The American Civil Liberties Union is poised to sue Los Angeles and its Police Department over restrictions placed on protests at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

“The First Amendment will not be suspended just because the Democratic Convention is in town,” says Dan Tokaji, staff attorney for the ACLU, which intends to file suit on behalf of groups planning protests inside a “security zone” set up by the LAPD around Staples Center, the location of the convention. “Unless the LAPD‘s position changes in very short order, they can expect a lawsuit.”

The security zone will be cordoned off by “a combination of personnel postings and physical barriers,” i.e., cops and fences, according to police Lieutenant Horace Frank. No one without proper credentials, meaning no one but delegates, dignitaries, the media and law-enforcement officers, will be allowed past police barricades.

In addition, the Police Department intends to restrict demonstrations to a distant parking lot, which is, in the words of Lieutenant Frank, “certainly within view of the Staples Center.” The parking lot, or “Public Demonstration Area,” is located on Olympic Boulevard between Georgia and Francisco streets and will be equipped with a sound stage, microphones and portable toilets. It is separated from the convention site by hundreds of yards of parking lot, and faces the building’s far north flank, not its main entrance.

Activists must apply for 70-minute time slots (55 minutes to “say what they want to say” and 15 to make way for the next group) by June 30. “Requests for specific time slots will be granted on a first come–first serve basis,” the application reads.

“The objective,” insists Frank, “is to facilitate people‘s First Amendment rights. If a group just marches down Broadway, they’re not going to have restrooms; they‘re not going to have a sound stage. Outside the confines of the security zone, you can demonstrate, but you’re not going to have those amenities.” The police, he admits, are not motivated entirely by concern for protesters‘ comfort: “We have some priorities, and our main priority as a law-enforcement agency is to make sure that the community is not disrupted, to make sure the convention goes on as planned and to make sure people’s First Amendment rights are not violated.”

Those priorities, civil libertarians argue, are not in quite the right order. The problem, says veteran protester and current state Senator Tom Hayden, is that the police are “thinking of demonstrations as a war game where they have to defeat the enemy . . . They think there‘s a contradiction between having a safe convention and having civil disobedience.”

As a result, “they’re treating us like terrorists,” says John Parker of the Los Angeles Coalition To Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His group‘s request for a permit to march inside the security zone on August 13 was flatly denied.

Both protesters and police have been preparing for the convention for months. Activists representing a wide variety of causes are hoping to build on the momentum of mass demonstrations at last November’s World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and the World Bank gathering in Washington, D.C., this April. They are counting on the presence of thousands of convention delegates and an army of reporters to get their demands — which range from ending police brutality to tightening environmental laws — out to the rest of the nation.

The LAPD also intends to build on the Seattle and D.C. experiences, but its goal will be suppression rather than expression. From August 12 to 18, police plan to close off a quarter-mile rectangle of city streets bounded by Olympic Boulevard on the north, Venice Boulevard on the south, the 110 freeway on the west and Flower Street on the east.

Thus far, the Police Department has received 22 applications for its “protest pit.” And some of these applicants are hardly enthusiastic. “We think it‘s unreasonable,” says Bart Diener of the Service Employees International Union, Local 660, which is planning a rally outside the authorized area but applied for a time slot as a “fallback position.”

Many other groups did not bother. “To be honest, it’s irrelevant,” says Lisa Fithian, an organizer for the D2K Network, an umbrella organization comprising numerous progressive groups. Local activist Don White contends that the protest pit would only “marginalize and isolate” demonstrators. “On principle,” White says, the D2K Network “will not participate in a demonstration area which is set up by the authorities, where the sound system and the stage are controlled by the authorities and time limits are enforced by the authorities. We are rejecting out of hand the use of that demo pit as inconsistent with our principles and our sense of what people ought to be allowed to do in a free society.”

Activists also are concerned by the military-style preparations of the LAPD. The department has conferred for months with the FBI, the Secret Service and other law-enforcement agencies, plotting tactics and sharing intelligence on protest groups. They have created a unit, the Democratic National Planning Group 2000, solely to deal with convention planning, headed by Commander Thomas Lorenzen, a former Marine and onetime SWAT-team leader. And, adding an ominous note to Lieutenant Frank‘s claim that “We want to make sure this convention turns out to be a memorable experience for everyone,” the Police Department recently tried to sneak a request for $1 million of funding — including $125,000 for pepper spray, tear gas and gas guns and $60,000 for surveillance cameras — into a California Highway Patrol budget request. Hayden blew the whistle on that deal, which fell apart when it came to light.

Given that climate, activists are anxious to reach some understanding with the police — to prevent confrontations and possible violence. “Due to the highly militarized state of the police and their history of being loose cannons, there is a real risk,” says D2K’s Fithian.

Activists have been equally unwilling to give in. “They want to quell us,” says Richard Mendez of the immigrant-rights group El Rescate, “but we‘re not going to sit back and not be heard.”

The ACLU’s Tokaji is optimistic: Previous federal-court rulings have struck down attempts to keep demonstrators 75 yards from the target of their protest. “The bottom line is, you have to be able to reach your intended audience, which in this case is the delegates.”

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