Taking it from the streets

Philly police face ugly allegations after hundreds of protesters are detained for more than two days.

By Anthony York
Published August 4, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

As George W. Bush formally accepted the Republican Party's presidential nomination down the street, two young protesters were huddled in a downtown park across from police headquarters, comparing their rap sheets.

"It's not that bad," says one. "I got disorderly [conduct], resisting arrest, failure to disperse and obstructing a highway."

But if the two were nonchalant about their future court date, they were furious at the poor treatment they said they received during their two days in jail. They were among the more than 350 arrested by police during protests in Philadelphia since Monday, most of who were still incarcerated as of early Friday morning. "I just got released 20 minutes ago, and I'm taking off," said a visibly shaken protester who would identify himself only by his graffiti name, Hest. "I don't want to be around this jail any longer."

Both Hest and his buddy, freelance journalist Joshua Valocchi, offered eyewitness reports that back up stories of prisoner misconduct and police brutality that have been filtering out of Philadelphia for the last 36 hours. "There are 160 people on hunger strike inside," explained Hest.

When asked about the reasons for the strike, he said it was "a show of solidarity with the people who had been thrown out of their cells and stepped on," and otherwise mistreated.

At the time of the two protesters' testimonials Thursday night, officers were gathered outside the jail to monitor the group of 100 activists holding a vigil for the protesters still incarcerated inside. Among the accusations made by the protesters who have been arrested, and their advocates outside, are that prisoners are being denied bathroom privedges and medical care, and are being "physically brutalized" by police.

"We've been getting reports all night long of severe police brutality," said Amy Kwasnicki, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Direct Action Group, a coalition group of Philadelphia protesters. "Water has been cut off in two of the cell blocks. It's just ridiculous and incredible and frightening. Everyone who has called in from the jails has reported they've heard people screaming in pain, calling out for medical care and police medics are not giving them any care."

There, a police spokeswoman said the stories of misconduct are a mixture of exaggerations, half-truths and flat-out lies. Officer Williams, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police Department, called the allegations of abuse "absolutely untrue," saying many of those who had been arrested were not cooperating with officers. "All prisoners are treated the same way -- with respect," she said.

Earlier in the day, Police Commissioner John Timoney said it was the protesters who were responsible for their prolonged incarceration. "There's been widespread removal of clothing by both sexes," added Deputy Police Commissioner Robert Mitchell. Mitchell also said that some of the protesters had bombarded jail guards with feces.

But Timoney said police had arrested a group of out-of-towners whom they have identified as the ringleaders of some of the violent protests. "I've never really experienced the intent to harm officers and the ferociousness of the intent, that I saw the other night,'' he said. "This is like the third or fourth city now, and L.A." -- [where the Democratic convention will be held in less than two weeks] -- "might be the fifth, where we've seen this.''

There was much speculation that the protesters would be released as soon as Republicans, and the media, pack their bags in the next day and head out of town. "We're not letting our guard down until the gavel sounds tonight,'' Timoney said Thursday.

Valocchi said he never had any intention of going to jail, or even protesting. He said he ended up in jail after being caught up in "a melee," and was just covering the protests as a journalist. "I was on my way down to the Shadow Conventions when we got caught up in it," he said. "Somehow, a cop got knocked down right in front of us, and my friend and I tried to get out of there. We turned around, and there were all these cops on horses there. The horses were going crazy. Next thing I knew, I was being thrown on the ground and cuffed."

When asked if some of the people arrested had refused to cooperate with police, Valocchi says there was "definitely some of that."

"They kept saying people who cooperated would be let go much faster," Valocchi said. "But people who cooperated got held longer."

Valocchi, still wearing a red jailhouse wristband, said he did not get food for 24 hours, and did not get access to a telephone for 48 hours, even though he cooperated fully with police. In all, he was held for 49 hours. "I hear my girlfriend's been looking for me for like three days," he said. He also said there was one man in a cell near him "vomiting profusely for at least an hour before he got any medical attention. And when he did, that medical attention was a cup of juice and a sugar pill."

Valocchi said he was not the only innocent bystander thrown into jail. "There was a jogger who got yanked in. He was just a scared mama's boy in running shoes and a security shirt. I heard him on the phone with his mom, and he sounded completely terrified, telling his mom they were treating us like pigs."

"As a journalist, I've always been a big defender of the Philadelphia Police Department in general," he said. "But no more. They were completely out of control."

Inside, he described the police bureaucracy as "a total paperwork nightmare." He said he was even thrown back in jail after being arraigned and released on his own recognizance.

"I was arraigned, released, taken back downstairs and put back in a cell," he said. "Some female officer just threw me back in there, she said she didn't know what had happened to me, if I had been released or what. She just yelled to this other cop, 'Just put him somewhere.'"

Valocchi's story does not quite measure up to some of the others that have been filtering out about alleged police mistreatment, such as postings on the Philadelphia Independent Media Center site that claim some protesters have been beaten into "a bloody mess."

Kwasnicki said protesters would keep a presence around police headquarters until all the protesters are released, and that two more rallies have been planned here for Friday. But, as the week comes to a close, the numbers of protesters are declining, too, returning back from where they came. When the remaining protesters are released, there may not be many people left to greet them.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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