Kris Hermes tells Paul Jay that police suppression of protests at the Republican National Convention set the pattern for breaking up legal protests across North America
PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. After the death, most people think murder, of Freddie Gray in Baltimore mass protests emerged, people calling it the Baltimore uprising. After the first night, which included some looting and a lot of stone throwing, which later came out according to the police union itself, the Fraternal Order of Police, was actually encouraged by the then-Chief of Police Batts, who according to the union, the police commissioner told a roll call prepping for the events, let the looting take place. Let the protesters run wild. Let the protesters seem to be the aggressors. Then we move in. And clearly the police stepped back and at Penn and North, which became ground zero for the first night of the events, all hell did break loose. Now, all hell, how do you define that? A lot of stone throwing, and yes, one building got set ablaze as the police stood by a few blocks away, waiting for all this to happen. So instead of the main imagery of television being the death of Freddie Gray and the video of catching the police who arrested and then killed Freddie Gray, the iconic image of the Baltimore events becomes the burning of a CVS store. Well, that’s not the first time I’ve seen that. In the Toronto G20 protests, when the G20 meetings were taking place, there were 20,000 people protesting against what they said was neoliberal economics and such. And as the protest moved down the street a small group of about 100–150 broke away using what was called Black Bloc tactics, marched down Queen Street, and burnt a police car. Well, of course that then becomes the image of the Toronto G20. Not 20,000 people protesting these type of economic policies. It was one burning police car. And again, the police stepped back, let it happen for close to 45 minutes as windows got broken up and down Toronto’s main street, called Young Street. Well, this all came out and we covered this greatly. During the events in Baltimore it hit me: why is there such a police presence after the first night? The National Guard comes in. Thousands of police are on the ready, hundreds and hundreds of police from all over Maryland are brought into Baltimore when there was next to nothing happening. A curfew was held, people are being essentially prevented from protesting, because not much else happened with that curfew. The city after the first night and maybe a little bit into the second night was very calm. But the National Guard was brought in. The police, for example, moved some protesters away at 10:00 PM in front of City Hall with perhaps as many as 300 policemen. A dozen horses. Armored cars. Forty kids in front of City Hall, you know, they could have been essentially singing Kumbaya. Why such police presence? Well, the same question hit me when we were covering Toronto. Outside the holding center where about 1,000 protesters were being held, was a small demonstration demanding their release. A van drives up, screeches to a halt. Out jump three cops, grab a woman doing nothing differently than any of the other protesters, drag her into the van, drive off. And it looks straightforward like some kidnapping off the streets of some, of a, of a Latin American city. LACY MACAULEY, MEDIA ACTIVIST: After I was very violently snatched by police, they threw me into the back of an unmarked van. There were four officers in the van. I believe that they were plainclothes officers. However, none of them identified themselves as officers. I was sat on by one of them–I was lying on my back. I was strangled. And when I didn’t lose consciousness, the officer who had tried to strangle me actually punched me in the head at least once. JAY: It could only have been, to my mind, some kind of rehearsal. None of this was necessary. In fact, it was completely unnecessary to arrest 1,000 people in Toronto, 99 percent of them which had been involved in none of the damage to either the police car or any of the window breaking. Well, it seems to me this is all part of a pattern, and I’m not the only one that thinks so. Now joining us in the studio is Kris Hermes. He’s the mass defense coordinator for the National Lawyers Guild and the author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 Convention. Thanks for joining us. KRIS HERMES: Thanks, Paul. Great to be here. JAY: So I know your book is about this, that they use the RNC convention to start working out these strategies and tactics for dealing with mass protest. So tell us about what you learned in studying that material, and to what extent do you think these things are orchestrated not just to deal with the protest at hand, but as preparing police forces for dealing with much bigger things that are likely to come? HERMES: Well, I was providing legal support in 2000 for the activists, thousands of activists, demonstrating against the Republican Convention that year in Philadelphia. And what I saw was Philadelphia used as a laboratory by then-police commissioner John Timoney to develop tactics, an array of police tactics, that were used then to suppress dissent and have been developed over the years, 15 years since then, and honed them into a playbook of police tactics, if you will, that they can pull from and use at their will. And quite often they have millions of dollars at their disposal with which to implement these tactics. We’re talking about refusal to grant permits, heavy surveillance and infiltration. Preemptive raids on activist spaces to prevent people from actually going out into the streets. Mass arrests. Political interrogations by law enforcement. Unlawful stops and searches of people’s bags. All of these things can at any time be used to intimidate people, chill dissent. And ultimately try and stifle what is going to happen on the streets at a particular event. In this case, in 2000, it was the Republican convention. But really these tactics are used, have been used, over the years at other political summits or spontaneous unrest, like what we see with the movement for black lives. JAY: I was covering this event outside City