Tampa Lockdown: Is the RNC Really Worth It?

In an attempt to “keep it clean,” Tampa police recently conducted a sweep of the city’s strip clubs ahead of this week’s Republican National Convention, busting dancers aged 18 to 61 who were suspected of working as prostitutes.

What these cops don’t know is that no amount of whitewash can hide the dirty fact that in a time of recession, more than $50 million in federal taxpayer funds are being used to establish a virtual police state in downtown Tampa so that a few lucky Republicans, their corporate friends and courtiers can engage in what amounts to a giant pep rally and diamond-cuff-linked influence exchange at the expense of paralyzing the rest of the city, diverting local, state and even federal emergency services from real demands elsewhere.

In other words, these ladies of the night are the least of their hygiene problem.

We’re told of course that the security risks involved in holding a major political convention require marshaling the expanse of our federal law enforcement and emergency resources via the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Secret Service, which is ultimately in command. This week, the Secret Service — which has plenty of recent experience with prostitutes — will oversee a convoluted web of state and local authorities, including up to 1,700 Florida National Guard troops, half of whom will be tasked with security and crowd control, according to reports.

They will work with a team of 4,000 law enforcement and emergency personnel from Tampa and the surrounding jurisdictions. The police have been outfitted with millions of dollars in new communications equipment, “non-lethal” weapons, mountain bikes, SWAT gear, armored vehicles and uniforms. Some $2 million worth of new security cameras have been strategically placed throughout downtown Tampa. Afterwards, another $250,000 was spent on more cameras (thanks to the U.S. Department of Justice) for Sunday night’s “welcome” party at Tropicana Field. A nifty map of where all the cameras are can be found here.

And don’t forget the police boats (including U.S. Coast Guard) that will “saturate” the area waterways, armed with “infrared cameras, skin divers and machine guns.” Meanwhile, helicopters like dragonflies will patrol the restricted air space ahead, providing another level of surveillance below. An 8-square mile security perimeter has been established around the Tampa Bay Forum, where the main events are being held, and you can be sure police are tightly restricting access to nearby buildings where other convention activities — happy hours, meet-and-greets, press conferences and forums — are taking place.

As for drones, the government has vehemently denied an earlier report that United Drones would be providing unmanned aerial spy machines for the event, though the company promises it will be demonstrating its “ground vehicles” for all those liberty-minded Republicans during the convention.

Although there has been no serious foreign or domestic terror threat or attack against any of the four conventions since 9/11, official security protocols demand that a spectacle this size — some 50,000 attendees, including delegates, political VIPs, media and merchants — be designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE). This apparently requires a massive, multi-level response that seems to get bigger and more intimidating with each passing convention.

Should a political function demand our national security resources?

One is hard-pressed to say whether all of this is worth it, considering the Republican and Democratic nominations have been locked up for months, the competition boxed out and marginalized. No surprises or high political drama expected — save a hurricane. Everything is ritualized and pro-forma. A lot of crab cakes and martinis, funny hats and swag amid the jersey barriers and crude metal fences separating the credentialed from the unwashed masses.

It doesn’t matter. Conventions matter because we are told they matter, even though most of us know they only exist to a) gin up enthusiasm among the party faithful and b) provide an exclusive, high-class trading opportunity for pols, corporations, unions and other wealthy special interests to buy and sell not only financial support for the upcoming election, but clout and patronage on Capitol Hill.

“Corporations and their lobbyists see the conventions as ideal opportunities to buy access and influence with the presidential campaigns, lawmakers and party leaders,” concludes a July report by Public Citizen, which notes that in addition to the $50 million in public financing each party gets for security (plus $18 million each more for regular expenses), both are raking in tens of millions more than that in direct contributions and in-kind services from corporations and lobbying firms.

So the conventions have become “privately financed soirees funded by corporations and lobbying firms that seek favors from the federal government,” according to the Public Citizen watchdogs.

Hardly seems like a good enough good reason to militarize downtown Tampa. But before citizens can ask whether it’s worth it, law enforcement goes out of its way to hype the security threat in order to justify its own daunting presence and exaggerated expenditures. In other words, without the terrorists, activists and protesters become the threat and de facto “enemy,” allowing agencies to flex their muscles and make use of all those shiny new toys and urban training exercises, like this one:

Thus all the stories this week about the threat of “anarchists” and “black bloc” agitators who “could” be descending on the Tampa convention armed with Molotov cocktails and eggs filled with acid, and plans to disrupt traffic and transportation systems, thanks to a joint memo entitled, “Potential for Violent or Criminal Action By Anarchist Extremists During the 2012 National Political Conventions,” conveniently leaked by the FBI and DHS last week.

