Where Are They Now? Philadelphia Officials Who Stifled Dissent at RNC 2000

07/08/2016 04:56 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2017

As we prepare for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) less than three weeks away, those who recall how Philadelphia handled the RNC in 2000 are wondering if we'll see a repeat of the infamous stain on the city's history.

Some of us also wonder whether history will hold a special place for public officials who respond poorly to DNC protesters in the same way that history has frowned on their beleaguered predecessors.

Sixteen years ago, thousands of political activists were demonized by Philadelphia officials in advance of the RNC 2000. In preparation for protests, local officials mounted a full-court press to stifle dissent in order to put on an unfettered convention.

In an attempt to drive a wedge between political activists and the general public, and to justify a violent crackdown on dissidents, Mayor John Street characterized prospective protesters as "idiots" who should expect "a very ugly response" if they try to "make a spectacle" of the city. Mayor Street, however, was ok with the Republicans making a different kind of spectacle of the city.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, one of the architects of today's policing model used against protesters, told Reuters in July 2000 "nobody is going to disrupt the convention," and he was prepared to "retaliate" and use "fisticuffs" if necessary.

Although Philadelphia gave right-of-first-refusal to the Republicans for political gatherings across the city, political groups of another stripe were summarily denied protest permits, a tactic city officials tried using again ahead of the DNC later this month (for which it was successfully sued).

One of law enforcement's favorite tactics--heavy surveillance and infiltration--was used in 2000 to preemptively raid a warehouse in West Philly where puppets, signs and banners were being made. Police arrested more than 70 people and destroyed everything inside the warehouse.

Once the dust settled, more than 400 people had been arrested in one day, with some kept in jail for two weeks and held on bail as high as $1 million. But the city didn't stop there. District Attorney Lynne Abraham aggressively prosecuted hundreds of people on frivolous charges, virtually all of which were dismissed or acquitted at trial. In some cases, Abraham even used the city's homicide prosecutors to seek convictions against activists.

Yet, despite the repression leveled against those trying to advance social change, activists came out the victors. While the city was able to effectively suppress some of the political messages, protesters were solidly vindicated in both the court of law and court of public opinion.

Furthermore, many of the activists who were targeted and treated harshly by the city went on to make significant contributions to society as attorneys, doctors, nurses, social workers, artists, programmers, union organizers and journalists, among many other vocations.

While inherent value or judgment should not necessarily be based on the careers we choose, our actions should provide a moral compass we can use to assess character and ethos. Based on this deduction, many of the prominent city officials who persecuted social change activists for their efforts to protest at the RNC 2000 didn't fare as well.

Here are a few examples.

John Timoney

John Timoney became the Philadelphia Police Commissioner in 1998 after nearly 30 years at the New York Police Department. Timoney declared in 2000 ahead of the RNC that his "paramount goal" was "not to be seen on the six o'clock news beating the living daylights out of protesters" and, indeed, his police force brutalize scores of activists, in some cases hospitalizing them, with barely a notice by the TV news cameras.

Timoney testified in a couple of RNC-related criminal cases, both of which resulted in acquittals for the activist defendants. In one of those cases, Timoney personally pushed for a conviction by urging the city to appeal charges that had been dismissed by a lower court. In the high-profile case of the "Timoney 3," activists who were accused of getting in a scuffle with the commissioner were forced to defend themselves for nearly four years before going to trial. In 2004, despite the seriousness of the felony charges leveled against the activists who faced decades in prison, and eye-witness testimony by Timoney himself who traveled more than one thousand miles and took time off from his new role as Miami Police Chief, a jury ultimately acquitted the three defendants of all charges.

While acting as Miami Police Chief, Timoney took what he learned as head of the Philadelphia Police Department and oversaw one of the most brutal crackdowns on protesters in modern history at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) demonstrations.

