A year after the last tiny flag waved and the last uplifting video montage played at the 2000 Republican National Convention, the City of Philadelphia seems poised to pay the price for being an overzealous host to the GOP. During the convention thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and were met by the police and the district attorney’s office with a show of force that a number of Philadelphia activists and lawyers call unprecedented. More than 400 people were arrested, the vast majority of whom were held for several days without access to telephones, and some for as long as two weeks. Actions that are usually summary offenses were met with charges of multiple misdemeanors and felonies, and initial bail amounts for some protesters soared as high as $1 million.
But nearly a year later, almost all the cases have been heard, and over 95 percent of them have resulted in not-guilty verdicts or dismissals or have been thrown out in pretrial hearings. The use of the DA’s top guns–homicide prosecutors–in court hasn’t helped the city win any of the handful of felony cases (of forty-three original cases) that have gone to trial. These include the case of 19-year-old Matthew Berghs, whom a jury found not guilty of assaulting an officer–despite testimony by the police commissioner himself. The DA’s office quietly dropped scores of cases, and many that did come to trial were plagued by an almost laughable lack of evidence.
Even in the cases of arrestees dubbed “ringleaders” by the police and saddled by the DA’s office with the most serious charges and highest bails, the prosecution had little to back up its claims. A judge threw out the charges against Terrence McGuckin–accused of leading a band of protesters to block an intersection, held for seven days on $500,000 bail–after the defense introduced a videotape showing McGuckin nearly a mile away from the alleged crime site. The DA withdrew prosecution against John Sellers, who had been charged with a slew of misdemeanors and held on $1 million bail, because the prosecution simply had no evidence to present. During the trial of Kate Sorensen, held for ten days in solitary confinement on $1 million bail on allegations that she had directed a mob of protesters to vandalize police cars, flip dumpsters and set them afire, the arresting detective acknowledged that he had not seen Sorensen do anything of the sort. Sorensen was found not guilty on all charges save for one misdemeanor charge currently under appeal.
During the criminal trials evidence surfaced that supported the protesters’ belief that there was a coordinated law enforcement effort to cripple their protests and muzzle their messages during the convention. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the FBI helped local and state police coordinate plans for responding to the demonstrations, and this July the Philadelphia Police Department acknowledged infiltrating protest planning meetings, monitoring e-mail discussion lists and taking photographs of those they suspected would participate in demonstrations.
Less widely reported was a municipal court judge’s public announcement of a citywide plan for preventive detention. On July 19 of last year Kevin Vaughn, then a regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services, was a co-presenter at a class on community health at the University of Pennsylvania alongside Judge Seamus McCaffery. When the discussion turned to the approaching convention, Vaughn spoke about his work with the police and the FBI on planning how demonstrators would be handled. Then, says Vaughn, “McCaffery announced, ‘You don’t have to worry about the RNC. The judges have already met, and we have a plan to arrest the protesters and hold them for three days until the convention is over, and then we’ll let them go.'”
On the basis of this information a public defender and two defendants acting as their own attorneys filed motions requesting that McCaffery recuse himself from cases having to do with the convention protests. McCaffery refused without hearing their evidence.
The city’s image was further tarnished this past February when the Philadelphia Daily News reported that Philadelphia 2000, the convention host committee, had spent almost $800,000 for umbrella insurance that specifically included coverage for civil-rights-violations claims–a common enough provision for promoters of, say, large rock concerts, but a disturbing choice by a major political party.
On July 6 the last felony trial of the year ended in acquittal (the case against three remaining felony defendants is caught up in appeals and will likely be delayed for another year), and a fresh legal battle began with the filing of a wave of civil suits– more than sixty plaintiffs at last count. According to Kris Hermes, a member of R2K Legal, a collective of law school students and graduates and activists who have organized the defense of those arrested in the RNC protests, more suits will follow, involving individuals and a large group of plaintiffs claiming violations of due process and of their rights during arrest and in police custody. No doubt the suits will address the reports of abuse while in custody, including allegations of sexual abuse, excessive force, overcrowding and the denial of food, medicine and water. “The City of Philadelphia prided itself on not using tear gas and rubber bullets,” says Hermes. “But they did everything else, and they did it with such vehemence that hundreds of people experienced serious violations and abuse.”
Philadelphia’s handling of last summer’s demonstrations illustrates the convergence of two disturbing trends: an increased crackdown on dissent and a strict redefinition of the rights of those who use what is popularly known as public property. Though the streets were kept clear last summer, Philadelphia’s decision to maintain an orderly city at the expense of citizens’ rights will lead to some decidedly untelegenic fallout this fall. Stay tuned for clogged courts and sullied reputations.