Republicans may rather not be in Philadelphia

July 23, 2000|By Larry Atkins

PHILADELPHIA -- Chicago 1968 equals Philadelphia 2000?

Probably not. But while Philadelphia most likely will not erupt in chaos and anarchy in the streets during the Republican Convention beginning July 31, the city will be awash in protesters.

Organizations promoting a melting pot of social causes ranging from pro-choice, gun control, labor, environmental issues, gay rights, women's groups, supporters of convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, and advocates for the homeless and the poor are likely to descend upon the city.

You might even get a bunch of people who want to express their anger regarding the alleged civil rights violations by Philadelphia police during their arrest of suspected car-jacker Thomas Jones. Will the city be ready for them, or will this be Philadelphia's biggest public relations disaster since the MOVE fiasco in 1985?

Already, a Philadelphia environmental and consumer advocacy group, the Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network, has formed a coalition of numerous organizations that support liberal causes. It plans to hold a major march and rally with 20,000 to 100,000 participants July 30 to spark what it calls a diverse, progressive movement in the region.

The coalition and the Consumer Action Network, which focuses on consumer rights, clean government, environment, labor and free trade, also plan to follow the major rally, which they are calling Unity 2000, with a week of rallies by individual groups.

Two major unions -- the United Steelworkers of America and the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO -- officially have endorsed the Unity 2000 rally, a move that could help boost participation and financial support for it. In addition, a Philadelphia activist group, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, intends to build a tent city for 1,000 homeless protesters called "Bushville."

When Philadelphia was awarded the GOP convention, Philadelphia Councilman Angel Ortiz told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "The people from the neighborhoods should come down to the Republicans at the convention and let them know that Republican public policies are working against big urban areas and are not positive ways of gaining minority votes."

The Philadelphia police department has established a staff to plan security for the convention. The reported plan is to establish a small demonstration zone near the convention at the First Union Center, and to have groups of protesters apply for 50-minute time slots at designated periods.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney has been studying how police responded to the protests and riots that disrupted meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December.

He is consulting with police in Seattle, has spoken to FBI officials, and has met with Justice Department experts in Washington, D.C., about the protests.

Concerned that concealing identities was a common tactic during the Seattle and Washington, D.C., protests, the Philadelphia City Council recently passed a bill that imposes a $75 fine on masked individuals who have specific intent to intimidate, threaten or commit an unlawful act.

While Pennsylvania is a Republican state, with a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and a Republican state legislature, Philadelphia is one of the most Democratic cities in the country.

Even though Arlen Specter recently won his Senate race in a landslide, he lost convincingly in Philadelphia to his obscure and underfunded opponent, Bill Lloyd. Having the Republicans convene in Philadelphia seems to make as much sense as the Democrats going to Republican strongholds such as Salt Lake City, Utah, or Pocatello, Idaho. To many Philadelphians, the Republicans will be as welcome as Dallas fans at the Vet for an Eagles-Cowboys game.

Inside the convention at Philadelphia's First Union Center, there will be a major right-wing influence, given George W. Bush's victory in the Republican primaries. It's hard to picture a Charlton Heston keynote speech promoting the NRA being received with open arms in our city.

There is a lot more for the city to be concerned about than cleaning up the streets, adding streetlights, and having the homeless out of the way during convention week. (If some people could have their way, the city would bus the homeless to New York for a week for a "homeless Woodstock.")

The desired goal is to allow the protesters to be heard while presenting the city in a positive light for the rest of the country to see. Let's hope that the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall serve as the backdrop for the GOP convention, not chaos in the streets.

Larry Atkins is a lawyer and writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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