AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
On a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C., about 200 protesters took to the streets to march through the city. It was the second day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and the streets were lined with thousands of law enforcement officers decked out in riot gear, ready to act. Police quickly surrounded the group of protesters, vastly outnumbering them, and formed a barricade between the protesters and the convention site. Tensions grew as police and protesters faced off, and both groups stood their ground for two hours in the rainstorm. Protesters demanded that the officers move, and Police Chief Rodney Monroe eventually came forward and calmly spoke with a few of the protesters. He then ordered the police to move aside and allow the march to continue through Charlotte. The protesters remained surrounded by officers but peacefully continued their march and eventually returned to their campsite.
This situation was in stark contrast to the national conventions four years ago. During the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., at least 800 people were arrested, including more than 40 journalists. And the 2008 Democratic National Convention saw 140 arrests, including at least one journalist. This year at the Republican and Democratic conventions, two and 25 people respectively were arrested. For the first time in 20 years, no journalists were arrested at either convention.
“There weren’t any protests that spilled into violent confrontations, which sometimes happens at these conventions,” Charlotte media lawyer Jon Buchan said shortly after the Democratic convention, explaining the lack of incidents involving reporters. Buchan manned a media hotline for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press during the Charlotte event.
“There wasn’t any tension between protesters and police that photographers or reporters could have gotten caught up in,” Buchan said.
After the brutal treatment of protesters and members of the news media at Occupy Wall Street and similar events over the past year, the conventions could be a sign of a new era of press, protester and police relations.
Tense moments diffused
Many observers attributed the largely peaceful interaction between journalists and law enforcement officials to a large police presence and smaller crowds of protesters.
Amos Miers, a leader of ResistRNC, a group that coordinated logistics and support of the Tampa protesters, said his organization had to work hard to confront the misconception that protesters would be violent.
“We wanted to let the law enforcement know that we’re not here to confront them, we’re here to confront the people they’re protecting, the powerful elite,” said Miers, who attended the Republican convention. “We aren’t here to fight you guys, we’re here to speak out about issues we care about.”
Miers said a few tense moments occurred on the first two days of the Republican National Convention when police encroached upon the protesters’ outdoor campsite and challenged their right to be there.
“Everyone behaved, was disciplined, and nobody was arrested,” Miers said. “I think that the law enforcement recognized that hey, we’re keeping with our word, we’re not violent. For whatever reason on Tuesday they changed their attitude. They were noticeably nicer and less aggressive.”
Tampa Police Department (TPD) spokeswoman Laura McElroy agreed.
“There were a few tense moments where protesters wanted to take over an intersection and block traffic on Monday,” she said. “We utilized a few officers to negotiate with protest leaders. We asked them, ‘What do you want to achieve, and how can we do it together?’ That moment helped set the tone of the whole event.”
As both conventions wore on, stories of positive protester and police interaction began to emerge. Police and protesters chatted, compromised and bumped fists. Protesters took pictures with Charlotte and Tampa police chiefs and thanked them, and Tampa police officers brought protesters food and water on the last day of the convention.
“The food truck at our encampment left on Thursday so we were out of food and water,” Miers said. “Some cops stopped by to see how we were doing, and they ended up bringing us over a hundred boxed lunches, some big boxes of fruit and a bunch of water.”
Tim Pool, a journalist who has covered past conventions and attended this year’s Republican National Convention, said he thinks the accompanying protests went so smoothly because the police were trained so well and there were so few protesters.
“Ultimately, the police were very calm and polite with the protesters,” Pool said. “I think that’s what good training is: They didn’t overreact, they kept their cool, and they were friendly to the protesters.”
Miers attributed the low number of protesters to disorganization among activist groups, financial difficulties and fears of Hurricane Issac, which was predicted to make landfall near Tampa during the convention. Widespread and violent protests in connection with Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring movements over the past year also contributed to protesters’ fears that the convention would be a “violent police bloodbath,” Miers added.
“There was overplaying by authorities and media on fears of violence from both law enforcement and protesters,” he said. “A lot of people were scared that they’d be harmed if they came.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) spokesman Robert Tufano attributed the success of the Charlotte convention to partnerships with the Secret Service, many local law enforcement agencies and the officers themselves.
“The officers involved with the event handled themselves professionally and were a critical component in the success of the Democratic National Convention,” Tufano said.
McElroy said the small crowds deterred rowdier protesters from trying to spur on violent activities that sometimes occur in larger public gatherings.
“We knew that a lot of would-be troublemakers typically embed themselves in large numbers of protesters,” McElroy said. “When our governor declared a state of emergency because of the storm, there were fewer law-abiding protesters coming. The would-be troublemakers were there, but their typical methods of operation wouldn’t work because instead of 10,000 protesters there were 2,000. They stood out instead of blending into the group, so they left after a couple of days.”
Pool agreed, saying, “when there are a lot of protesters, people might be more likely to do something they normally wouldn’t.”
Getty photographer Scott Olson, who has covered numerous conventions, said the Tampa and Charlotte ones this year were tame compared to other national events that have attracted protesters recently, including the May NATO summit in Chicago. There, Olson, along with several protesters, was struck in the head with a police baton. He said the police in Charlotte did a good job of maintaining control peacefully, while the police at the Chicago summit were “heavy-handed.”
“In Charlotte, if things got tense there was usually someone in charge to step forward and calm things down real fast,” Olson said.
Months of training
Clashes between police, protesters and journalists at recent conventions have been numerous and violent. Officers arrested more than 1,800 people during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York — the highest number of people ever arrested at a national convention. In anticipation of mass arrests, St. Paul officials required the Republican National Convention organizers to purchase a $10 million insurance policy to protect police from false arrest and brutality charges when the convention was held there in 2008.
When Tampa and Charlotte were chosen to host this year’s conventions, city officials immediately began preparing for the events. National conventions are considered National Special Security Events, meaning that security measures and law enforcement efforts are headed up by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Each city received a $50 million federal grant for convention security.
CMPD spent 18 months preparing for the Democratic National Convention, and the department assembled 26 subcommittees to coordinate the event. Tufano said the department’s goal was to develop and implement a seamless security plan that created a secure environment for everyone involved. This included planning in the areas of venue security, air space security, training, communications and credentialing.
Tufano said CMPD’s 1,760 police officers, along with several thousand additional officers from across the country, received extensive training in crowd management and how to work with journalists.
“The CMPD met with journalists several times before the event to answer any questions or concerns they may have had leading up to the convention,” Tufano said.
McElroy said the TPD took a “progressive” approach in training officers on how to deal with protesters and the media. In addition to speaking with media attorneys and attending three ACLU forums, department officials educated 3,500 officers from various law enforcement agencies statewide about both the media and public’s rights under the First Amendment and how to interact with members of each within those constitutional limits.
“It was our goal not to have any members of the media arrested,” McElroy said. “We told our officers that there are two events going on: one inside the convention, where someone is being nominated for president, and one equally important event outside where people are exercising their First Amendment rights. Our job is to make sure both events are safe.”