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Jewish World Review August 22, 2000 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Trashing the Bill
of Rights in Philly -- ONCE ATTENTION was focused on the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia police's treatment of protesters at the Republican convention faded away. Actually, even while the mass arrests were going on, the media -- with the occasional exception of Philadelphia newspapers -- praised that city's police commissioner, John P. Timoney, for his restraint. On NBC-TV, political columnist Lawrence O'Donnell said the police there were "perfect."

But the actual facts on the ground that week were disgraceful, and should be disclosed.

As a reporter, I've long covered the Pennsylvania affiliate of the ACLU and can attest to its caution about commenting on alleged excesses by police. But its executive director, Larry Frankel -- after noting that vandalism, violence and blocking traffic are not protected speech -- was "extremely critical" of the overreaction of Timoney and the District Attorney's office to those protesters who were nonviolent.

Hundreds were arrested and charged with misdemeanors, but were held at much higher bails than those set for people who have been accused of committing felonies. Some people -- including messengers for various businesses -- were arrested and jailed simply because they were using cell phones on the street.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, the police -- eager to arrest organizers of the demonstrations before they had committed any crimes -- picked up people on the street "who simply looked as though they were organizing actions on a mobile phone." Some emergency medics were busted just because they were on mobile phones.

The ACLU's Larry Frankel said there were "credible stories concerning serious injuries inflicted upon those arrested." They sure were credible. Some of those behind bars were refused medical treatment. Others were dragged along the jail floor because they wouldn't reveal their names -- a time-honored decision by nonviolent protesters during the historic civil rights and anti-war campaigns. For that, they were assaulted by the police.

The Philadelphia Inquirer told of 48-year-old Joseph Rogers, a nonviolent Quaker "who is executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearing House." Rogers stated: "I was arrested while engaging in trying to maintain peace between police and protesters. I had no intention of doing civil disobedience. I was locked up for two nights and at one point I was hogtied by plastic restraints from my right arm to my left ankle and told to hop back to my cell.

"When I told the guard," Rogers continued, "that I had a bad knee on which I had had surgery, they then made me crawl back to my cell. They did this because I raised my voice in protest about another prisoner who was being tortured." Rogers has been charged with six misdemeanors. Maybe one of them was for having a bad knee.

The United States Supreme Court has said very clearly (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969): "Undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression" under our constitutional system of government.

Yet, speaking of the many arrests of those who had committed no crime and were not about to do anything unlawful, University of Pennsylvania communications professor Larry Gross said that Timoney's police had been photographing alleged demonstrators for weeks before the Republican convention.

"I think," said Gross, "they prepared a list of organizers they were looking for, and when they found them, they arrested them." Just as the Chinese government does when it locks up people whose crime is trying to advocate democracy.

Sara Marcus, 23, is on the legal team for some of the demonstrators. "It's ironic," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "because many of these demonstrators were protesting a criminal justice system of which they had a mostly intellectual understanding." Their experience on the streets of Philadelphia "has shown them firsthand just how cruel, repressive and unaccountable that system really is."

Before the convention, Police Commissioner Timoney had been much praised for his work in Philadelphia and as a top cop in New York. A long article in the Inquirer by Robert Moran -- "Patrolling the City With the Nation's No. 1 Cop" -- concluded: "As the convention ended, they were Timoney's streets."

Indeed they were his streets, because he had thrown the Bill of Rights into the gutter.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2000, NEA