This year’s RNC and DNC presented a demanding set of circumstances for NLG protest support efforts. Both conventions were held in cities with no NLG chapter and with few or no NLG members. Drawing on the expertise, time, and passion of members across the country, as well as a phenomenal group of new student members from Charlotte Law School, Mass Defense Coordinator Abi Hassen and a team of volunteers provided Legal Observers® at every major protest and 24-hour legal support hotlines in both Tampa and
In a matter of days in mid-August, law enforcement crews transformed downtown Tampa into a fortified, militarized, “event zone.” As the RNC approached, checkpoints, blast walls, and 10 foot fences appeared everywhere. While the police were training to quell “anarchist extremists,” NLG members were busy conducting daily Know Your Rights and Legal Observer® trainings and setting up a legal office in preparation for the chaos to come.
The chaos never came. What did come was a near-miss from a hurricane and a huge police presence. The hurricane turned many protesters away, leaving Tampa with demonstrations that approached a 5:1 police-to-protester ratio. Law enforcement delivered the “overwhelming force” promised by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, but mostly as an implied threat: the entire convention saw only two arrests. Tampa police even declined to arrest activists who had chained themselves together at the entrance of a power plant.
“Bank Town” took a different tack than Tampa for its DNC preparations. While city and police officials there proved far less transparent when it came to security spending and policies, they attempted to maintain a level of openness within the city, going so far as to allow protesters to create an Occupy camp in a city park.
Where Tampa had physical fences and walls protecting the fortress, Charlotte had walls of police surrounding all protests and a constant, shadowy presence of undercover officers following anyone who looked like a protester.
Charlotte also used its (now permanent) event ordinance to declare an “extraordinary event,” giving police the power to search people with almost no constraints. Unsurprisingly, searches during the convention seemed only to be performed on protesters, though not the Christian anti-abortion protesters who came out in droves.
Charlotte police proved less dedicated to low arrest numbers. The NLG team saw significant police harassment, including one protester who was arrested for asking if she was being detained. The convention ended with only about 30 arrests and by the time the NLG team had broken down its office there were no protesters left in local jails.