With his job on the line last week, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney faced a tough assignment. If he succeeded in preventing pissed-off protesters from disrupting the Republican party pageantry, he’d be a hero. If he failed, and thousands of direct-action demonstrators deluged the city and stole the show from the GOP convention, Timoney—a veteran officer of the New York force and a possible successor to Commissioner Howard Safir—would be out of a job.
One week and hundreds of arrests later, Timoney appears to have won the battle of “R2K.” Local and national leaders are now showering praises on the craggy-jawed, bike-pedaling commander— with kudos poured on by everyone from “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush to the head of the Pennsylvania NAACP, who last Friday called Timoney “the best police commissioner the city has ever had.”
But even as the major media wallows in accounts of Timoney’s “deft” and “restrained” policing, reports are mounting of what appear to be serious civil rights violations and abuse by police—reports the cops deny. Lawyers estimate 479
protesters have been arrested or detained, along with innocent bystanders, bike messengers, a photographer for U.S. News and World Report—though police insist the arrest figure is closer to 390. According to the legal team of R2K, the umbrella group that organized the week of protests, most of those arrested were held for over 60 hours before being arraigned on misdemeanor charges that normally would warrant no more than a desk-appearance ticket.
In what seems a systematic campaign by the police and city officials to lock up suspected “ringleaders” until after the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Philly prosecutors have obtained unprecedented bail of $1 million for two prominent organizers. One of them is John Sellers, a former Greenpeace activist who is now the 33-year-old director of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which has trained thousands in nonviolent protest tactics.
Sellers’s bail was later reduced to $100,000, but at press time he remained in jail. “What we’re seeing is a fairly orchestrated plan by Timoney and the district attorney’s office to wipe out protest while putting on a pleasant face for the public,” says Sellers’s attorney, Lawrence Krasner. “Everybody’s getting screwed behind closed doors.”
Police seemed intent on targeting activists with cell phones.
According to Krasner, Sellers was collared by several officers on Wednesday while walking down JFK Boulevard and talking on his Nextel. He was charged with eight misdemeanors, including obstructing a highway, conspiracy, and possession of “an instrument of crime,” presumably his cell.
At his bail hearing, prosecutors alleged that Sellers and another protester, Terrence McGuckin, had conspired to chain themselves to a dumpster and drag it into the street. McGuckin is a 19-year-old member of the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, who once volunteered at a Ruckus training camp. At press time, his mother was mortgaging her house to raise $50,000 to free him.
Also facing $1 million bail is Kate Sorensen, 38, of ACT UP, who was similarly arrested on Wednesday while talking on her cell phone.
Paul Davis, another prominent AIDS activist, was also caught in midconversation. Video footage by the Independent Media Collective shows Davis being nabbed by police Wednesday. As the cops ambush him from behind, Davis attempts to toss the phone to activists on the street, but it’s batted away by police and kicked under a parked car. Davis was eventually released on his own recognizance.
According to R2K lawyers, as of Monday morning, roughly 340 people were still in jail, where conditions appear to be worsening. Legal observers and released prisoners report that people have been denied access to medical treatment, including meds to treat chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes. They also tell of activists being punched, kicked, and thrown against walls.
Much of the abuse seems to be directed at those activists who took off their clothes in order to show solidarity with those hit with stiff charges and to make it more difficult for them to be arraigned. Legal observers contend that a female officer sexually assaulted a prisoner by twisting his penis. Another man reportedly had his testicles stomped on, and numerous witnesses say they saw a woman dragged naked and bleeding.
ACT UP’s Davis says he witnessed a man being “crucified,” chained to cell bars with his arms outstretched. Davis says that for 20 minutes the man groaned and bellowed that cops were using metal handcuffs to smash his hands. “I also heard women screaming and being dragged along the floor,” he says. “I saw a woman screaming in pain as a police officer said, ‘You want more? You want more?!’ ”
On Friday, Timoney defended the police tactics and denied allegations of abuse, claiming that observers affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union had visited all the jails and found no evidence of irregularities. He also refuted claims that the arrests were an effort to take out organizers prior to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles next week.
But in a move chillingly reminiscent of the COINTELPRO operations against activists in the late 1960s, Timoney also called on the Justice Department to investigate activists who had mobilized mass demonstrations not only in his city, but in Seattle and D.C. Last month, police officials were forced to admit they had been surveilling and photographing activists during demonstrations in other major cities, in preparation for the GOP showdown. “There’s a cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who are about the business of planning conspiracies to go in and cause mayhem and property damage and violence in major cities in America,” he told reporters.
YOU CAN’T FAULT TIMONEY FOR NOT PLANNING. What unfolded on the streets last week was not a restrained effort to keep the peace, but rather a concerted assault on the protest movement’s leadership, propaganda, legal observers, and peacekeepers—using the media to fuel the crusade.
Timoney’s boldest move was the almost Orwellian raid on the “Ministry of Puppetganda” on Tuesday morning. The West Philly Warehouse was the factory where the activists made puppets, signs, and giants floats—including a two-headed Bush/Gore and a slave ship—which were intended to lead off Tuesday’s nonviolent, civil-disobedience actions at targeted locations around the city.
By confiscating the puppets, Timoney stole the protesters’ most creative, nonviolent means of expression, leaving a vacuum that was filled by a horde tour of self-styled anarcho-revolutionaries with little method to their madness.
Lost among the swinging handcuffs and batons were some truly inspirational messages from the more peaceful protests, like the calmly dignified march of the interracial, intergenerational Kensington Welfare Rights Union.
R2K continues to advocate for a decentralized, “nonhierarchical” movement, but how can direct action brought by autonomous “affinity groups” avoid having clueless kids and provocateurs tapdance all over the sit-ins, especially when the media and police are all too happy to play up protesters bloodier, more clueless tendencies?
Seattle caught the cops by surprise. But with each mass demo, protesters reveal more of their tactics and up the ante in the battle to reclaim the streets.
In sprawling L.A., activists plan to stage targeted actions each morning, cued to daily themes like welfare rights and the criminalization of youth. They’re even throwing a rave and an MTV-style beach party to draw “a line in the sand.”
Yet the mayor and the chief of police have already pledged to use rubber bullets, tear gas, and paint-ball guns loaded with pepper spray to disable street protests should the situation get rowdy—a scenario that seems inevitable now.