Protest '96When San Diego lost the Republican convention in 1972, some GOP insiders said it was because they feared our city could not control the anticipated wave of protesters. But that was 1972. An increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam still raged, and the memory of the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago four years earlier was still fresh. The TV picture of a stern-faced and unbending Mayor Richard Daley, superimposed over live footage of overzealous police cracking heads in the street, is etched in the collective memory of a generation.
The memory was particularly vivid four years later as the Republicans planned their renomination of Richard Nixon, the man whose 1968 “secret plan” to end the unpopular war may have won him election but still hadn’t ended the killing. The Republicans’ decision to quit San Diego and switch their site to Miami didn’t help much; the protesters followed. And by then, it was clear that protest had become as much a part of the quadrennial political nominating process as the red, white and blue balloons and bunting.
With the Republicans finally arriving here in 1996, it’s certainly likely protest will be lighter and more orderly than it was during those fiery political days past. But no one can say for sure. And just to cover all bases, the San Diego Police Department has been readying itself for months for any potential unrest. Some 620 police will be mobilized for convention security, and they’ll be aided by the Secret Service and the FBI, as well as the Coast Guard, Harbor Police, California Highway Patrol and San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Captain David Bejarono, the head of SDPD’s RNC Security Planning Unit, says his forces have been in civil-disobedience training on a continuous basis ever since the L.A. riots two years ago. But he hopes a demonstration-permit process—and the establishment of an area near the Convention Center where groups can book protest time at hourly intervals, with 55 minutes allowed for demonstrating—will impose order on a potentially disorderly scene. This area is being called the “First Amendment Platform.”
“We’re looking at an official place near the Convention Center,” Bejarono says, “possibly shutting down a couple of streets along with a parking lot,” most likely the area just east of Harbor Club, near Fourth Avenue. “We want to work with them so safety isn’t jeopardized—theirs, or that of the city.”
But protest groups have become skeptical. They thought they had been promised a specific location across from the Convention Center months ago, but the word got out that was “not confirmed.” The most recent RNC move would put them at Eighth Avenue and Harbor Drive, at the south end of the Convention Center’s overflow parking lot. The lot across from the Convention Center would be reserved for seniors and disabled, who could then be driven to the Convention Center in golf carts. The ACLU is threatening a lawsuit. The Chicano Federation terms the move a ploy to get the protesters “out of sight, out of mind.”
For a group like the AFL-CIO, which expects three or four thousand at a rally, a parking lot is too small. And 55-minute intervals seems unrealistic. “Can you imagine trying to get all those people in and out in five minutes?” asks Jerry Butkiewicz, of the union’s Central Labor Council. Registration on a first-come, first-served basis was to begin May 1. It was then delayed until May 10, then June 1 and then “sometime in June.”
For groups making a strong effort to stay within the system, the delays make it difficult to plan on a national level. Were these snags a method of stonewalling protesters? Or was it just the complexity of many voices needing to be heard in the smoke-filled rooms of the convention-planning system? (For others who’ve been frustrated by delays in their dealings with the GOP planners over the past year, the latter explanation may hold more water.)
One group that seems unlikely to contain itself within a parking lot is Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group. San Diegan Sylvia Sullivan, who was a delegate to the ’92 convention in Houston and is active locally in Operation Rescue, expects abortion foes from all over the nation to be rallying in San Diego. They plan prayer vigils, picketing of abortion clinics and actual “rescues” —“placing their bodies between the women and the instruments of death.” They may well picket abortionists’ homes.
Jeff White, director of Operation Rescue for California, expects trouble with the San Diego Police. “My greatest fear, going into the GOP convention, is that they will violate the law of our land, which is the Constitution and the right to free speech,” he says. “I believe the SDPD has a fairly well-documented history of treating protesters unjustly and harshly. I have dealt with police all across the nation, and San Diego seems to be the worst that I know of when dealing with preserving freedom of speech.”
SDPD spokesman Dave Cohen says the department’s dealings with Operation Rescue have been fair. And the police department “will bend over backward to make sure people have a right to protest peacefully—and legally—during the convention.” After past confrontations, he says, “Operation Rescue opted to move to different cities because they were being arrested and losing in court here. To my knowledge we did not lose a single ... case. We videotaped every one.” Cohen says police will treat these protesters the same way again. “If they violate the law this time, our response will not be significantly different.”
What are Planned Parenthood clinics doing to protect themselves? “We are working with law enforcement,” says Mary Ellen Hamilton, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of San Diego and Riverside Counties. “There are injunctions in place to keep people from interfering. We do take a strong advocacy position for choice, but we are not counterdemonstrating. We are not a group that rallies. Our time is spent in health care and education. But we don’t want a repeat of Brookline [Massachusetts], where John Salvi killed two of our receptionists a year ago.”
San Diegan Darlee Crockett, national cochair of Republicans for Choice and a former board member of Planned Parenthood, worries about the possibility of chaos within the convention hall. “Jeff White of Operation Rescue, California, has publicly stated that if one word of the [pro-life] platform is changed, he has 1,500 people ready to demonstrate on the floor of the convention” (this means delegates and people with floor passes, since no one else will be allowed entry). She recalls that the clinics in Houston were besieged every day during the ’92 convention with constant demonstrating and attempts at shutdowns.
On the other hand, Planned Parenthood’s Hamilton hopes Governor Pete Wilson, who along with Governors George Pateki, Christine Todd Whitman and William Weld is expected to challenge the anti-choice plank, is just as eager to keep a lid on this faction as anyone at Planned Parenthood.
