Charlotte ready but still waiting for big protests at Democratic convention
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - The big protests that were planned outside the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa, Florida, never really materialized, doused in part by a tropical storm. But activists say they expect a stronger showing this week, when Democrats gather for their nominating convention in Charlotte.
If Sunday's march in Charlotte was any gauge, those predictions might fizzle. Police said about 800 to 1,000 demonstrators paraded through the city, far less than the thousands some had predicted would gather to protest everything from big banks to the deportation of immigrants.
The 80-plus groups that make up the Coalition to March on Wall Street South held a 3-mile (5-km) march on Sunday aimed at putting a spotlight on Charlotte as the United States' second-largest financial center, behind New York.
Activists stopped in front of the headquarters of Bank of America and utility Duke Energy to speak out against what they see as a range of injustices, including foreclosures and high student loan debt.
Organizers had expected several thousand people to participate, including some coalition members who were involved in much smaller protests last week in Tampa, during the convention where Republicans nominated Mitt Romney for president.
On Sunday, demonstrators carrying signs and bottled water gathered on a hot, humid day as organizers said they were not disappointed by the smaller-than-expected crowd.
"We are happy with the turnout," said Bryan Perlmutter, 21, a North Carolina college student who has helped organize the event. "We are here to raise up the demands of the people."
Captain Jeff Estes of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said the event went smoothly, with only one arrest as the march was winding down.
"This is the Constitution in practice," he said. "People were out here exercising their free speech."
During one stretch of the march, a famous bystander grabbed as much attention as the protesters. Walking back to his hotel from preaching at a church, civil rights advocate Reverend Jesse Jackson stopped for photos with spectators and to talk with reporters.
The protest organizers are seeking to distinguish their efforts from those of the anarchist movement, which in recent years has destroyed property and tried to disrupt activities at major political and government events.
The FBI warned of possible action by anarchists in Tampa last week, but the protests there were small, peaceful and overwhelmed by the thousands of security officers.
The demonstration in Charlotte on Sunday was intended to be nonviolent and family friendly, said Ben Carroll, a volunteer organizer.
Representatives of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, which has its eastern hub in the city, say the banks have plans in place to minimize disruptions to their operations during the Democratic convention, which is expected to draw about 35,000 people to North Carolina's largest city.
Both banks are closing some branches for the week near the convention sites in Charlotte, and employees will work from alternate bank locations or from home.
Bank of America has 15,000 employees in the Charlotte area, and Wells Fargo about 20,500.
Unlike Tampa, Charlotte officials have to contend with the sitting president coming to town, as well as key convention events being held at two venues instead of one.
The convention starts on Tuesday at Time Warner Cable Arena, which seats about 20,000. On Thursday, when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will speak, the convention will move outdoors, to the nearly 74,000-seat Bank of America Stadium about a mile away.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will nearly double the size of its force of 1,760 officers by bringing in law enforcement from other jurisdictions to help with security during the convention, Mayor Anthony Foxx said.
Several hundred members of the state's National Guard will support the security effort, and about 2,000 more will be available to assist with security if necessary, said Guard spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Robert Carver.
Charlotte received a $50 million federal grant to help cover security costs. Also assisting police is a new local law that allows the city manager to declare a large-scale gathering an "extraordinary event" and lets law enforcement set up security boundaries and limit what can be brought into the event zone.
The ordinance includes a long list of items that are prohibited, including hammers, paint guns, water guns, gas masks worn with the intent to obstruct police and backpacks used to conceal weapons.
Not everyone carrying a backpack will be automatically searched, but officers will stop people who appear to be up to trouble, said police department attorney Mark Newbold.
"We did not suspend the Fourth Amendment," Newbold said, referring to the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches. "I think a good, lively demonstration is great. We're just hoping it doesn't get out of hand."
'FREE SPEECH' ZONES CRITICIZED
Charlotte set up a designated parade route and speakers platform as "free speech" areas for activists to express their opinions during the Democratic convention. The city hosted a lottery to assign time slots for speaking and marches.
The range of protest issues is broad, with activists expected to travel from across North Carolina and other states to push for fewer restrictions on marijuana, separation of church and state, marriage and religious liberties and causes affecting senior citizens and immigrants.
Protesters have criticized the speakers' platform, which is about six-tenths of a mile from Time Warner Cable Arena, as being too far from the main convention activities to be effective. Organizer Carroll described the designated parade route as "a tour of parking lots and abandoned lots."
"It will make it difficult or impossible for bankers or any (Democratic) delegates to actually hear the complaints," he said.
Tampa officials quickly learned that protesters were loath to stay within the city-established spots but tended to comply with police orders as long as they got time to make their case in front of television cameras before being asked to move along.
The strategy proved effective: Tampa authorities said on Friday they arrested only two protesters during the Republican convention. One man had an 18-inch (45-cm) machete strapped to his leg, and the other violated the city's event ordinance by refusing to remove a bandanna that concealed his face, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's advice for Charlotte officials? Be flexible.
"You really have to be fluid and nimble," he said. "If you take a rigid approach to this, that's when you're going to have a problem."
(Additional reporting by Rick Rothacker and Saundra Amrhein; editing by David Lindsey, Mohammad Zargham and Cynthia Osterman)
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