NEW YORK – Passing up road trips, beach vacations and barbecues, thousands of anti-Bush demonstrators are heading to summer school to learn how to stage successful sit-ins and what to do if pepper spray (search) burns their eyes. Welcome to Convention Protesting 101.
Before the GOP convention begins Aug. 30, veteran activists will train protesters in street tactics, legal issues, public relations and first aid. Their aim: creating a force of demonstrators to carry out safe and organized protests.
"When you're protesting in New York City," said John Sellers, the director of a California-based group that trains activists, "you're definitely in the big leagues."
As city officials weigh which protest groups will get permits for official events, activists are quietly learning how to block doorways or street intersections and when to use passive body language — such as sitting down — to disarm police officers trying to make an arrest.
Trainers say they aren't urging protesters to break the law. But arrests are inevitable, and protesters are also offering legal training.
"The Republicans would love to have images coming out of New York City that make them look like the reasonable ones, like they're about responsibility and law and order and creating a safe society, and that the left was unreasonable and violent," Sellers said. "If we don't recognize that, then we're not being very strategic."
The instruction includes skills for responding to rogue protesters intent on causing lawlessness. Veterans expect thousands of untrained demonstrators to swarm city streets.
Sellers' group, the Ruckus Society (search), founded in 1995, will hold at least one weekend training camp this summer. Using many of the same principles, local activists are already gathering in churches, homes and public places throughout the city to teach classes, which will increase in frequency as the four-day convention approaches.
"It's not just that we train a few thousand people over the summer," said Jeff Senter, a legal training coordinator. "They go and tell their friends, so the effect is multiplied several times over."
Police spokesman Paul Browne declined to comment on activist training but said the department approves of any methods that teach protesters to be less confrontational. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau (search) said recently that he expects about 1,000 arrests per day during the convention — three times the normal daily arrest volume.
Organizers won't publicly disclose their plans for civil disobedience (search). But activists describe sit-ins and blockades at delegate hotels, pie-throwing at high-level officials, and street theater outside Broadway shows attended by convention-goers. A man who calls himself Jonny America plans to mimic Paul Revere's (search) ride along Lexington Avenue, shouting "the Republicans are coming, the Republicans are coming!"
Classes begin with protest history — from the Boston Tea Party (search) to treetop protests against logging — to give students perspective. "A lot of things that we take for granted these days weren't given to us, they had to be taken," said Tim Doody, 30, who teaches some of the sessions. Then they learn popular street tactics like sit-ins and blockades.
Activists have declared Aug. 31 as an official day of civil disobedience, calling for all protesters to sit down and refuse to move in the streets around convention headquarters at Madison Square Garden (search) and other sites throughout the city.
"We'll take over the streets, transform them into theaters, stages for resistance and forums for debate," says their call to action, read aloud at a recent protester meeting. "We will draw our examples and inspiration from the brave shapers of history who came before us — those who put their bodies on the line to gain independence."