Recount: A Magazine of Contemporary Politics

Protest Pens and Mass Arrests: Where Do We Go From Here?

By Kersten Swinyard | Dec 15, 2004 Print

I approached the pen through a gauntlet of fencing—chain-link, nylon netting and concrete pylons. The protest zone at the Democratic National Convention in Boston was a policed corner of new asphalt within sight, but not sound, of the Fleet Center, Democrat Central for four days in late July.

Coiled barbed wire dangled from overhead freeway supports. Six-foot-tall chain-link fences extended above double rows of concrete highway barriers. Nearly opaque nylon netting made it tough to see out, but more importantly, it made it impossible to throw liquid at DNC delegates.

I skirted the sound stage, a loose title for raised particleboard with a microphone and podium. It was impossible to stand near the platform for more than a few minutes because the volume was set too loudly for comfort; the squawking drove away everyone except the police officers assigned to baby-sit the pen.

The fencing was under the vestiges of Interstate 93, most of which was buried in Boston’s Big Dig. Time ran out for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which was supposed to dismantle the old freeway ramps; hulking green steel beams loomed over the pen with the same menace of the frowning National Guardsmen stationed above. On the downward drive into asphalt, the beams cast crisscrossing shadows on an already dim, dank space. The soldiers’ silhouettes against the bright sky made it impossible to tell which direction they looked. I could only see that they were peering down—down on me, down on the signs, down on the costumed interlopers next to me.

Still, it could have been worse. Ten weeks before the convention, the site was a wasteland of concrete rubble and rebar, yellow water puddles and construction craters. Unbelievably, the pen was an improvement over what could have been.

During political protests in Boston and New York City earlier this year, protesters faced an enormous police presence at every turn. In Boston, it was the hyper-militarized protest pen and homeland security officers stationed on every downtown corner. In New York, protesters keenly felt the full force of the NYPD as they marched past Madison Square Garden and demonstrated in city parks and streets. Boston police arrested only a few protesters, but the NYPD arrested more than 1,800 people during the Republican National Convention.

The scale of the NYPD’s force surprised protesters who were accustomed to meeting smaller and less prepared officers. Rather than penning protesters into one area of the city, NYPD officers gleaned information from the Internet about plans for demonstrations and coordinated their coverage, often pre-empting marches and dissipating protests before or as they began.

Boston police, on the other hand, relied on the pen as a centralized, easily guarded corral. They counted on a relatively small number of protesters who wanted to be as near the Fleet Center as possible and fortified the area accordingly. The result was a tangle of netting, barbed wire and frowning faces. Even Judge Douglas Woodlock agreed that the pen looked like a concentration camp but said he could not do anything about it.

“Let me be clear: The design of the DZ (demonstration zone) is an offense to the spirit of the First Amendment,” Woodlock said in a ruling about the suitability of the protest pen days before the convention began. “It is a brutish and potentially unsafe place for citizens who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights.

“But, given the constraints present at the location and the BPD’s (Boston Police Department’s) reasonable safety concerns, there is no injunctive relief that I could fashion that would vindicate plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights without causing quite significant harm to the City, the delegates and the public interest as broadly defined in the form of increased risk to those attending the DNC and further strain on the overtaxed manpower resources of public safety personnel.”

The Democratic National Convention ended with no major incidents, and not one of the security threats Secret Service agents sinisterly whispered in Woodlock’s ears beforehand materialized. Police later deemed the protest pen unnecessary. “In retrospect, we didn’t even have to have it,” said Police Superintendent Robert Dunford, who created the hard and soft security zones around the Fleet Center and coordinated the Boston Police Department’s coverage during the convention.

Protesters and delegates stopped howling about the pen’s netting, double fences and restricted exits after the DNC. Their complaints faded completely after the Republican National Convention at the end of August in New York City during which police held hundreds of protesters for days without charges.

