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A scrawled message reflects frustration with the ‘‘free speech zone.’’
A scrawled message reflects frustration with the ‘‘free speech zone.’’ (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)

Activists appear to save anger for NYC

To prepare for the protesters expected to swarm Boston during the Democratic National Convention, security planners amassed a force of 5,000 law enforcement officers. The city built a razor-wired protest zone that attracted comparisons to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Suffolk County officials cleared enough jail cells and courtrooms to handle 2,500 arrests.

Total number of protest-related arrests so far this week: One.

As the convention culminates today, protesters are planning a bike ride, a flashlight peace vigil near the FleetCenter, and unpredictable "decentralized actions" throughout the city. But signs suggest that there simply aren't enough activists here to create the kind of chaos that hit Miami, Seattle, or even the major party conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia in 2000. Now the question on the minds of activists, police, and local residents is: Where are the protesters?

"Clearly, what this represents is that folks on the left have decided it would be counterproductive to protest the DNC," said Jason Pramas, a labor organizer from Cambridge who helped create the Boston Social Forum, which attracted 5,000 people last weekend for several days of lectures, discussions, and performances.

"At this moment you could call it a truce" with the Democrats, he added.

This attitude is a sharp change from 2000, when many in the booming antiglobalization movement saw both parties as equally distasteful. One group's name lampooned the candidates' interchangeability: "Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)."

But this time, with an administration that many on the left blame for getting the country into a needless war, many progressives, radicals, and Greens are saving their protests for the Republican National Convention in New York. "We are confident the New York demonstrations will be quite massive," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of antiwar groups.

The biggest demonstration of DNC week was Sunday's antiwar rally; organizers said 3,000 people attended, but police now estimate the number at 700. By contrast, some of the antiwar rallies held across the country in the past year-and-a-half have drawn tens of thousands of people. At the previous Democratic National Convention, in Los Angeles, almost 200 protesters were taken into custody. About 390 were arrested at the last Republican convention, in Philadelphia.

In Boston, many activists say heavy police presence and the fortified "free speech zone" discouraged protesters from turning out. Some suggested police predictions were deliberately overblown.

"The real question for me is why Boston was manipulated into believing that hordes of protesters would descend on the city," Tom Hayden, who led protests at the infamous Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. "It plays into the politics of fear, suppresses civil liberties, and becomes a blank check for police overtime and the procurement of bone-crushing gadgets."

But authorities needed to be prepared, said Boston Police spokeswoman Beverly Ford. "We have studied demonstrations at the G8 [conference in Georgia], in Seattle, everyplace, and they're a good indicator of what we should expect here," she said.

Activists themselves seem to have overestimated possible turnout. Despite predictions of hundreds, even thousands, by some group members, a pro-Palestinian demonstration in the "free speech zone" attracted about 150 people. A "Close Down Guantanamo" rally in Copley Square yesterday brought out about 300.

Suffolk Lawyers for Justice sent home more than half of the attorneys it had available to handle arraignments of arrested protesters.

"We all would have liked to have seen more people out on the streets," Cagan said. "One way to hold on to your right to protest is to actually keep doing it."

Cagan's group, however, brought only a few activists to Boston. In New York it is sponsoring an antiwar rally for which it received a permit for 250,000 people.

Perhaps one sign of the lack of urgency many activists feel is the fact that the protest zone itself has become one of the major topics of protest. Most groups have boycotted the area, and at least three have held news conferences or demonstrations against it. The last was a group of 15 delegates who yesterday blasted the zone as "an affront to American values."

Some did come to Boston to criticize the establishment -- but not to protest. In addition to the Boston Social Forum, supporters of Representative Dennis J. Kucinich's presidential bid and Veterans for Peace held their own conventions in town.

But many skipped the DNC entirely, such as 79-year-old Hal Carlstad, a lifelong activist who tried -- but failed -- to get arrested at the DNC in Los Angeles four years ago. "I'm so disgusted with the Democrats, I've got things here I can really do," Carlstad said from his California home.

Anand Vaishnav of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at 

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