Activist and author Kris Hermes and ACLU’s Steve David discusses a recent victory against free speech restrictions on protests in Cleveland, and the long history of mass arrests and harassment against political speech
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: The Republican and Democratic conventions and expected protests against them are swiftly approaching, with Donald Trump expected to officially become the GOP nominee when his party meets in Cleveland starting July 18 and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats in Philadelphia on July 25. For decades, such political events have been flashpoints for protests, often heavy-handed police tactics including mass arrests. And if you’ve been following the violence at Trump rallies across the country, you know why this year is expected to be no different. And just last week a judge ordered Cleveland to relax restrictions against demonstrations after being sued by the ACLU of Ohio. The Real News will be inside and outside both conventions. I’ll be in the streets with a team monitoring protests and speaking to activists in both cities. Well, now joining us to discuss this are two guests. Steve David is the communications manager for the ACLU of Ohio and Kris Hermes is an activist, legal worker and author of “Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000,” which took place in Philadelphia. But Steve, let’s start with you. You know, many would argue, this year there’s going to be a need for security with all the protests that are expected. I just talked about the violence at Trump rallies. Talk about why the ACLU pursued this lawsuit and the result. We understand the city of Cleveland just agreed to some concessions over the last few days. STEVE DAVID: So, we pursued this lawsuit against the city of Cleveland because while we recognized that the city has a legitimate interest in security planning and having the convention be secure, that doesn’t give them and excuse to wave security around as a reason to throw out people’s constitutional rights. So, what we saw with their original plan laid out an event zone that was larger than anything that we had seen at a past convention, that encompassed 3.5 square miles, essentially blocking off all of downtown Cleveland with special restrictions on speech, assembly and the kind of things that people could carry in and out of that zone. We also saw a parade route that we found grossly inadequate for having protesters and demonstrators within sight and sound of the people that they were trying to reach, the delegates. So we, in light of those restrictions and other delays that the city had when approving permits that folks had asked for, we were given no other options but to take the city to court and pursue litigation. NOOR: And I think in your lawsuit you mentioned how there’s no such restrictions when the Cavaliers, you know, won the NBA championship or other type of events. It’s for these political sort of gatherings that you see these crackdowns, these restrictions on it. DAVID: Yes, and I believe that the judge in the hearing that we had last Thursday actually raised that similar point, that in an event that drew a much larger crowd than is even expected at the RNC we didn’t see these kind of restrictions that are put in place. It seemed that because of the political nature of the speech that was expected at the RNC these what we call draconian measures were put in place, and we were very happy that the judge seemed to share our concerns that these were unconstitutionally broad and forced us into mediation to craft a better agreement. NOOR: And so there’ve also been reports of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies knocking on doors of people they believe could be involved in protests. The FBI, in response, acknowledged they’ve been reaching out to individuals in the community and they said they wanted to make sure they would ensure a safe and secure environment during the RNC. Kris Hermes, you’ve been following and participating in these type of protests for a long time now. What is your response? You know, the FBI says they’re just trying to keep people safe by doing this. KRIS HERMES: Well, there’s not much you can do with door knocking to ensure people’s safety, and more so it indicates that law enforcement is out to intimidate people, intimidate activists planning to protest in the streets and to ultimately try and stifle or chill dissent. This is a tactic commonly used out of the playbook of tactics, really, that have been used at political convention after political convention since the turn of the century. Part of it is because of the designation, national special security event, that puts the FBI and Secret Service at the top of a robust law enforcement apparatus that is there to make sure that dissent and protest is controlled. NOOR: And I also wanted to, you know, get your response, Steve David, to how the city of Cleveland has dealt with protests recently, because you’ve seen mass protests against the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and other, these types of, you know, responses. What is the city of Cleveland’ track record? DAVID: So, it’s especially important to note that when the RNC comes to Cleveland, the Cleveland Division of Police is currently under a federal consent decree with the Department of Justice because of a pattern and practice of unconstitutional use of force by the active Cleveland police. So, that consent decree is still in effect and we’re still trying to see the fruits of that agreement to correct these issues that Cleveland police have with constitutional policing. That said, we have seen a variable response from police in terms of how they’ve responded to protest events. They have taken a very measured approach. Sometimes when, specifically in the aftermath of Tamir Rice we saw it, they would