What can Charlotte expect to unfold on its uptown streets should thousands of protesters arrive for September's Democratic National Convention?
The Observer reviewed what happened in four convention host cities since 2004. Before those events, organizers promised minimal disruptions, free expression and business-friendly climates.
But in a number of ways, promises fell short of what actually happened.
The sight of police in riot armor rattled locals. Protesters sometimes turned violent. And some law enforcement agencies were caught ill-prepared.
DNC Committee CEO Steve Kerrigan says Charlotte's will be not only "the safest convention, but the least disruptive in terms of impact on daily lives."
Kerrigan was chief of staff for Boston's host committee in 2004, the first since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Police there braced for 2,000 arrests. They booked only a handful of protesters.
"It's the way you treat people," he said. "We don't refer to them as protesters. We refer to them as demonstrators who want to exercise their First Amendment rights. We plan to treat them with respect and hope they reciprocate."
Charlotte has more going for it than charm, Kerrigan said. The walkable uptown and central location of the main convention venue, Time Warner Cable Arena, make it both accessible and securable, he said.
Boston had walkability and easy proximity, too. But its convention site, then called FleetCenter, sits over a transit hub, just feet from a major thoroughfare. Both were restricted for security reasons. The city's "Let's Work Around It" slogan was lampooned as "Let's Get Outta Here" as commuters stayed home.
St. Paul, Minn., touted "an open and welcoming" convention when it hosted the Republicans in 2008. But the public was alarmed when police arrested more than 800 people as 10,000 protesters poured into the city.
National political conventions are among high-profile gatherings, including global economic summits, that are dubbed National Special Security Events. The designation puts the Secret Service in overall charge of security, and it can dictate aspects of daily life ranging from where trash bins are permitted to when planes fly.
Security experts have a saying about special events: All are the same and all different. Dignitaries have to be protected and order maintained, but the details are never identical.
While federal agents make sure nothing bad happens to President Barack Obama and terrorists don't strike, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police will be street-level law enforcers.
Plans call for adding up to 3,400 officers from other departments in the region, which would nearly triple the size of the 1,750-officer Charlotte force. The city plans to spend up to $25 million on new police equipment, part of a $50 million federal security grant for the convention.
Mecklenburg court officials plan for as many as 800 arrests. New York City police set the record for recent conventions, arresting 1,800 people during the 2004 Republican convention, although charges against most were dropped.
Charlotte officials won't speculate on how many people could show up to protest here.
In separate interviews, security consultant Ross Bulla of the Treadstone Group and Occupy Charlotte organizer Michael Zytkow each predicted Charlotte will see 10,000 protesters.
By comparison, protests during recent conventions have ranged from an estimated 120,000 at a single march during New York's 2004 Republican convention to 8,000 to 10,000 at a march in St. Paul in 2008.
Local police shouldn't let the unusual level of convention security change their long-term relationship with the public, said Christopher Bellavita, a homeland security expert who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
"These events are like circuses," Bellavita said. "They come into town, and then the players go away, but the people in Charlotte and the institutions remain.
"The effective law enforcement strategy is that this is a temporary event and you don't want your relationship with the community to be defined by that event."
Peaceful conventions, Kerrigan said, result from security plans that involve the public and are communicated early enough that local residents and businesses can adjust. In Charlotte's case, he said, those plans will likely be explained in early summer.
"People are hungry for information, but the worst thing we can do is to give people incomplete information," he said. "One of the most important things I learned in Boston was communication and coordination, the importance of that."
In Boston, communication broke down when transit officials didn't want to be responsible for telling the public a key transit hub would have to close, said a case study from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The officials instead planted a "strategic leak" with the press. Commuters stayed away in droves during convention week.
Security consultant Bulla expects many of Charlotte's uptown workers to work from home or take time off during convention week. He advises businesses to plan ahead for that week by taking such steps as scheduling night-time deliveries.
Security restrictions might make parking a challenge, "like trying to get to work next to a sold-out football stadium," he said. "Patience will be a virtue, because there will be lots of people moving."
Public often surprised
Among recent conventions, St. Paul saw the most discord in the streets.
Anarchists flung sand bags and traffic signs from an overpass onto the roof of a delegate bus and smashed the windshield of another, a city commission reported.
Downtown building windows were broken, police car tires slashed, and feces and urine hurled at officers.
Police responded appropriately, the report concluded. But numerous residents, it added, complained of the appearance of a police state.
"The difference, stark to some, between the city's expressed vision and the reality of a significant police presence in response to anarchist violence caused many to tell us that their expectations had not been met," the report said.
In Denver, the mayor's office "was initially resistant to having a substantial number of riot police on the scene as a precautionary measure," said a Federal Highway Administration case study of the 2008 Democratic convention.
Denver residents recoiled at the sight of black-clad officers hanging off patrolling vehicles. Protesters stockpiled bags of human waste and urine to fling at officers.
But the extensive planning, the study added, "allowed planners to meet the mayor's requirement to have the city operating with business as usual, even with the closure of Interstate 25, the city's only major highway running through downtown Denver."
Charlotte, same as Denver, will move the last night of its convention to an NFL stadium.
Such a gesture "helps get the community over some of the inconveniences that come with hosting a convention," said political scientist Norman Provizer of Denver's Metropolitan State College.
Obama's acceptance speech, he said, "was incredible. People were lined up forever, just ordinary people. People who had no notion of going to the convention all of a sudden had access to something that was truly memorable."
Also memorable, he said, was trying to leave the stadium at the end of the evening.
"Because of the security thing, things were cut off. It was almost like you were walking forever," he said. "And then there was a fence there. The people actually revolted and took it down."
Post-convention reports say it is important that authorities make early contact with groups expected to demonstrate, as well as with journalists who will cover them.
St. Paul police planned to use a soft approach at the Republican convention, forming a 19-member team of "dialogue officers" to foster relations with protesters.
"In the end, however, the Dialogue Officer team was not fully integrated into the security plans for the RNC," said a post-convention report by a city commission. "No Dialogue Officers were on the streets during the conference."
The report attributed the mass arrests in St. Paul, in part, to a lack of advance communication among police, protesters and the public. Police never settled, for instance, how they would define and treat journalists covering protests - and ultimately arrested four dozen reporters and photographers.
In recent years, cities have favored "free-speech zones," typically fenced areas for demonstrators. The zones are based on court decisions saying the government may regulate the time, place and manner of First Amendment expression, but not its content. But they're also controversial and the target of civil liberties lawsuits.
Designated free-speech zones were challenged as unconstitutional muzzling of protesters in Boston, Denver and St. Paul. A federal judge said Boston's zone, enclosed by a tall fence topped by razor wire, reminded him of an internment camp.
But in each of the cities, the zones were found to be legal.
Free speech citywide
Charlotte's position is that the entire city is a free-speech zone. It hopes to designate an area called a "speaker's platform" that will likely have an amplification system and a stage for demonstrators to use.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann has said people can picket on any sidewalk, anywhere in the city - though not inside the designated security zone for the convention.
In addition, public spaces such as the lawn at old City Hall, the plaza at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center and the plaza by the disc at Trade and Tryon streets are also open for picketers or protesters. The city's new ordinances prohibiting camping would apply.
People protesting on a city sidewalk aren't allowed to block the flow of traffic, however.
With the convention still months away, Charlotte police offer few details on security - or how they will deal with demonstrators.
"We are a Southern city, and we generally try to portray a Southern hospitality," Deputy Chief Harold Medlock said in a recent interview.
"My intent," he said, "is not to start out in full riot gear." Staff writers Steve Harrison and Doug Miller contributed.
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