UPDATED: Weeks before DNC convention, ACLU questions Philly plans to handle protesters

Police accompany protesters down South Broad Street near City Hall. (Branden Eastwood for NewsWorks

Police accompany protesters down South Broad Street near City Hall. (Branden Eastwood for NewsWorks

In a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney Wednesday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania warned Philadelphia officials may be “setting the city up for conflict with protesters” when it hosts the Democratic National Convention next month.

Deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper said she has been meeting with staff from the city’s managing director’s office, police department, the U.S. Secret Service and other agencies since March, but has gotten contradictory information about how they plan to handle the tens of thousands of protesters expected to descend on the DNC the last week in July.

For example, Roper claimed officials have told her that demonstrators will not be penalized simply because they don’t have permits, as has been done in the past, but the city’s law department won’t guarantee that in writing. 

“For years, they haven’t always required permits for marches and demonstrations … and now, I have an email saying ‘permits are required,'” Roper said. “I don’t know what that means, and what I’m concerned it means is the police will pick and choose which marches and demonstrations they’re going to allow to go forward without permits.”

As of last week, the city has gotten 19 requests for demonstration permits. Five have been approved and eleven are up for review. One permit requested by the People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign was rejected, but organizers are still vowing to march on opening day of the convention.

Deputy managing director Brian Abernathy has previously said the city is encouraging groups to get permits so streets can be closed and public safety personnel can plan to be on the scene, “but we recognize there are going to be protests that pop up and our department will be prepared to manage that to the best of our ability.”

The ACLU claims the city’s law department is refusing to grant permits for marches or demonstrations that take place during rush hour in Center City or on Broad Street, “which has traditionally been one of the most used march routes for Philadelphia demonstrations.” 

The ACLU also wants to know whether overnight camping will be allowed in the “demonstration zone” in FDR Park and whether protesters will be visible to convention-goers through security fencing around the Wells Fargo Center where the DNC will be held. 

“The question is what can people expect,” said Roper. 

In a statement, Kenney a spokeswoman Lauren Hitt criticized the group for creating “unnecessary distrust of the city’s plans regarding demonstrators in the interest of garnering national media attention.”

Hitt said the administration has taken “innumerable steps to protect demonstrators’ right to free speech,” such as providing bottled water, misting stations and port-a-potties in the demonstration zone. Hitt also noted a bill working its way through City Council would allow police to treat minor offenses as civil code violations, meaning protesters charged with things like obstructing the highway or disorderly conduct would receive fines instead of jail time. 

Update: After this story was published and NewsWorks/WHYY had already given the Kenney administration an opportunity to respond, Hitt provided specific answers to the ACLU’s questions surrounding the city’s plans to handle protesters. 

In response to the question of whether protesters will be arrested simply because they do not have a permit, Hitt acknowledged that “traditionally, we haven’t arrested individuals or groups that are peacefully demonstrating just because they don’t have a permit. Note that demonstrating without a permit is illegal and we’re strongly encouraging all protesters to apply for a permit.”

Hitt said there will be no “blanket ban” on demonstrations on Broad Street and affirmed that permits will not be issued during rush hour in Center City, which would “impede the travel of ambulances and other public safety vehicles.”

According to Hitt, overnight camping in the “demonstration zone” in FDR Park will not be allowed and those who attempt to sleep overnight in the park will be asked to leave. 

As for whether protesters will be visible to convention-goers through security fencing, Hitt said “the Secret Service has not confirmed to the City the final bounds of the secure perimeter or what kind of fencing it will be using.”

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