Charlotte, NC – In cities hosting large gatherings such as the national political conventions or international summits, we’ve come to expect a massive militarized police presence, even as the ranks of protesters thin. But what happens to all of the new high-tech cop toys and newly passed ordinances once conventioneers leave town? They stay.
I was at the alternative journalist flophouse in Charlotte on Sept. 4, the first day of the Democratic National Convention, when I received word of kettled protesters a few blocks away. I had just met FireDogLake reporter Kevin Gosztola, and after forming a mutual admiration society, we raced outside.
We hoofed past siren-flashing police cars blocking side streets, hiking alongside an empty roadway. Walls of blue loomed ahead. Our hands went to our sides and drew cameras. As we neared a broad intersection, protesters appeared behind a double line of police using bicycles as barricades. The entire intersection was encircled by hundreds of ground troops, motorcycle cops, commanders, surveillance units and vehicles. Media flitted along the perimeter and uncertainty coursed through observers. Why had hundreds of police barricaded the protesters, were they going to sweep them up, would violence break out?
In turned out the protesters were conducting an impromptu street blockade, preventing delegate buses from proceeding on their appointed route. The police moved to funnel the protesters into an isolated grass field lined with metal fencing, the “free-speech prison.” It was devoid of life, save for CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin on a loudspeaker demanding: “Free Bradley Manning,” and “We don’t want a war with Iran.” A dozen anarchists approached the cage and broke into the “Hokey Pokey,” sticking their left arms in and singing, “You do the hokey-pokey and kiss your rights goodbye, that’s what it’s all about.”
Squads of camouflage-clad cops marched by; pelotons of bicycle police cruised streets; posses of horse-mounted police stood at the ready; heavy-duty golf carts crammed with law-enforcement personnel zipped by; platoons of riot police shadowed protesters; two-man teams on overpasses scanned areas below with binoculars, Secret Service in bulletproof vests secured checkpoints; assault boats plied the water; choppers circled above.
It was a replay of the final night in Tampa, Fla., at the Republican National Convention. There, perhaps 150 protesters also blocked an intersection, delaying delegates exiting the convention after Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech. Nearly 400 police penned in the protest, and at every intersection visible, up to two blocks away, squads of police waited in reserve. A crew of seven Guardian Angels had deputized themselves as back-ups in case the police were overwhelmed, their tee shirts and bodies having seen better days.
Police-to-Protester Ratio Incalculably Wide
Protests in Tampa and Charlotte have been surrounded by media, swarmed by police and enveloped in surveillance. Perhaps because of the military-like mobilization, arrests have been rare and police in both cities have not prevented unpermitted marches, though they have been tightly managed. There were only two reported arrests in Tampa, and activists who dropped banners and locked down at a coal-fired power plant were not arrested.
On Tuesday, Sept. 4, ten undocumented immigrants were hauled off after staging a nonviolent civil disobedience action. Police also nabbed three protesters, including one for wearing a mask and another for allegedly crossing a police line – something I did multiple times without incident. Of course, I was wearing a suit, and the protesters were a bit scruffier, lending weight to activists’ contention that police single them out based on their appearance.
I moved on to a Planned Parenthood rally taking place nearby. I talked my way through the first layer of Secret Service despite lacking credentials. The crowd was a pink haze of tee shirts bearing the slogan, “2012 Yes We Plan,” with the zero replaced by a circular package of birth-control pills. With the branded tees, pink signs declaring “Women are watching and we’re voting Obama,” and canned speeches for Obama, it had all the spontaneity of a corporate rock concert, as soothing to the Democratic Party machine as a river of pink Pepto-Bismol. Unlike the feral anarchists outside, the pro-choice troops inside the Democratic fold were free of a suffocating police presence.
Drones, “less-lethal” weapons and anti-dissent laws
The feds gave $50 million each to Tampa and Charlotte for security for the conventions, and it showed in the police mobilization and shiny new equipment ranging from bicycles and “less lethal weapons” to communications gear and medieval-style armor for cops and horses. Given the fact that protesters amounted only to a few hundred, it’s suspicious that thousands of police needed to be deployed — more than were in evidence for massive protests in Washington, D.C. against the Iraq War a decade ago.
The biggest impact of militarized policing is not at the conventions themselves, but in the long term …