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Monroe: Flexibility, dialogue helped keep DNC peace

By Meghan Cooke and Ames Alexander
macooke@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Six protesters, arms linked, sat on a sprawling banner in the middle of an uptown intersection Thursday as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe stood nearby, conferring with other officers.

“We’re just trying to understand what their intent is right now,” Monroe said.

Monroe watched as an officer approached the demonstrators and knelt down to explain that officers would give them 10 minutes before they were arrested for impeding traffic.

The protesters refused to budge – even after a five-minute warning, and yet another warning. Officers carefully unlinked their arms one by one and carried them to a waiting police van, which took them to jail.

The encounter illustrated the flexible stance that police, led by Monroe, took when dealing with protesters during the Democratic National Convention. Monroe appeared at nearly every demonstration, sometimes walking ahead of marches.

Massive demonstrations predicted by some didn’t materialize, but protesters got loud during winding, nonviolent marches through uptown, sometimes disrupting traffic and confronting police in standoffs on city streets. In all, 25 people were arrested.

Security surrounding the DNC – an event that required coordination with federal agents and hundreds of assisting officers from across the country – has been largely hailed as a success for Monroe and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Even some protesters said they felt they were treated fairly by police.

The largest complaint came from protesters who called the overwhelming number of police an unnecessary tactic that stifled their First Amendment rights.

Charlotte’s police force of 1,760 roughly doubled in size for the convention. Often hundreds of officers on foot, bicycles, motorcycles and in patrol cars lined the streets. Even convention-goers took note.

Monroe said the strategy combined a large presence with an effort to communicate with protesters.

“We’re trying to keep an open dialogue,” he said. “At the same time, they need to understand where we draw the line.”

Discretion

Good relations began when officials allowed protesters to camp at an uptown park despite a Mecklenburg County ordinance that prohibits them from doing so.

A busload of protesters arrived last weekend at the county’s Marshall Park, which became a campsite and rallying point for demonstrators. Police watched the camp constantly.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James sent an email reminding Monroe of the no-camping policy approved earlier this year in anticipation of DNC protesters, saying he found it troubling that police would allow them to stay.

Local officials didn’t give explicit permission but suggested that they were inclined to let protesters stay as long as no trouble arose. City officials said Monroe has the discretion whether to enforce the ban.

Police also were lenient in enforcing the “extraordinary event” ordinance, which prohibits some items – including masks covering people’s faces – inside set zones.

Protesters and police often engaged in some give and take, particularly at standoffs. At times, the soft-spoken Monroe spoke directly to protesters about their plans.

“It doesn’t do anyone any good to draw a hard line,” Monroe said.

Restraint

On Tuesday, about 200 protesters marched in the middle of uptown streets to call for the release of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier suspected of leaking classified information. Police holding bicycles formed a line at the intersection of Stonewall and Caldwell streets, blocking the march from continuing toward the convention center.

At the time, Monroe said that while protesters were breaking the law by remaining in the street, they’d not been violent and police saw no rush to act.

After a two-hour standoff, 26-year-old Jason Dow faced the police line and shouted, “Why is pedestrian traffic blocked selectively for us?”

Just past the line, Monroe stood with other officers.

“Excuse me, sir, in the white shirt?” Dow shouted again.

The chief turned, nodding to officers to allow Dow to pass through the line. They talked for a few minutes in calm tones, and within minutes, the marchers were on their way – told they must stay on the sidewalk.

When asked about the decision to let them continue, Monroe said: “They’re on the sidewalk. They have every right to be on the sidewalk.”

‘Uncommon common sense’

Ross Bulla, president of the Lake Norman area security management firm Treadstone Group, said he was in Charlotte for the convention, and witnessed how police handled a number of protests.

“Quite frankly, I was shocked at how well it did go,” Bulla said.

He said Monroe and other police leaders were flexible, sometimes allowing protesters to go beyond the letter of the law when it appeared to serve a larger goal.

If police had not shown some flexibility, Bulla said, they might have been met with “more of an anarchist type reaction, where property gets damaged and people get hurt.”

Events like these can be time bombs, he said, because “it only takes one person to start a riot.”

“I really think they used a lot of uncommon common sense,” he said. “They were very patient in the way they responded.”

Tension

Perhaps the most tense moment of the protests came on the first night of the convention, when about 100 demonstrators shouting anti-capitalist chants marched through uptown. Protesters walking near the Duke Energy Center were stopped by police when they tried to turn onto Tryon Street.

Marchers who chanted “Let us through” pushed into a line of officers who ordered them back. Police drew batons in unison and a short time later, demonstrators walked in another direction.

During many of the protests, demonstrators stood nose-to-nose with officers, hurling insults at them. Officers were told not to engage in conversation with those protesters, and police stared straight ahead, showing no emotion, when confronted.

One African-American officer stood stone-faced as a young white protester berated and scolded him for not following the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“They knew they would be tested and baited, and they showed appropriate restraint,” City Attorney Robert Hagemann said.

Led from the front

City council member Andy Dulin said Monroe exhibited “spectacular leadership” this week. He and others gave Monroe and CMPD high marks for how they handled the event.

Dulin said Monroe continually led from the front, quite literally on Sunday, when he was at the head of the largest protest of the week, the March on Wall Street South. He directed officers where to form lines, and at one point told officers to make a hole in their line to let a jogger through.

“When you peel the onion, Rodney Monroe is a cop,” Dulin said. “If he were a general in the Army, he’d be a field general. He’s not going to lead his officers sitting in the command center.”

Dulin, Bulla and others also praised CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock, who oversaw the department’s plans for the DNC.

Even some protesters said they thought police behaved reasonably.

“It’s interesting to see some negotiation going on because that never happens,” said Keith Wrightson of Washington, D.C., who is part of the Occupy movement. Monroe, he said, was “pretty fair.”

Overkill

Many others said they thought the police presence was overkill and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Often, the number of police dwarfed the number of demonstrators.

John Penley, a 60-year-old veteran and activist from Asheville, was arrested Tuesday for breaching a police line but bailed out of jail in time to march again Thursday night, holding a sign that read “Congress shall make no law restricting the right of the people to peaceably assemble.”

“I think it’s been very intimidating and hostile,” he said of the DNC police presence.

Monroe defended the heavy presence, saying that police were facilitating the marches while protecting property and preventing things from getting out of hand.

He pointed to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., where protests turned violent and police made hundreds of arrests. Not deploying enough resources at the start makes it more difficult to recover when things go wrong, Monroe said. And having large numbers of police also allowed them to switch out officers if they tired.

“It may seem heavy-handed, but there’s nothing heavy-handed about it,” he said. “We’re out here the same way they are.” Staff writers Ely Portillo, Fred Clasen-Kelly and Steve Harrison contributed.

Cooke: 704-358-5067; Twitter: @MeghanACooke
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