Police created a hard security zone around Madison Square Garden, the site of Republican festivities, but protesters used parks and major streets for most protests. Marchers filed through lower Manhattan for several major demonstrations, but police corralled protesters into orange netting for mass arrests. The New York Civil Liberties Union and several individual protesters have sued the city for its treatment of arrested people. Many of them alleged they were held at Pier 57 on the Hudson River for hours longer than was lawful and in deplorable conditions. The suits, which protesters filed at the end of November, are pending in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Security officials have braced for the worst-case scenarios since Sept. 11 in Super Bowls, the 2002 Olympics and political conventions. The visible results have been more metal detectors, bomb-sniffing German shepherds and out-of-town police officers, but a lower tolerance for protests, which seem to be a hassle for security planners. Increased needs for security after the attacks created a convenient smokescreen for planners who wanted to prevent protesters from getting out of control, as had happened in the past.

Protest zones started with a fiasco in Seattle in late 1999. In the protests that planners for every major event since have referred to as the worst-case scenario, Seattle police fired pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and blocked access to wide swaths of city blocks in downtown Seattle during the World Trade Organization conference from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3, 1999. Protesters disrupted WTO meetings with movements coordinated via cell phone and Internet postings; people broke store windows and fought with police who wore unmarked riot gear. Protesters later sought misconduct remonstrations against police, most of whom did not wear any identification over their riot gear.

Seattle police professed to be caught unaware by the protesters despite months of public planning and coordination, and protesters said police overreacted to mostly peaceful demonstrations. As the WTO conference progressed, police established a 25-square block area in downtown Seattle as a no-protest zone. They admitted people to that zone based on their clothing, bags, pins, flyers and actions, and selectively blocked demonstrations based on the discretion of the officers who days before had clashed with protesters. The ACLU sued against the no-protest zone months after the conference; an appeals decision is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court.

Planners who still use Seattle as an example of how not to behave noted that blocking only certain types of speech in a cordoned area is illegal, as the ACLU claimed in its suit. Those people realized, however, that they could designate zones for demonstrations without running amuck of the First Amendment. Thus, protest zones were born.

Using training videos shot during the “battle of Seattle,” Washington, D.C., police and protesters braced for the worst but maintained a mostly peaceful city during meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in April 2000. Police arrested approximately 1,200 on charges ranging from jaywalking to assaulting an officer before and during the two-day meetings. At the first major event after WTO protests in Seattle, protesters and police praised each other for maintaining a balance between demonstrations and security.

Police arrested a few hundred demonstrators at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in late July 2000, but the convention ended without any major violent incidents. At the DNC in Los Angeles in August 2000, the ACLU sued weeks ahead to allow protesters closer to the Staples Center. They won, but a tense LAPD knew it was on national trial to redeem itself for poor control during the 1992 riots. Police at the convention kept a tight control over sometimes-violent protests, and shot rubber bullets into crowds on a few occasions. Major media praised the department for averting potential disaster—an editorial from The Los Angeles Times said the convention was a success because the LAPD did not behave worse. Protesters were treated as an annoyance and distraction from the convention.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, forced the public’s attention to national security. People sacrificed civil liberties to feel safer. At the first political convention since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, security was the buzzword. Boston Police and the mayor’s office closed several subway stops beneath the Fleet Center. National Guardsmen, soldiers and officers from throughout the country conducted random compulsory bag checks on public transportation routes near the center. Downtown streets teemed with officers on bikes, motorcycles, horses and foot and in patrol cars.

In mid-May 2004, the National Lawyers Guild and the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union sued for a better space in Boston and lost. A several-hundred-square-foot space under a partially dissembled freeway ramp was all the city would provide; it was the only place that had the right combination of accessibility, proximity and security, representatives said. A spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee abjured knowledge of the pen’s conception and construction. “We weren’t involved with what was set up for the protests. There was collaboration, but ultimately, those decisions … rested in Boston 2004 [the host committee],” said spokeswoman Erika Soto.

The ACLU sued again in late July immediately before the convention began in a vain effort to reduce some of the more restricting security measures. Judge Woodlock seemed to side with the ACLU ideologically, but ruled that it was too late to change the protest site.

