Demonstration Permits Frustrate Groups

August 1, 2008       Tom Pope      

Peace demonstrators taunt Illinois National Guardsmen outside the Conrad Hilton, the democratic headquarters hotel, August 29, 1968. Earlier, police and the demonstrators engaged in a violent clash in which hundreds were injured.

For those old enough to remember the turbulent 1968 political conventions and riots that played out in black and white on live television, the events the major political parties hold every four years are getting tame by comparison. Those organizing demonstrations say that some of the volatility is being quashed because demonstrators have been kept away from the action and the upcoming presidential nominating conventions will be no different.

Numerous groups ranging from advocacy to environmental and social issue organizations are teaming up with coalitions to demonstrate at both political conventions this month and in September. Coalition leaders said that they are frustrated by the difference between the permit process and the actual ability to gain an organizing permit.

“It’s hard to avoid the obstacle of gaining a permit,” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) in New York City. The UFPJ is a coalition of more than 1,400 local and national groups. Her comments address the issue of a parade route in St. Paul, Minn., where the Republicans will hold their convention September 1-4.

“The (U.S.) Secret Service has a role in the logistics around the sites and groups have to deal with the city, the mayor’s office, and the parks department,” she said. “The Secret Service has a lot of control over all of this and no one has ever had a meeting with them about these issues.” Cagan’s group has a permit through a larger coalition that is being contested in a federal court because the procedure to make the initial request for a parade has been changed by the city.

A hearing in July before federal Judge Joan Ericksen of U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, included a memorandum from John A. Kolerno, the Secret Service coordinator for the convention, who stated that attendees, including a range of high-ranking officials, could face a wide array of potential security threats.

Police departments are mandated to respect the First Amendment rights of speech and assembly so organizing permits basically focus on the time, route, and number of people expected at an event. In theory, the police and government simply coordinate the flow of people.

The actual process of gaining a permit can be more difficult. “We want a permit to carry on demonstrations that best deliver the group’s message,” Cagan said. “We don’t want a demonstration that takes you away from the Xcel Energy Center.”

She explained that the city of St. Paul offered a permit that included a march through a bottleneck around the spot where the parade route would be required to turn upon itself. The logistics would become chaotic, according to Cagan.

The UFPJ linked up with the Coalition to March on the RNC and Stop the War, based in Minneapolis, a grassroots organization built through some nonprofits and community groups. The coalition includes trade unions, low- income groups, immigrant rights movements, student groups, environmental groups and multi-issue organizations.

The UFPJ’s request for a permit went through the Coalition. “We’re a national organization and we bring the vast scope of national organizing activities, like the convention in New York four years ago,” Cagan said. “The Coalition comes from people on the ground in St. Paul so it didn’t make sense for us to get the permit since they are there.”

When the Coalition first applied for a permit after the Republican National Committee announced the convention date, the city didn’t respond because it was too early to apply, according to Jessica Sundin, a Coalition staff person.

“We re-submitted it several times, then found a loophole in the statute that mentions a group having a repeating event can apply much sooner,” Sundin said. “All year, we’ve been having a march from the state capitol in St. Paul to The Xcel Center, which is the route of our original permit application.”

The city granted the Coalition’s permit for every month except September. For that month, an alternative route and different time became the granted “conditional alternative permit.”

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota, filed a brief in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota this past June seeking an adequate permit response. “We have a number of concerns because of the stalling by the government about the permit process,” Samuelson said.

The city’s version places the time of the march between noon and 2 p.m., which is prior to the delegates’ arrival, he said. “They want the march done on the quick without any chance for demonstrators to speak to the people,” he said.

The Coalition expects 50,000 people to march during the parade. The proposed city plan has the marchers turn back on themselves within a confined area. The logistics would make for a harrowing situation and delay the duration of the parade, according to Samuelson.

“We don’t know how many will come since this is on Labor Day,” he said. “All the colleges are in session so we could have 100,000 people.”

Said Sundin, “We can’t ask people who have come from across the country to turn around and avoid reaching their goal.”

One concern of the St. Paul Police Department is its force of only 600 officers. “They will have to get support from outside,” Samuelson said. “One big problem we saw in the Seattle World Trade Organization demonstration was that the police brought in out-of-town officers who failed to communicate, which led to overreaction and a mess.”

The city of St. Paul doesn’t know why the ACLU thought the city was stalling. “Delays could depend on the nature of the event because groups have to supply the city with answers about the crowd size, the time, and the duration,” said Tom Walsh, public information coordinator for the St. Paul Police Department. “The time to respond varies because we have to see if the type of event is different from what we’ve seen before.”

Walsh explained that the city has to make sure traffic will not interrupt the event. “For example, each year we host the Twin Cities’ Marathon,” he said. “We have to make sure we have the staff so that cars don’t bother the runners.”

Walsh further stated that the size of an event would probably not be a limiting factor. “We are obligated to provide for First Amendment rights,” he said. “Size would only be a factor in providing resources that we might not have.”

The St. Paul force could obtain assistance from other police agencies to augment forces to between 3,000 and 3,500 police officers. These would be public forces as stipulated by the State of Minnesota, according to Walsh.

In the event of the march exceeding the crowd expectation or time frame, Walsh called a Plan B discussion “inappropriate” and declined further comment on it. “We have an expectation of the parade disbanding at a certain time,” he said. “They have applied for a permit and been granted a permit for that time, so that is our expectation.”

Events at The Pepsi Center in Denver for the Democratic National Convention face different issues. Denver held a lottery this past March to distribute park permits. The mayor’s spokeswoman, Sue Cobb, indicated that the group Recreate ’68 won access to eight of 12 city parks.

That’s not the problem with gaining permits, according to Jodie Evans, co-founder of CodePink, a Venice, Calif. -based women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end the war in Iraq. CodePink has been involved with the permit process during the past year.

“The Democratic National Committee (DNC) picked up 100 percent of the desirable space near the access of the delegates,” said Evans, the group’s co-founder. “The party took up all the public space so we had to talk to them to use the space.”

CodePink plans to be present at both conventions. “We don’t see our activities as a protest,” she said. “We are having a presence to bring the story about America in creative nonviolent ways.”

CodePink’s activities include creative floats and political theater.

“A March for Democracy” will occur in Denver along with a campaign called “Bussing,” where marginalized people are highlighted.

The park permit process is too late for groups that have not applied unless someone drops out, according to Kevin Scott, the permit liaison for the city of Denver.

Some entities are grouping up, so the city split the week, requiring groups to apply for specific days. “We created a boundary of the downtown area,” he said. “There might be some area outside the boundary that is still available although that is further from the site.”

Denver’s Designated Parade Route will be available all four days of the convention, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The parade route will end within walking distance of the demonstration zone located in Parking Lot A of The Pepsi Center.

The parade requires groups to fill out a request form so the city can coordinate how the group joins the parade. The parade is not an assembly so a permit process doesn’t apply.

Scott didn’t think any obstacle exists for getting room in the parade. “This is so people don’t arrive at the same time,” he said. “If people want another parade route downtown, they will have to submit a permit.” NPT

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes regarding management issues.