TAMPA - In what might be the strangest "news" to come out of Tampa, FL, the venue for the Republican National Convention, not a single police officer has objected to having his photo taken. While police officers in other areas of the country have become known for a whispered "War on Cameras," the Tampa Police and their supporting departments from elsewhere in the state have all been very happy to have their photos taken.
We've seen them walking or biking in bands of anywhere from 5-8. Not a single block is without police protection. As late as 3 a.m., we observed police officers standing on corners, taking shelter under awnings, waiting for the rain to pass. As Larry Thornberry observed, the ratio of Occupy protesters to police is shocking.
That said, many of the events I've been attending have been very mindful of security. A major Republican Party event that recurs every evening downtown is using different tickets for every night. Ybor City's events have a mob of doormen to ensure that uncredentialed people do not wander in. And the rest of Tampa itself is on lockdown, having taken a page out of Gotham City's playbook in the Dark Knight Rises. Tall, portable gates line major blocks, admitting no entrance, with checkpoints along the perimeter. The police smile and nod as you pass, but probably don't want you to come too close.
Events are scattered throughout the city. Ybor City, a historic cigar-manufacturing section of town that looks a bit like an industrial Bourbon Street, is playing host to most "after-parties" not in the convention. But venues have reached as far as the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, over 30 minutes away, or a Yacht Club that would cost 40 dollars to reach by cab. Most, however, have shuttles that make commuting convenient for convention-goers.
For non-convention goers, however, the Downtown area should be avoided at all costs. Some roads are arbitrarily blocked off. If you want to get out of Downtown, you will not be allowed to come onto the highway, which only worsens the congestion. Tampa drivers aren't keen on allowing people into their lanes, a habit that makes driving tense when directions are unclear. Mess up, and there'll be a driver eager to put you in your place (which, again, is not in their lane).
As for the attitudes surrounding the convention center, most small businesses are either overwhelmed or disappointed in the unpredictability of the crowds coming by. Journalists and protesters alike are squatting in coffeeshops. Parking spaces are marked "two hours only" with no meters to feed --- major lots close by are charging ten dollars for a full day of parking.
Ron Paul supporters are still lingering about, distributing leaflets and excited to tell you about how Dr. Paul is the only sensible candidate. At my hotel, I noticed a fellow who'd come from a rally. "How'd it go?" "Great! Lots of people there. Do you support Ron Paul?" How quickly he came to the point.
Meanwhile, what few protesters have appeared -- they've taken to camping out in a "Romneyville" a few blocks away from the Convention Center -- aren't keen on having their photos taken. Many are wearing bandanas around their necks for easy anonymity, which should make anyone nervous (and the media eager). The rains sweep through every hour or so, drenching everything in an all-out downpour, and within minutes, it's sunny again. It's tough to remain outside when Mother Nature is tossing buckets onto you without any level of predictability.
The great clash hasn't yet materialized. It may not. But people are generally braced.
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