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

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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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Reuters

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.

A joke, probably.

Anyway, all this now seems normal to the press corps.

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Even those of us credentialed for the secure area cannot walk freely inside of it. All sorts of city blocks are closed off to pedestrians for no apparent reason. Getting from point A to point B might require going a quarter-mile out of your way five or six times. Law enforcement is generally polite, but the demeanor invariably changes immediately if someone inadvertently walks a few paces on the wrong street. Anyone who has traversed airport security is familiar with the sudden feeling that an agent of the state thinks you're a suspicious potential terrorist for crossing an arbitrary line painted on the ground. And to enter the building itself is even more surreal.

Consider this.

Want to carry a concealed handgun to a crowded movie theater? The Republican Party will defend your right to do so. But credentialed journalists traversing a random block in downtown Tampa several blocks from the GOP convention, with scores of police officers and tons of concrete barriers still separating them from the delegates?

Apparently that's too much of a security risk.

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And if we want inside the convention hall itself?

Forget concealed weapons. Banned items include unopened envelopes, flashlights, and whole fruit. In fairness, the Constitution nowhere guarantees the right to bear bananas. 

The men in fatigues and the atmosphere of military occupation is disturbing, but somehow I found the several helicopters hovering in place at all times to be the most unnerving single element.

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I suppose they make some attendees feel more secure, though I bet the majority of Republicans here agree that it's overkill. The security establishment is driven by inertia and ass-covering as much as the wants of citizens being protected. To be clear, security is a legitimate precaution at an event that could be targeted by terrorists even despite all the precautions.

But consider the costs of the maximalist approach on display here.

With the heat, humidity so high that eyeglasses fog when stepping out of air-conditioned rooms, and intermittent rain, my photographer friend and I were sweat soaked and rain-drenched when we finally exited on the other side of the secure area. We asked a police officer if he knew the wherabouts of protesters. He pointed to a barely visible pen enclosed by metal fences and barricades, indicating that they were permitted inside the "free speech zone" but weren't there. Wandering for another half-hour, pinging Twitter, and asking passersby for tips, we nearly gave up ever finding the dissenters, stopped for lunch, and happened to sit near a couple of businessmen who told me that Occupy was camping out on an empty lot near their office. We walked another 20 minutes in the heat before seeing the encampment on a quarter acre lot next to an Army/Navy surplus store, a location where they were officially permitted to be.

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Initially it appeared that only a few police officers on bicycles were keeping an eye on the site, but the longer I spent reporting there the more cops I noticed. A dozen lingered partly concealed in the courtyard of a building partway down the block. Another dozen or more sat on bikes in a park across the street. Another half-dozen rode by on horseback. At times the total number of officers and the scores of Occupy protesters on the lot was near parity if not quite there.

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This is the best use of public safety dollars?

In other items I've reported (and will continue to report) on what the protesters, almost all of whom identified with the Occupy movement, told me, but won't be able to tell most RNC delegates.

Here I want to point out, without complaining for an instant about my wonderful job, that journalists are just going to give less attention to protests when they're separated from the Republican National Convention by multiple layers of security, street closures, and many blocks. They'll report on dissenters less frequently when doing so involves blisters from a long walk in work shoes, a sweat-soaked shirt, dry-clean only slacks soiled from kneeling on a dirt lot to interview guys sprawled out in tents, and huddles under a tarp in a fly-filled kitchen during spurts of rain.

All that shouldn't matter, but it does. Most journalists are here, after all, primarily to cover events at the convention itself. It matters especially when the alternative to protest coverage is interviewing influential politicians or chatting with delegates in air-conditioned lounges or standing in line for high-quality Google espresso. Or going a party like the one I'm about to attend. It's 8:15 pm on Monday night. I'm back at the steakhouse where The Atlantic and National Journal sponsor various panels, many of which I'm keen on seeing. My dry-clean only pants are finally dry. A tornado warning is on for all Tampa, so the waiter who brought me a beer and hors d'oeuvres a few minutes ago advised that I cross the room away from the windows.

Gladly!

As luck would have it, a comfy red sofa is free.

Back out in the rainy night, on the other side of the Orwellian "secure zone," scores of Occupy protesters are camping under the night sky, tornado warning or not. Is whatever happens there more or less newsworthy than the party five minutes from my Ybor City location, one rumored to involve craft cocktails and Senator Marco Rubio? Given my hours of earlier protest reporting, I believe my presence at the American Conservative Union event is a better use of my time.

Boy am I glad to think so!

Postscript: I wasn't alone in thinking so. The line spilled out the door and looked to be about an hour long. 

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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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