ACLU sues city, police for more access to Democratic convention site

LOS ANGELES - A coalition of activists bent on capturing the attention of Democratic National Convention delegates sued the city and Police Department on Friday for greater access to the August event site.

Authorities have created a buffer zone around the Staples Center and the Los Angeles Convention Center that will keep protesters so far away ''they will be invisible,'' said Daniel P. Tokaji with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The zone violates the protesters' free speech rights, he said.

''The Constitution may not be put on ice simply because the Democratic convention is in town,'' Tokaji said at a news conference after filing the lawsuit in federal court. ''If the LAPD has its way, this will be the Un-Democratic National Convention.''

The plaintiffs want a preliminary injunction to prevent the city and police from keeping protesters outside the current planned ''no-access zone'' and from requiring protesters to get parade permits.

Tokaji hopes to get a July 17 hearing on the issue.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Service Employees International Union, Local 660; the D2K Convention Planning Coalition, a group organizing protesters; the L.A. Coalition to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, supporters of a man convicted of killing a police officer; the National Lawyers Guild, Los Angeles chapter; Jennafer Waggoner, editor of a newspaper for the poor and homeless; and state Sen. Tom Hayden, a delegate to the convention and protester.

Tokaji suggested authorities move the perimeter of the buffer zone closer to the Staples Center so that protesters can gather in two parking lots across the street from the main entrance.

The plaintiffs say they have no plans to use a demonstration area authorities have designated on the opposite side of the giant parking lots. The plaintiffs claim there's no way delegates would ever see or hear protesters from that location.

Three of the plaintiffs have filed permits to conduct a parade and should be allowed to do so through the streets of downtown, Tokaji said, ending at an intersection outside the Staples Center and within the current no-access zone.

While refusing to comment specifically on the lawsuit, police defended their convention plans as the result of yearlong planning by police, the FBI, the Secret Service and multiple other government agencies.

Law enforcers had to weigh responsibilities to the community, the convention and the protesters, he said.

''It's in keeping those three priorities in mind that we have to come up with a secure zone,'' said Lt. Horace Frank. ''They've been taking all matters of security into consideration and that is how they've determined the security zone.''

If protesters don't like the demonstration area, he said, they're welcome to protest elsewhere outside the no-access zone, as long as they do so lawfully. The designated demonstration zone will be equipped with a stage, a microphone and restrooms, he said, whereas other areas won't have those benefits.

About a dozen groups have told police they are interested in using the demonstration area, said Frank, who disputed claims that delegates wouldn't be able to see and hear the protesters.

''Trust me, their voices will be heard by the delegates,'' he said. ''They have full view of the Staples Center.''

Ben Austin, spokesman for the convention host committee known as LA Convention 2000, described the demonstration area as a ''phenomenal piece of protesting real estate'' that gives activists ''easy access to the delegates and the residents of Los Angeles.''

''We put it right square in front of the Staples Center so we could engage in a dialogue,'' he said.

When asked about Tokaji's suggestion that the buffer zone be shrunk so protesters can get access to two parking lots outside Staples Center, Austin said he would defer to the judgment of the Secret Service and the FBI, who have to make these plans every four years.

Peter Ragone, a Democratic National Convention Committee spokesman, said committee officials had been in touch with the ACLU about the protesters' complaints, but offered no specific comment about the ACLU's suggestions.

''We will work with all of the parties to ensure that these issues can be resolved in a way that protects freedom of expression of demonstrators, while also being mindful of the security of delegates who are expressing their views as well,'' he said.

The city attorney's office did not immediately return a phone call Friday.

A motion recently passed by the City Council, and now under review by a city committee, would designated Pershing Square as a protest site. Tokaji noted that the motion does not conflict with the lawsuit. Activists still want to use the square, which is near some delegate hotels, but do not consider it a substitute for closer access to the Staples Center.


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