CHARLOTTE, N.C – As dozens of protesters blocked a busy intersection near the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week, they were surrounded and outnumbered by heavily armed police officers who appeared ready to move in.
When the situation was resolved with a conversation instead of a confrontation, it helped demonstrate why the tallies of arrests have stayed low at this year’s national political conventions.
Police have balanced overwhelming shows of manpower with flexibility during the Democratic convention and last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, helping to keep arrests at 15 and 2, respectively. Another big factor has been lower-than-expected turnout for protesters, who have also stopped short of the mayhem that unfolded at other conventions in recent years.
Neither of this year’s conventions has had violence or significant property damage. By contrast, more than 800 people were arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2008, and another 150 at the Democratic convention that year.
The impasse during the roadblock Tuesday in Charlotte was resolved when a protester asked to speak to the police chief, and they worked out a deal to allow the group to continue walking through the city’s central business district. Police could already have pounced on the group for infractions ranging from marching without a permit to wearing masks – not to mention the two hours they spent blocking the road.
“It’s all about communication,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe said. “You have to watch what’s going on, be prepared. But you don’t want to be too aggressive.”
A former longtime law enforcement officer who runs a Tampa security company said if thousands of protesters had shown up, he expects police there and in Charlotte would have made many more arrests.
“That’s what mob mentality does. You do things you wouldn’t normally do,” said Rod Reder, a former deputy commander for the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office.
He also credited the deft use of security tactics that have evolved over the years, along with officers’ overall restraint.
“They probably prevented a ton of arrests by talking to the demonstrators, communicating with them. It doesn’t mean the departments are weak,” he said.
At this year’s Republican convention in Tampa, plans for massive protests fizzled due to foul weather from Hurricane Isaac’s outer bands. The largest protest drew about 500 participants. Still, there were enough feisty demonstrators to test officers’ patience.
When a group of protesters refused to get up from their sit-in in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown Tampa, an assistant chief squatted down and chatted with them. A minute later, the protesters stood up and moved to the sidewalk. In another instance, when three protesters chained themselves together at a power plant, authorities sawed through the chains but told the entire protest group that no one would be arrested if they left peacefully. No one was arrested.
Officers even took leftover food to Romneyville – the tent city on the edge of downtown.
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said her strategy was to communicate directly with the protesters, find out their goals and then let them accomplish them as long as it didn’t involve anything illegal.
“Everyone was to be treated with dignity and respect,” Castor said.
While officers’ demeanors have helped things go smoothly, their overwhelming numbers have been perhaps the more important deterrent.
Walking through the two cities during the conventions, attendees were likely to see armed police at nearly every street corner and major building. Eight foot steel barricades and checkpoints manned by heavily armed officers ringed government buildings and the convention venues, while police helicopters thudded overhead. Large squads of officers riding bicycles and mounted on horses responded quickly to any report of trouble.
Both cities received $50 million each in federal money for security. The cash was used to buy equipment for crowd control and pay for thousands of additional officers from out of town – enough to easily outnumber and surround groups of demonstrators. Charlotte and Tampa both added more than 3,000 outside officers to supplement their forces of 1,750 and 1,000, respectively. They are buttressed by personnel from an alphabet soup of federal agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service and Homeland Security.
Such tight security has become routine at party conventions since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But as previous conventions and high-profile events show, crowd-control tactics only go so far when large groups of protesters are willing to use violence to make their message heard.
In May, 90 people were arrested and eight officers injured over several days of protests around the NATO summit in Chicago. Police there were widely praised for their use of restraint even after a group of demonstrators refused to disperse and some threw bottles and boards at officers. Officers from Charlotte were on hand to help with crowd control and study their tactics.
Four years ago at the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., a march of 10,000 anti-war protesters devolved when pockets of self-described anarchists covered their faces with black bandannas, smashed windows and punctured tires. As protests continued that week, a force of about 3,700 riot gear-clad officers responded with pepper spray, tear gas, percussion grenades. By the convention’s final night, more than 800 people had been arrested, including some reporters caught up in the police sweeps.
That year’s Democratic convention in Denver was calmer by comparison, but still resulted in 152 protest-related arrests. About two-thirds of the arrests came when police met a group armed with rocks and bags of urine blocking a street near a municipal building. Then-chief Gerald Whitman said things went as smoothly as they did because of an approach that included officers communicating with protesters by cell phone. His force spent months making contact with the demonstrators, who kept police updated on their plans.
Outside the Republican convention in 2004, New York City police arrested more than 1,800 amid extremely heightened security two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Protesters questioned police tactics and filed dozens of lawsuits against the city, resulting in many of the charges being thrown out.
Boston police took a non-confrontational approach in 2004, arresting only six people.
Police in Charlotte have largely mirrored that approach for the convention that wraps up Thursday night.
When a handful of Occupy protesters pitched tents in a city park in violation of an anti-camping ordinance, authorities decided to let them stay.
About 800 people took part in Sunday’s long-planned March on Wall Street South, which followed a designated route negotiated with the city. Hundreds of officers used mountain bikes as mobile barricades to hem in the protesters, and a helicopter passed so low at one point that the crowd could feel the wind off its rotors.
But when demonstrators sat in the street in front of the headquarters of Bank of America and Duke Energy that day, appearing to prepare for arrests, the officers simply waited them out. A police captain chatted with one of the protest leaders about the relative loudness of their bullhorns, parting with a friendly fist bump.
Monroe, the Charlotte chief, said that his plan has been for police to monitor the protests without being too overbearing. He said the police would only take action if trouble arose.
Still, some of the protesters have been upset by officers’ monitoring.
“It’s a case of free speech. We shouldn’t have to ask the police permission to protest, to speak our minds,” said Perry King, 57, of Washington, D.C. who used his vacation to protest. “Why are they afraid of our words?”
Associated Press writers Tamara Lush in Tampa, Martiga Lohn in St. Paul, Tammy Webber in Chicago and Jim Anderson in Denver contributed to this report.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbiesecker