TAMPA — The protesters are on the outside, way outside, pelted by rain, then blasted by sun, then windblown, and they cannot get within shouting distance of the convention proper, or even close to what is formally known as The Perimeter. The Perimeter remains in the distance. They’re stopped at pre-Perimeter security fences and Jersey barriers.
And they’re surrounded. Even though they’re on the outside, they spend much of their time inside the law-enforcement bubble.
The streets are closed for blocks around. Businesses are shuttered. Workers stayed home, and buildings are essentially empty. A convention with high security plus a tropical storm will do that.
So there’s no one on the downtown streets but protesters, the news media and the omnipresent police in their new, crisp khakis. The protesters are vastly outnumbered by the men and women paid to keep a watch on them.
Republicans may deride federal spending as a rule, but it’s on vivid display this week in Tampa at the Republican National Convention. As with previous conventions in the post-9/11 era, this is considered a “National Special Security Event.” The federal government gave the City of Tampa a grant of $50 million for security measures.
The city used upward of $25 million to bring in some 3,000 law-enforcement officers, house them, clothe them and equip them, and then spent another $20 million for additional security equipment such as cameras, said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Monday morning as he walked (very much on the inside) through the convention center.
“No money, no convention. We couldn’t have pulled it off. Neither could Charlotte,” where the Democrats convene next week, said Buckhorn, who, for the record, is a Democrat.
The striking result of the big spending is the sight of thousands of officers. Many ride new Safariland patrol bikes. They bristle with gear that appears to be right out of the box.
They’re prepared, it seems, to battle multiple battalions of anarchists. As of Monday afternoon, only a few noisy black-clad agitators had showed up.
There were many more conventional, peaceful protesters, from groups such as Earth First!, Code Pink and the Green Party. The Occupy Wall Street folks were on hand with their chants of “We are the 99 percent!” A couple of gray-haired ladies carried a sign reading “Raging Grannies.”
They gathered in light rain Monday morning at Perry Harvey Park, roughly a mile from the convention center, in a fairly desolate part of town next to a freeway. Organizers said 45 groups were represented, a remarkable array given that the crowd appeared to number only in the low hundreds.
First came speeches. The police took up positions on the outskirts. In the distance: more police. They would line the protest route all the way through downtown.
Robert D’Avanzo, 59, of Clearwater, Fla., was dismayed by the sight of the empty streets and the heavy police presence: “I find it repulsive that our own city has been taken from us by these people who have come in to hold their convention. We’ve got to take some of it back.”
The pre-march speeches focused less on the Republicans and their nominee, Mitt Romney, than on the broader set of alleged malefactors in the political, corporate, military and financial spheres. Signs read: “Tax the Rich.” “Food Not Bombs.” “I Was Told There Would Be Cake.”
Standing in the wet grass, wearing a plastic rain slicker, Code Pink co-director Rae Abileah, 29, of San Francisco, said that downtown Tampa looks the way she imagines Chicago looked during the violent protests at the Democratic convention in 1968.
“The Republicans are hiding inside, postponing their convention. We’re not afraid of a little rain,” she said.
A police helicopter groaned overhead, circling lazily.
“They said they were going to use domestic drones for surveillance,” said Dianne Mathiowetz, a retired auto worker from Atlanta who is organizing a protest at the Democratic convention in Charlotte. “We have no idea what kind of cameras are watching.”
Insects buzzed among the protesters.
A clutch of young people dressed in black gathered on the grass with black handkerchiefs pulled over their faces. A couple of them — the anarchists — wore helmets, ready for serious action.
But there weren’t many of them, maybe a dozen at most. These would be the ones the cops would watch closely. The police weren’t worried about the Raging Grannies.
At noon the march began, haltingly, with a cacophony of competing chants from different groups. News photographers captured the drama from the back of a truck leading the way.
The cops rolled. Everywhere the protesters went, they had an escort of police in front, back, and on either side. There were secondary and tertiary police lines. If you looked into the distance, you could see the cavalry rolling along on a parallel street.
“To spend $55 million to stop, what, 25 people in the back who might cause a problem. . . . It’s the same as spending money on a war. It’s a waste,” said Tighe Barry, 50, a prop man in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. Barry used a bullhorn to berate the police for their per diems and new uniforms.
The sun came out. Rain gear came off. Damp protesters became hot protesters. Convention weather in Tampa is rain, heat, wind, and the occasional tornado warning.
Eventually the march reached its sputtering, buzz-kill finish: a fenced-in open space still several blocks from the Tampa Bay Times Forum — far removed from anything, or anyone, associated with the Republican National Convention.
“We are not animals!” an anarchist raged from atop a Jersey barrier.
Tim Rivers, 57, a retired engineer in Tampa, shouted through a fence at a compatriot: “We are in a cage! Your First Amendment rights are gone!”
Now the protesters began to splinter. On a stage, speakers aimed their words toward the Forum in the distance, but the anarchists were done with speechifying, and marched back the way they came.