SAN FRANCISCO – The question weighing on the minds of representatives from civil rights and activist organizations speaking at a press conference at the Federal Building Thursday, was how to maintain the well-being of protesters on the streets of Los Angeles, during next week’s Democratic National Convention.
Two Berkeley-based groups, the Ruckus Society, which teaches non-violent strategies to activist organizations, and Project Underground, an environmental organization, joined a number of organizations including Rainforest Action Network, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ella Baker Human Rights Center and the National Lawyers Guild at the media event.
Mary Ann Manilov of the Ruckus society read a statement from the organization’s director, John Sellers, who had been jailed in Philadelphia, during the Republican Convention. First held on $1 million bail, Sellers walked free earlier this week, when his bail was reduced to $100,000.
The Ruckus Society leader claims he was not a participant in the protests, but had trained activists before the convention. Police, however, claimed he had orchestrated the protests.
“Next week thousands of non-violent activists will take to the streets of Los Angeles to reclaim the democracy and justice we have been guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights,” says Sellers statement. “They will be following in the footsteps of the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes and the Freedom Riders. Will we allow them to be criminalized and locked away from sight? Or will we honor their courage and sacrifice? I guess it depends on what kind of country we plan to leave for our children.”
The six groups joined 15 others in signing a letter addressed to Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic National Committee, the Los Angeles Police Commissioner and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordian asking them to work to ensure the groups’ rights to free speech and their right to protest.
“We’re here to point out how police are using repressive tactics against protesters,” said Medea Benjamin, a Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate and founder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes people-to-people ties around the world. “We’re telling the LAPD to respect the civil rights that we’re trying to wrest back from the corporations that bought them.”
“It’s strange that protesters have become demonized. That we’re the ones trying to subvert the democratic process,” she said.
Berkeley’s Project Underground is a human rights group supporting communities resisting mining and oil exploitation. Carwil James, an oil campaigner for the organization said there “is a real danger of the criminalization of protesting in the U.S.”
“So many communities depend on (American citizens) influencing the institutions that control their lives.”
James said his organization will participate in a mass demonstration with the U’Wa people of Colombia. The U’wa tribe has been fighting Occidental Petroleum’s environmentally destructive plan to drill in their homeland.
A website (www.starhawk.com/uwa) that chronicles the people’s struggle says that all 5,000 of their tribal membership would commit suicide if Occidental is allowed to drill.
Vice President Gore owns stock in the company and his father was a vice president and board member, James said.
Many people, however, do not view the protesters as innocent.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney recently asked Congress to create a committee to investigate the organizations and involved individuals and urged the FBI and the Justice Department to stop out-of-state activists from even getting to the convention center, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
But Benjamin said that the plan is to keep the protests as peaceful as possible.
“We can’t account for every protester or infiltrators,” she said.
The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that the California National Guard is prepared to deploy as many as 3,000 soldiers to quell any civil disobedience that may occur. And Benjamin says she’s heard reports that the department is bulking up on tear gas and pepper-spray.
The LAPD did not return repeated calls.
“They didn’t use pepper spray and tear-gas in Philadelphia, and we certainly hope it isn’t like Seattle,” she said referring to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle where police used both pepper spray and tear gas on civilians.
Benjamin said the protesters will also use the courts. The ACLU of Southern California is seeking a temporary restraining order demanding that the Los Angeles police immediately stop the harassment of protesters at their organizing headquarters, the ACLU announced Thursday.
A report issued by the organization said protesters have been targets of police surveillance, selective enforcement of traffic laws and police visits without warrants.
“An alarming pattern of police harassment and intimidation of demonstrators in Seattle and Philadelphia raises serious concern as to whether the planned protests at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles will be similarly targeted by the LAPD,” said Alan Schlosser, Managing Attorney for the Northern California ACLU. “Even if demonstrations include civil disobedience, that does not mean that the Constitution can be suspended and open season declared on political dissenters.”
Stella Richardson of the ACLU said that a team of attorneys from the organization will be present during the convention. And, like in Philadelphia, they will go into holding cells of those arrested to make sure that protesters rights aren’t being violated.