Tuesday, August 31, 2004

THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION: SECURITY BLANKETS NYC

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
August 31, 2004

NEW YORK _ Anyone who thought security was intense during the Democratic National Convention last month ought to come to New York for the Republican convention.

Compared to New York, the security in Boston was Woodstock.

"It's a sign of the times," said U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. "I've been to some conventions where there was almost no security."

Besides GOP conventioneers, New York this week has been a magnet for anti-war and anti-Bush protesters. Hundreds of thousands of people marched Sunday to demonstrate against the Republicans. Today has been designated as a day of civil disobedience by some protest organizers.

Domenici, who has been going to Republican conventions for more than 30 years, said that besides the post-Sept. 11 fear of terrorism, extra security is needed because of the intensify of bad feelings by many toward President Bush.

"Some people have been sold on the idea that the president is mean and hateful," Domenici said. "I know him well and I know that this just isn't true."

Delegate Joe Carraro, a state senator from Albuquerque, agreed. "There really is a lot of animosity over the issues of the war."

In the streets around Madison Square Garden, where the convention is taking place, there are police every few yards on the sidewalks and large clusters of police on the corners.

You literally can't even get away with jaywalking. There are barricades preventing pedestrians from crossing anywhere but at the intersections. At some intersections officers use orange plastic temporary gate material to keep pedestrians from crossing streets until the police say it's time to cross.

Entering Madison Square Garden, reporters must pass through not one but two checkpoints with metal detectors. This also is the case for delegates said Darren White, a delegate from Albuquerque.

Even the hotels where delegates are staying have far more severe security than convention goers saw in Boston.

Boston's Sheraton downtown, where New Mexico Democrats stayed, had a near carnival atmosphere with delegates, party officials and even radical protesters from the Lyndon LaRouche campaign milling about and merchants hawking humorous anti-Bush paraphernalia.

In contrast, only guests can go inside the Roosevelt Hotel, where the state's Republican delegation is staying. Five or six police officers guard the front door of the hotel.

And the police presence doesn't go away when the convention isn't in session. During the early morning hours Monday police presence was strong in the area. Many weary-looking uniformed officers took breaks in all-night coffee shops and delis, some chatting with their fellow cops, some sitting alone staring blankly into cups of coffee.

New Mexico Republicans said Monday they've never seen such a police show of force.

Carraro said he is still amazed that his party would chose New York City, and especially surprised that the location would be Madison Square Garden.

"I grew up here," Carraro said. "Madison Square Garden has to be the hardest place for security. There's subways running under it, There's an Amtrack running beneath it. I was surprised they'd chose this place."

White, who is Bernalillo County sheriff, said "This is the tightest security situation I've ever encountered."

White complimented the New York City Police -- the most visible of dozens of law enforcement agencies working around Madison Square Garden.

"They're performing spectacularly," White said. "The last thing you want to is to come here and not be able to have fun for fear of something going wrong."

A state tourism official in New York this week expressed frustration with the heightened security

"I was stunned at the level of security in Boston, but this is Boston to the nth degree," said Jon Hendry, director of marketing for the Tourism Department.

"I am totally screwed," Hendry said. "I'm driving a 34-foot motorhome and I've been hassled by city cops, state cops and cops I've never heard of."

Hendry said every time he enters Manhattan Island police search the large brightly painted motorhome. "I have to take everything out of it," he said.

He concedes that one thing that probably made it easier on him in Boston was the fact that Gov. Bill Richardson was the chairman of the Democratic Convention and had worked closely with the city of Boston. “We had some contacts there," he said.

Even native New Yorkers are amazed by the huge concentration of law enforcement.

Curtis Sliwa, who founded a citizen protection group called The Guardian Angels in the 1970s because he felt the subways and parks were unsafe now says New York City is "the safest place on Earth."

"That's because there's a cop every five inches," Sliwa -- wearing his trademark red beret and red Guardian Angels jacket quipped during an interview Monday at the Stage Door Delicatessen, across the street from the convention hall

Sliwa, who currently is a radio talk show host on the conservative WABC, said he went to the 1992 Democratic Convention at Madison Square Garden.

"There was almost no security there, he said. "Of course the city swept the area of all the hookers and pimps and homeless people right before the convention started."

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