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Hoards of policemen, FBI, and servicemen in riot gear bring an eerie, oppressive air to the RNC convention

By Tamara Lush
Published August 29, 2012 11:07PM (EDT)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — They seem to be on every street corner. Police officers riding bicycles, horses and golf carts that look like baby Humvees. Metal barricades surround all of Tampa's government buildings. State police, FBI, the Secret Service — some in riot gear — throng the city's streets surrounding the Republican National Convention.

Some, from visitors to downtown business owners, wonder if the convention security is all a little too much.

"I think it's overwhelming," said Ellen Brown, the owner of a bookstore in downtown Tampa. "It seems oppressive to me."

"It's overdone," said Tom Neal, a guest of the Texas GOP delegation. "Once you go this far, you're only a step away from becoming a police state."

During a normal August, downtown Tampa is a bit sleepy. Workers shuffle from air-conditioned offices into the steamy outdoors, past palm trees that sag under the oppressive humidity and through the city's lush green parks.

But with the convention in town, the city looks somewhat like it's under siege. Helicopters fly almost constantly overhead and packs of police cruise by on bicycles. Fast boats whiz by the region's three bridges, looking for unseen threats. Tall chain-link fences shield the pretty parks along the Hillsborough River from view. The main library is closed.

Brown said she spoke with one protester who spotted the fences and long green tarps blocking the view of the city's waterfront. He was carrying a sign that said, "Is this what democracy looks like?"

"Welcome to Tampa," sighed Brown.

City officials maintain the massive show of force — more than 3,000 officers — is needed to ward off possibly violent protests, pointing to several clashes with police at the 2008 Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Civil liberties advocates have worried about the amping up of security at political events, where dissenters are kept in so-called "protest zones," fenced enclosures often far from the actual event. In Tampa, the protesters and city-sanctioned parade routes are blocks away from the RNC and the nearby media center. The installation of surveillance cameras on public streets (a few dozen are in place in Tampa) also give some free speech advocates pause.

Ron Krotoszynski, a professor of law at the University of Alabama, said that security at conventions has grown since 1988, when more than 300 anti-abortion protesters were arrested after blocking clinics during the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta that year. Since 9/11, "measures have become even more draconian," he said. "Organized dissent has been banished from downtown areas."

The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern about Tampa's ban of poles, posts and rope from the so-called "event zone." The items can be used to hang banners, prop up signs and make puppets (mostly protesters have used hand and sock puppets, but larger ones are made of papier mache and held together with planks or 2 X 4s).

"Some of these restrictions make sense from a security standpoint," said Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the Florida ACLU. "But who are you keeping safe by telling someone they can't bring in a puppet?"

In the months leading up to the convention, city officials and police estimated that more than 10,000 protesters could descend on the city. They studied what happened during prior conventions — especially the 2008 RNC in St. Paul, where thousands of protesters demonstrated and a few smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles in a confrontation with pepper-spray wielding police. Hundreds were arrested over a few days, including dozens of journalists.

Seeking to avoid that kind of violence, city officials planned to bring in more than 3,000 officers from 59 state law enforcement agencies, along with Florida National Guard troops. A $50 million grant from Congress allowed Tampa police to buy everything from armored vehicles to radios.

Brown said it all might be worth it if there were actually protesters or problems. But, as she points out, the streets are largely empty and only a few hundred protesters gather at a time — likely due to Hurricane Isaac, which was a tropical storm when it brushed past Florida on its way to hitting the Gulf Coast.

Even police have acknowledged that there have been few problems; a public safety news briefing was canceled on Tuesday because there was no news to report. During some of the actual protests, the number of law enforcement officers has rivaled the number of demonstrators.

"So far, the groups we have dealt with have been very reasonable," Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said.

About 200 demonstrators attended a protest on Sunday; about 500 showed up on Monday to march in a protest that had been expected to draw 5,000. Police reported just two arrests as of Tuesday — a man who refused to take off his bandanna (masks and face coverings are banned in the "event zone"), and another who police said was carrying a machete.

"I was taken aback by just the sheer numbers," said 56-year-old Amie Crawford of Chicago, who was in Tampa to protest and advocate for raising the minimum wage. "It was a little intimidating to be surrounded by police on foot, on horses, on bicycles."

Even some of the Republicans in town are shocked.

"It does feel kind of, how shall I put it, a little claustrophobic," said Andrew Richner, 20, from Detroit, whose father is a Michigan delegate. "We're all closed in."

Rob Hinjosa, a 31-year-old San Antonio, Texas resident who is part of the Texas delegation support staff, was even more critical.

"It's a complete waste of resources," he said. "There's probably more police people here than protesters. It doesn't make me feel safe, it makes me feel paranoid."

But many downtown workers said Tuesday that they're glad the officers are there. Some, like Mollie Powell, said if she hadn't seen the officers she might not even set foot on the street.

Instead, Powell, who works in a Tampa high-rise, stood on the street on her lunch break, eating a chocolate ice cream and watching a half-dozen members of the Westboro Baptist Church protest against gays and lesbians.

"We feel so safe," she said. "I didn't realize how prepared the police were going to be. They're anticipating everything. I'm loving it."


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