Americans watched speeches by Democratic Party titans like former President Bill Clinton or President Barack Obama, or rising stars like Sandra Fluke and only saw the cheers from delegates and others in attendance at the Democratic National Convention. The total security outside the convention center was taken for granted almost entirely, unless one happened to be a local or someone attending the event.
The transformation of a city area into a completely locked down zone was both fascinatingly surreal and discomforting, both because one had to wonder if it was all necessary and ponder what it says about our republic that political events are believed to require this high level of security.
I enter the city from the south side on September 4. The city is grid-like but, unlike Chicago, it is hard to orient yourself. There isn’t really a landmark that one can always look to, like a tower, and say, “That’s east.” So, if you are directionally challenged, it is easy to get lost in the post-modern setting of Charlotte, North Carolina.
In search of Occupy’s evening protest against money in politics, I walk a main thoroughfare in the city, Tryon St, searching for where they might be. I see a person here and there who looks as if they were downtown demonstrating. I see the protester-who-would-be-a-presidential-candidate, Vermin Supreme, and some of his crew walk by. A helicopter is overhead.
Protests are pestilence to law enforcement. They know they must quickly surround any action that looks like a protest and make sure it cannot spread or else it could get in the way of the smooth function of the convention. So they set up bicycle lines around the protesters and ushered them back to Marshall Park, where they have been allowed to camp so long as they do not interfere with the convention.
Police from over a thousand out-of-state departments rove the city in packs. Whether on bicycle or foot, they move through looking for anything that might warrant them being present in the city.
Most police are without purpose, having nothing to securitize as the city has been fully secured. They stand in place waiting for some hyped threat to become more than hype, to become a reality that gives them a chance to get some action.
Arun Gupta, a journalist I have had the pleasure of meeting and covering the DNC alongside, says, “Cops are the new road crews. They get paid to stand around.”
At the Mimosa Grill, the Democratic Governors Association brings party operatives, politicians and the staff of Democratic governors together for schmoozing. Through the iron-gated fence that says, “Restricted Access, Private Events,” one can see the party at this restaurant of the elite, where only persons who are part of the club will get in to meet and greet one another. Anyone loitering—the press or a protester—is likely to be noticed by private security, Secret Service agents or the lingering patrols of officers. One isn’t likely to be allowed to assemble outside the gates and protest policies promoted by any of the governors.
Just down the street, there is a military-style vehicle search checkpoint, like the one a visitor might have to go through to get onto Fort Meade. Secret Service agents wearing bulletproof vests search all vehicles. Canines do cavity searches of all that rolls in on four wheels. Hoods are opened and, in the dark of the evening, agents take a flashlight and shine it into every orifice.
I pull out my camera to take a photo. A Secret Service agent sees me just behind a tree and shouts, “No pictures, sir.” I have my photo, which I have the right to take. I look back at him waiting to see if he is going to enforce what he just barked at me. His eyes glaze over as if I have put him in one of the most difficult situations of the night. I do not look like an anarchist extremist, who law enforcement have been conditioned to believe are intent to do harm, however I am taking photos of the checkpoint and agents also are taught to believe, no matter how thorough, America’s enemies are always inventing new tactics to get around security and photos of security could be an asset.
A hummer with soldiers standing around in camouflage is further down. They are just another element of the security theater on display and of the total securitization of a city funded by a $50 million grant that has become a standard handout given to cities that host “extraordinary events” like a political convention.
The presence of military is accompanied by a network of at least five hundred surveillance cameras that feeds into a command center run by federal agencies and a command center run by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. Plus, the police have a mobile surveillance team that can be deployed to live stream any demonstration.
Asked about this security on September 4, a local told the Gaston Gazette that “she felt more safe with so many police around.” She said, “I think it’s great…I think it probably deters things that could get out of hand. I’d rather err on the side of ‘too much’ than ‘not enough.’” A DNC volunteer from Washington, DC, watched a demonstration by undocumented immigrants and “observed the throng of police involved in handling the protest.” She concluded, “For this event, we need the protection.”
They need insulation from the masses so they can carry on their staged confab without interruption or without having to address or confront an issue or topic they find to be third rail. They need cops at the events to throw out reporters who ask questions that do not fit with the messaging of the party. They need hundreds of police to surround a protest and completely suffocate and tranquilize it so the numbers dwindle and a demonstration of more than fifty people doesn’t occur anywhere near the convention center, where they might have to face the people.
Businesses and city public relations staff need the security too. They need it to bolster the city’s reputation.
Finally, in the most successful instances, it is made to seem normal. The military-style vehicle checkpoints did not come until the convention actually kicked off on Tuesday. In the run up, iron fences went up in more and more locations. More and more areas of the downtown area were closed off to the public.
Tampa used riot police to patrol the area and control dissent but Charlotte did not. Police did not wear any riot helmets. US Park Police utilized face shields and other riot protection for their horses during the largest protest on September 7. Otherwise the squads, which make up the muscle of the national security state, did their best to become an accepted and appreciated part of the facade of the city while the Democratic Party machine was in town.