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Doing Their Thing

Young North Carolina protesters take their message to Philadelphia.


The Republican National Convention has gone exactly as planned. As Gov. George W. Bush makes his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination, awash in thundering applause and a shower of red, white and blue balloons and confetti, at least 13 North Carolinians are encased in pale gray concrete and steel after a hard week of contesting every premise of "compassionate conservatism."

They are in prison. Just as they knew they would be.

"I'm risking arrest," admitted one of the 35 young protesters who traveled from North Carolina to disrupt the convention with civil disobedience, a day before police plucked him out of a human chain blocking Broad Street and carted him off to the now-notorious Roundhouse prison.

There and at five other area jails, the 398 demonstrators arrested during the convention learned that they had walked into an ambush. Local and federal law officers were waiting for them with a sophisticated campaign--restrained in public, brutal behind bars--against street protesters, evidently designed to let them know that after the headline-making demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., bucking the system stops here.

"I was not prepared for the violence I experienced at the hands of the Philadelphia police," said Wendy Dale, a 26-year-old from Chapel Hill who spent 50 hours in prison after participating in the Broad Street barricade. "You would have thought I was a psychotic serial killer by the way I was treated."

In addition to unexpectedly harsh physical and psychological treatment, released prisoners have reported breaches of due process and other Constitutional protections. And activists who stayed in Philadelphia to rally for the release of the protest prisoners are enduring an intimidating wave of intense police surveillance and sudden, arbitrary detentions.

To top it all off, the already much-criticized protest movement that made its debut in Seattle is fending off attacks from critics, left and right, who say the demonstrators either lack a coherent objective or failed to communicate their message.

"What's their point?" asked baffled Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter, complaining on Aug. 2 that "the protests that paralyzed parts of the city yesterday seem as artificial and empty as the scripted political nonsense going on inside the GOP convention."

Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, the protesters' chief nemesis, put a darker spin on the events of Tuesday, Aug. 1, the designated day of nonviolent direct action. Widely praised for maintaining order in the city, Timoney has now gone so far as to charge that the activists are criminal conspirators bent on destroying cities.

Not so, say the activists from North Carolina, who claim a vastly different mission. "It's about making your voice heard, not petty battles with the police," said a 19-year-old from Charlotte who was arrested.

That voice has been buried beneath misconceptions about the diverse political perspectives and unorthodox tactics of the new protest movement. The protesters explained what they do and why they do it in interviews with The Independent as they planned, executed and paid the price for their actions.

"What's good about direct action is that it actually is action by the individual against the powers that be," a 21-year-old from Chapel Hill said before his arrest. "You'll never have any kind of real change if you allow those powers to control the situation completely. I don't care if you're reformist or revolutionary, sometimes you have to make the first move, you have to be there when they don't know you're there, you have to surprise them."

There were more than a few surprises in the streets of Philadelphia last week. The tightly scripted Republican National Convention went off without a hitch, but GOP delegates couldn't help but notice pockets of resistance that sprang up throughout the city on the second day of the convention.

Hundreds of demonstrators blocked intersections and circled delegates' buses, barricaded alleyways with trash dumpsters, carried signs and shouted slogans. Steadily, methodically, the police surrounded blocks of protesters and proceeded to apprehend them.

"They were more than ready for us," says one of the recently released protesters.

Late Tuesday afternoon, after most of the arrests, a few protesters struck back at the city by vandalizing an estimated 20 police cars, and the police department says 15 of its officers were wounded in scrapes.

There was anarchy in the cradle of the American Revolution, according to some press accounts of the action. But the muddled picture painted by the mainstream media missed the strongest streak of dissent: affinity.

Affinity groups, that is. The vanguard of contemporary street protest, the affinity groups draw on decades of demonstration methods at the same time that they constantly innovate. Their main mission is to seize the spotlight away from the institution they are protesting, be it the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the Republican National Convention.

"An affinity group is basically a bunch of friends hanging out doing their thing. That sounds like it's trivializing it, but it's not," says Ben Price, 25, of Chapel Hill, a member of a North Carolina-based affinity group that included members from Carrboro, Charlotte, Durham and Greenville.

The group chose the name Rogue Squadron. Their "thing" is not what you might expect of this motley crew of youngsters, ages 17 to 26. At first glance, some fit the stereotype: pierced, hair-dyed and generally punky. But the group defies easy categorization, with its contingents of hippies, hip-hoppers and, for that matter, plain-looking people.

A common gripe with the protesters is that they lack a central theme, but to this group the issues seem clear enough--though admittedly complicated, multifaceted, and downright multitudinous. Asked why they came to Philly, the members of Rogue Squadron cite a panoply of causes: animal rights, environmentalism, anarchism, economic equality, universal health care, and opposition to the death penalty, police brutality, racism, international sanctions, military aggression and corporate political influence.

