'Arrest me,' Democratic convention protesters say, but police officers show restraint

PHILADELPHIA — The young man in the gray T-shirt grabbed a metal barricade outside the Wells Fargo Center Monday afternoon and tried to haul himself over. Police officers on the other side pushed him back. Again, the man tried to cross the barrier, only to be pushed back a second time.

On his last attempt, he succeeded, as the officers appeared to accept that he would get over the barricade. But then he was promptly handcuffed using plastic ties and led calmly away.

Arrests and detentions during national political conventions have often spawned complaints that the police were too arbitrary in taking people into custody. But during this summer's conventions, the police seem to be more restrained.

[Sanders supporters, including Alaska delegates, exit peacefully after protesting Clinton vote]

During the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, officers used tear gas so liberally that a local City Council member said it felt almost as if entire swaths of the city were under siege. Four years earlier, when the Republican gathering was in New York City, officers arrested more than 200 people walking on a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan, later drawing criticism from a federal judge who said the police had lacked probable cause.

But the detentions Monday on the first day of the Democratic National Convention came under very different circumstances: Police officers appeared reluctant to take anyone into custody while protesters were clearly determined to be taken in.

By the end of the day, the Philadelphia police said, 54 people had been cuffed, detained, then released with disorderly conduct citations after crossing over barricades near the convention center.

Shortly after a march of more than 1,000 people arrived at the convention center Monday afternoon, protesters lined the tall metal fences separating them from the Wells Fargo Center while they waved signs and implored passing delegates and others to support Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton.

Soon, a group of protesters near the northern end of the perimeter, near a subway station, began pushing forward. Police officers used bikes to block the crowd, and a Secret Service agent strode into the throng, ordering them to halt. Some did, but others moved ahead, beckoned forward by fellow protesters, including one man who yelled, "Take the ground they cede."

The protesters chanted "Not for sale" and "Shame on the DNC," and shouted against the influence of money in politics. Among them was James Merritt, 66, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who said he was willing to be arrested to make his point.

"We're here to see Citizens United overturned," he said, referring to a Supreme Court decision that removed limits on corporate spending in political campaigns. "We don't want representatives financed by corporations."

Merritt said that he was connected with a group called Democracy Spring that had organized protests that resulted in arrests a few months ago in Washington.

As the protesters pushed forward, singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," the police appeared unwilling to accommodate their wish to be arrested and officers replaced the line of bikes with metal barricades. One protester, Daisy Millard, 24, of Brooklyn, called for calm.

"Single file," she shouted. "Nonviolent, peaceful."

[Photos: Protesters at the Democratic National Convention]

Other protesters took up the call, repeating it as they inched forward. On the other side of the barricades the police officers facing the advancing protesters held their line.

"We have a democracy that only works for the 1 percent, and it incarcerates and murders black and brown people," Millard said as she pushed into the crush.

A moment later the man in the gray T-shirt made it over the barricades. Then other protesters were climbing over one by one and submitting to being cuffed.

Around 5:30 p.m. the calm was briefly broken when the protesters abandoned their tactic of waiting in line to cross the barricades at a single spot and instead began clambering simultaneously over different sections. Officers rushed forward, but relaxed when they realized these people, too, simply waited to be cuffed after climbing over.

Millard was among those in that wave of protesters. A police officer suggested that she rest her foot on the frame of his bicycle to ease her move over the barricade. As she did, a female officer grasped her hand and helped her. A moment later she was in custody and led away.