Officials arm themselves for onslaught of democracy

Batten down the hatches
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 22, 2012


With the Republican and Democratic national conventions approaching, federal, state, and local officials are working tirelessly to ensure that Tampa and Charlotte welcome all visitors to their cities with rose petals and open arms. Just kidding – they're actually spending tens of millions of dollars on combat training, armor, bloodhounds, and sophisticated weaponry. Guests who plan on protesting the events are, in a word, unwelcome. As are credentialed journalists who venture outside of designated boundaries.

Republican National Convention planners in Tampa have $50 million in federal grant money to splurge on safety measures. In what officials there call the "largest maritime security effort the area has ever undertaken," authorities have established seven militarized zones in the bay around the convention base. On August 26, police in nearby St. Petersburg will tap into Tampa's funding to guard guests at an RNC kickoff party on Tropicana Field. And for the following day's big protest, which the Coalition to March on the RNC expects to draw around 5000 people, Tampa storm troopers will get backup from out-of-town cops, all clad in khaki uniforms purchased especially for the occasion.

With its own $50 million to burn, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte probably won't be much friendlier. Ten thousand protesters are expected to swarm uptown on September 2, which would result in the biggest march in city history. To keep tabs on it all, 21 DNC security subcommittees have met monthly since the site was announced in early 2011. They've also taken extra, if not unconstitutional, steps to quiet free speech. In February, Mecklenburg County commissioners banned camping on all county property — a complement to existing camping prohibitions in public parks. As an additional deterrent to incoming activists, Charlotte held a lottery for protest groups, requiring demonstrators to apply in advance to reserve time slots in a designated picket zone. Only 41 groups vied for formal permissions by the July 2 deadline (and all were granted permits). But many protesters and protest movements say they'll be there anyway, working outside of the officials' tidy protest narrative. And Charlotte authorities expect that. They've prepared for mass arrests by increasing prison staff by 30 percent and doubling the number of clerk magistrates on hand.

In discussing quadrennial electoral madness, Americans often point to the mayhem outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But while those memories endure, recent history has also proven brutal for activists in US hot zones. In 2004, the New York Police Department set an all-time convention record by jailing roughly 1800 people at the RNC. Four years later, between the DNC in Denver and its counterpart in the Twin Cities, there were nearly 1000 indiscriminate detentions; in the case of the former, rather than contest permissible claims of false arrests at trial, city attorneys eventually settled with the American Civil Liberties Union for $200,000.

There's little reason to believe that journalists and protesters in 2012 will fare much better. Both conventions are designated "National Security Special Events," which in the age of high-tech surveillance drones and the Patriot Act means an unchecked free-for-all for the United States Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security. Credentialing laws and procedures are woefully outdated, while a flurry of last-minute ordinances in both host cities have placed confusing circumstantial bans on everything from glass, ropes, and masks to backpacks and tripods.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention,  More more >
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