Accessibility links

New York Launches Top-Level Security for Republican Convention - 2004-08-13

A major security operation is under way in New York City for the Republican National Convention at the end of this month. An estimated 250,000 protesters are planning to march during the convention, amid a heightened terror alert.

Officials have said they have reason to believe al-Qaida is planning to attack the United States sometime in the months leading up to the November presidential election. The Republican National Convention is considered a prime target because it is the largest high-profile political event to take place in New York City since September 11, 2001.

Police officials say eight to 10,000 police officers will be deployed around Madison Square Garden, the large arena that is hosting the convention. Specially trained anti-terrorism units will patrol the streets, and three military teams will be assigned to respond to chemical, biological and radiological attacks, should they occur. An extra fire department rescue squad will be stationed in midtown Manhattan. Some subway stops will be closed and police checkpoints will screen cars, trucks and limousines for explosives.

The Secret Service is overseeing all convention security. Officials say New York City received $50 million in federal money for convention security, and close to $20 million is being spent on high-tech video surveillance equipment and what they call "non-lethal crowd-control devices."

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly says his officers are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the city. "We're going to use common sense in enforcing the law and as far as how we proceed, we're going to use normal procedures," he said. "This is an issue we've talked about, we've planned for for quite a while. We're ready for a large number of arrests if that's what has to be."

But police are encountering complications. New York City typically votes Democratic, and hundreds of thousands of anti-war and anti-Bush protesters say they will hold demonstrations every day of the convention. An umbrella group for activists, United for Peace and Justice, was recently turned down for a permit to gather in Central Park, but Libertarian Party Chairman Jim Lesczynski says protesters representing his party will still take part.

"We're calling it an unauthorized protest in Central Park on August 29," he said. "We announced it about two months ago and negotiations were ongoing between the city and United for Peace and Justice to get a permit to protest in Central Park. Our response is we're not asking for a permit. Our permit is the First Amendment. We don't ask the government for permission to protest. We protest."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has tried to quell fears that riot police may launch aggressive attacks against protesters, by promising residents that New York City will be more open than Boston was during the Democratic National Convention earlier this month.

"Boston put barbed wire around the Fleet Center. We're not doing that! This is a city that values its reputation as a place where people can come, congregate and say what they want," he said. "I think that is one of the great strengths of New York City."

However, anti-war protesters aren't the only ones raising their voices. Some members of the police and fire departments have been holding demonstrations across the city to call for more money in their labor contracts. They haven't ruled out a strike, saying it could coincide with the Republican National Convention, when the city needs them most.

Ed Mullins, a union leader who heads the Sergeant's Benevolent Association, says the police force has lost 5,000 and members to attrition since September 11, 2001, and they are stretched too thin.

"We're doing far more than less. We're under constant threat," he said. "We're probably the only city in the nation that's living under code orange constantly. Five thousand less police officers, not a nickel more in our contracts, and we keep losing people."

Beyond simply securing Madison Square Garden, police have to worry about other major events that are happening that weekend, such as Yankees and Mets baseball games, and the U.S. Open golf tournament.

A full one-third of the city's police officers will be focusing their efforts on protecting Madison Square Garden, which makes residents in other areas wary.

Elena Brady, who lives outside Manhattan on Staten Island, says she worries about her neighborhood. "The fear is while the police are brought to the Republican National Convention, Staten Islanders are more vulnerable to crime," he said.

In early August, while President Bush and the Democratic candidate for president, Senator John Kerry, both happened to be campaigning in the same small town in Iowa, three banks in that town were robbed.