Tampa in lockdown – because the Republican convention is coming
Protesters and terror attacks among the potential threats
The Secret Service, the FBI and the local police forces are in the final highly discreet phases of buttoning down the city of Tampa, Florida, ahead of the Republican National Convention with protester violence and a possible attack by terrorists topping their list of concerns.
Beyond the gaze of residents and downtown businesses, multiple steps are being taken to ensure the gathering, which will see Mitt Romney accepted as his party's presidential nominee, passes off without serious incident, whether that be the spraying of policemen with human excrement by anarchists or the detonation of a suicide bomb in the harbour. The arrangements are robbing people like Ken Jones, the chief executive of the Tampa Host Committee, of a lot of sleep. Partly it's just logistical challenges, like how to house the 16,000 journalists expected here for the week of 27 August – almost the same number credentialled to cover the Olympics.
But security trumps all. It is why last Wednesday fork-lift driving federal agents began to push floating booms threaded with steel cables into Tampa Harbour for deployment across inlets and channels to block possible incursions by small boats with bad intentions. That same afternoon, port officials huddled to discuss stopping stockpiles of anhydrous ammonia in Tampa Port falling into the wrong hands while elsewhere city leaders met with a Secret Service convention task force to hear about potential threats to the safety of delegates as well as response planning. The latter, one senior source confirmed anonymously, includes the placement of missile launchers on buildings, as has been the case for London.
"I don't envy them," said Greg Celestan, a retired Lt-Gen, who now runs an overseas intelligence consulting firm, Celestar. Tampa, which is home both to US Central Command and Special Operations Com-mand on MacDill Air Force Base inside the city limits, would present a tempting target, he said.
The proximity of the convention venue, the Tampa Forum, to one of the harbour's channels concerns Mr Jones more than anything else. "Imagine a big speedboat barrelling up the channel packed with explosives at 60mph," he said gravely. "It would be a horrible thing."
The Mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, is less concerned with boats filled with dynamite than with protesters. And come they will, perhaps as many as 10,000 of them, according to the city's own estimates. This is the age of Occupy Wall Street and few politicians personify the "1 per cent" more neatly than Mr Romney, who co-founded Bain Capital.
"We are in one of the worst recessions we have experienced," the Mayor said. "There is a lot resent out there, a lot of discontent and the combustible nature of these events has been fuelled by all of that."
To keep smashed windows and bloodied noses off our televisions screens he is reinforcing his own police department with 3,000 additional officers from across the state.
Meanwhile, protest groups, including Occupy, will be allowed to demonstrate within sight of the Forum but only within fenced-off "viewing areas" or pens.
While Mr Buckhorn insists he wants to give "everyone with an alternative point of view the opportunity to express it", he says he has to strike a balance between free speech and preventing disorder.
The mere mention of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where anti-Vietnam protesters clashed with police for several days, makes him recoil. "That will not happen. I am not going to give orders to shoot to kill, for starters," he said, referring to the situation in 1968.
The city is, however, ready to incarcerate any unruly protesters in a facility at the Orient Road Jail on the eastern outskirts of town. About 800 arrests were made at the Republican Convention four years ago in St Paul, Minnesota. Tampa, if necessary, will be able to process up to 1,700 people under arrest.
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