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Protest groups seek to avoid 2004 Boston DNC problems

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A sign decrying the loss of free speech
A sign decrying the loss of free speech hangs on the fenced-in pen designated for demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention July, 2004, in Boston, Mass.
HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

Both lawsuits in Minnesota and Colorado aim to pin down the convention host cities to release details about parade routes and so-called demonstration zones -- places where large groups of people can protest without permits.  

Right now the city of St. Paul has released a parade route, but the coalition of protest groups is unhappy with the streets and times assigned for its demonstration. In addition, the city hasn't officially released details about what it calls a public viewing area. 

The city of Denver released its parade route last week, but the ACLU there is still waiting for details on demonstration areas.

"If you look back into history and you think for example about the civil rights movement, it's very difficult to imagine an effective civil rights movement in public spaces if we had demonstration zones."

Mark Silverstein is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU in Colorado, which filed suit in federal court on behalf of 12 advocacy organizations.

"We're trying to make sure that law enforcements concerns about security aren't allowed to override or undermine the First Amendment right of people to assemble peacefully and express their views on the important issues of the day," said Silverstein. "We're asking the federal district court to take steps to insure that what happened in Boston in 2004 won't be repeated in Denver."

The Boston experience looms large in the minds of political convention protesters because it was there that the city relegated them to an area underneath an abandoned elevated train track.  

Court documents say two-thirds of the space had a height of only six feet.  In addition to razor wire left over from the track, the city erected two rows of concrete barriers and eight foot high fencing.  

It's unclear whether the city stalled in revealing the location or whether the protest groups waited too long to file a court challenge. 

A Boston judge called the site an "internment camp," but he said it was too close to the convention date to order the city to come up with a new site.  Since then, protest groups have filed lawsuits to force cities to reveal their plans as soon as possible.

2004 demonstrators
Anti-war demonstrators marched towards the FleetCenter, the site of the Democratic National Convention, on July 29, 2004 in Boston, Massachusetts.
William B. Plowman/Getty Images

The Secret Service representative for St. Paul did not return MPR's repeated calls and emails for comment on this story. 

St. Paul Assistant Police Chief Matt Bostrom said the city is aware of the problems in Boston and has no plans to repeat them in September.  He said the city is looking at setting up a large public viewing area separated from the security zone by what Bostrom calls a kind of fence product

"It's not going to have a roof over the top," he said.  "It won't have spools of razor wire or any of those things around the top.  But it will be a demarcation point where if you're on one side you don't need tickets and credentials or go through a magnetometer. And the other side of that it really is the footprint of the building. It's the campus of the Xcel Energy Center."

One legal scholar said when and where a city designates protest routes and demonstration zones can be powerful weapons of social and political control.  Timothy Zick is a law professor at St. John's in New York and has studied how protests have evolved over time.  He said there's a new approach to policing public expression since the Seattle World Trade Organization riots in 1999 and the September 11th attacks.  

Protest space in Boston
A section around the Fleet Center in Boston was fenced off for protesters at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. At many times during the convention, the space was nearly empty.
MPR file photo/Bob Collins

Zick said the approach includes more security preparation and almost treating public space as a military grid.

"It certainly makes it easier to police people to immobilize them, to watch over them, and all of those things," said Zick. "But if you look back into history and you think for example about the civil rights movement, it's very difficult to imagine an effective civil rights movement in public spaces if we had demonstration zones."

But Bostrom said such security changes began even earlier.  He said while protesters think about Boston's convention in 2004, security officials think about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when a truck filled with explosives blew up the Murrah federal building.  More than 160 people died and 800 were injured.  

"There comes a point where if a vehicle this size is packed with explosives, how close could they get before they disrupt the American political system in this case without being screened?" Bostrom said.

The city of St. Paul is expected to release details Wednesday afternoon about public viewing areas during the RNC.