Philadelphia: No crackdown on DNC protests

Philadelphia officials say they will respect the First Amendment rights of all protesters during the Democratic National Convention, but they are sticking with requirements that all demonstrators have permits and preparing a mothballed prison in case there are mass arrests.

"There is no intended `crackdown' on un-permitted protesting," City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante wrote in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The letter, dated June 17, was in response to the ACLU's concerns about how the protests would be handled.

Tens of thousands of protesters are expected at the July 25-28 convention.

The ACLU had written to the city earlier in the month outlining a number of issues relating to the convention, including that the city wasn't letting marches travel down Broad Street.

The city will now allow marches on the thoroughfare, Philadelphia's major north-south artery that runs past City Hall to the sports complex about 7 miles away where the convention is to be held.

"We are gratified that the city has reconsidered its ban on marches on Broad Street," said Mary Catherine Roper, the ACLU's deputy legal director in Pennsylvania. "It is where Philadelphians have marched for decades in both celebration and dissent."

Roper said the ACLU is less happy about the city's other responses.

No permits will be granted to march during rush hour, and there will be no camping in FDR Park, a city park near the convention site that will be a staging ground for several different protest groups.

"We will continue to press for both access and clarity for protesters so that the DNC will not be just a showcase for party mechanics, but also a genuine celebration of democratic -- small `d' --values."

A call to a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney wasn't immediately returned Wednesday.

Scott Williams, an organizer with the International Action Center, said his group applied for permits to march but won't be deterred if its applications are rejected.

"The First Amendment is our permit," he said.

The city wants to avoid a repeat of 2000 when it arrested more than 400 protesters at the Republican National Convention, only to see most cases end in acquittals.

Earlier this month, a City Council committee passed legislation letting police issue $100 civil fines rather than make criminal arrests for many nuisance crimes. The offenses include disorderly conduct, blocking a street and failing to heed a request to disperse.

The city is also preparing Holmesburg Prison's recently renovated gymnasium to house inmates, if needed for mass arrests. Cell blocks would not be used, prison officials said. The gym has 100 beds, showers and air conditioning.

Poverty activist Cheri Honkala's application for her group's July 25 march down Broad Street was rejected, but they will march anyway. She called the city's wording on requiring permits but not cracking down "double-speak."

"They should not be able to dance around First Amendment rights," she said Wednesday. "We should err on the side of democracy and let people voice how they feel."