Byko: Thanks to Mayor Kenney, Philly's asking for convention chaos

WILDLY BUT MILDLY, America on Monday celebrated her 240th birthday, validated by a birth certificate issued in Philadelphia.

The Declaration was followed by the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech (thank you), freedom of the press (really thank you) and the right to peaceably assemble.

Key word: peaceably.

This brings us to the Democratic National Convention and the city's schizophrenic approach to it.

Citing a "notion of fairness," Mayor Kenney merrily signed a bill to "decriminalize nuisance offenses," such as disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, public drunkenness and obstructing the highway.

Key word: fairness.

He earlier decriminalized marijuana. In KenneyWorld, passively sucking a doobie equates with actively interfering with the rights of others by blocking streets and threatening passersby.

A city press release directly linked the downgrading of drunk and disorderly offenses to the arrival of the DNC. The mayor really knows his peeps. How did he overlook public urination?

Those in violation, instead of arrest, will be issued a ticket, supposedly. The law minimizes bad behavior, and some protesters will take it as a license to riot.

Am I exaggerating? Not according to two former Philadelphia police commanders I interviewed, but first let's take testimony from the mayor himself.

In an Inquirer op-ed last week, Kenney practically begged Philadelphians not to flee the city, but to stay home and be friendly to visitors. Philadelphians should smile and wave as protesters call them vile names, drunkenly block their street, and urinate on their front steps (not stoop, if you are keeping up with that mini-controversy).

In the op-ed Kenney called the DNC "the most historic event in our country's recent memory."

Key word: the.

Mayor Short-Term Memory Loss has forgotten Pope Francis' visit already?

I wanted to know about any issues surrounding, and enforcement of, the Kenney-ordered decriminalization. Commissioner Richard Ross declined comment because he will address that issue this week with his department and felt they had a right to hear it first. Fair enough, so I turned to two former commanders.

"The mayor is treading in some areas he knows nothing about," said one.

The other commander said, "It's going to make it pretty difficult for the police, they can't write 500 to 600 tickets, you just can't do it." Both requested anonymity because they didn't want to get involved in a political mess.

Imagine a few hundred protesters blocking an intersection and refusing to give cops their names so they can be ticketed.

What happens then?

"The person will be transported to the district to be identified," a police spokesman told me.

That's not as easy as it seems, said one of the commanders. Both worked the 2000 Republican National Convention.

They might go limp and need to be carried. They might handcuff themselves together. Professional protesters will not carry ID, nor answer questions, and will make faces to thwart the mug shot procedure.

In 2000, one commander told me, "we didn't want to arrest anyone. [Arrest is] the easiest thing in the world" to do.

But not the best thing.

"They were blocking the streets. We arrested them. When we went to federal court, the judge told us constitutional rights supersedes inconvenience."

This commander said he negotiated with protesters' attorneys on the spot, but the street blockage "backed up to the expressway and was causing a dangerous situation." Some motorists left their cars to fight with protesters.

While emasculating nuisance laws is a weird welcoming gesture, the city was both tightfisted and foot-dragging on issuing permits to protest - until hauled into court by the ACLU.

Here's a point worth debating: Why should Americans need a permit to do something - peaceably assemble - when it is guaranteed in the First Amendment?

I think it's because some protesters abuse that right by interfering with the rights of others.

It's a balance of rights, a ceaseless tug-of-war.

The city started by saying it would not permit rush-hour demonstrations, then reversed itself. It understandably wanted order, but wrongfully redlined rush hours. Rush-hour protests are inconvenient, but manageable. With advance notice citizens can avoid the clogged arteries. "Spontaneous" shutdowns of streets are something else.

"Sometimes you may have to make an arrest and deal with it later on," said one commander. "If they're out there and they totally defy you, you give them 10 to 15 minutes to block streets, but if they do it again, you clear the intersection."

The permits allow the city to plan for safety - and security from terrorism, something "we didn't have to deal with in 2000," said one of the commanders.

Key word: safety.

Some 400 arrests were made during the RNC, including a group rounded up in a West Philadelphia puppet warehouse. The commander winced when I mentioned this. Others were arrested during a melee in Center City during which Police Commissioner John Timoney was hit with a bicycle. Timoney is in Bahrain now and could not be reached. Most of the charges were dropped and a few successfully sued the city.

Neither commander likes decriminalization. "Those crimes tend to escalate and lead to other crimes, higher crimes," said one of the commanders.

That's what cops will have to stop.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

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