Ask them who their heroes are, and they'll name everyone from Che Guevara to Noam Chomsky to Chuck D, from Emma Goldman to Ralph Nader to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The one thing that unites them, the common thread sewing their movement together (aside from their youth), is a concern about power--where it lies, what it does and how it can be spread around, equally, to everyone.

They practice what they preach in their meetings, discussing proposed actions until a full consensus is reached. Each evening, a different member of the group acts as facilitator. "There are people who handle logistics because they are more organized," a member explains. "But there are no so-called leaders."

"We disagree on a lot of things, but fundamentally we're on the same side," Price says about the group. "We're able to act as one, which comes from knowing each other at a really intimate level. In a high-pressure situation like a street protest you have to know what to do, and you get in that position because you hang out with your people, you know your people."

Rogue Squadron knows what to do. The anti-globalism protests in Seattle and D.C. left them with a playbook of tested tactics for temporarily seizing streets and, hopefully, warding off police brutality.

Affinity groups divide their labors. The first and most important task is deciding who is "arrestable": who is able and willing to risk arrest as a "CDer," one who engages in civil disobedience. Rogue Squadron has about 12 of them.

This group decides it will stage "soft-locks" in the street on the day of action. Members will wrap their arms together and hold tight in special grips, in such a way that pressure points are shielded from prying police.

Those who can't afford to risk arrest still play crucial roles. Rogue Squadron forms support teams to watch out for the CDers. Six members will do "media and documentation" work, following the group with video and still cameras at the ready.

"I've decided not to engage in any direct action during this protest," says James Price, 19, of Charlotte, who joined the media team. During the Washington protests, he says, he was beaten and pepper-sprayed while being held on the ground and then charged with assault by the police who attacked him--an incident caught on tape by a fellow activist.

"I'm sticking mainly to videotaping," Price says, "to make sure that anybody else who gets in a situation like me will have video footage so they can fight their battle better in court."

Four members form the medical support team. With red duct-tape crosses on their T-shirts, the medics follow the group with backpacks full of first-aid gear and substances that counter the effects of police chemicals.

"Our job," says George O'Neal, 19, of Charlotte, "is to provide support, whether it be food, medicine, attention, whatever, for whoever needs it, including the delegates and cops. I don't want to see anybody get hurt."

Nor does he want to see anybody get arrested, and the medics are thought to be relatively safe, enjoying a sort of noncombatant status. "In D.C., I saw not one medic get arrested," O'Neal recalls.

A day later, he and two other Rogue Squadron medics will be scooped off a sidewalk and tossed in jail.

When Rogue Squadron makes its move on Tuesday, they are not alone. Similar CD actions and support efforts are staged by the scores of other affinity groups, most with five to 15 members, that arrived to crash the Republicans' party. With names like Army of Darkness, Boo to the Business World, Richmond Young Republicans, Puppetistas and Golf Ball Liberation Army, the groups loosely coordinate their efforts: Your group takes this set of streets, we'll take these.

But Rogue Squadron remains staunchly autonomous, ultimately doing its own thing. Therein lies the strength of affinity groups: Not only are they nearly impervious to penetration by the authorities, their members trust each other enough to rely on the good sense of the group. No other direction is necessary.

Going into the action, the group feels tight and coordinated, but nervous. Using code-names and four walkie-talkies, Rogue Squadron's sub-groups spread out over a two-block stretch of Broad Street. The scheduled demonstration start time, 3:30 p.m., comes and goes quietly, but tense glares between lines of law officers and mingling groups of young people suggest that both sides know they are about to clash.

Suddenly, shortly after 4 p.m., the action jels for no apparent reason and activists fill up an intersection. Drums bang, soccer balls fly and chants ring out: "Whose street? Our street!" (Other renditions are later hollered in unison from Philadelphia prison cells. "Whose jail? Our jail! Whose cops? Our cops!")

An hour later, when a line of police cuts a swath through the crowd using bicycles as battering rams, six of Rogue Squadron's CDers link up with others to form a buffer around a line of a dozen protesters in "hard-lock"--a sturdy human fence secured by arms thrust through PVC pipe and sealed with duct tape.

It takes the police another hour to separate the protesters, one by one, and then carry them, limp and nonresistant, to waiting lines of detention buses.

For Wendy Dale, as for many of the protesters, the abuse starts moments after she is carried out of public view. One of the officers carries her by "grabbing the plastic handcuffs, causing them to cut into my wrists," she later says. Five days later, the gash on her right wrist is still raw, and, saying that she fears she has nerve damage, Dale gingerly traces out areas of her hands and wrists that remain numb and tingly.

