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Tanks, SWAT Teams, Surveillance Helicopters: Cities Already Turning Into Mini-Police States for the Political Conventions

With millions in federal grants, local officials are preparing to crack down on dissent.
 
 
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Two cities have their hands full preparing for the upcoming Republican and Democratic National Conventions later this year. As officials in Tampa, Florida, make plans to manage an estimated 15,000 protesters expected to descend on the city during the four-day Republican gathering in August, their counterparts in Charlotte, North Carolina, are ramping up crowd-control training in the run-up to the DNC.

With the parties gathering just seven months from now, Tampa and Charlotte will spend the next half-year transforming their cities into mini-police states to manage the thousands of protesters who will carry on a long tradition of dissent at the major parties' nominating conventions.

Tampa Gears Up for RNC With Tanks and Digital Surveillance Helicopters

Last week, the Tampa City Council voted on how to spend some of the $50 million federal grant to secure Tampa for the 2012 RNC. The grant is paying for what the Tampa Bay Times describes as “the first in a series of police upgrades” that will include an armored SWAT truck and a high-tech communication system.

Security planning has been underway as far back as May 2011, just two months after the RNC announced the location of the convention.

The city council agreed to spend nearly $237,000 on a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle, which will be used in conjunction with two aging armored vehicles the city acquired through the military surplus program. Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin told the Tampa Bay Times that the trucks are strictly for the purpose of protecting officers from potential gunfire, not for day-to-day patrolling and crowd control.

Although the vote was unanimous, City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern expressed alarm about the purchase. Mulhern told AlterNet, “I didn't even know that our police force had a tank and Hamlin made a convincing argument that it’s been used to save a life. I would’ve voted no if we didn’t already have one -- it’s chilling that the police have a tank.” She fears these types of purchases could “militarize” Tampa’s police force.

Despite Mulhern’s respect for the Tampa Police Department, she expressed concern about the potential use of this new equipment against future peaceful protests. “I think the police department is using Occupy as training ground for the convention,” she told AlterNet, noting that the local occupiers had posted a photo of an armored vehicle police had displayed at the Occupy Tampa site.

Tampa’s fleet of armored vehicles will be joined by a dozen others borrowed from neighboring departments.

City officials plan to deploy anywhere between 3,000 to 4,000 officers to establish a “security corridor” around the RNC. Since the Tampa police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have only 2,100 officers combined, up to two-thirds of the federal grant will pay, feed and house thousands of officers from surrounding jurisdictions.

Another $1.18 million is going toward new digital video communication technology that will allow police helicopters to transmit video to cops on the ground equipped with handheld receivers. Various news outlets report that an additional $2 million was requested to ramp up surveillance with the installation of 60 surveillance cameras in downtown Tampa, far more than the five traffic cameras the city currently has. Mulhern tells AlterNet the council has yet to vote on that request. She fears that if the cameras are installed, they would remain after the convention is over.

Tampa authorities initially requested 238 new cameras. In October, Richard Danielson reported in the St. Petersburg Times that the city’s list of desired toys for the convention included 164 high-resolution traffic cameras mounted to light posts; two aerial surveillance drones; “20 helmet cameras with 2 1/2 hours of recording time to document crowd disturbances”; “Six trailer-mounted mobile cameras on booms that rise 20 feet or more, six more breadbox-sized cameras for covert use around high-risk activities, and four cameras that could read license tags in six lanes of traffic at speeds of 100 mph.” Less than a week later the list was revised and the drone request dropped, not because of constitutional concerns about privacy but rather due to the high price tag.

Mulhern suggested that the city divert a portion of the federal grant toward much-needed services for the homeless, since they will be most affected by a recently passed panhandling ban. She told AlterNet the convention was the “underlying push” behind the law. “A lot of the business community and citizens were saying we have to get them off the street before the convention comes here. It's an image thing,” she said. But, according to the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor Bob Buckhorn is vehemently opposed to the idea.

“We can't be diverted from what the appropriate use of that money is, and that is to provide a safe environment for the convention. It’s not to be used for pet projects or things totally unrelated to security,” Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times. “I'm not putting my reputation or the city's reputation on the line to do anything other than what we're supposed to do.”

Charlotte Police Receive Lessons In Riot Control

In Charlotte, North Carolina, preparations began less than a week after the DNC's host city was revealed in February, again boosted by a $50 million federal grant to help pay for police training and equipment upgrades. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe wasted no time. He immediately met with city officials in Denver and Pittsburg, which hosted the last two conventions, for tips on how to manage the crowds.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Domestic Preparedness began offering Charlotte police a three-day course described by the Charlotte Observer as “special crowd control training” (video of the training can be seen here). The DNC is expected to attract 35,000 attendees. In order to accommodate their security needs and manage demonstrators, an extra 2,400 to 3,400 officers from around the state and country will join Charlotte’s 1,700-strong police force.

City officials also proposed enacting a new set of crowd control ordinances, modeled after those passed in Denver, to the Charlotte city council.

The Associated Press reports that the ordinances would ban demonstrators from camping on city property and make it illegal to carry a number of items including body armor, gas masks, chains, padlocks, and lumber. Another ordinance would add more obstacles to obtaining a permit to protest:

Demonstrators would be required to apply for a permit during an "extraordinary event" when "a large-scale special event of national or international significance" promises to attract large numbers of protesters. Groups selected through a lottery process would be allowed to protest the DNC.

While most of the ordinances are clearly meant for stifling protests, others are simply bizarre:

Another change would outlaw possession of any "noxious" substance like garbage, trash, animal parts, manure or urine with the intent to use it to interfere with a lawful assembly or with those entering or leaving a place.

The ACLU warns that if passed, the ordnances would give police too much leeway to harass otherwise law-abiding demonstrators.

North Carolina ACLU legal director Katy Parker told the Associated Press, "Even though the provisions look pretty innocuous, it looks to me like the ordinances are set up to allow the police to do just about anything they want at any time." Parker cites the fact that “officials can wait 20 days before deciding whether to grant a protest permit, decide how many police are needed to oversee the assembly and then charge demonstrators for police and fire costs.” An ordinance that charges grassroots activists potentially enormous sums of money could render the right to protest obsolete for those unable to afford the tab.

Citizens are not taking the proposals lightly. At a public hearing this week, angry Charlotte residents faced down members to demand that they vote no on January 23. But if the ordinances pass, the implications will probably be seen much sooner than September – an ordinance that would ban sleeping, erecting temporary shelter, or keeping personal items on city property would likely lead police to disband the Occupy Charlotte encampment.

Police Overkill Is Not the Answer

At a time when cities and states are facing budget cuts and deficits, it seems careless for the federal government to spend $100 million on intense security preparations for party conventions. The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security considers national party conventions to be “national special security events” like a G-20 summit or a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), events that also attract thousands of protesters.

Meanwhile, many officials cite the past actions of a few black-hooded anarchists to justify police overkill, yet few if any acknowledge that it’s the media’s 24/7 coverage that draws demonstrators. Perhaps this pattern of protest against the televised gatherings of powerful decision-makers should provoke discussion about why such events attract the ire of thousands willing to put their bodies on the line to have their voices heard. 

Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @RaniaKhalek.
 
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