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The Protest Was Legal, But What About The Searches?

By Doug Trapp · November 30th, 2000 · Burning Questions
Will the TABD demonstrations prompt the next constitutional issue for Fountain Square?

The square has been the subject of litigation before. When President Reagan visited for a re-election rally in 1984, opponents' signs were confiscated, leading to a class-action lawsuit. The Ku Klux Klan has also sued the city to gain access to the square.

No lawsuits have yet been filed, but organizers of protests against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue are looking for a civil-rights lawyer. One issue is police searches of protesters gathering at Fountain Square. The Coalition for a Humane Economy (CHE) had a demonstration permit Nov. 18, but police searched anyone who wanted to participate.

Police Chief Thomas Streicher says the searches were an attempt to discourage people from taking slingshots and spray paint onto the square. Streicher says officers had seen such items earlier during demonstrations. But Lt. Ray Ruberg, spokesman for the police department, said police found no weapons on the 52 demonstrators arrested during the three-day protest.

Protesters say the searches were a blatant violation of their constitutional rights to gather peacefully and protest in public.

One veteran of protests against economic globalization -- Zeke Spier, 19, of Philadelphia -- said Cincinnati Police have been among the strictest he has seen. Charged Nov. 18 with disorderly conduct, Spier says he has also protested in Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

"Usually in other cities the people (arrested) are doing civil disobedience," such as sitting in the streets, Spier says. "In Cincinnati, people were not even doing that."

Protesters and their supporters packed a meeting of city council's Law and Public Safety Committee Nov. 20.

Police were in riot gear from the start of protests, even during opening speeches on Fountain Square, which showed no signs of violence, according to CHE spokesman Sister Alice Gerdeman.

"It seemed that the Cincinnati Police were prepared for something that didn't happen," Gerdeman said.

Gerdeman said she did not know small groups outside the parameters of parade permits would constitute illegal gatherings. An advance warning from the police would have been helpful so the crowd could have been told, she said.

Mayor Charlie Luken came out as a bigger backer of the police than the police themselves.

"Never have I seen such restraint executed," Luken said, eliciting a wave of boos and hisses.

Luken said protesters seemed to stick out their jaws, asking to be arrested, and went into the streets and broke the law.

Cincinnati City Councilman Pat DeWine said the biggest complaint he's heard is police didn't communicate enough. If there were a civil-rights problem, he said, protesters should file suit.

William Kirkland, a police critic, sarcastically agreed with Luken's assessment of police behavior, contrasting it with the two deaths in police custody earlier this month.

"I praise the police," Kirkland said. "Out of the 47 protesters arrested, they didn't kill not one."

Even the police supervisor in charge of planning the TABD coverage acknowledged room for improvement.

"I will say that we know we are not perfect," said Col. Richard Janke. "We are dealing with some very complex constitutional issues."

Janke said police found a backpack of Christmas ornaments filled with green paint on Eighth Street, Janke said.

Cecil Thomas, chairman of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and a former Cincinnati police officer, said he saw young, scared police at the protests; he agreed with Luken that they used great restraint.

Councilman Todd Portune was silent during the meeting, but afterwards said, "I would hope we were a big enough city that we could tolerate a little civil disobedience without turning it into a major case."

Attorney Lou Sirkin represents a woman charged with unlawful use of a computer and forgery for trying to fabricate TABD press credentials. Sirkin said police increased tensions.

"I think that the show of force became a challenge," Sirkin said. "People are allowed to protest."

If protests are not going to be allowed, then the city shouldn't invite an international conference to Cincinnati, Sirkin said.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.



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