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CMPD: Charlotte might need bigger protest spaces for DNC

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Back from a trip to Chicago to help the Windy City deal with NATO summit protests, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they worry that Charlotte’s uptown might not have public spaces large enough to accommodate the thousands of demonstrators who massed in Chicago’s parks.

At a news conference Wednesday, police also said they’re fine-tuning their plans for responding to other issues they saw over the weekend – from roving bands of demonstrators who disrupt traffic to lawbreakers who incite violence while trying to blend in with peaceful protesters.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police sent 100 officers to Chicago to help with the protests and get experience with massive demonstrations. Several members of the department’s command staff – including Chief Rodney Monroe and Deputy Chief Harold Medlock – met with Chicago’s security planners and analyzed that department’s approach to safeguarding the city.

Since the NATO summit was designated a National Special Security Event, a federal grant will reimburse the city of Charlotte for the officers’ salaries and travel expenses.

Police leaders expect thousands of demonstrators to show up for the Democratic National Convention in September, attempting to trumpet their messages before the international media.

CMPD officials said Chicago’s approach to the NATO summit was a success. Still, roughly 50 people were arrested and at least two officers were injured in conflicts with protesters, who paraded in Chicago’s central business district day and night, disrupting traffic.

An estimated 5,000 people protested during the summit.

“I saw a lot of things that gave us some great ideas about how we manage crowds and how we de-escalate some of the crowd behavior,” said Medlock, who’s overseeing the department’s planning for the convention.

He declined to go into detail, however.

“I was encouraged by the number of demonstrators that the city of Chicago had. I think it’s a reasonable number of people and I hope that’s where we are when September comes.”

Here’s what police say they learned:

•  Protesters might confront cars and pedestrians. In Chicago, thousands of people gathered downtown for massive protests. Then, sometimes on a whim, the protesters would take to the streets – often chanting “Whose Street? Our Street!” The demonstrators were generally peaceful, but their random routes kept police on their toes. The marchers often walked directly into traffic, or came in contact with tourists or people traveling to or from work.

“How you work vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic and those who want to demonstrate all in one area,” Medlock said. “That’s a challenge for us.”

During one impromptu march below the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears tower), protesters jumped on a police car, which was driving through the crowd. Police say the officer driving was punched in the face and received a concussion; one of the protesters was injured.

•  The city might not have adequate protest places. Most protests in Chicago last weekend centered around large public parks just south of the Central Business District. One drew more than 4,000 people – everyone from Iraq war veterans to representatives of the socialist party to the Rev. Jesse Jackson – who then went on a planned march to the site of the NATO summit.

City of Charlotte officials have said they will have a “free speech zone” with a speaker’s platform, city-issued microphones and amplification equipment for use by protesters. Mecklenburg County has said county parks will be available for individuals and groups to protest.

But crowds could overflow many of the parks in uptown and could force protesters into the streets, making it hard for the city to go about business as usual, as convention planners have promised.

“We don’t have such large parks,” Medlock said. “We have to identify those places where people can gather. That will allow us to support them at the appropriate facilities and make arrangements for basic human needs.”

•  Antagonists in the crowd. CMPD believes that the bulk of protesters who come to the DNC will be non-violent, but Medlock said the department will need a strategy to identify and arrest lawbreakers before they can cause damage, foment riots, or even prevent peaceful protesters from getting their points across.

Anarchist groups have frequently been blamed for damaging property and inciting violence during demonstrations using “black bloc” methods — dressing in black clothing, hoods and bandannas that cover their faces.

Medlock said antagonists among the protesters hurled bricks, bottles full of urine and paint, a two-by-four, part of a fence and human feces at rows of officers.

“I think what you’re going to see in September is certainly a lot of demonstrators are going to come because you’re going to have that national and international media here, and you’re going to have some of the criminal behavior that comes with that,” he said.

Medlock said he still thinks Charlotte can conduct business as usual, a goal echoed by convention organizers. He said the department plans to work with individual businesses on security measures, but said he didn’t anticipate the beefed up police presence would make the center city inhospitable to regular Charlotteans.

In Chicago, retailers estimated that half the workers in the city’s central business opted to work from home or just didn’t show up, hurting the restaurants and retailers who serve them. One restaurant owner told the Observer he lost about $5,000 every day of the NATO summit.

Allen Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago, said he believes the city broke even. Organizers estimated that the NATO Summit would bring a $128 million economic benefit to the city, a number Sanderson said is likely exaggerated.

“There were in fact a lot of people who lost money – the restaurant owners, the cabbies, hotels over three days,” he said. “On top of that, we probably spent $50 million for police.”

Sanderson said the wave of anti-corporate protests sweeping the nation will make it difficult for parts of Charlotte to be normal in September.

“I think 2012 is a particularly bad time because we’ve gotten into this Occupy fever,” he said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street protest group. Political events like NATO or the DNC can be “very disruptive. You’ve got to cordon off a large area of the city. If you have a Super Bowl in Charlotte, you’re not going to have a big section of people looking to protest. … . The long estimates suggest that national political conventions may be of zero economic value.”

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046
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