What To Expect When You’re Protesting: An Activist Guide To The  DNC

Police cool off protesters at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, Minnesota with a soothing pepper spray shower. (Matt Rourke/AP)

By now it’s a familiar ritual: tens of thousands of party operatives and reporters gather for several nights of confetti and draft beer in a mid-sized American city, while outside a smattering of true believer puppeteers, union members, and unruly anarchists roam around a deserted downtown, penned in by cops, the National Guard, and miles of fences. With the prominent exception of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York—where the arrests of 1,800 reporters, protesters, and bystanders ultimately cost city taxpayers more than $19 million in lawsuit payouts—the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions have fallen into a predictable script in the last decade and a half. Those watching at home generally get a few headlines about “protesters clashing with police,” an arrest tally for the day, and prime-time speechifying, culminating in an acceptance speech by the long-anointed nominee.


However, like everything else about this election cycle, this year’s conventions are shaping up to be a bit more contentious than usual. Gothamist is going to be on the ground and in the arenas for both, and we figured we’d give you an idea of what to expect.


First, the basics. Very generally speaking, Cleveland, which is hosting the RNC, and Philadelphia, which is hosting the DNC, are both majority African-American, majority Democrat cities, and suffering from the economic ravages of deindustrialization, white flight, and disinvestment.


Both conventions are designated National Special Security Events, a category created by the federal government in 1998 that puts the Secret Service, FBI, and now the Department of Homeland Security in charge of managing security. It also loosens up tens of millions of dollars for toys such as armored vehicles, sound cannons, and stun guns for the local police department to keep.


The 2004 RNC is like Woodstock, only instead of asking attendees whether they caught Hendrix’s set, the question for veterans is whether you ended up in Guantanamo on the Hudson. (Jake Dobkin/Gothamist)

Each presidential nominating convention since 1998 has been an NSSE, as have presidential inaugurations and global financial summits. NSSE designations typically come with event perimeters beyond which people can’t pass without credentials and being subject to airport-style security. Local governments also often pass event-specific ordinances developing special protest-permitting systems and restricting possession of items such as large bags, slingshots, and bandanas within certain areas.


[Ed note: OTA has cut the RNC portion of this piece given that the event has passed]




The DNC is taking place from July 25th to July 28th. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is planning a rally on July 24th, and several events are planned for that day, including marches around the country in support of Sanders.

Who’s protesting

Conservatives might be there. Black Lives Matter activists could show up. Environmentalists and animal rights activists are likely to make appearances. One thing is for certain: Bernie Sanders supporters are slated to be there in droves.

Upset about the outcome and in some cases the handling of the Democratic primaries, and dismayed at the presumptive nomination of Hillary Clinton, some Berniecrats are taking up the mantle of the Occupy movement and training for several days of marches and civil disobedience. Some are prepared to sit down in the street and form human chains. One local anti-poverty activist is hosting a bean dinner for pro-Sanders delegates in hopes of staging a fart-in during Clinton’s acceptance speech.


(Scott Lynch/Gothamist)

And when the lights come up on the convention, some protesters will carry on to a rural property in northern New Jersey for Bernstock, a planned three-day “Summit for a New Democracy.”

The lay of the land

As the ACLU’S Mary Catherine Roper explains:


There is Center City Philadelphia, which is where City Hall and the seat of city government is, and there’s some convention facilities there that will be used for meetings and so on. Center City is the commercial center, it’s where everything is. Broad Street bisects the city. it goes from north of City Hall to south of City Hall. If you take Broad Street all the way south until it bisects Interstate 95, 3 1/2 miles from City Hall, that is where you hit the Wells Fargo Center, which is where they’re holding the convention.

Broad Street down there near the Wells Fargo Center is a nine-lane wide street with a median with trees. Across that street is FDR Park. They have set up six permit areas in FDR Park and are allowing activists to have rallies [there]. They’re setting up Porta Potties and water and misting stations in FDR Park, and I suspect there will be some activists who will spend some time and have rallies in FDR Park. There are some Bernie supporters who have gotten permits to hold rallies, but most of the action not going to happen in FDR Park because, let’s face it: most delegates are not going to see you in FDR Park.


Philadelphia is also banning a laundry list of items in a secured area, including bicycles, balloons, drones, selfie sticks, backpacks, and toy guns. But unlike Cleveland’s sprawling restricted area, the bans only apply inside a perimeter at the edge of the arena parking lots. Also, in contrast to Cleveland, Philadelphia has decriminalized several common protest offenses in advance of the convention, including disorderly conduct, failure to disperse, and blocking a road. In practice, the police will still cuff people and transport them somewhere for processing, but the resulting punishment will be a civil-court ticket that will not result in a criminal record.