This followed reports of suspicious items — bricks and pipes — found on a Tampa rooftop near a spray-painted picture of the main character in the movie V for Vendetta, an image closely related to the Occupy protests and the hacker group Anonymous. Police have also been scrutinizing a crude video that features an unidentified person in a Guy Fawkes mask appearing to threaten the RNC convention.

“If you take a look at this as a continuum, you take the video and the pre-positioned weapons and graffiti in the event zone, it lends itself to the realization of what we have been told and saw both for this event and historically,” Assistant Tampa Police Chief Bennett told reporters last week. “We investigate every possible angle, especially violent behavior. We are looking for a link.”

But they already have made the link, suggesting, and maybe not so subtly, that there is a guerrilla war afoot. Always the police state apparatchik, the right-wing mobosphere ran with the bricks and pipes story, claiming that “terrorists in the Middle East” use the “same tactics” for marking places where “weapons” are stashed.

Welcome to the quadrennial protester panic, which is always based on unidentified threats that could happen but never do. The closest police came to a Molotov cocktail last RNC convention was when St. Paul police arrested a man who they said “planned” to use one. They also arrested several protesters in a dramatic and violent house raid right before the convention began. The so-called “RNC Eight” were initially slapped with terrorism charges, but those were soon dropped and reduced to misdemeanors for five of the activists, while charges for the other three were dismissed completely. They went on to successfully sue the police, winning a $50,000 settlement in 2011.

Meanwhile, St. Paul police were criticized for clashes with protesters, at one point pushing hundreds of people onto the Marion Bridge and then arresting and giving citations for “unlawful assembly” to more than 350 of them.

Over 1,800 individuals were arrested throughout the creepy police state that was the 2004 RNC in New York City —- 90 percent of them were never convicted of anything. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, protesters were put in “free speech zones,” otherwise known as cages. What police never realized was that the real animals were on the inside of the Xcel Energy Center, where the convention was being held.

In Tampa, a city ordinance has defined a protest parade route and a “viewing area” for rallies that is nowhere near the main event at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but well within the strict security perimeter.

So, activists are instead heading to “Freedom Park,” home to Occupy Tampa for the last several months. Unlike other Occupy campsites on public properties across the country, this patch of land in the middle of the city is private, donated by an area strip club owner who recently won a monetary settlement against the city. So far, Occupy Tampa has broken no laws or health codes but as the convention drew near, it was the target of increased police scrutiny and intimidation, according to activists and residents in the immediate area.

“It’s like an invasion of a small army — that’s how many police officers were here,” said Tim Grantham, one of the Occupy Tampa activists, talking about a particularly cop-heavy evening on Aug. 17.

“This is like Beirut, this is like Afghanistan,” exclaimed Gregory Lockett, a West Tampa resident, “and I don’t understand why the taxpayers’ money has been wasted like this when the city has, and can’t help, homeless children, homeless families.”

But doesn’t a major convention benefit the local economy?

One would think, considering that an estimated 50,000 people will descend on Tampa before it is through on Wednesday, with an expected $175 million to $200 million impact on the local economy. Well, an independent report by the firm Jones Lang LaSalle, found “the economic benefits of hosting these conventions are far less than reported by the Host Committees.”

That’s because, according to the report, the estimates used by host cities do not include the negative impact of shutting down streets, rerouting traffic, and the thousands of people who won’t go to work or travel to the city during the conventions, therefore they are not spending money on food, services and accommodations there.

For example, in 2004, Boston is estimated to have lost $36.7 million “due to congestion and its resulting losses in productivity,” while New York City’s losses to productivity were estimated at around $19.1 million.

And sure, while convention visitors to Tampa are expected to boost hotel revenues by $13.7 million, which certainly keeps the corporate profits on track, there is no statistical evidence according to the report, that conventions create long-term jobs or improve economic development overall.

Then there are those who have actually been hurt by the convention. Just ask the guys at Ferg’s Sports Bar, which had scheduled a cool Ron Paul event for Sunday. That got scrapped right quick when the Secret Service established a security perimeter around Tropicana Field, which hosted a mega welcome blitz for conventioneers, politicians, and media yesterday. Aside from the bar, a number of businesses were completely cut off from traffic, and residents at a nearby apartment building were even told to stay in their homes between Sunday afternoon and midnight so that the Republicans could have their multi-million dollar cocktail party.

The Host Committees also conveniently include the $50 million in security money when assessing positive impact on the economy. That’s a joke! First of all, that is money that in times of “thinning government” is not going to a jobs training program or a community health clinic. Instead, it’s going directly to local and regional police and fire to pay for overtime and new equipment that we know in most cases is superfluous to their daily law enforcement duties.

So Tampa gets permanent Big Brother cameras, khaki police uniforms and new riot gear.

The question is — was it worth it?

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.