Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

Legal group: Militarized RNC environment chilled free speech

TAMPA — Let's review some police and protest statistics from the Republican National Convention.

Two arrests. No violent clashes. No use of tear gas, pepper spray, batons or bean-bag projectiles. No property damage beyond some graffiti. No lawsuits. No internal affairs complaints.

Pretty good convention, right?

Wrong, says the National Lawyers Guild.

In a new report, the New York-based advocacy group concludes keeping the peace at both national political conventions came at a high price for the First Amendment.

"The sheer number of police, weaponry, and the constant threat of police aggression and arrest had a chilling effect on free speech and assembly," the guild says in its 31-page analysis. That led "to smaller and less robust demonstrations at this year's conventions than those in recent years."

The guild is a 4,000-member organization of lawyers, law students, legal workers and jailhouse lawyers who regard human rights "as more sacred than property interests." Since 1937, it has helped organize labor unions, fought Jim Crow laws, represented antiwar protesters and sued the FBI over political surveillance of activist groups.

Last August, the guild sent 45 legal observers in matching lime-green baseball caps, plus several staff members, to the RNC. Among their main criticisms of Tampa:

• In the weeks and months before the convention, local police and federal authorities demonized protesters as "anarchist extremists" and misrepresented what happened at past conventions. This "anarchist threat narrative" discouraged many protesters from coming to Tampa in the first place. Organizers had expected up to 15,000 marchers. The guild said actual participation was closer to 600.

• The security was overkill: too many officers, too much armor, too many fences, too many horses, too much paramilitary gear. And the guild said the resulting intimidation on the ground was given legal muscle by a special event ordinance that it said unconstitutionally restricted the right to protest.

"We are concerned that these techniques — while not new — are becoming the 'business as usual' approach to event security," guild senior researcher Traci Yoder told the Times in an email.

Finally, the report said, spending $50 million in federal funds on security for each convention "is an extreme expenditure in an age of austerity."

Not surprisingly, Tampa officials disagree.

"They're wrong," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I think they would have just been as happy to see anarchy in the streets."

He said Tampa had to prepare for the worst, but pointed out that the city's designated protest areas were much larger than those at the 2008 GOP convention, which saw more than 800 arrests. He also said the city gave water to protesters, and police even drove extra boxed lunches to the Romneyville protest camp.

Police also printed and gave out a guide showing locations of the parade route, portable toilets, water and misting stations, plus tips provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. One tip: "You may remind officers that taking photos is a right and does not constitute suspicion."

"We went out of our way to make sure that folks with a legitimate interest in expressing their First Amendment rights had the ability to do so," Buckhorn said. "I don't know what more we could have done."

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said police did not take part in fear-mongering.

"We stated our position very clearly from the beginning," Castor said. "It was our job to ensure that everyone had a safe environment in which to state their divergent viewpoints as long as their expression didn't cross over into lawlessness or violence."

Toward that end, the chief said the police worked to find out what protesters wanted — to occupy an intersection, for instance — to accommodate them whenever possible and to offer reasonable alternatives when necessary.

"I don't think there was any chilling effect," Buckhorn said. "Even the ACLU indicated that."

That's a reference to a comment from ACLU Florida president Michael E. Pheneger after the convention.

"I don't know that anybody can complain that they were not allowed to get their message out," he told the Times.

That doesn't mean that the ACLU didn't have concerns. Before the convention, it criticized the city's temporary event ordinance and surveillance cameras as excessive, intrusive, over-reaching and unnecessary. And it still has problems with the cameras, which police kept.

But after watching convention-week protests, Pheneger said demonstrators and police alike deserved credit. He praised authorities for having top officials on the scene, trying to avoid confrontation, training officers to be friendly and communicative, and being flexible when crowds marched in unpredictable directions.

Yoder responded that since police outnumbered protesters 4-to-1 they could afford to be flexible because they knew they could shut down demonstrations at any time.

"Protesters were kept so far away from the event site that even if their message was expressed, they were nowhere near the people who were intended to hear it," she said. "In fact, a vast security wall ensured that protesters had no contact whatsoever with the RNC delegates."

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