The anarchy of ’04?

Something didn’t strike me quite right when I read Katherine Kersten’s column in the Strib this week about what the delegates from Minnesota went through at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.

Annette Meeks has seen these tactics before. In 2004, she was a delegate to the GOP convention in New York City.

Meeks, my former colleague at Center of the American Experiment, said that many of the protesters in New York differed markedly from their predecessors.

“It used to be peaceful ex-hippies with placards — they’re almost quaint by today’s standards,” she said. “In New York we saw a professional class of protesters, with an angry, violent mob mentality. Their goal is not to be heard. Their sole purpose is to create anarchy in our streets.”

Meeks saw protesters use burning trash bins in an effort to shut down Manhattan’s theater district. Swarms of bicyclists blocked traffic, crowds of protesters harassed delegates at their hotels.

“They screamed obscenities — any way they could conjugate the F-word,” she said. “Then they grew weary of yelling and started spitting and throwing things at us.”

Meeks saw the tip of the iceberg. During the convention, demonstrators rampaged through Midtown Manhattan, throwing traffic cones and other objects at cars and windows. A policeman was kicked unconscious. Protesters attempted to take over hotel lobbies.

To be sure, there are some elements of reality in the article, but Kersten worked overtime to create an image of New York that would make it easier to make her point.

I covered that convention and stayed in the same hotel as the Minnesota delegates and I don’t remember any attempt to take it over. And there was a good reason for that: there were cops out front and cops in the lobby. It was so quiet, the only action was delegates petting police dogs.

But the comment about being spit at is the one that caught my attention because delegates didn’t mix with protesters. See, the way it worked was a “tiered” security area was placed around Madison Square Garden… the closer you got to it, the tighter the security. Protesters were eliminated from as far away as the outer ring.

The delegates were taken to the Garden every night by bus. The bus went directly to the most secure area — at the very entrance to the Garden — and no protesters were in the area.

Clearly, there were protesters in New York. There were battles with police in New York. But in the week I was there, the only incident I saw that suggested the chaos in the column was after Bush’s acceptance speech. Some delegates elected to walk back to the hotel. As they passed into the less secure area along the street, they got closer and closer to the protesters.

I was walking behind a couple of delegates — they weren’t from Minnesota — who were pretty brazen when they were in the more security area. “Get a job,” they shouted while they were still in the high-security area. But as they got to the less secure area, it was clear they were scared — very scared — and were no longer interested in a “discussion” with the protesters. Welcome to New York, boys.

I don’t recall the degree of use of the “F” word, but it’s New York City and I used to work there and the “F” word is New York’s version of “doncha think, then?” I also don’t recall efforts to shut down the theater district — although I’m sure there were. But neither Madison Square Garden nor the Minnesota delegates’ hotel was (is) located in the theater district.

Traffic disruptions. In New York? How would you know? And Minnesota delegates would board buses (one cop assigned to every bus) and a separate lane on — in our case — Lexington Ave all the way to the Garden was sealed off for nothing but delegate buses, with cops about every 100 feet. There was never any disruption — even by Minnesota standards — for delegate buses.. at least on those occasions when I took one. Although, for the record, I often walked or took the subway, and I wore my credentials just to see what the New Yorker reaction would be. It was a non-issue.

The question of creating “anarchy” is one worth discussing, and one worth preventing — political conventions should obviously allow for free speech while maintaining safety. The ’08 convention is going to be expensive as all getout and it’ll be a great week to speed on Minnesota highways because there won’t be a cop within miles (and the ones that are will be working on security).

But in discussing how to prepare for it, it’s important to be accurate about what has gone before. New York was actually relatively tame, especially when you consider the Republicans were in “enemy territory” in the first place (there’s no bluer city in America, perhaps) to take advantage of the 9/11 imagery.

And Kersten leaves out the fact an estimated 100,000 people marched on the Sunday before the convention started and it was — as far as the eye could see (my eye anyway) “foreceful” but peaceful, a credit, I think, to the spirit of free speech.

San Diego (’96 GOP) was probably the quietest convention I’ve ever covered with Chicago (’96 Dems) and Boston (’04 Dems) not far behind. I’m pretty sure Minneapolis and St. Paul can handle it.

Most folks who lives here, of course, wants a peaceful week. No doubt there’ll be a few who’ll want to disturb the peace in illegal ways. They obviously should be dealt with.

But let’s not let the Chicken Little squadron make us do something stupid.