Security at the RNC: George Orwell Meets a 'Call of Duty' Cityscape


At a defining civic event, the establishment is insulated by an army of police officers from protesters camping unseen on a far away corner.

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Deep inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the impenetrable fortress where this year's Republican National Convention is being held, my colleagues and various GOP delegates assure me that the venue security I experienced is typical for events of this kind -- that it's been this way ever since 9/11. "This must be your first convention," they say. It is. As a newbie, it feels like an Orwellian police state, albeit one where the men in military fatigues carrying assault weapons are exceptionally polite. Convention veterans are inured to the layers of security checkpoints, the metal detectors, the bomb sniffing dogs, the concrete barricades, the chain link fences, and the virtual absence of protesters. I'll likely feel that way too after a few more days flashing my official credential, emblazoned with a holographic elephant raising its trunk in triumph. It's the new normal.

For now, however, I still find it striking that a community organizer turned president and a Republican Party constantly talking up limited government have collaborated to police and host a civic event literally held beneath multiple hovering police helicopters. Delegates and journalists are welcome, but citizen protesters are so far removed in their permanent camp that they might as well be in another city, save brief forays that bring them momentarily to the far periphery of the secure zone. They have the right to peaceably assemble... over there

In past years I've always watched the political conventions on television. The atmosphere on the convention floor invariably appears to be festive, with delegates resplendent in red, white, and blue, a series of speeches by familiar figures extolling American values, and broadcast media invested in the notion that their job is to humanize the nominee. Sunday night, I watched from my hotel room as CNN broadcast its deep dive on Mitt Romney. The piece had all the trappings of even-handedness. Neither compliments nor criticisms were broadcast without some balancing statement. The unstated bias was toward narrative biography, as if looking deep into the candidate's past would reveal the true character of the man behind the HD image machine.

What feels different, experiencing the RNC here at the actual venue, is the inescapable, visceral awareness of the sprawling establishment that surrounds the nominee and his running-mate.

On TV, it is easy to be taken in by the illusion that the candidate is in charge, that the speakers are all there to help introduce him to the country, and that if elected his personality, values and vision will reshape America. But here in Tampa, there are handlers, advisers, and campaign consultants. There are roving bands of reporters. There are exclusive lounges, like the National Journal workspace where I am typing these words, the Google lounge for media, where they're serving complimentary cold brew iced coffee, and other spaces that I've yet to discover, where the press is less welcome. There are countless events with corporate sponsors, delegates from all over the country, political professionals networking for future gigs, and a security infrastructure that really ought to be conveyed to America, because the fact that it's invisible to television viewers is a distortion of reality. On the ground, it is much clearer that the men on the ticket are but the most influential people in an establishment neither they nor anyone else fully controls. And though invisible on TV, the security surrounding the establishment is of great consequence, or so it seems to me after a day largely spent traversing it.

When I stepped off an Oakland to Phoenix to Tampa flight late Sunday to news that the RNC's day one events had been cancelled, I decided that Monday would be an opportune time to seek out convention protesters, many of whom traveled from cities across America to voice their dissent. Though I hesitate to generalize from my experience, cognizant that a savvier reporter might've found them more easily, my journey at least helps to convey how thoroughly they've been marginalized, partly because the reporter's journey to their vacant lot is damned unpleasant.

Here's how it went down for me.

Awaking at the Homewood Suites Tampa-Brandon, I availed myself of complimentary scrambled eggs and sausage, bypassed cheese-covered home-fries, and hitched a ride with Atlantic Media Company event staff down a highway flanked by light industry and strip clubs to Ybor City, where a lot of the socializing happens. If there is charm in this metropolitan area, this is where it resides: this small neighborhood zoned for cafes, bars, tattoo parlors, and restaurants, as opposed to used car lots and self-storage, which dominate other areas I've seen.

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After a morning panel on social media sponsored by my employer, a colleague offered to drive me downtown in her rental car so that I could seek protesters. The police proved a formidable obstacle. One of many officers whose cars were angled across intersections, forcing traffic back toward Ybor City, told us that  all routes downtown were closed for an indeterminate amount of time due to a protest march. With the sky clouded over and threatening squalls I decided against proceeding on foot, but neither did I give up. A streetcar runs from Ybor City to downtown. Several friendly Scientologists helped me purchase a ticket, and 20 minutes later I was bound toward the Tampa Bay Times Forum, or as close to it as public transportation would take me.

The streetcar line was cut short by security.

En route I befriended a French photographer covering the RNC for a Paris-based newspaper. I never got his name. He was in search of protesters too, and had seen them the previous day. To get from the trolly stop to the side of downtown where we believed the protesters to be we used our credentials to enter the secure zone, which looks like a scene from a Call of Duty game. It's as if Tampa was already hit by a massive terrorist attack and is in lock-down. On roads approaching the restricted area Tampa police officers direct traffic elsewhere. Groups of police on horseback trot regularly by. Other squads pedal around on bicycles. Closer still are concrete barricades, national guardsmen in military fatigues carrying assault weapons, Secret Service agents, SWAT teams in what I can only describe as combat pajamas, golf carts that look as though they were manufactured by Hummer, a surfeit of orange cones, and various "ACME Barricades" products. "Yesterday I was walking on the wrong side of a fence and an officer told me if I didn't want to get shot by a sniper I should go on the other side," the photographer said.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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