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Day One of the 2012 RNC: Welcome to the Ghost Town/Police State of Tampa, 8/27/12: photos
The mayor and city council in Tampa have undoubtedly handed over the entire city to the Republican National Convention and law enforcement authorities. No one else is welcome. While delegates and republican officials come and go with ease special Secret Service passes around their necks, local residents who work downtown have been asked to work remotely or take days off this week. Parking restrictions are in effect for most of downtown, and without a thriving public transportation system, making access to the area more difficult. Fear-mongering "warnings" from the DHS and FBI about anarchists potentially using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the convention likely made many folks feel less safe about coming to downtown Tampa. Those who choose to brave downtown Tampa can expect to be under the constant watch of police, sheriff's deputies, and an array of federal law enforcement authorities. The result is Tampa as a ghost town, with a smattering of locals making their way about and protests smaller than at any previous national political convention in recent history.
[Pictured above: "Welcome to Tampa Bay" message undermined by police and sheriff's deputies making a big show of force at the Poor People's march]
At the conclusion of my RNC post from August 26th, I wrote that the weather promised to be wet and windy. That's what storm trackers were predicting. RNC organizers themselves even cancelled the first day of the RNC based on the severe weather warnings regarding Tropical Storm Isaac, expected to pass Tampa as it moved northwest through the Gulf of Mexico late Monday and into Tuesday. Yet the amount of rain was much less than anticipated, barely raining two hours total all day. Also in that post, I also pondered how wild things might get when the first scheduled day of the RNC arrived. With the city of Tampa being a virtual ghost town, save for the 3500 police present, the only thing close to wild that happened on day one was hundreds and hundreds of Tampa police and Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies deciding, for no good reason, to put on full riot gear and stop the March For Our Lives, organized by the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. It was only a short torrential downpour in the late afternoon that finally sent the riot police back to their staging areas.
The fact that law enforcement chose to come out with such a massive show of force, in full riot gear, contradicted what they had promised beforehand, that their presence would be non-intrusive and that no riot gear would be seen unless there was a serious disruption caused by demonstrators. There was no disruption, or even attempt at disruption. It was simply a mach from Romneyville, with the most likely destination being the "Free Speech Zone" within eyesight of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the primary venue for this year's RNC. The march never made it that far. But there was $50 million given to Tampa for the event, and that figure is probably on the low end of what has been spent on "security" for the RNC in total. Lots of new toys were purchased, from khaki uniforms for nearly everyone, riot gear, bicycles, vehicles, to who knows what? The police had to test out their new gear apparently, regardless of what was going on on the ground.
A majority of that grant money is being spent on law enforcement personnel costs. There are 59 different agencies represented amongst the thousands of police in the Tampa Bay area. And, in addition to the uniformed officers, deputies, and federal authorities, undercover police are ever-present. Sometimes it seemed like maybe a third to half of the people walking and biking through the empty streets of downtown Tampa were undercovers, and that's not being paranoid. Undercovers are generally easy to spot, some more so than others. Some make little effort to conceal their intent as they slouch down in parked cars with binoculars and cameras documenting all who pass, especially if the location is close to a perceived hot spot such as Romneyville or the "Free Speech Zone." Unmarked vans, from plain white to harder-to-spot "Scooby Doo" vans, full of police swoop throughout downtown. Stand on any street within the security "Event Zone" for five minutes and you are bound to see all kinds of law enforcement vehicles pass by, some slowing down to check you out. Stand on any corner, wait ten minutes, and most likely at least a couple of undercover officers will pass you on foot in pairs or individually on a bicycle. Of course, all of this live activity does not include the nearly 100 known fixed surveillance cameras throughout downtown.
The local jail currently sits empty after hundreds of inmates were temporarily moved to other facilities in the area to make way for arrested demonstrators. Space has been made for up to 1,700 arrests at the RNC. Based on the first day, when the protest action widely anticipated to be the largest of the week, the city-permitted March on the RNC, included not too many more than 300 people, it's clear that arrest numbers will not reach such heights. (Later in the day, the Poor People's march may have hit 500 people.)
Besides mostly standing around on street corners or touring around downtown in shiny new bobcats and SUVs, the police don't have much to do with so few civilians present. Other than just two arrests through Day One of of the RNC -- yes just two, as confirmed by the National Lawyers Guild in Tampa -- hassling and intimidating (and documenting) those downtown who might look unlike RNC delegates seems to be the highest law enforcement priority. On August 26th, videographer Jacob Crawford and myself were stopped and asked for state-issued identification, despite clearly identifying ourselves with press passes hanging around our necks. Two others recording video within the Event Zone were stopped by DHS officers the following day.
For the record, the two arrests downtown were one on Sunday for alleged possession of a machete, and the other was on Monday, for wearing a mask within the Event Zone. While a fair number of people have been seen with masks in the Event Zone, police say they are not targeting masked persons participating in marches, rather just those masked who may be otherwise walking through downtown. Both the machete and the mask are new crimes in Tampa, thanks to the anti-protest law passed by the city council on May 17th. Put another way, 100% of the RNC arrests by Day One were a result of Tampa's new Event Zone law. Put another way, considering the minimum financial expenses of the security apparatus in place, the cost for each arrest thus far is $25 million.
Welcome to Tampa in 2012. A red carpet for republicans, oodles of money for new law enforcement goodies, and a police state for those wishing to express their First Amendment rights. It's not hyperbole to call it a police state when you hear corporate newscasters openly call it a police state themselves in their television broadcasts. While there are other mitigating factors for the relatively low numbers of demonstrators, such as the historical lack of a vibrant social justice movement in Florida, and the potential threat of a tropical storm bringing severe weather, surely Tampa's and the United State's attitude toward political dissent -- made clear by new restrictive laws, massive militarization, and pre-emptive fear-mongering about IEDs possibly going off downtown -- contributed to this being the smallest protest turnout, according to Davey D, at any political convention going back to at least 1996.
Eve of 2012 RNC: Disruptions and Marches Begin, Convention Delayed Due to Storm, 8/26/12: photos
Lead-Up to 2012 RNC: Anarchists, IEDs, Guy Fawkes, Feces, Drones & a Tampa Police State, 8/25/12: photos
Video - 2012 RNC: Fear Mongering, Undercover Cops, and the Corporate Media
Much more coverage at
The "no parking" area is actually larger than represented in this illustration from the city of Tampa, covering most of the Event Zone. In the outlying parking lots that are open this week, one can be expected to be watched and/or recorded by undercovers in civillian-looking cars.
Florida National Guard protecting a building from what? It's not fenced the other 350 days of the year
Police state with a happy face -- Sentry Event Services ambassadors with no one to greet except for this reporter
Dozens of porta potties towards outer edge of Event Zone, but when everything else says "go away" who will be there to use them?
No, this is not San Francisco fog, but condensation from humid Tampa clouding up the camera lens.