The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (Doug Pensinger/Getty)

Roper broke it down:

The experience of getting those civil citations is going to feel very similar to the process of being arrested and being given a criminal summons. If you’re going to give citations to 300 people, you don’t walk amongst them and give them out individually. The first thing they’re going to do is unblock that street or that venue. It’s going to look a lot like an arrest.


As in Cleveland, the ACLU sued the city over its restrictions on demonstrations last month and won some concessions. Particularly at issue was the city denying a permit to the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and banning marches on Broad Street and from 3-6 p.m. The march is being organized in part by Cheri Honkala, the Green Party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, who is also behind the fart-in.


In Center City, the Arch Street Methodist Church is opening its doors as a sanctuary for protesters, including those who need somewhere to lay their heads, Roper said. The church has also been hosting know your rights and civil disobedience trainings.


The NLG will be fielding a few dozen Legal Observers, according to member Michele Grant, the ACLU is helping people negotiate permits, and the Up Against the Law Legal Collective has 20 lawyers lined up to represent protesters. The collective will also be staffing a legal help hotline during the protests.


(Secret Service)


The police

Philadelphia stopped short of cashing in the full $50 million on offer from the feds, opting for a $43 million security grant. That includes money for chemical weapons modeling technology, radios, smartphones, private security contractors, and payment of outside police departments.


Mass arrests during the 2000 RNC made Philadelphia the subject of several lawsuits. (Chris Hondros/Getty)

The Philadelphia Police Department’s commissioner called in the federal government in 2013 to review shootings by its officers, which had spiked. The analysis found “serious deficiencies” in the department’s use of force procedures and recommended an overhaul of record-keeping and investigations.


Philadelphia hosted the RNC in 2000, and during that convention police arrested more than 380 protesters and bystanders, including 70 people at a warehouse where people were making puppets. Four state cops had infiltrated the warehouse posing as union carpenters, acting on information provided by a conservative think tank that suggested, among other things, that the puppeteers were communist-funded. Some protesters had bail set as high as $500,000 and $1 million. All the puppet warehouse occupants’ charges were later dropped, and several subsequent lawsuits settled for undisclosed amounts.


Then-police commissioner John Timoney went on to consult for the government of Bahrain, a monarchy, on how to police its pro-democracy protests. Several protesters were killed by Bahraini police during Timoney’s involvement.


The city was and is bound by a 1987 mayoral directive requiring top-level authorization from the city for police to infiltrate nonviolent political groups. Activists say the state police infiltration of activist organizations during the 2000 RNC violated this, because the city was sharing intelligence with state and federal agencies in real time at a command center, as police in Cleveland and Philadelphia will do at so-called “fusion centers” during this year’s conventions.


Current police Commissioner Richard Ross worked the 2000 RNC and told Philly.com that police have gotten better at handling protests since then.

Philadelphia has bought protest insurance, but it’s not clear for how much.


(Chris Hondros/Getty)


The NLG’s Michele Grant said:


In the past several years the Philly police —it’s not sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not like what happened in Phoenix [on Friday]. City police and transit police have allowed [demonstrators] to march where they want to, as long as it’s not on the interstate. [Police have] done rolling roadblocks to keep them from getting hit by cars.

The question is if they’re going to keep doing that during the DNC. I think they’ll be a little less patient when it comes to going onto private property. I think they’re going to let the marches go. I don’t think there’s going to be a mass arrest situation[…]It’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be hot, it’s going to be sunny, but there’s a lot of good faith happening here.


As for turnout, the city is expecting as many as 50,000 protesters. Roper said, “I think it’s going to be far larger in terms of number of protesters than anything we have seen since the RNC in 2000.”


What to bring to a protest

Here’s what Black Movement Law Project co-founder and seasoned Legal Observer Abi Hassen advises bringing and doing in order to keep your cool out in special security land.

  • Lots of water. You don’t want to get dehydrated out there.
  • Snacks. Obvious.
  • A physical map of the area, preferably with the security zones outlined on it. Your phone may run out of battery, lose data, or break.
  • Chargers for your electronic devices, preferably preferably battery-pack-powered.
  • Sunscreen and a hat for the sun.
  • If you’re doing any kind of social media, a hot spot for your phone and/or laptop that is through a provider besides your own. With thousands of people in your vicinity, one provider’s tower may be overwhelmed, while another’s may still work. Similarly, if you’re documenting the protest, bring a dedicated recorder and camera, so you’re not relying entirely on your phone.
  • Download Signal or another encrypted messaging app, unless you don’t mind police reading your texts.
  • Memorize and/or write numbers of contacts and legal hotlines (RNC, DNC) on your body. Your phone may not be there for you when you most need it.
  • If you think you might be arrested, wear layers. The jail could be a drastically different temperature from outside.
  • Find a buddy, and establish a rendezvous point in case you lose contact/the shit hits the fan.


Disclosure: The author worked for the National Lawyers Guild for two years, and in that capacity Abi Hassen was a colleague of his.