Conventions Weigh Security and Convenience

Tensions are running high between activists who want to demonstrate outside this summer’s Democratic and Republican nominating conventions and those who want to guard against terrorist attacks and other safety threats in a post-Sept. 11 world.

Observers of the Democratic National Convention (search) in Boston from July 26 to 29, and the Republican National Convention (search), being held in New York City Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, say this year’s events promise to be the most heavily secured in the history of the parties’ quadrennial affairs.

"Both parties have to be concerned about security this time around in a way they didn’t have to before," said Sheri Annis, Republican media consultant. "We’re not living in a normal world post-9/11."

But critics have said the extra caution is leading to a law enforcement "lockdown" of the convention halls and surrounding neighborhoods, alienating demonstrators and disrupting citizens — all at the taxpayers’ expense.

"There’s quite a bit of confusion about where people will be able to protest," said William K. Dobbs, spokesman for United for Peace and Justice (search), which was recently denied a permit for an Aug. 29 rally in Central Park. The rally is scheduled to follow a planned march past Madison Square Garden (search), where the Republican convention is being held.

Dobbs said he was told his group could not rally at the park because their estimated 250,000-person turnout was too high and it "would do damage to the lawn." Dobbs, however, charged that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in collusion with the Bush administration and federal authorities, is purposely banishing demonstrators.

"This is about politics, not about [the number of] people," he said.

Currently, none of the nearly 20 permit requests for marches and rallies have been resolved by the city.

Carol Rose, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union (search), which is keeping an eye on the protest-security situation at the Fleet Center in Boston, said they have had similar problems there, but so far on a smaller scale.

Police have worked with the ACLU in establishing a protest area just outside the hall, after activists rejected the first site because it was too far away, she said.

"The other concern we have is right now the (protest) zone is a big pile of rubble with a lot of construction debris and machinery. We will have legal observers there and see how it goes," Rose said.

About 50,000 delegates, officials and lobbyists are expected for each convention as well as another 15,000 journalists. Aside from formal speeches, platform meetings and the nomination of the presidential candidates, countless parties and related events are planned outside the main venues.

The federal government is providing both cities with $25 million for security costs. Recent reports indicate that security for New York will cost an estimated $76 million.

New York, the epicenter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has been particularly sensitive about security measures. The convention will occur just before the three-year anniversary of the attacks. In addition, President Bush, who demands his own significant security detail, will also be in attendance to accept his party's nomination.

As a result of the heightened threat concerns, traffic and safety issues along with thousands of demonstrators linked to marches, rallies and general street theater means a massive law enforcement presence is necessary in each city.

Agencies involved in securing the sites range from local and state police to the U.S. Secret Service (search) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) as well as the Department of Homeland Security.

Who is providing security is less a question than what kind of security can be expected and where. Though final plans are being kept quiet, published reports suggest entire blocks, train stations and even an interstate highway may be shut down during the political festivities in both cities.

According to Boston Police Officer Michael McCarthy, Interstate 93, which runs through the city, will be closed for the duration of the convention, as will the nearby train and subway stations. McCarthy said the size of the security perimeters have not been announced.

Tensions in New York rose this month when Mike Miller, director of convention operations, told reporters that blocks outside the Garden would be locked down by police and the Secret Service during the event, requiring anyone with business inside the event perimeter to show identification.

After some public outcry, Bloomberg swiftly denied Miller’s remarks, ensuring his police department was in charge, and saying that in the future, he would make any announcements about security plans. However, Bloomberg did not deny that a perimeter, perhaps several blocks wide, would be established around the hall.

Officials have been doing their best to make everyone happy, said Paul Elliott, spokesman for the New York City Host Committee.

"You have to ensure the continuity of life in the city, not just in the area of Madison Square Garden and the hotels, but everywhere," Elliott said.

Some observers say the hassle is part of the deal — the host cities lured the parties to their digs knowing that the events bring millions of dollars in revenues for the businesses there.

"Conventions have a certain inconvenience to the people who live in these cities, but remember these cities bid on these conventions," said Stephen Hess, a U.S. government expert for the Brookings Institute. "They were begging for this."

But not everyone agrees the enormous resources poured into the events — at least $200 million for the conventions and security combined, according to reports — is worth the effort.

"These are pretend conventions, really, since the Democratic and Republican nominees have already been chosen," said George Getz, spokesman for the Libertarian Party (search), which is holding its own convention over Memorial Day weekend in Atlanta. "The only thing real about them is the $50 million that each party is extorting from taxpayers to foot the bill."

Activists, too, say they are concerned that their first amendment rights are being trampled by the enormous amounts of planning. The U.S. Constitution protects protesters' rights to assemble within "sight and sound" of their targeted audience, not miles away, Dobbs argued.

Daniel Starling of the New York Green Party (search), which is hosting its own rally on Aug. 28, pointed to a number of lawsuits filed over the years against the administration by activists who believed they had been bullied or relegated to faraway, penned-in areas for Bush’s appearances.

"It’s a recurring pattern in the Bush administration," Starling said.

Elliot denied protesters would be sidelined.

"The mayor is emphatic in his commitment to give them the ability to gather and voice their opinions." But a balance must be struck, he added.