Originally created 05/10/04

G-8 watchdogs prepare



ATLANTA - With less than a month remaining until the G-8 Summit convenes on Sea Island, Atlanta resident Carol Bass is busy preparing to protest the annual meeting of the world's leading industrial nations.

She's worried. She fears that overzealous police and security officials might go beyond their call of duty in this post-9-11 world to ensure protesters are kept from disrupting the private conference between President Bush and the visiting heads of state.

"I sure hope they don't crack my head open," Ms. Bass, 37, said of the massive police force being assembled to provide security. "There's nobody to protect my daughter if I'm gone."

Ms. Bass isn't the only one concerned about how state and federal law enforcers will react to the thousands of protesters expected to swarm the Georgia coast from Savannah to Brunswick during the three-day meeting, which begins June 8.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the National Lawyers Guild already are planning to deploy as many lawyers and staff members as possible throughout the region to monitor the situation.

"We're sending down a crew of monitors. They'll be there on the ground," said Gerry Weber, the legal director for the Atlanta-based ACLU of Georgia. "We're primarily focused on police overreaction to peaceful demonstrators. There's so much anxiety that could translate into overreaction or wrong reactions."

Police administrators say they have spent months training their officers for the G-8, preparing for the most unlikely scenarios without turning coastal Georgia into a military state.

"A great deal of training has been focused on maintaining and protecting the civil rights of everyone, not just protesters," said Bucky Burnsed, a spokesman for the Savannah-Chatham Police Department. "We want to make sure that everyone's rights are fully protected. That includes anyone who may be visiting Savannah or Brunswick ... and those who live here."

INTERNATIONAL FORUMS THAT touch on such issues as trade, war and human rights have long been magnets for protesters of various backgrounds.

The G-8 Summit, now in its 30th year, is no exception.

Past G-8s have turned so violent - including 2001, when a protester was shot and killed by security in Italy - that organizers now routinely search for isolated, private locations such as Sea Island to have the event.

Those planning to demonstrate this year have no shortage of issues they hope to address in front of the world's media.

From environmental protection to the war in Iraq to nuclear weapons, the list is vast.

"We have a common interest in confronting the direction in which the planet is being taken by a handful of wealthy people who think they can meet in secret and decide for all 6 billion people of the world what the future is going to look like," said Brunswick resident Robert Randall, who plans to demonstrate during the G-8.

While Mr. Randall and Ms. Bass say they are working to bring nonviolent activism to the 2004 summit, police say they still must take every possible precaution to prepare for violent protesters - and the potential for terrorists.

"The officers have to be concerned because the community depends on us to protect them," said Matt Doering, an assistant police chief for the Glynn County Police Department. "I'm concerned about (the officers) being injured. I'm also concerned about property being damaged."

That concern is prompting questions on just how much latitude even the most peaceful protesters will have once the summit gets under way.

Ms. Bass said she has spoken with other protesters who say police have stopped and rerouted protester buses before previous trade summits, rendering the activists unable to get to the place where they planned to assemble.

Mr. Weber said his team of civil rights experts will be watching to make sure local law enforcers aren't overstepping their bounds through physical force or through procedural roadblocks, such as excessive protest permitting.

"We can hope over hope that these things will go smoothly, and they have in the past," said Mr. Weber, referring to the 2002 G-8 outside Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Calgary organizers developed a strong rapport with protesters, welcoming them to the area and setting up easy access to gathering sites. That summit was considered a major success in terms of low arrests and a lack of violence.

Still, Ms. Bass said she worries that police and the Secret Service, the ultimate commander of the summit's security, would rather impede protesters from gathering and deal with the legal ramifications later.

"I have seen pre-emptive arrests in the past," said Ms. Bass, referring to an antitrade rally she attended in Washington several years ago.

"But I have never been to a protest that was violent where the police didn't instigate the violence."

Assistant Chief Doering said police often must use force against protesters of international summits because it's the only way to defuse sometimes explosive situations.

"Without any provocation, (the police) are assaulted," he said of past protests he has witnessed. "(The protesters) start throwing acid, paint, urine, bottles and sticks. (The police) are just standing out there on the front line."

WHILE GEORGIA GOV. SONNY Perdue has spoken extensively about the historical and academic legacies the G-8 Summit will leave in Georgia, the potential exists for the meeting to mark its presence in the court system as well.

Past clashes between protesters and police have resulted in several high-profile lawsuits, most notably in the state of Washington, where Seattle paid $250,000 to nearly 100 World Trade Organization protesters after a 1999 rally.

The protesters took the police to court, saying the officers had no probable cause to arrest them. Mr. Weber said the ACLU will be watching for similar situations in Georgia, and for false alarms.

He pointed out that such situations happened as recently as November during a trade protest in Miami.

"Reporters, monitors, and passers-by were stopped and sometimes arrested just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

Mr. Weber recalled the 2002 case of three Muslim medical students who were detained for 17 hours after a woman eating at a restaurant in north Georgia thought she heard the men discussing a possible terrorist plot.

The woman's report set off a multistate manhunt for the students, who later explained they were talking about shipping a car to Florida, and not "bringing down" a building, as the woman had believed.