"They laid me down again at the steps of the police bus," Dale remembers. "An officer then grabbed my handcuffs, and without lifting my legs, violently pulled me up onto the bus by my handcuffs." Silent up to this point, "I started screaming in pain as the officers continued to yell and curse at me. I was dropped on the floor of the bus. The officer behind me then dragged me by my hair while the other one continually shouted in my face."

Charlotte activist Marren Hager, 17, was released after only 24 hours because of her juvenile status. She also reports that police mistreatment of the arrestees began as soon as they were in custody.

"When we were taken away on the bus, they had the heat running--in the summer. That would be torture," Hager says. They sat on the bus for almost four hours. "I saw a lot of blue hands, due to the handcuffs being too tight," she says.

Other members of Rogue Squadron spent three hours in a cramped paddy wagon with the heat blazing, according to several recently released members. Inside the jail cells, the cops tried a reverse approach, providing bone-chilling air conditioning but no blankets.

"The adults still in prison have it bad," Hager says after her release, her face creasing in worry. She's heading back home to Charlotte to tell her friends what happened and organize a benefit show to raise bail money.

The most excessive punishments have been meted out against suspected leaders like Gwenn Frisbie-Fulton, a 21-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student the police evidently viewed as an instigator, due to her seven previous arrests for civil disobedience. She has yet to receive a written statement of her Philadelphia charges, but others sitting next to her were charged with traffic-violation misdemeanors. Frisbie-Fulton's bail was set at a whopping $15,000.

Released after three days when she posted 10 percent of that sum, Frisbie-Fulton says that Philadelphia police put her in solitary confinement for two days, forcibly scrubbed her lawyer's phone number from her body and, at one point, hog-tied her. During a three-hour interrogation, officers showed her what they said was her FBI file--complete with surveillance photos of her in Philadelphia in the days before her arrest.

In a press conference after the arrests, Police Commissioner Timoney claimed that the demonstrators were acting under the guidance of protest puppet-masters: "There's a cadre, if you will, of criminal conspirators who are about the business of planning conspiracies to go in and cause mayhem and cause property damage and cause violence in major cities in America."

That viewpoint would seem to be the impetus for the severity of the crackdown on young people whose main crime was to tie up traffic for a couple of hours. But Wendy Dale thinks there was another reason the police gave her and fellow prisoners such rough justice.

"It became quite obvious that the reason we were being mistreated was because we were political protesters," she says. "It had nothing to do with the severity of our crimes."

For all their energy and aplomb, all their conviction, sacrifice and well-practiced methods, groups like Rogue Squadron have by most accounts failed to get their message out.

The Daily News' Porter voiced a commonly heard sentiment about the sit-downs and skirmishes: "The mission here seems to be simply be loud, be intrusive, get arrested ... agitation for its own sake, it seems. Dissent for the sake of dissent."

Judging by the quizzical looks of many Philadelphia office workers (to say nothing of the road rage of delayed city drivers), the protests will be remembered by some locals as more of an inconvenience than a catalyst for radical thinking about democracy.

Members of Rogue Squadron are sensitive to that concern and spent some time talking about it. "This movement will not go anywhere as long as it's a rich white college kids' circus show," says a Chapel Hill activist now in jail. "We've got to make sure that when we leave, we leave here without damaging the community. We need to leave here in an alliance with the community."

Some members insist that seeds of that alliance were planted. In the run-down West Philadelphia neighborhood where most of Rogue Squadron slept, ate, and held planning meetings, locals spotted the protesters for what they were, offering shouts of "Give 'em hell" and stopping to engage the scruffy kids from out of town.

"They were very receptive and they had their own ideas," says Anthony Distefano, 25, of Greenville. "They offered their own information rather than us just telling about our cause."

An affinity group, after all, knows the importance of understanding and a good ear. "We can help them, and they can help us," says one of the now-jailed activists. "They know a lot more than we do what is going on. We may have read some Chomsky books, but they've been living this, and they have a lot to teach us." EndBlock

At press time, seven of 13 North Carolina-based protesters are still locked up, along with another estimated 190 activists. Rogue Squadron recommends the Web site of the Philadelphia-based Independent Media Center for breaking news on the case (see Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill is coordinating fundraising and other support work for the members of the group who remain in jail. Call 942-1740 for more information.

Certain protesters profiled in this article requested that their names not be published while they remain in prison. Some in the group committed to a jail solidarity plan, refusing to reveal their identities until they secure a guarantee that all members of the group will be kept together during detention, arraignment and release, ensuring that no individuals will be singled out and mistreated. Those quoted by name in this article evaded arrest or have been released.

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