A legion of lawyers with long memories prepares for DNC protests

Police commissioner John Timoney, left, looks on as a protester gets trapped under a police horse during a near riot around 18th and Vine Street Tuesday, August 1, 2000. The protester was not seriously injured.

Sitting around a law office that's squeezed into a Center City rowhouse, a dozen lawyers pledged last week to defend any protesters arrested here during the Democratic National Convention.

Larry Krasner, a civil rights lawyer for nearly 30 years, pointed to copies of police mug shots he had displayed at the front of the room: Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"At this point in their lives, they were condemned. Now, this one has a holiday. They both have postage stamps," Krasner said. "The fact is, any one of the protesters we represent has the same potential. They're trying to change the world."

As the July 25 to 28 convention nears, Krasner has gathered a team of 20 lawyers, many longtime civil-rights litigators who defended clients here after the Republican convention in 2000, when more than 400 people were tossed in city jails.

With hope in their voices, officials say police-protester relations are shaping up to be markedly different, largely because of lessons learned here during that last convention.

"It does feel different now, it feels like there's a lot more attention and politicians are much more back on their heels," Kranser said. "But the history of the [2000] RNC is a history of the city giving out information that turned out not to be true. So we're not holding our breath."

As part of the gentler approach, Mayor Kenney last week signed a bill decriminalizing several so-called nuisance crimes associated with protests, such as failure to disperse. At the signing, Kenney said visitors need to know that Philadelphia is not a "lock-'em-up city."

The city has also released a map of a designated "protest zone" in FDR Park in South Philadelphia, complete with port-a-potties, water stations, and misting tents to help people cool down in the summer heat.

"We want to make sure that people have an opportunity to express their First Amendment rights as loud and as long as they like," Kenney told the National Press Club in Washington last week, "and make sure that everyone is kept safe." He said police would be on bicycles, not in armored vehicles.

It all feels familiar to Jody Dodd, a founder of Up Against the Law Legal Collective, which will be assisting protesters during the convention.

A few days before the convention in 2000, Dodd said, she went on CNN with then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney.

"He was quoting MLK," she said. But then came the actions that courts later condemned: preemptive arrests of protesters, infiltration of dissident groups by state police. "I think what's different this time is, we reached out to lawyers," Dodd said. "We're planning so that if there are demonstrators arrested in Philadelphia, they are not going to feel isolated."

The current police commissioner, Richard Ross, who assisted with arrests in 2000, said the department has gotten better at handling protests.

A difference Ross expects to see 16 years later, though, is that some ire may be aimed at law enforcement - thanks to the fatal confrontations with police in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Before, you'd get hit with a lot of assault verbally but it wasn't about you," Ross said this month in an interview. "You were an extension of government and issues people may have had, but I think some groups will take this opportunity to exercise their rights based on issues they have with law enforcement across the country."

On the protest side, lawyers are just one small part of the preparations. Another is the group of Philadelphia-area clergy that, along with some of Krasner's lawyers, is holding a "freedom school" at Arch Street Methodist Church in Center City ahead of the convention to teach know-your-rights classes, and do's and don'ts of peaceful protesting.

The Up Against the Law coalition is raising money to cover legal fees, and plans to staff a 24-hour hotline for people to call if someone they know is arrested.

As it did in 2000, the city is buying insurance to cover police liability; officials have not provided details. Cleveland, too, is paying $1.5 million on a $10 million policy to cover any claims of police misconduct when that city hosts the Republican National Convention from July 18 to 21.

As the gathering of attorneys ended last week, Jamie Graham, who was arrested during the 2000 Republican convention, addressed the group. He said he was arrested after taking photos of officers as they arrested a woman.

He recalled having struggled to find a lawyer. He emphasized the importance of preparation - and of history lessons. In 1968, Chicago hosted one of the most tumultuous political conventions in U.S. history when nightstick-wielding police confronted thousands of Vietnam War protesters in the streets.

Though that scene was far bloodier than any here in 2000, Graham still thinks it pays to look back.

"We have to remind them of 2000. ..." Graham said. "In 2000 they could have remembered 1968, but they didn't."

jterruso@phillynews.com215-854-5506@juliaterruso

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