After leaving the Miami Police Department in 2009, Timoney began working for the global "security" firm Andrews International and is a Senior Vice President. In 2012, Timoney was hired by the Interior Ministry for the Kingdom of Bahrain to consult on its law enforcement efforts, specifically focused on the suppression of a popular "Arab Spring" uprising in the small Gulf Island state that continues today. Timoney remains employed in Bahrain, which is also home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, while the Sunni-led monarchy engages (with the help of Saudi Arabia) in widespread human rights violations against its Shia-majority population.

Lynne Abraham

Lynne Abraham gained widespread attention in 1985 as the Philadelphia Common Pleas judge who signed the warrant that police used to bomb the MOVE house, which killed several of its residents and burned an entire city block. But, after Abraham became District Attorney in 1991, she gained a reputation for being "tough on crime" and her extensive use of the death penalty. In 1995, the New York Times called Abraham "The Deadliest D.A.," for her role in producing the third largest death row population in the country, composed of the highest percentage of African Americans. She was also extremely reluctant to prosecute police officers accused of brutality and murder.

In 2000, Abraham refused to negotiate with attorneys representing hundreds of RNC protesters arrested for simply sitting in the street blocking traffic. "Get a life," she told the lawyers. "It ain't gonna happen." On a promise to "fully prosecute" each person who was arrested and charged, Abraham used the city's "A-list of lawyers," including homicide attorneys, to lead a legal crusade for nearly four years against activists from across the country, which ended with the wholesale dismissal and acquittal of charges.

Before Abraham left the D.A.'s office in 2010, she raised the ire of many Philadelphians by refusing to prosecute Chauncey Ellison, an off-duty police officer who killed 20-year-old Lawrence Allen in 2008 by shooting him in the back. Abraham's successor, Seth Williams, prosecuted Ellison forcing Abraham to inconveniently defend her decision during her bid for mayor in May 2015. Abraham claimed that, in hindsight, she would have prosecuted Ellison.

Most recently, Abraham told Philly.com that the RNC 2000 arrests were a "grave mistake" and, in a sideways apology, she "deeply regret[s] the foolishness of some of the law enforcement people." Certainly the brutal and unlawful actions by police should be condemned, but what about the malicious nature with which she prosecuted hundreds of frivolous cases? Abraham's hollow platitudes on both Ellison and the RNC 2000 are too little and way too late.

John Street

By the time John Street became Mayor of Philadelphia in January 2000, he had already served on the City Council for nearly twenty years, seven of which were spent as Council President. In addition to making his infamous and disparaging comments directed at activists, Street later joined District Attorney Lynne Abraham in taking a hard line against RNC arrestees, vowing to prosecute activists to the fullest despite the weakness of the cases. In the face of a failed prosecutorial campaign against RNC protesters by the city, Mayor Street remained unapologetic.

During a bitterly contested re-election campaign against Republican businessman Sam Katz in 2003, police found eavesdropping devices in a routine scan of Street's office. He didn't know it at the time, but the federal government was conducting a City Hall investigation. In June 2004, less than eight months after Street's re-election, the Justice Department announced federal corruption charges against several public officials, friends and colleagues close to Street, which resulted in the conviction of fifteen people, including Street's former city treasurer, Corey Kemp, who was sentenced to 10 years.

Also in 2004, while still in office, Mayor Street appointed himself chair of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), the fourth largest municipal provider of public housing services in the country. In his unusual role as PHA chair, Street funneled millions of dollars in PHA contracts to a law firm where his son worked, raising the eyebrows of ethics experts who said Street was violating state law. In 2011, after leaving the mayor's office but while still on the PHA--then under fire for poor oversight and mismanagement--Street was investigated by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission. The former mayor was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the ethics commission, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development took control of PHA in 2011, forcing Street's resignation.

Time Magazine called Street one of the three worst big-city mayors in the United States in 2005.

Seamus McCaffery

Seamus McCaffery was perhaps best known as the municipal judge who helped establish the "Eagles Court," an ad hoc courtroom deep inside Veterans Stadium to "process rowdy fans more quickly" according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. But, his more recent notoriety seems to have overshadowed his earlier days and even his role later in life as a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice.