allow protesters to block intersections and protest in the street. But we’ve also seen them respond in the opposite fashion. For instance, after the acquittal of Michael Brelo in the shooting of two unarmed Black motorists in Cleveland. There was an incident where Cleveland police essentially blocked off 70 protesters in an ally and arrested everyone without giving them an opportunity to disperse. So that incident, that mass arrest incident actually led to another lawsuit and settlement with the city that secured new mass arrest and dispersal protocols which we hope they put into practice in the even something like that happens in the future. NOOR: And Kris, I wanted to go to you. You actually moved to Philadelphia to prepare for the Democratic convention because we’ve known for a while now that there are going to be protests there. I wanted to get your response to what Calvin D. Williams, the Cleveland chief of police said in an interview at a press conference back in May to assure people that they’ll be able to maintain safety during the convention. Let’s hear that clip. CALVIN WILLIAMS: And It’s not just by accident of how they come together. There’s a plan that’s been developed that’s been tested convention after convention, refined convention after convention, and we follow that plan. NOOR: So, he basically said, you know, convention after convention we’ve been building on these same tactics, these same plans, and he was saying it to kind of, you know, what he saw as kind of assure the public that there will be order, there will be peace during the conventions. What’s your response to that, and what has been the track record been at these type of political gatherings including conventions? HERMES: Well, there’s certainly an attempt by the political establishment, law enforcement, usually supported by municipal officials to control dissent and make it quote-unquote safe for residents and visitors, delegates attending a convention. But at what cost? And what are they willing and unwilling to do in order to keep the peace [so] to speak. And the first amendment is a messy thing, and people engage in civil disobedience and streets are blockaded commonly at these types of political events. And the city and law enforcement even know it is a more robust apparatus [inaud.] be respectful of people protesting. That has unfortunately been the case over the past at least 16 years since we’ve seen a shift to a more aggressive style of policing and, as the police chief mentioned, a set of practices that is coded for keeping people safe but is in fact cracking down on people’s free expression. NOOR: And Kris, we just read a report of how permits for several protests have been denied in Philadelphia. Activists have vowed to take the streets regardless of whether they get the protests or not and they’ve raised the issue of police abuse in Philadelphia. They raise some of the same issues as was described in Cleveland. If we don’t, if permits aren’t given what could be the consequences and is there a possibility of mass arrests in Philadelphia? HERMES: Well, there’s definitely a possibility of mass arrests. They’re already discussing what to do with arrestees, the surge in numbers if in fact there are mass arrests. So I think, even though the city recently passed a measure that would allow police to issue a summary offenses, like a parking ticket and a fine to people who were engaged in protest type activity, that is often put forth as a smokescreen to allay the public and to show police will have an even-handed approach, but commonly we do see mass arrests at these political conventions. In terms of permit denials, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which was denied a permit in Philadelphia, was similarly denied a permit 16 years ago to march down Broad Street and they marched anyway, just as they say they’re going to regardless, whether the city issues them a permit. But they did it under threat of arrest. At the time the city got involved. It even threatened four parents of young children that are arrested the city would take custody of those kids. So, there’s the threat that still exists in Philadelphia, but I think people are so incensed by the way this city has handled the permitting process that they’re going to march and demonstrate regardless. NOOR: And I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is that often times cities ahead of time will set aside money because they know that they’re going to get sued for making illegal arrests. I know that happened in the case of my colleagues at Democracy Now when they were arrested in St. Paul back in 2008, you know, years later they were awarded a lawsuit. But it seems like the police agencies, they know they’re going to be carrying out these acts illegally and they’re sort of prepared for it. HERMES: Yeah. These insurance policies that basically indemnify the police for a whole host of rights violations, including assault and battery on protesters, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, this does cover the police and it’s arguable that they go out into the streets knowing that they will be covered and being more free to exercise violence against protesters. I should add that the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign is taking the city to court. The ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing the organization to ensure that it can march without threat of arrest, and is also challenging the city’s ban on rush hour demonstrations in the downtown area. NOOR: All right. Well, I want to thank you both for joining us, and we’ll certainly be following up, if not before the conventions during the conventions in the streets at the conventions as well. Thanks so much for joining us. HERMES: Thank you. DAVID: Cool. Thanks for having us. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.