Policing dissent in Tampa’s rain

Despite an overwhelming law enforcement presence, protests at the Republican convention passed largely peacefully.

tampa police [James Brownsell/Al Jazeera]
Security for the Republican convention cost an estimated $50m [James Brownsell/Al Jazeera]

Tampa, Florida – Tom Gaulrapp is counting down the days he has left as a working man. The 54-year-old is – for now, at least – an employee of Sensata Technologies. For 33 years, Gaulrapp has worked on the factory floor in Freeport, Illinois, assembling sensors and control systems for vehicle gearboxes.

But in early 2011, the plant, owned by Honeywell, was bought out by Sensata Technologies – which announced it would be cutting all 165 jobs at the factory by the end of 2012. The jobs are being sent to China. In fact, after Gaulrapp and his colleagues refused to go to China to train their replacements, the Chinese engineers turned up in Illinois to learn how to do their jobs. 

“They were here six weeks,” he told Al Jazeera. “We’ve been building this particular generation of product for seven years. And they weren’t really paying attention while they were here, and they’re not going to see the equipment until December. So they’re not going to have a clue as to what they’re doing.” 

Romney’s role? 

So why was Gaulrapp and a host of his colleagues in Tampa this weekend? Well, Sensata is owned by none other than Bain Capital, the multi-billion dollar venture capital firm started by Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate. 

“We passed an open letter round the plant and got the employees to sign it, a letter to Mitt Romney, urging him to come to Freeport and try to help us save our jobs. We sent that to Romney’s campaign headquarters, but they denied any knowledge of receiving it.” 

Attempts to hand-deliver copies of the letter to Romney campaign offices resulted in being locked out and having the police called, he said. Bain offices in Evanston, Illinois, similarly refused to accept a 35,000-strong petition.

Gaulrapp and his colleagues were also ejected from a Romney campaign event in Iowa, with attendees accusing them of “being Communists” – perhaps an ironic charge, given the destination of their jobs.

Representatives from Bain – the company from which Governor Romney has reportedly earned in excess of $23m – have kept tight-lipped on the matter, while a Romney campaign spokesperson said only that the Republican leader, who has frequently spoken of his desire to “get tough with the Chinese” and to “prevent manufacturing jobs from going to China”, had left Bain several years before this decision was made.

Despite this, the Sensata workers believe Romney can still help save their jobs.

“He was the founder and set up the business model and put the people in place who still run the company,” Gaulrapp told Al Jazeera.

‘Helpful’ policing

In Tampa, the workers went on a media offensive to raise awareness of their plight, participating in several protest actions. They found swathes of police waiting for them.

“But I have never seen that many police – not ever in my life – as there were down there. We were outnumbered probably five to one,” said Gaulrapp.

Indeed, with local and national media warning of thousands of “violent anarchists” descending on the city to smash and grab and disrupt the convention, some on the right claimed protesters intended to disrupt paramedics and firefighters’ radio communications

Some $50m was spent to bolster security measures, erect fencing, shut down swathes of downtown Tampa and bring in thousands of police officers and state troopers from across Florida. National guardsmen were also protecting the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the convention venue itself, from potential attacks.

In the weeks before the RNC gathering began, one of Tampa’s prisons was reportedly emptied to make space for would-be threats to the collected Republican officials, delegates, hawkers, and the 15,000 reporters who joined them. 

Low turnout

In fact, only a fraction of the protesters expected arrived in “cigar city” – certainly numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands. And on no protest action, or in the impromptu camps where protesters stayed, did Al Jazeera witness any more than a couple of hundred protesters. 

By the final day of the convention, just three people had been arrested in connection with protesting, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor told Al Jazeera.

 Romney: Restoring the promise of America?

One local activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that, with a large demographic skew towards the elderly, and with a large divide reported between social classes, Tampa does not have a strong “protest community” – unlike, say, Seattle or San Francisco.

Yet those few who made the journey here – many of whom had been activists with Occupy Wall Street in New York City – were as surprised by the numbers of police they encountered as Tom Gaulrapp was. 

Former army colonel and senior diplomat Ann Wright told Al Jazeera that, at one protest action – where she and other members of the Code Pink activist group tried to carry out a citizens’ arrest of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – police officers “put up with quite a bit for quite a long period of time”.

“Ultimately, they were saying we were on private property,” said Wright, who, after being deputy chief of US diplomatic missions in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, resigned from her job in 2003 in protest at the Iraq war.

“They had the manager of the theatre come over so we could talk with him … We were trying to encourage the police – $50m has been spent on law enforcement to catch criminal activity during the RNC – and we appealed to them and gave them the list of war criminals that were going to be in town – Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, all of that crew – but we had no takers. No officers came forward to say they would assist with arrest.” 

‘Manufacturing false threats’

But while police officers dealt with the protest, seemingly with good humour, Wright remained alarmed by the size of the police presence.

“The police have outnumbered us at every event, and it’s really outrageous that the law enforcement community is being allowed to scare the public about potential threats, and then getting millions of dollars for new equipment, new vehicles, new drones, and it is an outrage, because they are actually manufacturing false threat information … and all the time now, police outnumber protesters. 

“They know for sure – they got their ways, they’re eavesdropping on everyone, and they have a very accurate view of who’s coming, and who’s not coming and what they’re going to be doing.

“They’ve infiltrated every single organisation, they have their informers out there – but they’re paying them to generate false information so they can use that to get more money, either out of the Republican National Committee or the federal government.” 

Secret Service agents were deployed throughout Tampa in the week of the RNC [James Brownsell/Al Jazeera]

Musician David Rovics, from Portland, Oregon, agreed. 

“Even if there were a hundred times as many ‘protesters’, or ‘anarchists’, and they were all intent on smashing every window they could find, they still couldn’t match the cost to the city of all this fencing and police action,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Police Chief Castor said she was “very surprised” at the low turnout of protesters, compared with the sizable presence of the law enforcement community, but would not be drawn on the reasons behind the seeming imbalance.

“You’d really have to ask the groups that had indicated that they were coming here and ask them why they didn’t make it,” she said. “But it could have been partly the weather.

“Though you would have thought that, if someone was committed, once the hurricane wasn’t an impediment, they would have been on their way down here. So I’m not sure what kept them away.”

In addition to some 3,500 Tampa police, there were many secret service agents in the city. Al Jazeera asked one uniformed agent inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum how many were on the scene. “Almost all of us,” came the reply.

“The United States Secret Service, with its local, state and federal partners developed a comprehensive and detailed security plan that led to a very successful event,” George Ogilvie, USSS spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

But, “the United States Secret Service does not discuss specific numbers or specific security methods used to secure the event,” he added.

Ultimately, though police numbers were undeniably vast, the week of high-powered Republican meetings, and the dissent shown towards them, passed peacefully, without the large clashes seen at many previous conventions.

But why? Tom Gaulrapp, getting ready for his last few months of work at the Illinois gears plant, pointed to the national economic situation. 

“The police can see what we’re doing – and police are getting their budgets cut too, and they know their jobs are on the line as well – so we had a lot of police officers smiling and giving us the thumbs-up and just being very supportive,” he said. 

“They know, if getting laid off can happen to us, it can happen to anyone.”

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

Source: Al Jazeera