Charlotte Prepares for an ‘Extraordinary Event,’ With All the Security That Entails
As the nation’s second-largest banking city, Charlotte has been the scene of several large protests. Demonstrators marched during the Bank of America shareholders meeting in May.
By KIM SEVERSON
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The variety of demonstrators planning to invade this Southern city for the Democratic National Convention is wide and deep.
When the party gathers on Sept. 4, both anarchists bent on bringing down government and radical evangelical groups bearing down on homosexuals and abortion doctors will be here.
In between, others will protest a range of issues that includes war, increases in college costs, immigration reform, labor practices, antigay laws, the nation’s policies on marijuana and the jailing of a soldier accused of leaking classified material.
There will be the “UndocuBus,” filled with illegal immigrants, and the Values Bus, sponsored by the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation.
Counting a Muslim day of prayer that begins before the convention starts and a conservative country music concert and rally that starts a day after President Obama is expected to accept the nomination on Sept. 6, the numbers of people showing up to protest in Charlotte will most likely be in the tens of thousands.
Even with 6,000 delegates and another 30,000 estimated associated visitors, it will not be the largest gathering ever in this city of 760,000, but it certainly promises to be the most difficult to manage.
“We have not seen anything like this, no,” said Carol Jennings, the city’s liaison to the convention. In true Southern fashion, she added, “We welcome all our visitors.”
But it won’t be all barbecue and bourbon. The city will spend $50 million in federal money on security, the same amount the Republicans gathering in Tampa, Fla., have received. It will be used to hire as many as 3,400 officers from outside departments, build about five miles of nine-foot fencing and pay for, among other things, steel barriers strong enough to stop a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling 30 miles per hour.
The city is also relying on a recent law that gives its manager the power to declare a large-scale gathering an “extraordinary event.” When that happens, a section of the city is marked off and the police have wide powers to search and possibly arrest people in that zone who carry items capable of hiding weapons or inflicting injury.
On the long list are backpacks, hammers, coolers, chains, glass bottles and water guns known as Super Soakers. Face-concealing scarves could also be tagged.
Since the law was put into place in January, the city has used it a handful of times, including the annual shareholders’ meetings for Duke Energy and Bank of America and for Speed Street, a May street party featuring Nascar drivers and food booths that in 2011 resulted in more than 100 arrests. The police said arrests were down by half this year.
On Wednesday, the city and the Secret Service announced the perimeters of the security zone, which covers about 60 percent of the city’s Uptown commercial district and dips south to cover the special areas the city has set aside for protesters.
The extraordinary events measure has rankled enough people that the city offered reassurances in a news release.
“For example,” it said, “residents will be able to walk their dog within the extraordinary event boundaries without fear of arrest.”
People were not appeased.
“We’ve never had anything of this caliber, and they didn’t know how to handle it so they over-handled it,” said Timeka Moore, 24, a waitress at a Mexican restaurant who has to travel through Uptown to get to her job.
Tampa has its own version of an event zone, and both cities have grappled with trying to prevent concealed weapons inside them despite state laws that allow people to carry permitted weapons. They have also set up special protest and parade areas, even providing a stage and microphones for demonstrators.
In both cities, people organizing protests have criticized the areas as being too far from the action, too restrictive and not particularly comfortable or conducive for expressing opinion to the people attending the convention, although city officials say the areas and the permitting process meet legal standards for such public expression developed after protests in other cities.
Not so, says Michael Zytkow of Occupy Charlotte. The security zone covers “every part of Uptown that anyone would normally walk through,” he said. And the area set aside for the so-called free speech zone is so remote “we’re calling it a parking lot tour,” he said.
Having free speech zones implies the rest of the city is not, critics say. Issuing permits for people to protest and using special event zones as a regular part of convention business concern some who believe such controls border on selective oppression of free speech.
“The biggest problem is the use of seemingly neutral laws to control protests to restrict certain kind of protests or keep inconvenient protests out of the public eye,” said Gabe Rottman, a policy adviser and legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “How they are going to use these laws is absolutely of concern.”
A similar law was used at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. That convention, as well as the Republican convention in St. Paul, were marred by hundreds of arrests and violence and resulted in a series of lawsuits over the government’s attempts to investigate protest groups and its use of arrests to quell demonstrations and journalists covering them.
All of which party and city officials have on their minds.
“It has been a growing issue for folks every four years,” said Stephen Kerrigan, chief executive of the Democratic National Convention Committee, who also ran the event in Boston in 2004. “Our approach from the very beginning has been about increasing the engagement of people all across the board.”
Unlike Tampa, two major events in Charlotte — a kickoff festival and the final speech by President Obama at the Bank of America Stadium — will be open to the public, he said.
By many accounts, the crowds could be greater here than in Tampa, too.
For one thing, Charlotte will have a sitting president. And it is the second-largest banking city in the nation, home to both Bank of America and Wells Fargo — a designation that is driving at least 80 national groups, many from the Occupy movement and organized loosely as the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, to show up for a Sept. 2 protest.
Conversely, conservative Christians are planning a conference called Charlotte714, a reference to a biblical passage that promises God will forgive sins if people turn from their “wicked ways.” An estimated 40 churches will gather in the 20,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheater the night before the convention for a church service.
That event is being organized by David and Jason Benham, twin sons of Flip Blenham, a well-known antigay and anti-abortion protester whom the city has battled in court over public assembly, noise and picketing regulations.
“In many ways, both Flip and the Occupy movement in Charlotte were really good preparation for the D.N.C.,” said Robert E. Hagemann, the city attorney. “Legally, I’m totally unconcerned. From a policy standpoint, we have to make sure we respect different perspectives.”
For some residents who plan to have nothing to do with the convention, however, the tightening of security has gone too far.
“It seems like they are going to turn it into a concentration camp around here,” said Malachi El-Bui, 56, who moved to Charlotte from New York City several years ago. “They act like we are the ones to arrest. They’re talking about we can’t have backpacks or they could arrest us? They’re tripping.”