How to Care for An Angry Mob
Ray Kelly and the NYPD have bigger things to worry about than, say, a few hundred thousand protesters.
New York Magazine
By Craig Horowitz
You would think that several hundred thousand angry demonstrators in New York City for the Republican convention would be a policeman’s worst nightmare. You would be wrong. “The demonstrators are kind of self-deluded, thinking that they’re the primary focus of our concern and planning,” one high-ranking member of the Police Department told me.
“We want them to come, exercise their rights, and have a good time,” he continued. “But I assure you that we have more important things to worry about than a bunch of wannabe revolutionaries and anarchists. They’re amateurs. It’s the professionals, the terrorists, that we’re focused on.”
Also in this issue
What Are They Fighting For?
To the anarcho-bureaucratic protest movement, the Republican convention is the opportunity of a lifetime. The only question is, to do what? (May 17,2004)
The Republican National Convention comes to town in just nine months. Meet Bill Harris, the Alabama conservative, Civil War buff, and dove hunter in charge. (December 8, 2003)
In fact, the challenge of the Republicans’ four-day party for Commissioner Ray Kelly is its almost unimaginable complexity. It will draw nearly 50,000 conventioneers. Plus 15,000 journalists and perhaps as many as 250,000 demonstrators for the opening march on August 29. On top of that, the U.S. Open will be in progress, and both the Yankees and the Mets are home. The U.S. Open alone is a two-week, 646-cop detail out of the 112th Precinct.
The president, the vice-president, and high-ranking members of the Cabinet and Congress will be here. And while the whole world watches, everyone will have to be protected, order will have to be maintained, and all of it will have to be done while ensuring some semblance of normalcy for the rest of the city.
Strategically, the convention presents two starkly different problems for the NYPD: the protesters and the terrorists. One group is a messy, unwieldy celebration of democracy and freedom, while the other is a full-frontal attack on those very same values. “No other police department in the world can protect the Republicans and this convention the way we can,” says Kelly, looking fit and powerful in a double-breasted pinstripe suit, white shirt, and a .38 in his ankle holster.
It is the start of a rainy evening, and Kelly has perched himself on the edge of a voluminous leather easy chair in his fourteenth-floor office at police headquarters, to talk about his department’s preparations.
“You have to remember something where the demonstrators are concerned,” he says. “We have a track record working with these groups.”
At every event—including the peaceful antiwar protest held here this past March and the less peaceful one last year that left 17 cops injured and 91 protesters in jail—the cops pick up tips, refine their strategy, and study the protesters’ tactics. The NYPD has developed what would be referred to in Washington as a robust intelligence capability. “We had people in Miami last November for the Free Trade protests,” says assistant chief Jack McManus, the officer coordinating the NYPD’s convention strategy. “We’ve met with the Democratic convention organizers in Boston, and we’ll send people to the G-8 summit in June in Sea Island, Georgia.”
Kelly and his department are well aware of the kinds of tactical weaponry protesters have used in recent years: marbles and bolts spread out on the ground for cops to slip on. Slingshots used to launch batteries (and the marbles or bolts). Fishing line to trip horses and dogs. Molotov cocktails. Tiki torches to set nuisance fires. Super-soakers filled with vinegar, gasoline, or urine. “At other events,” Kelly says, “protesters have also sent out scouts with walkie-talkies to find weak spots in police formations or in the protection around certain potential targets.”
Disruptions have been achieved using the “sweeping dragon,” a formation where dozens of protesters lock arms—which they protect and make difficult to unlink by covering them with PVC piping—and block traffic. This general tactic is called “swarming,” and it is also accomplished with large numbers of people on bicycles. Havoc can be created by flooding the 911 system with calls. “Demonstrators have also used the tactic of faking injury after arrests,” Kelly says, “so they can bog down ambulances.”
Particularly frightening in the current climate is the use of hoax devices—suitcases or backpacks or other items that look like bombs and are left at various locations around the city. Simply phoning in bomb threats is a commonly used variation of this.
At the end of this month, the cops will begin to drill for these and other possibilities. “You have to have the right equipment at the right place at the right time,” the commissioner says. “We will use our aviation assets so we can spot groups forming up to do some of these things.”
He stresses the importance of training and preparation for mega-events like the convention, but says this is also a case where size matters. When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle, there were 40,000 demonstrators and 1,000 cops. New York has nearly 40,000 cops, and every commander knows that sheer size is their most potent weapon.
“We have the capacity to mass whatever force is necessary,” says Kelly, who made several presentations to the Republican National Committee to help sell it on New York. “Unity of command is critical in these situations, and only we can provide it. In other places, they have to call in people from different jurisdictions. They have to deputize people. We don’t have to do that.”
Kelly’s grip on the situation is so firm, he has even been accused of trying to micromanage the demonstrations. For the protest this past March, Kelly used the NYPD’s Website to post tips for participating in the rally, like how to get close to the speaker’s platform. It drove some of the protesters nuts (kind of like cutting class with help from your teacher). Nevertheless, the site got several thousand hits.
“We can’t rely on the organizers to get the information out to participants,” Kelly says, indicating that last-minute route changes can cause unnecessary confusion.
The city will spend well in excess of $50 million on security ($25 million of this will come from the federal government). Not surprisingly, the argument has been made that the convention shouldn’t be here because it is an astronomically expensive, over-the-top security nightmare.
