You might not hear the phrase "First Amendment Zone" during the next two weeks, but protesters at the Democratic and Republican national conventions will be put in their respective places. High-tech gadgets, ATVs, temporary city ordinances and even a tank will be used to control dissenters, part of a $100 million effort to keep the peace in both Tampa and Charlotte. Messy, sometimes violent protests -- and local efforts to stop them -- are hardly new to nominating conventions. The cat-and-mouse game between protesters and local authorities is renewed every four years, with so-called "free speech zones" or "First Amendment zones" playing a starring role at four recent conventions. Police corral protesters into small areas, often at a safe distance from the conventions -- and more critically, at a safe distance from most TV cameras. In Boston in 2004, protesters in First Amendment Zones were surrounded by concrete walls; in New York, police circled protesters with police tape, creating "ad hoc free speech zones."
Legal challenges and a general distaste for the phrase "First Amendment zone" -- isn't all of America a First Amendment zone? -- have led to a softening of these strategies. Instead, officials in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., have replaced them with "parade routes," which give protesters a chance to march near the convention facilities, but not as close as some would like, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Some protest groups have concerns. ... People want to be right in front of the arena," said Baylor Johnson, advocacy coordinator for the ACLU of Florida. "That may be an area where we see some tension."
Tension has already ratcheted up as the Republican convention begins this week (the Democratic Party's convention is next week). Many protesters have gained practice and experience through Occupy events around the nation and are harder to control with standard police methods. And many Occupy leaders are involved in convention protests. There's also concern that anarchists inspired by the Anonymous hacker movement might be planning violence. Just days ago, there were reports thata pile of bricks and pipes was found on a rooftop near a fresh graffiti drawing of Guy Fawkes, the Anonymous symbol.
Chris O'Meara / AP
Demonstrators protest in Tampa, Fla., on Monday.
Balancing the demands of free speech against a city’s safety – and the potential damaging publicity that violence can bring -- is a high wire act. Congress gave Tampa and Charlotte $50 million each to plan for the violence. In Tampa, the city purchased an armored vehicle, police bicycles, all-terrain vehicles and put up nearly 100 high-tech surveillance cameras. (An anti-camera group has posted details about the cameras here).
"The city is a police state, buildings are lined with fences and barricades, windows boarded up," said Jarid Hamil, spokesman for a group called March on the RNC, which is organizing Tampa protests. “Helicopters constantly swarm the sky. Meanwhile, the police parade their tank from time to time.”
Johnson, of the ACLU, was not quite as pessimistic about the GOP convention in Tampa. He said his organization has held regular meetings with local officials in the months leading up to the event and feels they have heard members’ pleas to avoid unnecessary crackdowns on free speech.
"We have been preparing for over a year to make sure everyone knows their rights and that those rights are protected during the conventions," Johnson said. "We've had a relationship of mutual respect. We don't agree with everything they are doing, but we believe they have heard us. ... At this point, it's more an issue of how the rules are applied."
Parade routes are central to crowd control this time around, and seem a vast improvement on Free Speech Zones. In Charlotte, there's a 1.2 mile route that allows protesters to march within two blocks of Time Warner Arena. In Tampa, protesters can get one block from the convention site, but their route is only 0.7 miles and avoids the downtown area, steering marchers through a largely industrial area.Johnson's big concern, he said, is that in the heat of protest, rules which seem neutral end up being applied in draconian ways "and things get out of control."
Hamil said his group plans to play by the rules and has obtained a permit for its march.
Rules limiting protesters go far beyond parade routes, however. In Tampa, much of the city has been designated an "event zone" by city ordinance, says Johnson, a designation that brings with it a series of restrictions. By his reading, the law prohibits masks, puppets and even balloons.
"Lots of things you would normally see at a political demonstration aren't allowed," he said. Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis told the Tampa Tribune that puppets, long a feature of political protest, have been used to conceal weapons.
Ironically, city ordinances cannot trump Florida state handgun laws, so those with the proper permits will be allowed to carry concealed handguns into the event zone.
Within the event zone is a more tightly secure Secret Service zone, there to protect the safety of key Republican officials. It also keeps protesters from getting anywhere near GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
In Charlotte, the city has passed an "extraordinary event ordinance," according to local ACLU director Christopher Brook. The city manager can declare an “extraordinary event,” he said, and new police powers immediately kick in.