Hall in Baltimore when these 40 kids–you know, teenagers, maybe, in their early 20s are, they are out there to defy the curfew. The curfew had been on for almost a week. And they decided to sit very peacefully. Hundreds of cops are surrounding them. They start marching, bashing their shields and, and several kids were injured, collar, shoulder blades broken. They get charged for the crime. But the extent of the policing seems so out of proportion to what they were trying to accomplish. But it hit me particularly, this issue of rehearsal. At one point, there, we’re kind of in the street, Lafayette just past the City Hall. And the guy, the cop who’s sort of in charge yells back to this group of about 30, 40 police, I need ten guys up here now. Well, they all stand there. Because he didn’t say which ten guys. So nobody came. So he had to run back there, get his ten guys, move them up to the front. Which shows how unprepared they are for these things and how they need these dress rehearsals. And I, what do you, how much do you think this kind of overpolicing is about getting police ready for this stuff? HERMES: That’s a very good question. I do know that there are cities around the country where they have been very prepared and trained, and, and know exactly what to do and how to do it. A lot of times it involves very severe violence against people who are simply out in the streets to express themselves. I don’t know what they could be preparing for. Perhaps some kind of national emergency. But–. JAY: Or just, you know, if unemployment gets into, you know, 20-25 percent you start having, you know, not just kids out there but you start having workers out there, and mass protest takes on much bigger dimension. You don’t want Keystone Cops, and–maybe some other cities have more experience with this. This is kind of new for Baltimore. HERMES: Well, I would say that the causes of unrest in our society can be dealt with in much more practical ways that arming a police force and preparing them to attack our own citizens. So I think the argument of preparation from the outset is flawed. But certainly millions of dollars are flowing into the coffers of local–. JAY: You mean the argument that would justify doing it, or are you–. HERMES: Yes. JAY: Or the argument that it’s happening. HERMES: Both. And you know, with millions of dollars flowing into the coffers of local police departments they need to find ways of spending that money. Often it’s used to purchase equipment, maybe tasers, maybe pepper spray or tear gas. But ultimately it’s going to be used, because they have it and they want to be able to use it. Maybe if it’s not against political protesters in, in some unrest or political event, it’s going to be used against the people in that community at some point. JAY: When you look at the RNC for–you gave an example of mass arrests. A lot of the mass arrests took place, and again at the Democratic Party Convention, there were times where, there was one scene–and I’m off, I’m sorry. I can’t remember if it was the Republican or Democratic convention, where a bunch of protesters are, kind of deliberately move so they walk across a bridge. And they’re, nothing violent. They’re peacefully there. They corner them on either end of the bridge and they kind of tell them to disperse. But it’s like, impossible to disperse. And then they arrest everybody on the bridge. And they’re not doing anything but failing to disperse in a situation where they couldn’t have dispersed. HERMES: Right. JAY: Which again suggests they need–I don’t know if it’s a question of intimidation or learning how to arrest, that must have been 500-600 people. HERMES: Yes, that happened in St. Paul around the Republican convention in 2008. And I think that it’s an effort to stifle dissent, plain and simple. If you can corral hundreds of people and arrest them, take them off the street so you avoid any future tension around protests that are going on in the city, you’ve won a short-term victory as, as head of police. And it could be as simple as that. It could be that they’re doing this for short-term gain to be able to stifle dissent to the extent that they can let the, the whatever the political event that’s going on happen without, without disruption. Have an unfettered convention. JAY: You know, I mean, one of the things that hit me again in Toronto is that one of the tactics, and I think this goes back to the RNC and the Democratic Party Convention and others since, which is you arrest a ton of people. And then you don’t really charge them, you let them go. But what have you done? You have violated their right to free assembly, you’ve taken away constitutional right to protest. But it’s okay, because, you know, they got out. So–and in fact, because you didn’t charge them there’s almost no way to fight it. HERMES: It’s a short-term gain if they can arrest people, take them off of the streets there are fewer people to protest and organize protests. Often you’re right, they don’t get charged. In the case of the bridge arrests, all those charges went away. And they’ve achieved a short-term goal. JAY: Yeah, same thing in Toronto. Of the thousand people that were arrested, I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think it’s more than 80-85 percent actually never got charged. But then you would think that’s illegal. Like, isn’t that forcible confinement? HERMES: It is illegal. JAY: [You just] kidnap people off the street, held them for, you know, 12-15 hours. HERMES: Yes. And the police make themselves vulnerable to civil actions by attorneys that want to challenge this kind of behavior. JAY: And how successful has that been? HERMES: It, it depends. It has been successful in some cases. I know in, in Oakland there’s a, a terrible crowd control policy, or at least there was, that allowed police to be very violent against protesters. They were sued. They had to redesign their crowd control policy, and they continued to violate it. So whether or not civil actions result in, in actual reform, is a good question. But it does make them vulnerable to civil litigation. And even more insidious, in some cities they will take out insurance policies. That is the, the city or the police