To get a sense of the number of moving parts and the synchronization required for the apparatus to work properly, consider a tabletop exercise held two weeks ago at Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention. Tabletop exercises, the current vogue in security planning, are realistic drills conducted around a conference table for high-ranking officials who’ll make decisions in a crisis. According to McManus, who participated in the exercise, there was a huge U-shaped table, which served as a sort of mock command center. Seated around the table were representatives of the NYPD, the Fire Department, EMS, the Port Authority police, state troopers, the FBI, the Secret Service, health and hospitals, the FAA, the Transportation Department, the Coast Guard, and dozens of other agencies. There were, in all, 75 government entities represented. And in a crisis, each would have a role to play. “The amount of time and effort we’re dedicating to the convention is unprecedented,” says McManus.
Despite the size of the convention, the NYPD’s organizational chart for the event looks pretty simple. Kelly, of course, is at the top along with his executive committee, which is kind of like his war cabinet. Below him in the hierarchy is the RNC coordinator, and the NYPD’s four key divisions of responsibility: Command and Control, Site Security, Tactical Support, and Operational Support.
It is only when you begin to examine the subcommittees that you get a sense of how complicated the staging actually is. Command and Control, for example, has half a dozen subcommittees. Site Security has seven subcommittees, including one for hotels. Convention delegates are currently slated to stay in 49 different hotels around the city. Threat assessments have been done at each of these buildings, and there will be cops assigned to every one as well. The same essentially applies to all of the convention-related events that will take place away from the Garden. Right now the list of parties, dinners, meetings, concerts, and receptions runs to twenty pages in very small type.
There are subcommittees to handle coordination with VIPs who arrive with their own security details; motorcade planning; a legal team to monitor what the NYPD is doing and give advice; logistics, to make sure the department has whatever supplies it needs; and prisoner processing to handle arrests (there are plans, if necessary, to take prisoners to other boroughs).
From a policing point of view, protest is a more tangible, easier-to-prepare-for challenge than terrorism. In fact, it is, for law enforcement, the antithesis of terror. Protesters operate in the light, not the shadows, and though there is the occasional spontaneous event, most of their activities are planned and scheduled.
For example, the march to kick things off is slated for Sunday, August 29, the day before the convention opens. Though organizers claim it will attract at least 250,000 people, their request for a permit to march up Eighth Avenue and into Central Park for a rally has been denied. Officially, the reason is the Parks commissioner’s concern about damage to the Great Lawn.
“The organizers haven’t come back to us with an alternative route,” Kelly says. “They don’t seem particularly focused on it right now. Maybe it’s because they’re going to court. I don’t know, but the park is not going to happen.”
Kelly has not determined where demonstrators will be allowed to gather once the convention begins, either. “We don’t have real numbers yet, and a lot will depend on the political climate in August,” he says. “Current issues have an impact on turnout.”
There will be frozen zones created around the Garden—probably 31st and 33rd streets, at least, will be kept open and free of demonstrators. “We try to operate,” Kelly says, “on the general principle that the protesters have sight and sound of their target location.”
There will also be vehicle checkpoints around the perimeter of the Garden manned with heavy weapons, dogs, and portable Delta barriers, which are enormous metal contraptions that lie almost flat in the road and can be raised very quickly with the flip of a switch. They are substantial enough to stop a large truck.
Though Miami police chief John Timoney (a former New York deputy commissioner) has been criticized for his use of heavy-handed tactics with protesters, the NYPD will mimic at least one of his measures. “Timoney used a lot of cops on bicycles in Miami,” McManus says. “This provided excellent mobility without being hampered by the size of a car. For the convention, we’ll have the largest mobile field force we’ve ever used. They’ll be on scooters, bicycles, horses, and in vans and patrol cars. The scooters and bicycles will enable us to respond quickly to events like spontaneous traffic disruptions, destruction of property, or disturbances at any of the hotels.”
The department will not use closed pens to herd protesters; they have been an irritant in the past. However, interlocking barriers will be used when deemed necessary to control large numbers of people and to allow vehicles to get through. For the rally in March, organizers told the cops it would make a big difference if there were more openings in the barriers—so they wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the end of a block to get out. As a result, the NYPD added breaks in the middle of the block as well.
McManus says the department is still evaluating various means of “less-than-lethal force” for use if there were a critical problem with the demonstrators—Timoney had tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles ready in Miami.
The NYPD’s “disorder-control strategy” revolves around the use of arrest teams. These units will consist of a sergeant and eight or ten uniformed officers, each of whom has a designated function.
The key is to isolate the troublemakers, arrest them swiftly and efficiently, and not involve the other protesters. “Otherwise, what can happen is that things can quickly get out of control,” one cop told me. “If a protester with no intention of doing anything unlawful gets bumped or pushed or knocked over when cops are trying to arrest someone, they can get caught up in the moment and suddenly become disruptive.”
But none of the brass I talked to is worried about push coming to shove. “Will there be some demonstrators that show up bent on destruction?” Kelly asks. “Probably. But we’ll be ready to deal with that.
“We handle 600 events a year below 59th Street,” he says. “We’re in this business. It’s what we do, and I feel pretty good about it.”