Protest groups planning demonstrations during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next month say they will take to the streets with or without city permits.
Their declaration follows a federal lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU of Pennsylvania claiming that the city’s protest restrictions during the four-day DNC violate free speech rights.
City officials confirmed they have banned protests along Broad Street in Center City during rush hour, following some confusion about when and where the restrictions on marches would apply.
An area for protesters has been designated in FDR Park in South Philly, not far from the Wells Fargo Center where the convention’s main stage will be located.
Objecting to being kept on the sidelines, the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice and other activist groups rallied Tuesday outside the city’s Law Department at on Arch Street in Center City. They demanded that the city lift the restrictions on demonstrators.
“We are outraged by the coordinated assault on our right to protest,” said Erica Mines with the coalition. “We plan to march no matter what the city says.”
City officials have said they will not interfere with demonstrators’ right to protest any more than necessary to maintain public safety, but the ACLU is still waiting to hear whether police will consider unpermitted marches “unlawful” and order protesters to disperse because they don’t have city permission to assemble.
The Law Department’s Valerie Robinson wrote in an email that “permits are required for demonstrations, protests and rallies” to ensure public safety, according to an exhibit filed in a motion as part of the ACLU’s federal lawsuit. But the city has yet to reveal its plan for dealing with protesters without permits.
Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said “no demonstrator will be arrested for the sole reason that they do not have a permit.”
The permits allow officials to have medical personnel, water and other resources available to keep demonstrators safe, Hitt said.
“It also ensures demonstrations will go on uninterrupted by other protesters,” she said.
Hitt would not say whether protesters who march in the restricted area will be fined.
Deandra Jefferson said she has two permits pending city approval that she is expecting to be denied since the requests for demonstrations encompass restricted areas. Nonetheless, Jefferson said, the marches, including one called “Shut Down the DNC,” will go on.
“Free speech is free speech, so if you’re saying there are zones, and so, all of a sudden, then there’s no free speech over here, then you’re infringing on my rights,” Jefferson said.
The city’s police department has said it plans to take a softer approach to protesters and arrest as few people as possible during the convention. For instance, officers are expected to issues fines in cases of disorderly conduct, blocking roadways and failure to disperse, rather than making mass arrests.
Planners are expecting many thousands of demonstrators over the four-day convention starting on July 25, an event expected to draw some 50,000 visitors to the city.
Criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner said at the Tuesday rally that he hopes the city learned a lesson from the last time it hosted a nominating convention, in 2000, when hundreds of demonstrators were arrested as they protested the nomination of George W. Bush.
“If you look back at the Republican National Convention, when the city unjustly and unfairly arrested 420 people. You know how many convictions they got? About 1 percent,” Krasner said. “I’m very hopeful the city will see the light, learn from their terrible mistakes during the RNC.”