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San Diego Prepares for the Protesters

August 08, 1996|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Hosting the Republican National Convention has been a dream of many local leaders since the GOP pulled out of a planned convention here in 1972. But things have changed a lot since the days when politicians' main fears were kids with long hair.

Today, the spotlight is on the social conservatives, from abortion foes who have promised to disrupt local clinics to illegal-immigration opponents who might demonstrate at the international border. Abortion-service providers are on edge, police are preparing and counter-protesters are ready to shout. And Republican spin doctors are ready to reduce the effects some conservatives might have on Bob Dole's chances to capture America's heart--and vote.

"Right-wing demonstrators are going to very seriously damage Bob Dole, who does not need any more damaging," says USC political scientist Richard Hrair Dekmejian. "These people really made a mess of the last Republican convention because they pushed it away from the mainstream. And Bob Dole is a very mainstream politician."

Republican officials are, of course, downplaying this perceived link to the far right and any notion that San Diego '96 could shape up to be the Republican equivalent of Chicago's Democratic National Convention in 1968--when Vietnam War protesters clashed violently with police. Organizers have virtually shut out lightning rod commentator Patrick Buchanan, created a special free speech zone that will be highly controlled, and toned down its "declaration of tolerance" platform clause to appease abortion foes who feared such a declaration would open the party to abortion-rights advocacy.

Still, the convention will draw sharp words from demonstrators on both sides of the political spectrum, from the Christian Coalition on the right to the Tax the Rich Poster Campaign on the left. And the official convention view on this is that "people have a right to speak to their views," says a Republican representative. Otherwise, party officials are mum.

But state party member Michaelene Jenkins, director of the low-key California Prolife Council, defends her party's magnetism for sharp-tongued demonstrators: "I think in any movement there's always a fringe element. You have it with immigration, and obviously you're going to have it with an issue as emotional as abortion.

"I think what needs to be noted is that those people we're referring to as the fringe are not going to be inside the convention as delegates. They're not the mainstream of the Republican Party."

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San Diego abortion-service providers, however, see the convention as a dark shadow that will bring out the worst of conservative politics.

Planned Parenthood of San Diego County has spent $40,000 on convention-related security. ("We don't expect any surprises," a representative says.) And at WomanCare near downtown, one of the oldest providers of abortion services in Southern California, donations have raised $35,000 for convention week security and 300 "escorts" have volunteered to be on call to help clients get through possible demonstrations.

"In 1968 in Chicago, protesters were protesting a war," says WomanCare CEO Ashley Phillips. "What we have now are radicals who are actually creating a war against women."

Operation Rescue has already vowed to block public access to some of the half a dozen or so abortion-service providers in San Diego, which would violate federal and local laws.

"Arrest holds no fear in our eyes," says Troy Newman, Operation Rescue's San Diego chapter president. "They're trying to equate us with domestic terrorists. If they want to point at terrorism, look at the terrorism inside the womb."

Mayor Susan Golding, a Republican, announced earlier this week that antiabortion protesters who violate the law will be dealt with "swiftly and decisively" and could face "pain-compliance" techniques if they do not cooperate with police.

San Diego police--part of a convention "multi-agency task force" that includes the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--will be in full force, with all 1,983 officers working the convention and an additional 150 reserves and 750 security volunteers to boot.

"Over the past 10 months we have designed and practiced in drill numerous scenarios that we expect to see during the convention," says SDPD spokesman Bill Robinson. "Some of those scenarios include demonstrations at clinics where abortions are done."

At the same time, Robinson says, the department does not want to repeat the mistakes of the Chicago Police Department, which was accused of violently and overzealously enforcing the law during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where the spotlight moved from indoor politics to the outdoor violence. "Our department has talked to other departments involved in conventions, and we've been able to profit from their mistakes," he says.

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