In 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago, police violently cleared the streets of antiwar protesters, smashing heads and clubbing with abandon. Inside, even some Democratic Party officials blanched at the level of brutality. Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, denounced the police’s “Gestapo tactics” from the podium of the convention hall, earning the ire of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley and the applause of many delegates.
In the decades since, domestic law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to quell political dissent. While no convention since has devolved into such chaotic brutality, policing today is arguably more planned, militarized, and indiscriminately violent.
The contemporary policing model — one of “strategic incapacitation,” as the sociologist Patrick Gillham terms it — developed as a reaction to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
After the “Battle in Seattle,” during which protesters shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization summit, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney and other officials traveled to the Pacific Northwest to study protest tactics and the police response, and to prepare for the Republican Convention scheduled in Philadelphia just a few months later.
Lessons well learned, Timoney oversaw the crackdown at the GOP gathering in 2000 and then, as Miami police chief, presided over one of the most brutal responses to political protest in modern history: the repression of demonstrators at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit.
The “Miami model” established the rules of engagement that the host cities of political conventions now habitually employ to quash dissent. Chances are, officials in Cleveland (site of the Republican National Convention) and Philadelphia (site of the Democratic National Convention) will crib from the same playbook.
The effort to thwart convention protests begins months before any delegate sets foot in the host city. Since 2000, every political convention has been designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE), which allows officials to establish a robust, multi-agency law enforcement apparatus (with the FBI and Secret Service at the top) and to have to access to millions of federal dollars for police equipment, weaponry, and personnel.
As the intelligence community sets up shop and local police stockpile weapons, public officials engage in a calculated effort to frighten residents. They warn of “outside agitators” and “violent anarchists,” seeking to foment divisions between the public and protesters and build support for the inevitable crackdown.
Meanwhile, FBI agents visit the homes and workplaces of known activists to ratchet up the pressure. Law enforcement infiltrate and spy on activist groups, even if there’s no credible threat of terrorist or violent activity.