Protesters call security for OAS talks extreme

They object to plans they say will keep them too far away from 34 nations' diplomats at a Fort Lauderdale meeting that will also draw President Bush.

Associated Press
Published June 4, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE - When President Bush and top diplomats from 34 Western Hemisphere nations gather here, swarms of security agents will clamp down on the area to ensure they can meet without distractions.

But protesters are arguing that some of the protections for the three-day Organization of American States general assembly starting Sunday are draconian restrictions on their First Amendment rights and will keep them far from the event.

"Convening diplomats will be able to talk about democracy, but they won't get to see it practiced," said Carol Sobel, an attorney for activist groups suing over security efforts.

But those responsible for protecting the hundreds of diplomats and their staff said they would respect the right to protest. Ed Moreno, special agent in charge of the Diplomatic Security Service office in Miami, said he expected a "safe and secure event" for everyone involved.

Moreno said there had been no credible information about any terrorist plans. He said there would be thousands of security personnel from 26 law enforcement agencies on hand.

"There are some instigators and some people who want to ... cause some havoc," he said. "We do expect some protests but nothing that we really can't handle."

Protesters sued the city of Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, which operates the convention center where the meeting will be held.

The groups were first told they would have to demonstrate at least a mile from the convention center, but Moreno said that was reduced to 200 yards in a compromise. The city says protesters can be as close as 50 feet to the route delegates will take to the center. U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore sided with the city.

That doesn't please some demonstrators, who say they only want to peacefully express their views.

"I don't see how we can compromise on free speech. The OAS delegation should be able to see and hear us and anything short of that is suppression of our First Amendment rights," said Pedro Monteiro, who handles trade issues for the Sierra Club in Florida.

Some of the protest organizers are veterans of another South Florida gathering, the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting held in Miami in November 2003. When a few of the estimated 8,000 demonstrators there tried to pull down a fence surrounding the meeting, police responded with widespread use of pepper spray and concussion grenades. Nearly 150 people were arrested.

Activists in Fort Lauderdale expect about only 500 to 1,000 people to turn out this time, but city officials have responded with an ordinance similar to the one Miami imposed. Fort Lauderdale's restricts what people can carry in public, such as glass bottles, axes, cans of gasoline or anything else usable as a weapon.

But Moore issued a temporary restraining order Thursday that barred the city from enforcing it, saying it would cause irreparable harm to protesters.

Sobel is also concerned about an ordinance saying someone can be arrested for annoying "persons passing along a street, sidewalk, crosswalk or other public way."

But Mayor Jim Naugle said that was put on the books in the 1950s and won't be used during the OAS meeting.

"Our goal is to make sure that people can express themselves peacefully," Naugle said. "If there is an organization that thinks it's okay to march down the street lighting cans of gasoline, God help us."