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The Nation

GOP Boon May Turn Into Bust for N.Y.

Police brace for possible terror and huge protests during the convention. As residents plan to scram, businesses get that sinking feeling.

August 22, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As the Republican convention approaches, the table has been set for a lavish party. But persistent concerns over terrorism, protests and other issues make it unclear whether the New York gala will be a success or a security disaster.

Once seen as a nearly perfect choice, the Big Apple now seems to present as many potential problems as opportunities for Republican planners.

And public resentment over disruptions the convention may bring has been growing.

Police are warning, for example, that waves of protesters from around the country may try to disrupt the convention with tactics similar to those that sparked riots in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization talks.

Protest organizers and city officials are squabbling over the site of an Aug. 29 demonstration that is expected to draw 250,000 into midtown Manhattan.

City officials have said that police will be presenting a united front, but it doesn't help that police and fire unions continue to object angrily about their lack of new contracts.

They have vowed to mount demonstrations against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg during the convention, and some have spoken privately about work stoppages.

Meanwhile, the threat of gridlock and other disruptions have persuaded some New Yorkers to either flee the city or avoid nightspots during the festivities. As a result, tables at elegant restaurants are available, and predictions that the four-day event would be a huge windfall for businesses have been scaled back.

"I can't tell you how many of my customers have canceled appointments during the week when Republicans are here," said Jack Miroslaw, a barber who works near the Madison Square Garden convention site. "Many of them have said they won't even be in town. They're arranging time off from work. They don't want to be near Manhattan."

Amid these concerns, Bloomberg has maintained optimism, saying, "We are prepared for a magnificent event that will show off the best parts of New York City to the rest of the world." But, he said, "We have to keep this city secure, and we intend to strike a balance between taking precautions without overreacting."

That balance, however, has been the subject of much debate. Critics said that law enforcement officials had been whipping up fear of terrorism and other security threats to distract attention from what was expected to be an outpouring of protests over Bush administration policies.

When they're not on the convention floor, an estimated 5,000 GOP delegates and their guests will attend concerts, private parties, restaurants, special nights on Broadway and other events.

And the city they encounter will resemble an armed camp.

New York, which already had heightened its security during this month's terrorism warning, will be even more vigilant during convention week.

More than 10,000 police officers, nearly a fourth of the force, will be patrolling areas near Madison Square Garden, as well as financial centers, bridges and tunnels and other landmarks.

Police plan to shut down selected streets near the convention site and will halt traffic at impromptu checkpoints throughout Manhattan. Armed officers -- as well as hundreds of reassigned detectives -- will be patrolling subway trains rumbling in and out of Pennsylvania Station, directly beneath Madison Square Garden. Bomb units will be screening trucks and other vehicles for explosives.

Terrorism is not the only threat that law enforcement officials fear. They're also worried that self-described anarchists from around the country may try to infiltrate the ranks of peaceful protesters.

"We will be prepared," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly told reporters last week, during a demonstration of new technology to monitor demonstrations and preserve order. "We've been planning for quite a while and we're doing a lot of training."

Some potential protest tactics include targeting stores and corporate offices, disrupting buses carrying delegates and blocking key intersections during rush hour traffic, police said.

Law enforcement officials said they were not simply waiting for violent events to happen. In July, in advance of the Democratic convention in Boston, the FBI questioned several dozen veteran protesters in Colorado, Missouri and other states about their plans for both conventions.

According to their lawyers, the protesters were asked whether they planned to attend either convention and whether they knew if violent activities were likely to occur. They also were told that if they knew about planned violence and declined to share it with authorities, they could be prosecuted.

FBI and Justice Department officials defended the tactic, saying the questioning was triggered in part by intelligence suggesting a potential disruption at the Boston event.

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