BOSTON — After four days of relative calm, protests became tense outside the site of the Democratic National Convention as demonstrators burned a two-faced effigy depicting President Bush on one side and Sen. John Kerry on the other and started a shoving match with police.
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About 400 protesters marched Thursday through the city before arriving outside the fenced-in demonstration area outside the FleetCenter. The throng pressed up against police officers who used clubs to keep the crowd at bay.
Several protesters were dragged from the crowd and handcuffed by police. Other screamed at the officers to let them go.
Police Superintendent Robert Dunford said two men were arrested, one because police were told he had a bottle of an unknown accelerant, the other for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
Police quickly barricaded the streets near the FleetCenter as the enormous contingent of state and local officers quickly calmed the situation. Fifty to 60 officers with helmets and riot shields marched toward where the confrontation was taking place.
Dunford said he got punched as he ran to the aid of his officers. “I tried to pull my officers from the crowd and I got sucker punched from behind,” he said.
“People get angry and they don’t know how to get rid of their anger so they end up fighting cops,” said protester Garrett Stark, 21, of Rochester, N.Y.
The main entrance to the FleetCenter, which faces the protest area, was closed just as Democratic delegates were beginning to arrive for the final day of the convention.
Two small explosions were heard a few blocks from the arena. A bomb squad had arrived in the area a few minutes and told bystanders to move away. The source of the explosions was not immediately clear.
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Police had prepared for a surge in spontaneous street protests.
The Boston-area Bl(A)ck Tea Society, an ad hoc group of self-described anarchists and anti-authority activists that formed a year ago to stage protests at the convention, called for “decentralized direct action” Thursday.
The group does not advocate violence but encourages demonstrators to hold street protests regardless of whether they have secured permits from the city.
Bl(A)ck Tea members joined with anti-war groups in a march that began in Copley Square shortly after noon and quickly grew into the largest demonstration since thousands of anti-war and anti-abortion protesters greeted delegates on Sunday as they arrived in the city.
The crowd, estimated at around 400 people, looped through the city’s Financial District before heading toward the FleetCenter. They were accompanied by about 100 police officers wearing helmets and carrying shields. Seven protesters with hoods tied themselves to a police barricade.
When they arrived outside the fenced-in demonstration zone near the FleetCenter, the protesters set fire to a two-faced effigy — one side showing Bush, the other Kerry. As it burned, the protesters stomped on the puppet, while others burned copies of Bush’s autobiography.
Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole ordered police tactical teams out in force Thursday, as they have been throughout the week.
State police Lt. Col. Jack Kelly said Thursday’s police deployment was the biggest in recent Boston history.
Superintendent James Claiborne said police were not overreacting by having a large, visible presence, based on what had happened with protests during past conventions.
“I think the cost of not being prepared is watching the city burn down,” Claiborne said. “We wouldn’t want to see Newbury Street with half the windows knocked out. You know you wouldn’t want to see riots in the street and people being hurt.”
The biggest protests surrounding the convention were on Sunday. About 2,000 anti-war activists and a separate group of 1,000 abortion opponents crossed paths briefly as they marched to the FleetCenter as convention delegates were just arriving in town.
The next day, police revoked abortion opponents’ permit to pray and leave roses in front of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Beacon Hill home, a decision later upheld by a federal judge.
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