By Bob Lonsberry, August 2, 2000
PHILADELPHIA -- If God in his glory has an unrealized ambition, it is to be a bike cop in Philly.
A gun on his hip, an embroidered badge on his chest, riding second row in a squad of Good Guys whipping down the street to keep the peace.
There was a lot of that yesterday, cops and protesters and various Republican grandees looking on, a gridlock of thousands and thousands in the heart of a great city. Legions in blue and a shifting sand of anarchy, smelling of filth and clove cigarettes, dashing from spot to spot to sow the seeds of chaos.
The Good Guys won and the Bad Guys looked like a bunch of punk-ass kids.
I half expected onlookers to break out in applause. I think most of them went home and wished they had.
This is a city of narrow streets, pressed in by buildings and heavy traffic. And the scum planned to shut it down. Sit in the road, link arms, shout things about what do we want and when do we want it. And they pulled it off, to an extent. For hours they roamed through the heart of Philadelphia, choking off street after street, moving and marauding until a phalanx of Good Guys would set up ahead of them, like a machine deploying itself to consume them, and the advance stopped and turned.
I followed it for hours through the afternoon and evening, in the heat of the day and the dusk of the night. An amazing balance of good versus evil, the foundation of society versus the decay of society.
And if God doesn't want to be a Philly cop, then he wants to hire them to guard the gates of heaven.
With the bicycle cops in the lead.
They were the tip of the spear in all the confrontations I saw, the ones who drew the line in the sand and plucked up the fools who crossed it. Hale and hearty men and women who pedal in at breakneck speed, in a formation of twos, and dump the bikes and push them back. Three or four or five of them stopping a hundred, holding them down and taking their blows and guarding them in a pile of three or four, the zip-lock cuffs behind their backs, while the cavalry came over the hill -- quiet, measured, detached.
I saw them first near the Convention Center when the vermin lay down in the road, road after road, taxing the police and snarling the traffic and stopping the shuttle of conventioneers. They were a lightning squad, moving and staging and moving again, riding for all they were worth, flying around stopped vehicles, like leaves on the wind.
That's how it was downtown.
And that's how it was at my hotel.
When we sat down, the reporter I'm working with and the crew from R News, in the dining room, they asked us to move back, to move back from the window, because they were just down the street. The security men scurried around more than seemed necessary and we enjoyed our dinner and the pedestrians ambled by as they will.
A bunch of guys in red dresses ran by, out for an evening's jog, but that's Philadelphia and we thought nothing of it.
And then as we got up to leave for our rooms they started coming. Some in dreadlocks, many in ratty clothes, a few speaking into radios, skirmishers out in front, like an infantry advance, running into an alley and wheeling dumpsters back into the street and turning them over in a barracade. On the avenue in front of the opulent hotel where the elite of the Empire State were ensconced. From the windows people with convention credentials around their necks looked out frightened.
In the bar, by the side door, you could see the bicycle cops wheel up, coming around to meet the skirmishers head on. They grabbed one or two and then the main body of the protestors got there and they circled the cops, pushing them and pulling them and grabbing the people in custody and trying to drag them free.
The protestors threw the punches and the cops took them.
And then the magic happened. In front of the hotel, almost without being noticed, the Good Guys set up, one line behind another, night sticks at the ready, rock steady, and the advance stopped there. A good 30 feet between them, the arrested ones in a pile waiting for tempers to cool, a couple hundred milling ragamuffins chanting about rich people and corporations and some cop-killing bastard named Mumia.
Slipping outside I moved into the middle of the crowd, unmolested, seeing them mostly as young ignoramuses, walking to the leading edge, across from the Philly cops, various in the group trying to incite chants, but mostly it was just standing, a milling about that slowly climbed down from the boiling point.
And the cops didn't move. They were passive, standing there, stubby batons diagonally across their chests, like thousands of their brothers and sisters had been through the day, just standing. Even the bike cops, looming above their prisoners, just stood there, looking down or away. No words, no looks, no confrontations. Two giants standing on the brink, pretending it's a stroll in the park.
And maybe 15 or 20 minutes into it, after the kids were bored and the prisoners were away, a cop captain in a white shirt strolled across the gap with a partner, smiling and friendly, ok, they said, it's time to go. And the protesters smiled in return and they exchanged pleasantries and they turned back, and the captain and the cop, two guys alone, walked them back a half a block, the hundred or two of them, and then the two lines advanced silently, passing scattered applause, to take up a new position behind the captain.
And a bus came through, like it was supposed to, to pick up a load of delegates who would go home with a story to tell.
Minutes later the bike cops mounted up and rode off by twos leaving nothing but a line of motorcycle cops flanking the street.
Yesterday was an interesting trial. Anarchists, in a clear example of organized and orchestrated crime, sought through roving guerilla bands not to make a point or to raise an issue, but to throttle a city. To choke it into submission, to spread chaos and disorder, to steal time and commerce and freedom of movement. And the cops who defend that city were hamstrung by the critical eyes of a thousand reporters and a bias against them.
It was mission impossible in the real world.
And the Good Guys won. They won by restraint and they won by professionalism.
Because it wasn't about the streets. It was about a powder keg and lighting the fuse. The protesters were pushed forward by their puppeteers in a mission intended to end with injury and confrontation. They wanted the kids to attack the cops and they wanted the cops to fight back. They wanted the cops to club back.
And they wanted it on the evening news.
But the cops held steady. Big, brassy, hard as a rock. They stood their ground, they flew in on bikes, they wrestled when they had to.
But mostly they just stood there, unflinching, taking the blows.
And they won. And the Bad Guys lost.
Sure, the traffic was snarled. But the fuse wasn't lit.
Score that a win.