It’s not easy being the police department responsible for hosting a NSSE. Counter-terrorism and protest management requirements compete. U.S. law enforcement tend to see this competition as a zero sum game where there’s winners and losers, rather than the two requirements being complementary. A truly effective security effort at an NSSE attracts no or very little media attention – attention that the organizers want focused on the party message rather than the security effort. The signals that Tampa is sending suggest this will not be the case for the 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC).
The fundamental requirement for a police department hosting an NSSE is understanding the threat so that the response is proportionate and effective. There are worrying signs that the City of Tampa doesn’t understand the threat or how to manage it effectively. If they don’t understand the threat to legitimate protest and law enforcement properly, how will they be able to facilitate constitutional rights and maintain the counter-terrorist capability that’s necessary?
Anarchists and Extreme Left Wing groups are not synonymous with protesters, but in the effort to combat the former, law abiding protesters are often dragged into the fray, subjected to mass arrests, CS gas and other indiscriminate, ineffective means that don’t actually contribute to either upholding the law or constitutional rights.
The pressure on Tampa PD to manage the protesters effectively will be high because the anarchist movement has evolved over the past four years. There is a new trend of willingness to actually fight the police and de-arrest individuals, something simply not in evidence four years ago. Chicago PD showed significant evolution in their engagement-heavy approach – they were fortunate in that the anarchist “A team” didn’t attend. The real problem that we are likely to see in Tampa is a repeat of the mistakes of 2008 RNC in St Paul/Minneapolis, where a small group of organized anarchists caused the police to overreact on Day 1, and for the police to continue to be heavy handed for the rest of the period.
Effective understanding of the threat is critical. If Tampa PD doesn’t understand the threat, they will be unable to manage it by facilitating protest by the majority and targeting, arresting, and successfully prosecuting actual criminals.
Three examples suggest this lack of understanding:
- The City Attorney not understanding the cause of the lack of sign-up for protest march licenses;
- The police spokesperson’s misunderstanding about what the anarchist movement is and its members’ motives; and
- The City Attorney publishing legislation that either doesn’t understand anarchist reality over police urban myths, or is deliberately restricting new media and using anarchists as the scapegoats for it.
Lack of Participation Sign Up for Marches
The following report by a local news station reported on the preparations for the RNC.
In it, there were interviews with a number of members of the security preparations committees. These include the City Attorney, who is responsible for the legal preparations for hosting the convention. This process must be conducted in close cooperation with the police and federal authorities if it is to be effective. The report states:
Shimberg [Tampa City Attorney] said that organizers of parades or marches must sign up with the city to use the route, and are slotted in 90-minute increments. But as of July 6, only three groups have signed up. Shimberg said he’s surprised more groups haven’t come forward, and doesn’t know what the low numbers signify. There’s no deadline to sign up for the parade route, but he said there are 28 open slots during the four-day convention.
“We’re a little baffled,” he said. “I’m not sure if it means that people don’t want to go where we want them to go, or if they’re just not coming.”
The protesters are coming. They’re coming in strength. However, they agreed months ago that because they didn’t respect the mechanisms that the City of Tampa had put in place, they refused to participate in the city’s processes. Experience tells us that the effective response in this situation is to engage with the protest groups, particularly the moderates, and negotiate sensible agreements that facilitate constitutional rights but that ensure that the counter-terrorism effort is not only effective, but enhanced. There are no signs from either side that this engagement is taking place or is successful. It’s not too late to implement an effective policy that would resolve this situation, isolating those who would be violent or promote criminal damage rather than encouraging solidarity between all protest groups, regardless of their attitude to violence towards others and the police.
Misunderstanding of What the Anarchists Are, and Therefore the Threat They Pose.
The police spokesperson, Laura McElroy, is talking of the protesters when she says in this article:
“The large majority are law-abiding protesters who are coming just to be part of the political process; for their voice to be heard,” said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. “A small percentage is trouble-makers.”
She said officers have developed a security plan and even attended the NATO conference in Chicago in May to observe how violent protests were handled.
“We are preparing any way possible,” she said. “We can’t talk about the particulars. We are building a comprehensive security plan.
“Anarchy is a tactic, versus a group,” she said. “It is used by different groups. Typically, they are loosely organized and misguided individuals who break the law and disrupt the event.”
She is absolutely right in the first paragraph – the majority of protesters are law abiding and simply want their voices heard, and only a small percentage are trouble-makers. The accurate figures are that generally 1 percent to 5 percent attend ready to initiate confrontation with the police, a further 15 percent will participate in that confrontation if they see that there is a very small risk of repercussions for doing so, and 80 percent don’t want anything to do with the confrontation.
She is not correct in the implication that Chicago handled violent protests that will be of the same intensity as in Tampa. The anarchists coming to Tampa will be better organized; for internal reasons, there were few anarchists in Chicago, and those who were there were inexperienced at best. The few experienced anarchists who attended and watched the confrontation with the police were embarrassed at the poor effort, and if there had been more experienced anarchists there, the bloc would not have marched themselves into a police containment and would have been much harder to deal with.
Most worrying is her statement that “anarchy is a tactic, versus a group. It is used by different groups. Typically, they are loosely organized and misguided individuals who break the law and disrupt the event.” This is wrong. Anarchy is a belief system, not a tactic, and it includes a wide variety of viewpoints and an equally wide variety of potential tactics, from those whose involvement will be feeding other protesters through to those that will want to cause criminal damage and confront police. While their idea of organization may not be the same as ours, their ability to operate in this environment should not be underestimated, as many of them will have considerably more experience of large scale protest events than Tampa police do. This experience has increased dramatically in the past few years, and the anarchists have gained confidence from it, as seen in the recent increase of attacks on police and police stations, better tactics to neutralize the effect of less lethal weapons, and increased use of “de-arresting” tactics.
Misunderstanding of Anarchist Tactics
The RNC’s true purpose is to promote the nominee and the platform (though particularly this year, the nomination process is only a formality). To do that, reporters have to have the ability to freely report. In recent legislation, the City Attorney has outlawed a range of items such as camera bipods and tripods that are of use to journalists. The justification was that these items have been used in the past to attack police officers during protests. However, there is no actual evidence of this in the United States, any more than there is actual evidence of any protesters in the United States using jars of urine and feces – it’s an urban myth that is commonly referencedbut lacking in substance.
Managing the security and protests surrounding an NSSE is difficult. Understanding the threat is critical in managing it effectively; to be prepared to manage those actually intent on violence, while being respectful of the constitutional rights of everyone else. The City of Tampa is signaling that it doesn’t understand the threat, which is either a communications issue or an intelligence and operations issue. Both are problems, but it’s not too late to address them. The City of Tampa and Tampa PD pride themselves on their professionalism – part of that approach is being willing to accept that there may be better information out there than current and former U.S. law enforcement are able to provide.