Soon after becoming known as the "Eagles Court" judge, McCaffery--who had been a Philadelphia police officer for twenty years and an ardent supporter of executing Mumia Abu-Jamal--oversaw dozens of cases stemming from the RNC 2000 protests. Notably, on August 1st, the day of mass arrests, people were in the streets calling for an end to police violence and the death penalty, and freedom for Mumia.

During the RNC-related criminal cases, activists discovered that McCaffery had spoken to a class of University of Pennsylvania students in the days before the protests and, according to one witness, announced a plan to hold protesters in jail until the convention was over.

Outraged by this revelation, RNC defendants used a legal maneuver attempting to remove McCaffery from overseeing their cases. The defendants, two of whom represented themselves pro se, showed that McCaffery had a clear bias against the issues they were protesting. Ultimately, he thwarted the legal maneuver but in trying to show the public he was impartial, McCaffery uncharacteristically dismissed scores of cases.

In an obvious show of adoration, and while RNC prosecutions were still in full swing, the Inquirer published a puff piece in January 2001 coined the "Seamus Show," in which the outlet called McCaffery "Philadelphia's most famous, and sometimes most outlandish judge." At the time, McCaffery told the Inquirer his "ultimate goal" was to become a state supreme court justice, which he achieved in 2007.

But two years ago, in 2014, his fall from grace was swift. McCaffery was suspended by fellow Supreme Court Justices that year during an ethics investigation of a "pay-to-play" scandal in which law firms paid large referral fees to McCaffery's wife (and judicial aide) in cases brought before him. Rather than face formal misconduct charges and possible impeachment, McCaffery resigned from the court and agreed to a lifetime ban on running for elected office.

Dominic Verdi

Despite a stringent written policy against taking bribes, the Philadelphia's Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I) has been plagued with corruption since its inception in 1951. Dozens of L&I officials have been indicted over the years for bribery, racketeering, extortion and other crimes.

More than a week before the RNC 2000 protests began, at the behest of the Philadelphia Police Department, L&I Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi shut down the Center City studios of Spiral Q, disrupting activists by forcing them to quickly relocate a large amount of puppets, signs, posters and banners.

Then, a week later, after the police raided the puppet warehouse in West Philadelphia, Verdi again took instruction from the police and destroyed everything inside. Instead of preserving the contents of the warehouse, where more than 70 people had been arrested, Verdi destroyed everything including First Amendment-protected material, the personal possessions of protesters, and the tools of warehouse co-owner Michael Graves. Verdi ignored the pleas of activists and personally made sure it was all put in trash compactors. When questioned during the RNC-related criminal prosecutions about his actions at the warehouse, Verdi refused to recognize that most of it was protest material and stoically said he was "just taking the trash out."

Verdi resigned from L&I in 2011 after being linked to an FBI investigation, which eventually led to his 2014 indictment on federal conspiracy, extortion and fraud charges. Verdi has been accused of using his position at L&I to coerce bar and restaurant owners to purchase more than $1 million of beer from "Chappy's Beer, Butts, and Bets," a South Philadelphia distributor he co-owned. If convicted, Verdi could face up to 140 years in prison and fines of up to $1.75 million.

What should we expect this summer?

These are the trajectories of only a few public officials from Philadelphia. However, the trend is clear: abuse of authority and corrupt behavior could eventually come back to haunt you.

But, what we really need to take away from this is that the actions of those now in power will inevitably be judged by history. What will Mayor Jim Kenney, District Attorney Seth Williams and Police Commissioner Richard Ross do this July at the DNC? Will they and other city officials buckle under pressure and use violence and repression against activists? Or, will they do the right thing in the face of difficult decisions and an obligation to respect the free speech rights of protesters, even those who engage in civil disobedience?

Only time and history will tell.

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Kris Hermes is an activist, legal worker and author of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000 (PM Press).