Pomp or Protest

Choosing the Narrative for the GOP Convention

By law, the New York Police Department must allow protesters within "sight and sound" of the Republican convention scheduled to take place at Madison Square Garden from August 30 to September 2. But it seems likely that the hordes of conventioneers and protesters expected in Manhattan that week won't see or hear much of each other as the city undergoes a massive lockdown. While millions of Americans watch from the safety of their homes, the media alone have the power to bridge the divide and control perception of the convention and its impact on the November election.

And that means everyone involved, from Dick Cheney to the anarchists, will be using the media to get their message to each other and the masses.

Kevin Sheekey, the mayor's liaison to the convention, explained that the GOP's decision to convene in New York serves many spheres of interest. For the candidate, it's a great place to launch a campaign. For the city, it's an opportunity to show off and rake in an estimated $230 to $260 million in revenues. For protesters, it's a chance to voice dissent. But everyone has a common goal: publicity. According to Sheekey, "The real advantage to a political convention is the 15,000 to 16,000 credentialed members of the media who come to town."

Journalists will have two scripts to choose from: officially scripted events inside the Garden, at restaurants, and against the backdrop of city landmarks—and the less predictable sidewalk scenes where police and protesters will clash daily in what promises to be a test case for freedom of speech. Says one reporter who plans to cover the protests, "Everyone knows the real story is going to happen on the streets."

The New York Timeshas signaled that it takes the protest angle seriously. On February 19, the paper ran a story about a recent prank in the city involving a Karl Rove impersonator, the kind of agitprop that protesters are planning more of for the convention. A February 23 front-page Metro story examined the goals and concerns of some protest organizers. Despite their desire to remain peaceful, the Times' Michael Slackman wrote that August "may well be a tense and angry time on the streets of Manhattan." Clyde Haberman recently predicted "a summer of protest" and on February 29 Frank Rich declared that, given Bush's gay-bashing, next summer "sounds like Chicago '68 to me." (At the Democratic convention that year, police met protesters with tear gas and billy clubs.)

Rich isn't the only one anticipating a smackdown. In preparing for New York '04, protesters have had flashbacks to the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, and the Free Trade of the Americas summit last November in Miami. The latter two events were overseen by John Timoney, a former police chief in Philadelphia who now holds the same job in Miami. In Philly, Timoney was accused of making preemptive arrests, while in Miami last year he invited reporters to "embed" with officers, placing them on the front lines of the protest. A Miami Herald reporter accepted and rode around town with Timoney on a bike.

To be sure, reporters who plan to work inside the New York convention will have more positive tales to tell. For starters, they can write about the James A. Farley Post Office across Eighth Avenue from the Garden, which is being turned into a media village, or the $1 million climate-controlled pedestrian bridge that's being built to carry the media in and out of the Garden. Or they can chronicle the swank media parties scheduled for the convention's kickoff weekend at Brooklyn Bridge Park and Elaine's.

But once the convention starts, reporters toeing the official line may feel a bit claustrophobic. In an interview with The New York Observer last fall, the convention's then director of communications Jim Wilkinson discussed the significance of the "security perimeter," that is, the enclosed area in which the convention will take place. "Once they're in, they're in," he said, leading the Observer to conclude that reporters who cover the convention from the inside will "be more or less trapped," as reporters were in Wilkinson's previous PR domain, the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar. (Moreover, if organizers decide to ban cell phones, reporters inside the zone may find it hard to learn what's happening outside.)

Reporters who intend to work the streets have been plunged into their own world of unknowns. At press time, these include the boundaries of the security perimeter, the boundaries of the "free speech zone," and perhaps most importantly, the personalities of the protesters and their police monitors.

A few things are known about the nature of the security force. Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge designated the convention a "National Special Security Event" (a designation also assigned to the upcoming Democratic convention). The Secret Service and the NYPD will share responsibility for patrolling the city, with added participation by the FBI, FEMA, and other agencies. According to a February 15 story in the Times, the NYPD has begun chemical and biological training for the convention; and on February 17, the Daily News reported that federal officials have discussed bringing in U.S. troops. To justify the cost of so much heat, it could be tempting for officials to cast any spontaneous protest as an act of terrorism.

Convention organizers have promised to honor the rights of protesters, and Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne told the Voice that while some credentialing issues are undecided, he does not plan to embed reporters. Asked about press restrictions, Browne noted that unlike convention events, protests are open to the public. He said that both credentialed media and freelancers will have "open access" to protesters. Photographers can expect to get "as close as possible to whatever it is that they want to photograph," he added, and reporters "will have complete access both to the demonstrators and the police, as long as they're not interfering with an arrest. We don't plan to restrict them in such a way that embedding would be an alternative."

Despite assurances, some organizers have grown impatient for details. United for Peace and Justice, for one, has applied for permits on August 29, a date when they expect a huge crowd of protesters to march up Eighth Avenue and rally in Central Park. But no permit has materialized. Spokesperson Bill Dobbs isn't ready to accuse the police of foot-dragging, but "the more the clock ticks, the uncertainty works against the organizers."

At some point, the NYPD will announce a deadline for protest applications. "We want to make sure all the players have applied," said Browne. "Once we have a notion of what that universe is, then we'll tackle them."


cc@villagevoice.com

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