Reporter's Notebook: Crowds and Cops

An oft-cited phrase has been floating around Madison Square Garden (search) this week. It goes: "Of course, the Republicans have a sense of humor, they picked New York for the site of their convention."

But keeping a sense of humor has not been easy. With protesters clogging up the streets and cops insisting that reporters walk up a block to cross the road so they can walk back down the other side of the street to reach the Garden entrance, the city's shiny veneer has caused a bit more wincing than laughing in the early going of the Republican National Convention (search).

Like the other reporters based in Washington, D.C., when Peter Brownfeld arrived in New York by train on Sunday, he entered a Penn Station packed not only with travelers, but police officers. In fact, media were warned before arriving that they likely would encounter a cop inside Penn Station about every four to five feet. That would have been the case had the police not been bunched together in groups.

The police units appeared to be holding their precinct meetings right in the train station, with clusters of 50 cops being given handouts. Starbucks would have looked like the scene of a hurricane, if not a terrorist attack, had the police not been sitting back enjoying lattes while some SWAT team members' helmets and M-16s sat idly next to them.

Arriving on Sunday afternoon meant Peter was immediately thrust into Sunday’s protests, which organizers boasted had hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who apparently congregated right in front of one of the two exits out of Penn Station. But Peter said he didn’t mind watching the odd mix of soccer moms, veterans, punks, senior citizens, anarchists and lost convention-goers walk down the street, even when he ended up being forced to join the march (suitcase in tow) for several blocks before walking far enough to get around the blocked-off streets.

In fact, walking has nearly been as hard as driving around the convention site. Streets are closed off all around the Garden but that doesn't mean pedestrians can just amble down the middle of the road. They still must stay on the sidewalks so VIPs, police cars and motorcyclists, of which there have been many, can zip from one end of the security perimeter to the other.

Making a Buck

Unlike Boston, however, many of the stores that lined the security perimeter have stayed open, and because of it, the Duane Reade drug store on the corner of Eighth Ave. and 34th Street is sure to have a record week. The place this afternoon was crowded with people wearing delegate and press credentials, as was the Stage Door Deli across the road, which kindly allowed media to use its restrooms, a real break since the ones near the workspace had already broken down by midafternoon on the first day.

Likewise, the deli must also have benefited from hungry media. Apparently, the Food and Drug Administration issued a dictate on the caterers serving the press in the Farley Post Office prohibiting them from bringing in hot food to the hard-working reporters. Or maybe that was just the excuse given to FOX News, but FNC crews could be seen scouting for food nearby its underground confines inside the post office. In the meantime, the caterer did manage to provide an attractive cold meal for dinner.

One of the benefits of having a political circus come to town is that it actually clears up some of the traffic. Would-be daily workers and natives of the city have avoided the downtown area. Broker Jim McNeil couldn't believe that a rush hour cab ride from the USS Intrepid at Pier 86 at 12th Ave. and 46th Street to Madison Ave. and 49th Street took a mere seven minutes on Monday.

"On any given day that is no less than a 40-minute ride," he told reporter Kelley Vlahos. Now, if the cabs wouldn't refuse a tired soul a ride back to the Garden.

Almost as a point of pride, the delegates say they have not been bothered by protesters, but Republican organizers are advising attendees to put away their delegate badges so they won’t become "a target," Peter reports. At the hotels, the delegates also face many more restrictions than the Democrats dealt with in Boston. When they enter their hotels, they are confronted by cops carrying automatic weapons and in some cases must go through magnetometers before being allowed to head to their rooms.

Swift Boats Moving Fast

Meanwhile, as convention activities finish up on the first day and a routine starts to become established, reporters can not escape the controversy provided by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who have launched an advertising campaign and helped publish a book calling into question Democrat John Kerry's Vietnam War service.

Veterans in New York have become a prime target for journalists seeking to eke out just one more story about Kerry's wartime service, but they may not get what they hoped.

"I'm viewed as a bit of a technical expert on this," said Vietnam veteran Bill Stein, who heads the California Veterans for George W. Bush, which, Stein points out, does not have an official stand on the Swift boat controversy. Stein rode PBRs, the Navy river patrol boats, among other river craft, but not Swift boats, he told reporter Kelley.

Other vets weren't as relaxed about the issue. One veteran, Grant Coats, head of the New York State Vietnam Veterans of America, even suggested a journalist wouldn't be welcome to ask where the group stood on the Swift boat issue. In fact, he suggested, veterans are very divided on the issue. But, all the vets seem to agree that all the talk about veterans seems to stop before talk turns to what the government has really done to help them.

"There are a lot of slogans and people throw these things out," said one Vietnam vet who did not want to be named because he works for the Veterans Administration. "But when the rubber hits the road, are they providing the funds we need?"