Thanks to Dan and the others here at CO for having me as a guest this month. The 2008 presidential contest is under way, which means we can start looking forward to the national party conventions. I want to take a look back at the policing of public expression at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Familiar on-the-ground tactics such as protest zones, barriers, mass arrests, and permit denials were effectively used to control dissent and channel public protest. As some readers may recall, many RNC protesters were effectively relegated to a remote site on the West Side Highway, some distance from the convention. This was not as troubling as the cage built for protesters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (pictured), but it was hardly facilitative of public protest and expression. If history is any guide, we can expect similar tactics to be used in 2008.
I want to focus, however, on a different aspect of public policing at the RNC. As reported in the New York Times, the New York City Police Department engaged in widespread surveillance of activists and protest groups prior to and during the RNC. Some of the details of that surveillance were first made public this summer, as a result of discovery in a lawsuit filed by protesters and others arrested at the RNC. In connection with my research for a book about public expression, I recently reviewed hundreds of pages of the almost-daily “RNC Intelligence Updates” and “Situation Reports” compiled and distributed by law enforcement. Among many other events, officers and undercover detectives reported the following potential threats to public safety:
• A planned “Bands Against Bush” music show. NYPD officials observed that “the mixing of music and political rhetoric indicates sophisticated organizing skills with a specific agenda.” The intelligence item notes that police departments in several cities where similar events were scheduled had been notified.
• Plans by a group known as “Axis of Eve” to use partial nudity as a “protest tactic.” Without apparent irony, the intelligence report states: “The event is said to include the participation of roughly 100 women in thong type underwear and will be advertised heavily amongst the media for maximum exposure.”
• The possible presence at the RNC of graffiti artists riding “magic bikes” – customized bicycles equipped with spray paint dispensers and videotaping equipment.
• Performances by “The Living Theater” entourage, whose purpose according to one intelligence report “is to raise community awareness on political or social issues,” and the “Surveillance Camera Players,” who engage in street theatre protests concerning the use of public surveillance cameras.
• The (frequently) reported whereabouts and apparent intentions of Aron “Pieman” Kay, whose signature form of activism apparently consists of throwing pies at people.
• Plans by a New York City-based group to use art murals and street theater to spread a “peace message.”
• An Iowa group’s plans to hold a film festival as a prelude to the RNC.