BOSTON – Through the chain-link fence, blossoming tree limbs and the overhead rail line, the FleetCenter is not even visible. So much for the first spot set aside for protesters at this summer's Democratic National Convention (search).
Hardly more inviting for those seeking to make a political statement at the event is another possible location: a construction site covered with twisted cables, murky pools of water, trailers and debris.
"It's a pile of rubble," said Jeffrey Feuer, co-chairman of the National Lawyers Guild's (search) Massachusetts chapter.
Eleven weeks before the four-day convention opens July 26, protesters and civil libertarians are engaged in their quadrennial struggle with party organizers — which often ends in court — to establish a demonstration zone that protects both the fundamental right to free political expression and public safety.
The process this year has been complicated by the heightened security surrounding the first national political convention since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as the limited space around the FleetCenter.
"It is a balancing act," said Ann Roman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Secret Service (search), which is overseeing security. "But the partnership that we have formed with local law enforcement is very sensitive to not only providing a safe and secure environment but we also understand and recognize the constitutional right of the public to voice their opinion."
Bound by buildings, overhead train tracks, Interstate 93, and the denseness of the inner city, the FleetCenter presents organizers with a challenge as they try to accommodate the media, delegates, protesters and security officials.
"There is really very little in there in terms of open space. And what space there is has been allocated for a number of other uses," said John Reinstein, legal director for the ACLU of Massachusetts. "They're not inappropriate uses, but they all seem to have gotten to the table first."
Chanting, marching and shouting demonstrators are as much a part of national political conventions as long-winded nominating speeches. As delegates meet to choose their presidential nominees, activists gather outside to protest everything from warfare and abortion rights to racism, bioengineering, environmental policies and government oppression.
So far, at least six groups — including the Disability Policy Consortium (search), the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association and the Bl(A)ck Tea Society, which calls itself an ad-hoc coalition of anti-authoritarians — have applied for protest permits.
Under its contract as host city, Boston must provide protesters with space to demonstrate within sight and sound of the delegates. The Boston Police Department controls activities outside a secure zone established by the Secret Service around the FleetCenter, including areas well away from the convention center.
Police designated a protest zone earlier this year. But after criticism from the ACLU (search) and others that it was neither in view of the FleetCenter nor delegates, police said they would choose another. ACLU officials say it may be a debris-laden parcel of land next to where delegate buses will park, giving protesters access to delegates if not a direct view of the FleetCenter.
After seven months of negotiations, the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild are becoming frustrated by the process. Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts ACLU, said delaying a decision until the last moment serves no one's purposes.
"It's not good for civil liberties," Rose said, "or for safety."