Convention.

"We feel like if you can't come to Boston and exercise your First Amendment right, then you can't exercise it anywhere. So we're trying to create the safest, most beautiful array of protests anywhere," she said.

But beautiful protests could mean problems if demonstrators and police clash. Sarah Wunch of the American Civil Liberties Union says, historically, the Boston police have been good about respecting First Amendment rights.

"This is, however, the first national political convention since September 11, [2001]. We've also seen police crackdowns for large demonstrations in other cities," she noted. "So we're cautiously optimistic that the Boston police will be able to conduct themselves in a way that does still respect First Amendment rights and the rights of peaceful demonstrators."

At the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, few large-scale demonstrations materialized. But at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia that year, peaceful demonstrations turned violent. Officers fought with protestors who chained themselves together, blocked intersections and jumped on cars.

Police arrested more than 300 people in one clash. Eventually 95 percent of the charges against demonstrators were dropped. The Philadelphia chief of police during the convention, John Timoney, was criticized for the arrests. He says he learned from that experience that protestors are very organized, so police training has to be more sophisticated.

"When you compare these [today's] protestors to when I came into this business in [19]67 during the Vietnam era: those protests in the Vietnam era were very emotional but they were spontaneous," he said. "The ones now are not spontaneous. They are not even emotional. What you have is protestors actually setting up training camps ahead of time and they train their tactics. So you have the police training doing their tactics and the protestors doing their tactics. That's kind of a recipe for some kind of a confrontation."

Mr. Timoney, who is not involved with police training in Boston, says officers should be better trained to control crowds. They should keep their emotions in check and if something happens, use a minimum amount of force.

For its part, the Boston Police Department says it will allow freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations to the greatest extent possible. The police would not disclose any details of their training, except to say their officers have traveled to large events to see how demonstrations are handled.

"We've learned that if you prepare to go to war, it's likely you will," said Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole. "So it's best to go into a situation with police officers in ordinary uniforms, assuming best case scenario, maintaining order, trying to be helpful to the crowds and, of course, you have to have equipment and tactically-trained people close by in the event that an incident goes bad," she added.

Ms. Wunch says the Boston police handled demonstrations during recent gay marriage debates quite well. But she's concerned by another incident that tests free speech limits. In May, police arrested a student holding a peaceful protest to the war in Iraq outside the Armed Forces Career Center in Boston. The student mimicked a photo from the Abu Ghraib prison. The bomb squad was called and he was charged with a felony. The district attorney later dropped all charges.

If police try to restrict free speech demonstrations by citing terrorism concerns, they will be on shaky legal ground, says Harvey Silverglate, a civil rights lawyer. He says the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled national security concerns don't override individual rights.

"Terrorism is not an excuse for overly restricting any civil liberties. And so I think the police better take note of the fact that there's a limit to how far they can push the terrorism button," he said.

There is a general consensus that the protests in Boston during the Democratic Convention will be dwarfed by what's expected in New York for the Republican Convention, beginning in late August. One civil rights lawyer predicts as many as ten thousand demonstrators will come to Boston, but thinks the Republican Convention will draw one million protestors.