Checking out “Convention-al” Wisdom
Coming, up, national political conventions, Cleveland (Republican), Philadelphia (Democrat.)
This post is not about candidates, platforms, or horse race predictions. I’m thinking about convention security.
I’m no expert, but in 2012, I got a pretty good outsider’s glimpse of external convention security measures while spending several days in the neighborhood near the Democrats’ gathering in Charlotte NC. And I took some photos with my trusty Blackberry. I’m thinking that much of what I saw will likely apply, in spades, at the conventions this year, and so it’s worth passing them on.
Here’s one of the dominant images in downtown Charlotte that week: Big Sister, warning us to watch everything and everybody: “If you SEE Something, SAY Something.” The colors were subdued gray, which made the image almost subliminal; but it was everywhere. Setting the tone.
Then there were the cops; of course they were everywhere, in droves.
That was to be expected. But what surprised me was that, walking down the street in the convention center area, was how many different police forces were represented: I saw patches from four or five different states on the uniforms.
With a little thought, it made sense: after all, Charlotte is NC’s largest city, and the local cops had a lot of local turf to cover; crime and trouble didn’t go on “Pause” while the Top Dog Dems were in town. So they called in reinforcements. (Though I suspect it was the feds who did most of the calling. And it was likely also federal money which was covering the loads of overtime and room and board; millions easy.)
And they weren’t just rookies or relocated traffic cops. Among them were many well-trained squads. Well-trained, especially with bicycles.
The point of the cops on bikes soon became clear. I discerned several:
–First, the bikes looked harmless. Not like those urban tanks or armored Hummers. I fact, that was likely why it was cops who did most of the work there: cops, especially on bikes, look less threatening, less militarized than national guard troops. And it was clear that this lower-key image was important to the Dems –they didn’t want to even look like they were worried, or were under siege. (Though in fact they were ready for a siege.)
— But they were in fact very much in control of the area. I saw this demonstrated one afternoon when a protest march of undocumented young people barged into the street that passed within a block of the convention center, chanting “Undocumented! Un-Afraid!” as they pushed their way down the crowded, roadway.
Two long parallel columns of bike cops almost instantly appeared. They quickly caught up with the march. Several then walked their bikes in a line across the road behind the march. The others snaked along each side, then dismounted, and walked their bikes alongside the curbs on either side of the march.
A crowd gathered on each sidewalk and shuffled along with them, myself included. The march was illegal; the marchers un-documented: were they all going to get busted? Would there be trouble? An instant forest of raised arms appeared, pointing scores of phone cameras at the scene, videorecording it all — or at least petting images of all the other raised phones in the way. (I saw this, but didn’t get any usable photos; I wasn’t close enough to stick my camera through the electronic shrubbery.)
The march approached the corner of the cross street that led, half a block down, to the entrance of the convention center. Ground Zero. Tension rose both in the street, and in the slow-moving crowd.
But the cops on each side were ready: Stepping on their bikes, they pedaled quickly ahead to the intersection. There they stopped and formed into a tight double line across the corners of the intersection. Then, at a command, they smartly turned their bikes so they were in front of them, spaced precisely so the front wheel of one overlapped the rear wheel of the next: which turned them into an instant fence, blocking access to the side streets.
The brilliance of the tactics was immediately obvious to me: other police were at the marchers’ backs, so they could only go forward, which would take them past the conference center street, and then away from it. As they passed, bike cops began peeling off to move alongside them again.
Which is to say, the marchers, and the of us watching, realized that the bike cops were quietly, and pretty smoothly, moving the march along, beyond the site of the conventions itself, and soon outside the range of view and interest of the thousands of media swarming the area. And they were doing this without a “show of force”; no billy clubs were unholstered, no one was beaten, no arrests, no fuss no muss. Nothing to see here, media folks, you may return to handicapping the horse race.
The marchers were outraged: they were here to get attention, by making noise and courting arrest, but instead they were getting a velvet-gloved bum’s rush, back into obscurity.
They weren’t immediately sure what to do. They went into a huddle in the street. And then several of them sat down, refusing to move. That, they clearly hoped, should get them arrested, get some attention.
But the cops were ready for them again. While the sidewalk crowd moved in closer, a police van entered the street a block or so ahead, and slowly backed down to where the sitters were chanting and waving their arms.
Then it stopped. And cops got out and began conferring, talking on lapel-clipped microphones, and walking back and forth.
Now the marchers were surrounded, first by an inner cordon of cops, and then by the crowd peering at everyone, cellphone videos going nonstop.
But then nothing happened. Ten minutes passed; cops conferred;, sitters chanted. It was hot. Twenty minutes. The same.
Finally one sitter was very carefully lifted by several cops, cuffed with plastic bindings, and — again very slowly, and deliberately, moved into the open rear of the police wagon. No clubs, no shoving, no speed.
Then the slow drill began again. Many people in the crowd started drifting away, though others came rushing up, lifting cellphones to take their places.
When I left, maybe three had been arrested, and there was, from a media perspective, nothing to see there. It was clear that the cops had been carefully prepared to keep it that way.
I saw much the same thing the next day, when young woman from Code Pink managed to get into a nearby office building with a balcony, and unfurled an antiwar banner from it.
I stood around for most of an hour after they brought her out, in plastic handcuffs, watching from across the street as numerous police milled around and conferred. Repressive, yes; openly violent, no. Tedious. Boring: that was the plan, flawlessly executed.
As I walked away, I passed a large office building, which had a broad entrance to an underground garage. I glanced down into the descending ramp — and I saw military vehicles, something hummer-like, something tank like, and men in camo fatigues. troops.
I whipped out the Blackberry. But then a man in camos stepped in front of me. “No pictures,” he said. It was obvious he was not prepared to negotiate.
A few blocks further down, on the edge of the convention district (and beyond the ken of the media), I spotted an army jeep, with a driver and an officer. They were clearly communicating with others, and some headquarters. And I sensed another dimension of this security: there was, I was persuaded, a substantial military presence in this district; but it was carefully concealed, to be deployed only in case of need.
After all, the trouble that protesters hoped to foment was only one dimension the managers had to worry about; there was also terror, a sniper or somebody with a bomb, ready to kill dozens or hundreds.
Overall, from what I saw the security plan in Charlotte 2012 worked very well for the Democrats, in at least three ways: first, while there were other protests, they were small, easily managed, and a complete flop at gaining significant media attention. Second, there was no terrorism. And third, the very large force gathered around the convention center area was mainly invisible, except in its least unsettling form, that of uniformed police, who appeared to be armed with little that was more hazardous than bicycles.
What will happen in Cleveland and Philadelphia? So far, 2016 has up-ended the conventional wisdom in uncounted ways. Can the Democrats’ 2012’s carefully-constructed facade of calm be maintained again? And what approach will the Republicans take?
I’ll be watching to find out too . . .