department, that will indemnify them of all sorts of civil rights violations. So they go into a protest knowing that they’re covered by insurance. They can assault people, they can unlawfully arrest people. They can prosecute them maliciously. All of these things can be covered by insurance policies. JAY: Something similar happened in Toronto, where the police were, as–I have, I have actually never personally, and I’ve seen a lot of protests. I’ve never seen police as violent in, and certainly not in Canada. And I haven’t seen it, what I’ve seen in the U.S. either. Just indiscriminate clubbings of people, taking horses and riding them overtop of people. Right, right deliberately running people over with the horses and such. HERMES: That’s horrible. JAY: And everything videotaped. There couldn’t have been more cameras. They just put cameras all over the area where this was taking place. So clearly the police had been told you can do this with impunity. HERMES: Yeah. JAY: Because you don’t have to worry about that tape ever showing up in a courtroom. HERMES: Well, in my book I argue that the police chief in Philadelphia, John Timoney, who developed a lot of these tactics and further honed them when he became police chief in Miami, and in November of 2003 during the Free Trade Area of the Americas protest, activists saw a level of violence that was just unprecedented and has been unsurpassed since. And, and just a whole range of weapons used against people, and in front of cameras, with no compunction of, of what they were doing. JAY: And I think it’s really important to make the point, the vast majority of these arrests are peaceful protesters. HERMES: Oh, yeah. JAY: These are not people breaking windows and burning things. In fact, as I think I mentioned in the Toronto example, the people that had, were breaking windows and burning things on the whole didn’t get arrested. A few did. A few did. HERMES: It’s pretty common. JAY: But most–some of them actually got arrested beforehand. A little bit after[hand]. But the vast majority of people weren’t involved in any of that. Just finally, in your book you talked about some innovative courtroom practices of the protesters. What was that? HERMES: Well, there was a legal collective in the background that was supporting the activists and arrestees. And they took it on to establish a form of court solidarity. And what that meant was that people with the lower-level charges, and hundreds of them, refused plea bargains, which is the common practice in criminal court is to offer plea bargains and get rid of most of the criminal cases. Well, they refused and decided to take their cases to trial in order to support the people with higher-level charges with much more risk. Years in jail. And so they developed certain tactics that entail politicizing their cases. They went in with regalia, political messages on their clothing. There were tactics that were done inside the courtroom, really disruption. Pushing the legal envelope as much as they possibly could. People were representing themselves, pro se, perhaps you’ve heard of that. And ultimately by politicizing their cases they were sending a message outside of the courtroom to the general public that this is why they were here in the streets. Our rights were violated and we’re not going to take it. And they, they were vindicated. The vast, vast majority, upwards of 97 percent of the people that were arrested, had their charges thrown out or dismissed. JAY: And, jury trials, mostly? HERMES: In jury trials, mostly. JAY: And just–I said finally, we’ve got one more finally. This seems to be incredible overcharging, what I would say overcharging in Baltimore of protesters, is a recent case, very small protest during one of the preliminary hearings of the police that were charged in the Freddie Gray incident. And a pastor, actually, goes out in front of–they block some traffic for a few minutes. He has a bullhorn. He gets arrested, and the charges originally include illegal confinement, I believe inciting to riot. I mean, a level of charges that are just un–you could not believe for what was essentially peaceful civil disobedience. And you know, is this something peculiar that happened in Baltimore, or is there a pattern of this overcharging which is essentially saying there’s no more civil disobedience. You know, if you want to go exactly where we tell you to protest, when we tell you to protest, okay. Outside of that, we’re coming for you. HERMES: Yeah. As long as you nicely march in single file down the sidewalk we’re not going to bother you. But the minute you go into the street or you do something that makes us uncomfortable, we’ll bring our full force of, you know, brute force often, against you. So one example from the RNC 2000 is there was a woman who was an organizer, known political organizer, was walking down the street talking on a cell phone at the time she was arrested. She was charged with ten misdemeanors and ten felonies, held on a million-dollar bail, unprecedented at the time. And all of those charges, or all but one, were thrown out. So yes, I think we can look to certain political summits or, or instances of unrest where the police try to intimidate people by overcharging them. And throwing the book at them. JAY: Yeah. I mean, if you look at the importance of civil disobedience in the history of the country and how many reforms came out as a result of that civil disobedience. I mean, Martin Luther King would have spent his entire life in jail if he was charged the way–and convicted in the way they’re charging people in Baltimore. We’re waiting to see what the conviction rate here is, because the trials of the protesters are just beginning. HERMES: Well, I think the public needs to be educated about those specific facts. And unfortunately we tend to have amnesia around what the, you know, civil disobedience and the importance of it in our society. And I think that the more the public understands the importance of those types of tactics maybe we, we wouldn’t see the police able to get away with as much as they do. JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us. HERMES: Thank you, Paul. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.