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Is Massive Convention Security a Dress Rehearsal for the Police State?

Police officers watch demonstrators marching through the streets of Tampa, Fla., to protest the Republican National Convention there last week.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

photo of Major Garrett
September 5, 2012

The sound is dull and groaning, pressing down from the sky like a reverberating whisper of doom.

Helicopters hover over this convention city with the same lurking stationary flight they used in Tampa. You hear it before you see it. If you are lucky enough to have a hotel room near the convention site, it is often the last sound you hear before you fall asleep and the first one you hear when you wake. Or maybe it only seems that way.

During the daylight hours, as I have made my way around Tampa and now Charlotte, the choppers appear to track my every move. For the first time in my life, I feel like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Except I'm not trying to smuggle guns. I'm just trying to keep my media credentials in plain sight.


I am not prone to paranoia. I'm preternaturally optimistic. You have to be to cover presidential politics and Congress. I tend to see possibilities for good in almost every direction — even when others or even most do not. Heck, I left cable TV for print.

Consequently, I have never put stock in doomsayers — before or after 9/11 — who see the feral fangs of the police state in every new adaptation of law-enforcement muscle. But I must say, these conventions have creeped me out.

Fine cities eager for national attention have been turned into armed camps. Police officers, hired security guards, Secret Service agents, sheriff’s deputies not only stand sentinel on every corner block, but they are often positioned in bunches between blocks. The running joke here in Charlotte is that there is one security official for every five people. At times it feels as if there is one for every five hair follicles.

Before I incite the ire of any of the good officers who toiled in Tampa or are working here in Charlotte, let me say I'm not questioning your job or the way you have done it or will do it. Every single interaction I've had with security personnel has been cordial. Some have even been helpful.

Allow me to illustrate. At a security checkpoint in Tampa, I paused for a ride. One of Isaac's unfriendly gusts of wind knocked over my satchel and out spilled 40 pages of presidential polling data. Two officers joined me in an impromptu comic routine as we chased down every last sheet of paper — some crumpled, some smeared with gutter grit. They couldn't have been more helpful or responsive.

My complaint — or, rather, my observation — is that the show of force feels oppressive and needlessly so. Tampa and Charlotte have been turned into barricaded cities. Here in Charlotte, I almost feel as if the TV coverage should open with the greeting: "Welcome to the Democratic National Convention, brought to you by National Fence."

The delegates, the lawmakers, the residents and, yes, even we unimportant journalists, stumble around in a sort of security-pulverized daze. Security-fence perimeters change each and every day. Walking one direction one day is forbidden the next. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the author of a new book calling most of America "wusses," told me he's never seen more redundant and seemingly over-the-top security. He, like me, was trying to find his way through Charlotte's byzantine barricades.

And don't think relief comes from cars. Not here. Not in Tampa. Two of my National Journal colleagues lost hours trying to drive and safely park in a Charlotte location not 15 blocks from their hotel. Do you remember in the old days before GPS how maddening it was to find yourself in a strange city where you could actually see the building you wanted to get to—"There it is!"—but did not know how to get there? In Tampa and here in Charlotte, all GPS is good for is running you into the sharp edges and the implacable "No!" barked, genially, at security perimeters.

Once you get inside the perimeter and are on foot, a grim psychological pall settles as you navigate largely deserted streets. Row upon row of small businesses stand closed. The hearty that have remained open gamely scrawl and post handwritten signs proclaiming "Yes, we're open." And yet, tables sit shiny and vacant. Waitresses and bartenders stare wanly at streets dotted with pylons directing traffic not for customers but for all manner of security conveyance: squad cars, militarized golf carts and Gator ATVs, traffic-cop motorcycles, motorcycles fit for BMX tracks, bicycles, Segways, and Suburbans. All the while, the thrumming blades of the helicopters pummel the nearly silent streets below.

I have never felt so secure and so unnerved. As I said, the paranoid side of me is a trace ingredient in my psyche — like a pinch of salt in homemade apple-pie recipe.

Still, if I were to allow that pinch of paranoia to run rampant, I would conclude the following: All of this feels like a dress rehearsal for the police state. In Tampa and Charlotte, wave upon wave of elites have now been systematically conditioned to accept a level of security and police muscularity they would find shocking, alarming, and unacceptable in any other situation.

If the new security regime were to arrive, I can just hear the allowances being made. "Well, this is not nearly as bad as Tampa or Charlotte."

Let me be clear. I'm not predicting this. I'm not anticipating it.

But growing accustomed to a new normal is precisely that. I've wondered what all of this security is meant to accomplish. Who are we afraid of?

It turns out that both parties are afraid of protesters. Though long forgotten, the violent anarchist antics at the GOP convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2008 left federal law enforcement and both parties as freaked out as their new security cordons leave me now.

More than 250 protesters were arrested on that convention's first day. More than 135 felony charges were filed. Though most of the 10,000 who protested the GOP convention were peaceable, the anarchists were not. Dumpsters were set ablaze and moved to block traffic. Bank and shop windows were smashed. An 83-year-old delegate had his credentials ripped from his neck and the mother of the state party chair was spat upon. 

That experience, law-enforcement sources here and in Tampa told me, informed their thinking. The concept was to build a fortress so intimidating and populate it with so many guards that no group of protesters, no matter how brazen, would start a ruckus.

In Tampa and Charlotte, the decision was made to show a no-nonsense front of massive force. It has worked. The helicopters worked.

But it will be a while before I get that sound out of my head.

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