With nearly two years until the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, anti-war protesters are already planning their march on the convention arena.
The Anti-War Committee, based in Minneapolis, has applied for marching and demonstration permits from the city of St. Paul. Jess Sundin, a member of the committee, said GOP delegates "have 17,000 rooms; I hope we have numbers at least as many."
Even a pool of protesters half that size could present massive logistical and legal challenges to the city of St. Paul. Other cities that have hosted political conventions faced millions of dollars in lawsuit costs from demonstrators alleging free speech violations and excessive force.
"If (demonstrators are) looking for ways to become famous, you pick a place like this," said Bernard Parks, former police chief in Los Angeles, site of the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
In 2000, Los Angeles paid more than $4 million in legal settlements to demonstrators, reporters and bystanders who accused police of using excessive force. Authorities had accused protesters of hurling concrete blocks, stop signs and rocks at officers.
Sundin said the Anti-War Committee filed for city permits now to provide plenty of time for legal challenges if they're turned down. It's the first group to file for permits, but many are expected to follow.
The day before the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, 2,000 anti-war demonstrators and 1,000 abortion protesters held separate demonstrations. A month later at the GOP convention in New York, more than 1,800 protesters were arrested in five days.
In both cases, the worst-cases scenarios didn't pan out. Police in Boston had planned for up to 2,500 arrests, but made only four; Police in New York had carefully planned a "rapid response" strategy for demonstrations, but in the end even allowed some groups to march without permits after last-minute negotiations.
But both of those conventions still generated lawsuits, with hundreds of New York protesters alleging wrongful arrests and Boston protesters claiming they were wrongfully confined to areas fenced in by razor wire and guarded by police.
The ACLU of Minnesota is already lining up attorneys to assist protesters with free speech concerns. Chuck Samuelson, the executive director, predicted the most clashes will be over those confined areas that were an issue in Boston.
"First Amendment free-speech zones, that's what they're called, and they're illegal, I think," Samuelson said.
St. Paul won't know the federal government's security expectations until the city files next year for National Special Security Event status, which would make the U.S. Secret Service the leader on convention security.
But police are already looking for groups that might pose security challenges. St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington is hoping to meet beforehand with groups planning protests, and City Attorney John Choi is planning a pre-convention conference with lawyers, activists and city officials.
Ramsey County Chief District Judge Gregg Johnson said his judges are working on plans to handle mass arrests if they happen.
"We've learned, in our own experience, it makes a lot of sense to work with those protesters," Harrington said. "In a sense, the convention is an exercise of democracy."
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)