Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, political organizers and national law enforcement experts are preparing for huge protests and a massive police presence when the Republican National Convention arrives in 2020.
Forecasts of widespread violent protests at past conventions have proven unfounded, including the 2012 Democratic National Convention hosted in Charlotte.
Some Charlotte public officials and community activists say what makes the RNC different is that past rallies for President Donald Trump have been marred by altercations between his supporters and opponents.
In March 2016, Trump canceled a campaign speech in Chicago after violence erupted, and that same month, an anti-Trump protester was punched at an event in North Carolina. In August 2017, police used tear gas to disperse crowds in Arizona that had gathered outside a convention center where Trump gave a speech.
Law enforcement experts told the Observer that the passion Trump evokes among both opponents and supporters presents a special challenge for police.
Since he took office in January 2017, tens of thousands of people around the country have participated in marches against policies on immigration, women’s rights and a travel ban targeting people from some Muslim-majority countries.
White supremacists evoked Trump’s name during a demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., last year that resulted in clashes with counterprotesters and left three people dead and dozens injured.
At the 2012 DNC, police worried about protesters confronting officers. Now they must figure out how to reduce the chances of violence between pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators, said Eugene O’Donnell, a nationally known expert on policing and professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York.
“This is going to be the mother of all protests,” O’Donnell said. “Who in their right mind would want to police this?”
The 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland also prompted warnings about clashes between pro- and anti-Trump protesters. Dueling demonstrations, however, turned out mostly peaceful.
Earlier this year, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney told reporters he believed safeguarding a political convention would present different worries in 2020 than it did in 2012.
“Hopefully not, but what we see is a lot more violence this time,” Putney said May 31 at the end of a town hall meeting on community safety. “Last time, it was people talking about being heard — this time it’s ‘Let’s be actually seen committing violence.’ So we’ve got to be able to keep people calm and defuse situations and use good discretion.”
He also said the department would prepare for the worst-case scenario and was already watching events unfold around the country to help get ready.
CMPD would not make Putney or other commanders available for an interview for this story, but in minutes from a June 25 closed-session City Council meeting released Friday, he told city leaders he had “all the confidence in the world” in CMPD’s ability to keep Charlotte safe during the convention.
Because protesters want to be seen, Putney said the department would change its strategy from the Democratic National Convention, when protesters were kept away from main routes in the city. The DNC drew far fewer protesters than expected and demonstrations were nearly all peaceful.
In 2020, Putney said, the key will be keeping opposing groups of protesters separate.
“If their goal is to come together, to fight, then we are going to prevent that,” Putney said, according to minutes from the meeting.
Thousands of police officers from CMPD, the Secret Service, FBI and other city and state forces will ensure adequate manpower during the RNC, Republican city council member Ed Driggs said.
“We gave this a lot of thought and Chief Putney expressed confidence,” Driggs said.
“With the $50 million federal grant we receive, he can triple the size of the police force for the convention. They have two years to prepare.”
Driggs said city and RNC officials also discussed the security plan during meetings.
“We all reached a level of comfort,” he said. “Conventions are an essential part of our election process. We need to not make this all about one person. The show must go on somewhere.”
Recipe for violence?
The decision to host the RNC remains controversial among Charlotte Democrats and their supporters.
On Monday, the Democratic-controlled City Council voted 6-5 to approve convention-related contracts in front of a large crowd split between convention supporters and opponents.
The Rev. Rodney Sadler, a leader for the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice who has advised CMPD in the past, urged city council members to reject the RNC because Trump’s policies are offensive to the poor, racial minorities and immigrants.
Anger over economic inequality, racial discrimination and other issues important to those groups helped spark violent protests following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in 2016, Sadler said.
“You are inviting a brute into a city that just had an uprising,” he said. “It is not a recipe for success. That will incite the potential for violence.”
Democratic city council member Matt Newton opposed Charlotte hosting the RNC. Newton said the possibly of violent protests was among his chief concerns.
But now that Charlotte is the host city, Newton said, officials need to turn their attention to making the convention a success.
“We have to shift gears and start preparations so that our worst fears are not realized,” he said.
A different convention
Specifics about security for the RNC likely will remain secret until shortly before the event.
In 2012, a perimeter fence with security checkpoints encircled part of uptown and access to some streets was restricted or closed.
For the RNC, police will have to get ready for potential clashes between pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters, said Mark Michalec, a CMPD officer and president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Officers anticipate a long, stressful week, and based on the ways the country’s political climate has changed since 2012, Michalec said, they expect a “very different type of convention” compared to Charlotte’s DNC.
“We’re not really looking forward to it,” he said.
Kenneth Williams, a nationally known expert on policing and a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, said authorities will likely set up security measures that try to keep protesters far away from the main convention site — the Spectrum Center — and keep Trump opponents separated from supporters.
“Trump evokes so much passion that you have to anticipate violence even if that means overdoing it,” Williams said.
Robert Dawkins, a leader of N.C. SAFE Coalition, a social justice group, said groups like Black Lives Matter, Charlotte Uprising and other progressive demonstrators will not resort to violence.
Dawkins plans to meet with members from protest groups to help ensure demonstrations are peaceful.
“There will be acts of disobedience, but that is nothing the city should be afraid of,” Dawkins said.