ACLU says police harassing protesters, seeks restraining order

LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union sought a court order Thursday to halt what it says is harassment of demonstrators in advance of the Democratic National Convention.

Protesters have reported nearly two dozen such incidents in the past week related to a four-story building in MacArthur Park that has become a gathering place for demonstrators, ACLU attorney Dan Tokaji said.

They said police watch comings and goings from the so-called ''convergence center,'' buzz it at night with low-flying helicopters equipped with searchlights and selectively enforce traffic laws against people associated with the house.

''Freedom of speech cannot survive in an atmosphere where fear predominates,'' Tokaji said outside the building, surrounded by about 50 demonstrators who were erecting giant puppets and painting signs. ''This is a kind of police state. It has no place in a democracy.''

The ACLU was one of five legal organizations seeking a restraining order. The request was filed in U.S. District Court.

Demonstrators and police disagree over how close they can get to the Staples Center, the site of the four-day convention opening Monday, and what routes they can take during protest marches.

City and police officials would not comment on the court filing. But Assistant City Attorney Earl Thomas said the city was negotiating with the ACLU.

He said the law allows police monitoring and surveillance during such events.

Separately, Thomas, Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti and local judges outlined plans to deal with any arrests.

They said courts will operate 24 hours a day if necessary. They also are ready for some tactics protesters have used in the past while in custody - such as refusing to give their names or removing their clothes to delay their court appearance.

''We'll have 'Naked Court' if necessary,'' Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler said.

Police arrested 280 protesters on the most violent day of protests during Republican convention last week in Philadelphia. Estimates of the number of protesters expected in Los Angeles range from 5,000 to 50,000.

Also Thursday:

- Surplus stores reported brisk sales of gas masks and other survivalist gear. Protesters and members of the news media were among the buyers, but Peter Kalaydjian, whose Recon-1 in suburban Tarzana has sold more than 100 gas masks this month, said he refuses to sell to ''obvious troublemakers.''

- Mailboxes and coin parking meters around the Staples Center have been removed as part of tightened security. On the advice of the police department and Secret Service, the city also has asked newspaper publishers to remove dozens of sidewalk news racks in an 80-square-block zone around the Staples Center as well as Pershing Square, MacArthur Park and other likely venues for street protests.


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