“Shut up. Cops lie. Get a lawyer.” National Lawyer's Guild advice to Republican convention protesters on police interaction

08/13/12 Seán Kinane
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“Shut up. Cops lie. Get a lawyer.” That’s the advice for Republican convention protesters if they’re stopped by police. The succinct and bold summary came from an attorney during a National Lawyer’s Guild “know your rights” training Saturday at the downtown Tampa library. Twenty-three activists, including Roger Butterfield, learned strategies for how to interact with law enforcement during National Special Security Events like the convention.

"I guess like the central thing is, you know, don't talk to cops. Just 'shut up.' Really basic stuff. Assume that the police don't have your best interests at heart. And that every opportunity you want to be - not resisting, not giving them any reason to suspect you or anything like that, but just to not be giving them any more than they legally are able to have."

Tampa is using federal funds to temporarily hire thousands of law enforcement officers from around the state to maintain security during the Republican convention. At previous conventions dozens of protesters and sometimes journalists have been arrested or worse. Butterfield is getting prepared in case a similar situation arises later this month in Tampa.

"Some police brutality. Or at the very least some aggression by the police in terms of trying to get people arrested for trumped up charges or something like that. You know I really don't know what to expect, it's hard to say because the Tampa Police Department has always been mysteriously arbitrary in how they seem to go after activists."

Juliana, who would not give her last name, traveled from Atlanta to meet with street medics that are training activists in first aid during demonstrations. She won’t be in town long, but instead will provide remote support during the Republican convention. But as a veteran of several large-scale demonstrations, she offers advice to protesters during a police encounter.

"Don't answer any of their questions. It is never to your benefit to talk to police. Even if you think you know what you're doing. Even if you think they're just doing small talk. If they're arresting you, or if they are detaining you, you don't have to talk to them either at that point. It is not unheard of for a cop to take basic chit-chat and turn it against you and turn it into charges for something. So, don't talk to the police. Just, you can smile, you can say, 'hi,' although I don't even suggest that. I suggest ignoring them most of the time. If they ask you questions, you can simply say, 'Am I free to leave?' And they might try posturing and pushing you some more. But just keep going with the, 'Am I free to leave?' If they were going to arrest you, nothing you're going to say is going to change that one way or another. So, if you're actually free to leave, if you ask it enough times, eventually they will tell you, 'Yes, you are free to leave.'"

That advice is consistent with information given by an attorney named Dan during the hour-long seminar. He wouldn’t give his last name or allow his voice to be recorded, but wrote in green letters on a dry-erase board 'Am I free to go?' It’s all he recommends saying to police in that situation, other than your name.

"I think that the representative from the National Lawyers Guild today gave some excellent advice about what the law states. Of course, it's an individual decision what people want to do in the context of what I think is going to be a very, very important protest at the RNC. But there are a myriad of laws that people have to be mindful of and a myriad of restrictions that don't ordinarily occur in daily life. For instance the wearing of masks, etc. The prohibition of carrying certain items, yet you can carry a licensed gun. Some things seem counter-intuitive but I think it's important that everyone understands the law and understands what the prohibitions are and then they make up their own decisions on what they want to do."

Another person attending the seminar was Tampa attorney Linda Moreno. She expects to be a legal observer during the demonstrations.

"To someone who is in Tampa to meaningfully protest, and to send a message, not only to the RNC but to the world, about very important issues that affect this country, it is not helpful for that person, who's here for a very important reason to try to engage in any sort of intellectual discussion with a police officer or law enforcement whether it's state or federal. So, I think that it's important, again, to be mindful of what the laws are. To understand that in the milieu of a protest, of a parade, within the public viewing section it is not the time or place to be having a conversation with law enforcement. If you want to stay alive, in terms of not being detained or hauled off to jail, it's important not to be in a [confrontational] situation with law enforcement."

Moreno is best known in Tampa for representing former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian during his trial in 2005. She thinks it’s wise for protesters to learn how to avoid getting into confrontations with police.

"As for the legal issues, a lot of it will depend on the cops. Sometimes in a big event the cops have been really well prepared and have been told that, 'You will be nice and you will be friendly and you will be calm and you will not escalate until you are specifically ordered to.' On the other hand, I've also seen it where the police are tense are are more likely to overreact even to minor stuff. And that's just at the personal level, completely separate from what kind of orders they might be receiving from higher ups about how to interact and relate to protesters."

The street medic, Juliana agrees that protesters can do a lot to avoid escalation of conflict with police. But she said the answer of whether there will be confrontations lies with the actions of law enforcement.

"What I think that has been generally said is that police will not start the escalation, that they will start from a position of being calm and pleasant, and if the protesters escalate it they'll respond, but they won't be responsible for escalating it. That said, we'll see what actually happens.

Isn't that what we hear before every single demonstration?"

No. I think sometimes before a demonstration you hear a mayor or police chief going on the record and saying, 'We will not tolerate dissent.' And, 'We will maintain order.' And, 'Free speech is OK in x area but not y area.' So you definitely do hear governments take a different tone."

Tampa Police have ordered light weight short-sleeved uniforms for the demonstrations and plan to distribute water to protesters.

The National Lawyers Guild will have legal observers in the streets of Tampa during protests. They often wear bright green baseball caps as identification.

This week Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will host three town hall meetings about the impacts of the Republican National Convention on residents and businesses. Each meeting is from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

  • Tuesday it’s at the Florida Aquarium

  • Wednesday it’s at the Tampa campus of Stetson University College of Law and

  • Thursday at the Kate Jackson Community Center on South Rome Avenue.

The city says there will be representatives from the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, as well as Tampa's transportation and parking divisions and other departments related to the convention.

Here's WMNF's previous Republican convention coverage

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