By Len Lazarick
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a message to “media representatives,” the CEO of the Democratic National Convention, Stephen Kerrigan says: “Our goal is to make this the most open and accessible convention in history, and we cannot do it without you.”
Sunday, it seemed they were quite willing to do it without me and thousands of other people, as police blocked dozens of streets into downtown – they call it Uptown here — closing ramps from interstates, turning cars around. When I popped out of my rental car in which the GPS was frantically “recalculating” every time I passed a blocked intersection, the polite officer freely admitted he had no idea how I could get to pick up my press credentials. He, and thousands of other cops on duty that day are from out of town. He barely knew where he was, so he was hardly able to tell me how to get somewhere else.
I worked in downtown Washington for years, five blocks from the White House, and had never seen so many police officers, except maybe for the inauguration. Here, there were hundreds and hundreds of police, sheriffs and cadets in black and blue, khaki and brown, wide brimmed trooper hats, baseball caps and bike helmets.
Street parking was banned for blocks, metal barricades lined most streets, and when I saw a phalanx of officers mobilizing near Bank of America stadium where President Obama will deliver his acceptance speech Thursday, I wondered what could possibly be the cause for such extraordinary security.
Motley parade of protesters
There they were up the block, a rag-tag crew of several hundred demonstrators protesting the war, Wall Street and whatever. There seemed to be more cops than demonstrators in this block-long parade. At one point, pedestrians were not allowed to cross the street or turn up a block. (Local TV news reported there were 750 protesters and two arrests, one of a woman for wearing a mask, banned during the convention.)
I had never seen so many cops on bikes, and I would dearly loved to have borrowed one. The officers were from all over North Carolina and beyond. For some odd reason cops from Chicago, with those distinctive checkerboard bands on their caps like those worn in Britain, were in charge of guarding the convention center, where credentials were being handed out. But there was nary a soul within 100 yards of the Time Warner Cable Arena blocks away where the convention actually will be held Tuesday and Wednesday. No one was allowed in the perimeter.
Guys walked around in bullet-proof vests bearing the words POLICE or SECRET SERVICE. A caravan of white Chevy Suburbans from the Federal Protective Service were guarding the federal courthouse.
Terrorists must take some satisfaction in having turned every big political event into an excuse for a police state. Congress appropriated $50 million each for security in Tampa and Charlotte. An editor who was in Tampa last week told me security was just as fierce there. Doubtful that the Republicans were touting their openness as much.
I can’t imagine what it will be like when the president arrives Thursday to address the Bank of America stadium that holds 74,000 people. A staff member at the Daily Press Gallery advised me to go to a special media security screening site to avoid the long lines at the stadium.
The restaurants I passed as I trudged back to my car looked positively empty. People were not exactly streaming into Uptown.
Welcome to Charlotte, closed and inaccessible. A street festival for the public, Carolina Fest, is scheduled today (Monday); we’ll see how open for business the city is then.