But every group wants to get its message out, and abortion is not the only issue. Beth McGovern, president of San Diego’s National Organization for Women (NOW), lists “choice” as the key issue but says affirmative action is a very important second. She feels that the California Civil Rights Initiative is about to dismantle affirmative action not only in the universities but in the workplace. NOW plans marches, rallies and forums at the First Amendment Platform and also at a gathering spot four blocks from the Convention Center that has been dubbed the Alternative Media Center.
This is a space in the old Carnation Milk Factory where groups skeptical of the official First Amendment Platform are planning to congregate for the four days of the convention, covering four forums a day. They’ll be discussing the hot topics of the day: reproductive choice, affirmative action, gender and racial discrimination, labor problems and gay rights. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings of convention week, an Alternative Convention will be held in Hillcrest, combining statements from the 16 forums into a platform “to counterbalance Gingrich’s ‘Contract for America,’” as Paul Majkut, editor of the progressive San Diego Review, puts it. “We are the New Majority.”
Unfortunately, the space in the Reincarnation Building (as it’s now called) holds only 300 people, of which half will be media. Nevertheless, it provides for a series of speakers and press conferences that the coalition hopes will get the word out to the world. Says Majkut, “The Review believes that the ‘official’ area the city is designating, the First Amendment Platform, should not be the only site for alternative voices.”
Because of California’s passage of Proposition 187—which threatens a loss of medical and educational services to the families of undocumented workers—police most certainly can expect protests from the Hispanic community. The Labor Council for Latin-American Advancement, a support group of the AFL-CIO, plans a series of marches and rallies to protest what they call “the scapegoating of undocumented workers by Republican politicians.” Their activities will possibly take place in four separate areas: at the border, as close as possible to the Convention Center, the First Amendment Platform and at a rally with the AFL-CIO.
Most of San Diego’s gay and lesbian activists have gathered under an umbrella organization called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Voices ’96. “Anything we do will be lawful,” promises spokesperson Tony Valenzuela. “All activities will be in the downtown area.”
Voices ’96 is aiming at “the religious political extremists we feel dominate the Republican Party as they did in ’92 [under Pat Buchanan’s leadership],” says Valenzuela. “And to expose the ‘stealth candidates’ for school board who go in without identifying themselves, then incorporate church and state.” Voices ’96 has a five-point platform: legal protection, recognition of lesbian and gay families, condemnation of hate crimes, funding for HIV research and support for youth.
“We’ve been working nine months with the police,” says Valenzuela. “Our organizers are proud of San Diego. We want everybody to see we’re fair-minded, progressive people who have San Diego public relations in mind.” San Diego’s openly gay councilwoman, Christine Kehoe, has said she will join the protests if the convention turns into a forum for gay-bashing, as she says it did four years ago.
In addition, Gay & Lesbian Families of America has rented 12 billboards and 17 bus-shelter ads throughout downtown, Hillcrest and the harbor area.
And then there are the students. They will demonstrate, of course, some
for their favorite splinter causes. But this year University of California students have special grievances of their own, primarily in the field of admissions. They will undoubtedly denounce the state’s moves against affirmative action and what a UC Student Association release calls “the hypocrisy of the underground preferential admissions policy that admits under-qualified students as a favor to friends and relatives” of the powerful.
Students also are spearheading a march from Sacramento to protest the (anti-affirmative action) California Civil Rights Initiative. Initiated by San Diego State University’s MECHA (the Hispanic activist organization), the group marching now includes the United Farm Workers, the NAACP, NOW, the Mexican-American Legal Defense & Education Fund (which challenged Proposition 187 in the courts) and others. The march of this Coalition for Social and Economic Justice started with 1,000 protesters at a kickoff rally in Sacramento on June 1 and, picking up strength in cities along the way, will end at the convention August 11.
And not to be left behind, the Poor People’s Party plans marches and rallies. Representing the poor and the homeless, they will demonstrate for housing, medical services and job training, though they may not be as well organized as other groups. As a matter of fact, you have to go somewhat out of your way to find Lonewolf, a former three-year veteran of the streets, to ascertain their plans. But it’s a fair guess the Poor People’s Party will get its act together in time for the convention.
With protest in the air, who will help the San Diego Police maintain order? The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has cancelled all vacations from August 10-16. But Commander Myron Klippert emphasizes his law enforcement section is scheduled to play only a supportive role. “If the police department doesn’t ask for aid, we will not be involved,” he says. He counts on present forces to meet all demands. But if necessary, he can offer deputies from the bomb and arson program, five helicopters, manpower and 24-hour medical facilities at the jail.
The Secret Service already is worried about violence, assigned, as they are, to protecting high-level candidates. They created a flurry in mid-May when it was reported they had suggested shutting down the trolley in front of the Convention Center. They cited the possibility of “a potential derailment and hazardous materials on board the trolley or any trains that pass through.”
Secret Service agent Carl Truscott says they never specifically asked for a trolley shutdown but does admit there could be problems in that area. There could also be problems with freight trains using the nearby Santa Fe tracks. Truscott hopes freight service will be curtailed somewhat, perhaps limited to hours when the convention is not in session. Progress is being made on that score.
As for how many Secret Service personnel will be on hand, Truscott is reserved. “We will have the presence that we need,” he says, adding that 31 governors will be on hand with their own security, as well.
An 8-foot fence will encircle the Convention Center, creating a perimeter secured by police and Secret Service personnel. There will be no underground parking at the Convention Center (that garage will house the media). And the Secret Service will “sweep” all boats in the Marriott Marina to detect bombs. It’s a huge endeavor and a challenge Truscott has been working on since spring 1995.
And so have the police, and the mayor’s office, and every law enforcement unit in town. But so have the protesters, although their progress has been hampered by the slowness of the permit process. Perhaps that might be cause for further protest.