Remembering the 2000 Philadelphia RNC: Puppets, Police and The Rock

It had George W. Bush. It had puppets that the cops testified were funded by communists. The Rock registered to vote. 15 years later, what has Philly learned?

House Speaker Dennis Hastert and World Wrestling Federation champion The Rock raise their hands at the podium at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on August 2nd, 2000.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert and World Wrestling Federation champion The Rock raise their hands at the podium at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia on August 2nd, 2000.

On July 12th, 2000, Philadelphia police engaged in a shootout with 30-year-old Thomas Jones. An Action News helicopter followed the ensuing police chase, and showed police beating and kicking Jones. “Clearly, the activity on the tape is troubling,” then-Mayor John Street said at a hastily organized press conference that night. “We have unanswered concerns.” The Inquirer did a frame-by-frame analysis of 28 seconds of video and said Jones was hit “at least 59 times.”

Jones eventually pleaded guilty to a series of robberies and assaults surrounding the incident. A 2002 grand jury said criminal charges weren’t warranted against the officers, though Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson later issued suspensions for 15 officers. (John Timoney was commissioner at the time of the 2000 RNC.) But the incident, just a few weeks before the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, was an inauspicious omen. The Daily News ran a still of the officers on its cover with the headline “WELCOME AMERICA.” Some were later found to be selling the cover on a t-shirt to cops.

It will be a long 16 years since all of that when the Democratic National Convention convenes in Philadelphia next year. In 2000, I was a 17-year-old interning in tech support at Aramark. Being so close to the Convention Center made that area a mess. It concerned me that the regulars in Market East (homeless, loiterers in The Gallery, a few street vendors) disappeared. Parts of downtown were almost on lockdown — and this was in 2000. It was inconvenient.

But it was also a lot of fun. Things happened. The nation’s political press and all the Democratic politicians will be here in the summer of 2016, and things will happen again. I wasn’t really political as a teenager, so the convention was basically an opportunity for me and the other bored interns to putz around downtown  and people-watch. (Come to think of it, that is what I plan to do this year.) I bought a “NO MORE BUSHIT” bumper sticker from an aging hippie. Another intern was interviewed by Kurt Loder and got on MTV News. We spent every lunch break on a walk that ended at Franklin Square, where we mingled with protesters who were primarily rallying to free other protesters.

As one might expect for a Republican convention held in a Democratic town, protests were a big deal at the 2000 RNC. Thousands jammed the Parkway the day before the convention began. Perhaps in response to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, cops posed as activists and infiltrated groups planning to protest the convention. “It’s worse than sleazeball,” Stefan Presser, then the Pennsylvania ACLU’s legal director, told The Inquirer. “This is an outrage.” Four state police posed as union carpenters from Wilkes-Barre a week before the cops raided the puppetmakers’ workshop on August 1st, the second day of the convention.

One account of the arrest said it was quite the show of force:

At 2:05 PM, Tuesday, August 1st, over 180 police officers and three helicopters lay siege to a warehouse on 41st and Haverford on Philadelphia’s west side. When we looked through a mail slot to survey the situation, the police sprayed mace at us. They tried to barge in through a hole in the roof and, failing that, videotaped, tape recorded, and spit at us through a skylight. All 75 of us inside the warehouse were detained for over two hours before any search warrant showed up. We would become known as the “Haverford 70.”

It was later revealed in state police affidavits that the cops believed the protesters were communists: “Funds allegedly originate with Communist and leftist parties and from sympathetic trade unions. Other funds reportedly come from the former Soviet-allied World Federation of Trade Unions.”

Lawsuits followed. “City building inspectors were used to shut down an activist studio in Center City,” ALCU of Pennsylvania executive director Larry Frankel said. “People who were arrested were subjected to unconscionable delays prior to being released. Extraordinarily high bail was set for many protestors.”

It wasn’t just police treatment of protesters that got messy. Media outlets grumbled on the the eve of the convention that their work spaces were not set up yet. “It does seem they weren’t very well-prepared for us,” The Wall Street Journal’s Chick Wojcicki told the Inquirer. John McCain got booed at a shadow convention, then was completely ignored after getting a cheesesteak at Pat’s afterward. Right after McCain was booed, two people had this conversation, per the Los Angeles Times:

Someone asks whether this sort of exuberance is typical of Philadelphians.

“Yes!” said one local man. “They booed Santa and they threw snowballs at him at the Eagles game in 1968.”

“They did not throw snowballs at Santa,” another man protested for the benefit of any out-of-town reporter in earshot. “They booed him but they did not throw snowballs.”

Rick Santorum held a GOP gathering in the Italian Market and didn’t serve any food from the Italian Market. “The presidential nominee’s nephew George P. Bush drew adoring crowds of young women around the city,” the Inquirer reported.

Oh, yeah, and George W. Bush accepted the nomination for president. Afterward, that Ricky Martin song from the World Cup played. Alan Keyes got the second-most votes at the convention; McCain received 1. The Rock showed up for some reason.

As you’ll note, The Rock had just registered to vote before his speech at what was then the First Union Center.

A lot of the memories listed above are not necessarily great. We should learn from the mistakes of the 2000 RNC. We won’t, probably — they’re even kicking the stores out of the Gallery in advance this time — but we have more than a year to push organizers and police to shape the convention so it’s good for Philadelphians, too. The DNC will bring a lot of money into town (the Ritz-Carlton sold $120,000 worth of beluga caviar in 2000), but it will inconvenience a lot of people. I hope the convention will be as hospitable as possible to both out-of-towners and Philly residents.

Whatever warts the convention reveals, Philadelphia will deal. We are great at figuring out how to make things fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re political are not. Lots of people will be in Philadelphia, and we will show them how great this city can be. We will have a good time. I did as a stupid 17-year-old during the last convention held here. I have no doubt I can do it again as a stupid 33-year-old.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.