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USA: Anti-Poverty Activists March in Philadelphia

by David MorganReuters
July 31st, 2000

PHILADELPHIA -- Thousands of protesters, led by people in wheelchairs, marched on the Republican National Convention on Monday to demand economic rights for people oppressed by poverty and homelessness.

The opening of the four-day convention that will nominate Texas Gov. George W. Bush for president also brought the first of what are expected to be days of arrests, when people blocked a downtown intersection to put on a political skit attacking U.S. military involvement in Latin America.

All told, 15 people were arrested in separate incidents over the course of the day.

Amid fears of violent confrontations heightened by protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last year and the World Bank in Washington last April, the day's main event was a two-hour ''economic human rights'' march through sweltering heat by a crowd police estimated at 3,000 to 4,000.

The march, organized without a permit, came off peacefully, ending with a rally opposite the convention venue on the outskirts of the fifth largest U.S. city.

''We are marching today to show the face of poor people to the delegates of the Republican convention,'' said the Rev. Marcus Pomeroy, a local Baptist minister who led an early morning prayer service at a tent city called ''Bushville,'' where a core group of 200 activists began the day.

Dozens of activist groups have converged on Philadelphia to rail against corporate America and its influence on the U.S. political system in front of 15,000 journalists who are covering the Republican convention.

Days of civil disobedience protests aimed at disrupting the convention were due to get under way in earnest on Tuesday.

Monday's demonstrators represented a wide range of causes from AIDS research to organized labor, students against sweatshops and people with disabilities.

But all agreed to march in solidarity in support of an estimated 35 million poor Americans, many of whom the protesters said have been moved off public assistance and into the ranks of the working poor by changes in welfare laws. Some protesters underscored the point by wearing gray T-shirts emblazoned with the message: ''Disappeared in America -- Hiding the Poor.''

A largely young, white crowd walked the 3 1/2 miles (6 km) down a main boulevard from City Hall to the convention site through the July heat, chanting, ''Time to tax Bill Gates'' and ''Hey hey, ho ho, poverty has got to go.''

Republican delegates watched quietly from hotels and meeting halls along the route, while members of the public cheered.

''They got all these (Republicans) to come to town to party, and everybody's broke,'' said Clemens Jones, a construction worker at a nearby work site.

Police Accommodate Marchers

Organized by a local group of homeless advocates called the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), the march became a source of tension in recent days after city authorities refused to grant a permit.

Police chose to accommodate the marchers. Police Commissioner John Timoney said later he was relieved there had been no violence, but still complained about the march's effect on traffic. ''I'm not so happy about that, but I can live with it,'' he said.

Two men were arrested for trying to hop a fence at the march's concluding rally. Legal advisers to protest organizers said four others were taken into custody at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia later in the afternoon. But no details of the circumstances were available.

But the first arrests came during Monday morning rush hour when nine people from a group opposed to the Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, blocked an intersection. By the evening, all nine were still behind bars at the city police administration building.

''Each of them were willing to go to jail to expose to the Republicans what they see as an injustice and call attention to a combat school for thugs from Latin America that is financed by the U.S. taxpayer to the tune of $20 million a year,'' said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Roman Catholic priest with the School of the Americas Watch.

In the group's skit, a demonstrator made up to look like Uncle Sam ordered the ''execution'' of four people in ponchos intended to represent landless peasants in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and El Salvador.

Actors posing as soldiers then dragged the bodies splattered with red paint to a ''burial ground'' at the center of the intersection as police converged on the scene. Police gave the protesters more than half an hour to leave, then took them into custody and charged them with obstructing traffic.

Earlier, the AIDS activist group ACT UP Philadelphia hijacked a roadside billboard to demand cheap generic drugs for impoverished AIDS sufferers in Africa.

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