"(The declaration) makes it illegal for someone to carry pepper spray with intent to disturb the peace, makes it illegal to wear a scarf to disguise their identity. ... It places a lot of focus on police officers being able to divine what someone's intent is," Brook said. "That's an awful lot of power for the city manager to have."
Brook also praised local officials for meeting with the ACLU and other civil liberty groups, and said he was generally hopeful that things would go smoothly in Charlotte.
"The parade route they OK'd is actually pretty good. It gets close to a lot of the key areas," he said. Charlotte officials have also said that, in addition to the parade route, protesters will be welcome on city sidewalks. "We don't see eye to eye on everything, but there has been an open door both ways."
Both Johnson and Brook say their greatest concern is that civil liberty restrictions could remain even after the conventions are over. Brook wonders when the next "extraordinary event" will be declared; Johnson worries about the surveillance cameras.
"It is for us very troubling to the see massive expansion of surveillance technology, especially around a political event," Johnson said. "Because these technologies historically are put in place for one purpose, but there ends up being mission creep."
Already, the Tampa ACLU has begun distributing 15,000 "First Amendment Toolkit" pamphlets, and has set up a mobile resource center within the event zone, along the parade route. Volunteers will provide assistance to protesters with First Amendment questions, and will provide resources for legal aid.
“We've seen in past conventions that there have mass arrests, people having their permits to demonstrate revoked, people feeling that they weren't made aware of their rights, or cameras taken away from them,” he said. “What we're going to be doing in Tampa is making sure people are aware of their rights.”Despite all the preparation, he does expect some clashes as protesters try to spoil the perfect pictures that politicians try to stage for TV cameras.
Brooks expects tension, too, but says viewers around the country should try to keep any angry images in perspective.
"I know these things can look rough and tumble on television,” he said. “Perhaps some individuals have different ideas, and are considering violence. Nobody endorses that. But it's the most outlandish behavior that gets focused on. The vast majority of folks are going to (protest) so because they are passionate (and) politically engaged and are going to do so in a nonviolent fashion. The ability to do that is central to our American democracy."
Democrat vs. Republican angst aside... I want to know why each party
even needs a convention, especially when the two combined carry a 100
million dollar price tag for peace keeping. Traditionally, the
convention was designed to finalize the candidate chosen for each party
and to firm up each party's platforms so that their representatives
from the local, state and national candidacy pools can climb up up on
said platforms, each without fear of it collapsing under them. The only
person that might have helped is Todd Akin. Seriously. These
political conventions are just another example of wasteful spending
during a time of economic crisis.
our freedom of speech should come an obligation for the political
want-to-be's to listen. But, instead, they'll work to deny our freedoms
in order to coerce theirs. When our police support the politicians yet
refuse to support the citizen's rights, by denying us lawful access to
the politicians, we're in a world that is no better than communists,
dictatorships or Islamic law. If ever there was a need for the
proverbial "SHTF" situation, perhaps it is now, while the majority of
American citizens are no longer protected by law. A situation also
known as "Without Rule of Law" may prevail and that will be a great time
for the wealthy minority to learn that, a wealthy minority is still a
minority and the rest of us, a true majority, will be the only force
great enough to establish the new rule of law which will ultimately
people have become morally bankrupt - God had blinded their eyes so
that they cannot see and turn them over to the wickedness of their
hearts. They said that America will fail if it become ungodly. We are
seeing a slue of republican self righteous who fake christianity to
swindle evangelical. The talk about the apostacy but that is exactly who
they are. Christ said that they would come and deceive many. White
folks believe that they are loosing they country so they need those
zealots to go out and conquer it for them and their children. Little did
they know that the zealots are all for themselves and THEIR children.
I weep for America: it is very painful to watch.
Since the 60's it has been liberal/progressive/anarchist
and other elements of the left that have intruded and interrupted
events. It unfortunate these malcontents can cause such disruption of
the rights of others forcing a crackdown and then scream about their
rights being violated.
It is simply trendy, juvenile behavior
demanding attention. Go to Death Valley or somewhere far from the
public eye and protest all you want. You might find 3 other people to
support your cause and show up.
are you ok? The idea that you could lump anarchists in with
"big-government liberals" is laughable. In truth, the anarchists would
be better served by attending the RNC, since most of the folks in that
group want fewer laws and more weaponry in society. Also, what kind of
BS suggestion is that? Go protest where no one can see or hear you?
Why bother? Why bother at all? Why not just let those in charge walk
all over us until we can't take it any more then violently revolt? What
a twisted world you live in...