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Militarized police encounter few protesters in Tampa

The federal government flooded Tampa with $50 million for weapons, high-tech CCTV cameras and other police and surveillance costs associated with this week's Republican National Convention.

Tampa police expected to encounter large groups of unruly protesters, but today the activists numbered only in the hundreds. Take a look at a scene from the street today, where there appeared to be more riot-clad law enforcement officers than protesters:

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Fearing large protests like those held at the two prior conventions in the Twin Cities and New York, in May 2012 the Tampa City Council approved a measure to restrict speech and demonstrations. The New York Times reports the ordinance "requires a permit for groups of 50 or more to gather in parks; sets a limit of 90 minutes on parades; and bans an array of items, including glass bottles, aerosol cans and pieces of rope longer than six feet." The rules also prohibit the different permitted groups from marching together.

Tampa was prepared for a storm of protesters, but it seems like the literal hurricane has thus far posed the largest threat to a successful RNC. The surveillance cameras and weapons won't be much good for stopping a heavy downpour, but if history is any lesson Tampa will nonetheless be stuck with a newly militarized police force, advanced spying technologies, and a security apparatus more organically connected to federal spy agencies like DHS and the FBI than ever before. 

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The RNC is a designated National Special Security Event, which means the Secret Service is in charge. It also means the anti-protest law H.R. 347 will be in effect in the "security zone" around the convention, providing stiff penalties for anyone caught intentionally disrupting the event or inside the federal perimeter unwanted.

The red zone is large, comprising complicated restrictions for pedestrians, cars and even boats. Maps showing the Secret Service security perimeter are available in a document the agency produced for Tampa residents. It looks like a lot of restrictions (click to enlarge):

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, who shares responsibility for coordinating local law enforcement for the RNC with the Tampa PD, published a letter to the public on his website, describing law enforcement preparations and warning "anarchists" who might try to spoil the RNC's fun:

The RNC demands thousands of law enforcement officers to converge on downtown Tampa for a 24-hour-a-day presence. Some will be assigned special security details. Some will be responsible for getting the scores of buses and vehicles with delegates and VIPs to and from the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Some will be on the street. Some won’t be seen but poised to respond quickly and appropriately to a security situation. All of these law enforcement officers – some deputies, some police, some state troopers, some federal and state agents – will have to perform as a unified, cohesive unit…

Tactically, we are ready. Security plans for the venue and the perimeters are set. Boundaries, protests zones and parade routes are established for the thousands expected in downtown Tampa. This is a special time for local civic pride as Tampa Bay gets ready to shine. To the agitators and anarchists who want only to bring a dark cloud to this event, let me be clear: criminal activity and civil disturbances will not be tolerated and enforcement actions will be swift.

We are prepared for a peaceful and purposeful RNC. Part of our security planning process included discussions with law enforcement officials in Minneapolis-St. Paul about the mistakes and successes when that area hosted the RNC in 2008. Lessons learned were lessons included in our months of discussions about security.

There will be arrests. The question is how many. We are prepared to handle any number of RNC-related arrests through our Orient Road Jail. We are committed to due process and the rule of law regarding RNC-related arrests. We have procedures and policies in place to ensure an orderly and lawful process for anyone arrested. 

These warnings about supposedly dangerous "agitators and anarchists" are echoed at the federal level by FBI and DHS officials, who warn of violent attacks on property and possibly even persons. The activists may try to attack buildings outside of the security perimeter, the federal bulletin warns.

Ominously, CNN writes that the feds also advise local police to look out for "anarchists acquiring materials that could be used to make improvised explosive devices," but provides no evidence that such activity has taken place.

Four years ago, the FBI deployed a former activist turned informant to help them secure a conviction of two young anti-RNC activists who had traveled to Minneapolis for the protests. Bradley Crowder and David McKay were charged with terrorism in what they and many defenders say was a classic entrapment case. 

The weapons involved? Molotov cocktails the defendants say were provided by the FBI informant.

Stay tuned for more information on the militarization of the police in Tampa and Charlotte throughout the week.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.