Cities move to limit protests at political conventions

Citing security, New York and Boston tightly regulate those who want to demonstrate - stifling free speech, activists say.

When Sen. John Kerry walks into Boston's FleetCenter to accept the Democratic nomination, everyone from antiabortion protesters to anarchists would like to shout him a message.

And in New York City, antiwar demonstrators, postal workers, and welfare advocates would like President Bush to see their banners and hear their chants.

But whether they even get close to the candidates is far from clear. In Boston, officials will corral all protesters into a specially designated area that is currently behind several red-brick buildings, six blocks from the convention hall.

New York has yet to even approve any permits to march and has turned down an application for a giant Central Park rally on the grounds it might damage the grass.

Behind the strictures is an increased attention to security as America's political machine readies its first major conventions in the post-Sept. 11 world. Party officials and city fathers are also trying to avoid the sort of image fallout sustained from riots at Chicago's 1968 Democratic convention and from the activist free-for-all at Seattle's 1999 World Trade Organization meeting.

But activists say that the conventions should naturally be events suffused by political turmoil, not placid unanimity. Many see the scrutiny of convention activism as part of a larger nationwide crackdown on dissent. Indeed, across the country, government officials have denied permits for demonstrations - many of them opposing the war - and arrested large numbers of picketers.

'Everyone ... does it'

"It's probably true that the current administration appears to be attempting to restrict protests more than the recent prior administrations," says Chris Hansen, a senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "But everyone from Clinton to Bush, from liberals to conservatives, does it."

The practice of containing protesters at US political conventions is not new. In 2000, for example, officials in Los Angeles and Philadelphia restricted demonstrators to areas far removed from the event itself.

But the conventions will occur in the shadow of the recent train bombing in Madrid, which many experts believe was meant to influence Spain's elections. Security officials are concerned that the conventions could be targeted for similar reasons, and they want to guard against terrorists who might use rallies as a cover.

"There is an added awareness of needing to break demonstrators into smaller groups because, inevitably, you will have some people among them who will want to cause serious trouble," says security consultant Bo Dietl.

The ACLU's Mr. Hansen, however, disagrees that the events of Sept. 11 change the rules regarding protests: "It's a false premise to say protest equals terrorists or a security risk."

To try to accommodate those who want to vent, police often set up "protest zones" with defined boundaries. These must meet certain court-ordered criteria: Cities can't move protesters blocks away; they must be able to be seen and heard.

After complaints from demonstrators, Boston is considering whether it should relocate its protest zone.

Activists in New York are also at odds over where they can go. The group United for Peace and Justice applied last June for a permit to march past Madison Square Garden, site of the Republican National Convention, the day before the event is scheduled to open in August. The march would culminate in a rally for more than 250,000 on the Great Lawn in Central Park. So far, the city has issued no permits for any group, and it recently turned down the rally because of the potential for "enormous damage to the lawn."

The Center for Constitutional Rights, a liberal legal arm, is appealing the decision. "We're prepared to go to court," says Jeffrey Fogel, the legal director. "But I hope it won't end up there."

Jousting in Georgia

It's not just in Boston and New York where the issue is spilling over. Last week, the Georgia affiliate of the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Glynn County, Ga., where the G-8 Economic Summit meeting will be held June 8-10. The local authorities recently passed new rules that require groups of protesters to apply for a permit.

Last week, the county turned down one such permit from Zack Lyde, a local minister. "The application was so vague we denied that request," says Matt Doering, the county's chief of police. "We're still trying to accommodate them, but we need the application to be clearer."

The Georgia community had originally planned to issue permits only to those who agreed not to sue the police if an officer injured a protester. That provision was dropped, but it kept another to charge a rental fee for use of its parks. "The notion of a rental fee for public property is absurd," says Hansen. "It would be denying poor people the right to demonstrate."

Recently, the ACLU sued the Secret Service over allegations that anti-Bush protesters were removed from locations where the president would be speaking while pro-Bush people were allowed to remain. That case was dismissed after the Secret Service, which never admitted to the policy, said it would not differentiate in the future. The judge indicated that the government would be liable for damages if it didn't abide by the agreement.

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