“Most—at least two-thirds—of the DZ lies under unused Green Line tracks. The tracks create a space redolent of the sensibility conveyed in Piranesi’s etchings published as ‘Fanciful Images of Prisons.’ It is a grim, mean and oppressive space whose ominous roof is supported by a forest of girders that obstruct sight lines throughout as the tracks slope downwards towards the southern end,” he wrote in an opinion. “In short, the circumstance is a sad one, but not one which I am authorized to second guess on this record. The interface between the DZ and the hard zone entrance is a source of abrasion generating what is symbolically a festering boil. But the courts are not authorized to lance the boil. The remedy must rather be left to more conservative treatment of constant observation and review under strained and difficult circumstances by the responsible operational personnel.”

The first day of the DNC in Boston, I watched a group protest abortion, homosexuality and the pen. On the second day, loosely organized groups protested the pen; on the third, a group of delegates held a news conference to protest the pen.

Chalk art ranged from “Free Speech? My ass” to “Kerry is a good-for-nothing cross dresser! HaHaHa,” and posters called on God, Democrats, Republicans, police and anarchists to tear down the fences and let free speech roam with the delegates. Daniel O’Connor from Massachusetts rapidly cleared the pen several times with his rendition of “Some Day We’ll Be Together,” a cover of The Supremes song with billy-goat vibrato and moaning into the microphone.

By the fourth and final day of the convention, we fled the pen. Anarchists, anti-Republicans, Vietnam veterans against Kerry and pacifists kept their signs and slogans to Canal Street near the intersection with Causeway, as close to the Fleet Center as they could get without credentials. College students scrawled the Bill of Rights onto the Canal Street asphalt with chalk—I trampled the words of the founding fathers in uneven handwriting to reach police decked in riot gear.

“It was ugly,” said Dunford of the Boston Police Department, with the benefit of several months’ analysis behind him. “We were trying to meet certain security zones and free-speech considerations. In hindsight, we didn’t even need some of the security measures in the demonstration zone. But, you know, hindsight is nice.”

Angry demonstrators avoided the pen. The Bl(A)ck Tea Society, an anarchist group, marched down Causeway Street in front of the Fleet Center. A few members banged metal locks on the steel. When police told them to stop, Eric White, from Maine, ran his tongue up about 18 inches of the metal and walked away. He later told me that it was the only thing he could do to show disrespect that would not get him thrown in jail.

In the only violent confrontation during the four-day convention, a man carried a fake Molotov cocktail into a march. Police arrested him and scuffled with several others. Someone smacked Dunford on the back of the head and was arrested. Rows of police in riot gear stormed from the hard security zone to Causeway Street, which was adjacent to the protest pen and in front of the Fleet Center. Protesters immediately backed off, and a march scheduled to reach the hard-zone fence remained back several hundred yards.

“The main effect was a complete intimidation of protesters, “said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “ A rally is a communal event—everyone connects with a central point. How can you have a normal rally when you don’t have physical space—when you are confined to a place that is small, unsafe, and no one can hear you, no one can see you? You just had a bunch of people being there without feeling any sense of why they were there.”

Few people praised the setting, but only one offered a specific alternative that would meet police requirements for security and demonstrators’ desires for free speech and access to the delegates.

Greg Rodriguez, a county chairman for the Democratic Party in King County, (Seattle) Washington, was in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings in November and December 1999 and understood, perhaps better than many, the importance of the security measures. “I don’t want to be stomped,” he said. “I don’t want somebody pulling at me. I don’t want somebody throwing something at me.”

But, he said, there were better ways to keep order and free speech. “In Seattle we’ve established safety monitors from the groups who are responsible for making sure the protesters behave,” Rodriguez said. “We could have done that here and had the safety monitors.”

Masny-Latos said there has been no accountability after the convention for the pen. “If we want to hold anyone accountable, this has to come from people who were affected by it, meaning those who tried to protest. After the DNC there were no formal complaints,” she said. Future political conventions will look to Boston as a model where nothing major went wrong—and then judges and activists will either win the battle Masny-Latos and the protesters lost in July, or the pen will crop up in another city with different arrangements of netting and barbed wire and the same arguments in a different year. “If they have better courts or better judges, they might be able to achieve more than we were able to achieve in Boston,” Masny-Latos said.

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