Democratic National Convention: Boston gripped by “anti-terror” security operation

By Kate Randall
27 July 2004

As Democratic delegates and the party’s elite gather in Boston this week for the Democratic National Convention, the host city has been overrun with police from numerous agencies and barricades have been erected to shield the convention venue. Landmarks, major roads and highways are being blocked off for hours daily, and subway routes are being diverted.

These unprecedented measures—at an estimated cost of $50 million—are being justified by city and federal authorities as defensive measures against the threat of a terrorist attack on the first major party convention to be held since September 11, 2001.

No terrorist threat, however, has been substantiated. Boston has become a training ground for the most up-to-date methods of surveillance and crowd-control, potentially aimed—not at foreign terrorists—but against the domestic population. These security measures have created a massive inconvenience for city workers and residents, and an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, within which authorities are carrying out gross violations of privacy and democratic rights.

Hundreds of police and federal agents have been deployed across the city, including officers from the Boston and Cambridge police departments, the Massachusetts State Police, the National Guard, the US Park Police, the Transportation Security Administration and the Secret Service. The Navy and Coast Guard are patrolling Boston Harbor.

Groups of Massachusetts state troopers are assembled on street corners. Military police patrol the MBTA subway system, and riders are required to submit to on-the-spot inspection of bags and examination by means of security wands, and can be ejected from the subway if they refuse.

“Free speech” and the Democratic Convention

There are some six miles of security fencing throughout the city, blocking residents and workers from reaching the “secure zone” around the FleetCenter, the venue of the convention, and landmarks such as Faneuil Hall and Boston City Hall. Army tents have been set up along the Charles River, serving as one of the command centers for security operations.

Bulldozers and dump trucks filled with sand dot the downtown area near the FleetCenter. The convention site itself is surrounded by a seven-foot metal barricade and guarded by military police in camouflage, uniformed Secret Service agents and bomb-sniffing dogs. Eight F-16 fighters, along with police and military helicopters, patrol the skies.

Parking garages near the convention center have been shut down and parking has been banned on city streets up to a mile away. Nearby North Station, the major commuter train depot, has been closed for the week. Some 40 miles of major arteries leading into the city are scheduled to be closed for the four days of the convention from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., posing a potentially nightmarish scenario for commuters who, under normal conditions, are often stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for extended periods at rush hour.

The most grotesque feature of the security operation is the establishment of a so-called “Free Speech Zone” to contain protesters. The 28,000-square-foot area is surrounded by cement barriers and 7-foot chain-link fencing topped with razor wire and covered by black-mesh netting (ostensibly to stop demonstrators from propelling items over the barriers).

Although demonstrators in the “protest pen” would be closer to the site than at some recent political conventions, an observer remarked to the WSWS that the delegates would not actually be able to see them. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit in federal court, arguing that the constitutional rights of protesters are being violated because they are neither within sight nor sound of convention delegates. While US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock conceded that the protesters’ description of the site as an internment camp was an “understatement,” he ruled last week in favor of convention planners.

Outside the “Free Speech Zone” on Monday, several dozen protesters staged an Abu-Ghraib reenactment, drawing attention to the confluence of the US military’s torture of prisoners in Iraq and the political establishment’s attacks on basic democratic and human rights at home.

Testing ground for police-state technology

A wide array of technologies is being used and tested by the federal government and state authorities for the first time this week in Boston. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge visited the city several weeks ago to display some of these new security tools.

More than a half-dozen RV-sized vehicles, referred to as “Winnebago Air Force Ones,” are being deployed around the Greater Boston area during convention week. At least one of these mobile command vehicles—being provided by city, state and federal agencies—will be on standby as a refuge for high-ranking government officials or other dignitaries in the event of a terror attack or other “catastrophe.”

Other measures include:

* Robots operated by suitcase-sized remote controls to check out suspicious packages;

* Security cameras mounted on rooftops to zoom in on license plate numbers;

* Round-the-clock video surveillance of sections of the downtown area; and

* Hand-held computers equipped to receive surveillance photos.

The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency will be utilizing a $600,000 communications hub vehicle, to be deployed at the discretion of Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney. It has reinforced sides and windows and can also serve to harbor dignitaries. It is outfitted with a microwave oven, a coffee maker, a restroom and other amenities, and is designed to operate without an outside power source for up to seven days.

Economic bust for Boston

Bostonians have reacted to the takeover of their city with a combination of distrust, disgust and bewilderment. They have been subjected to a combination of police-state maneuvers and the takeover of their city by 4,500 Democratic delegates, as well as three times that number from the media. Convention-goers trek from one lavish party and event to the next, separated from ordinary citizens by barricades, razor-topped wire and gangs of police.

The convention had long been promoted by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a Democrat, as a sorely needed economic boon for the city. Boston lost close to half of its estimated 50,000 manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 1990. After experiencing a temporary high-tech boom in the 1990s, the region has more recently seen the loss of thousands of jobs in computers, medical research and biotechnology.

It is now widely expected that the Democratic National Convention will not boost Greater Boston’s economic fortunes. A study by the Beacon Hill Institute, a local think tank, estimates that the convention will, in fact, cost area businesses $23.8 million in lost productivity due to commuter delays, outweighing the revenues from the thousands of convention delegates and visitors who are converging on Boston’s hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

Boston is often referred to as the birthplace of the American Revolution. Tourists can visit the sites of many historic events connected with this history on a self-guided walk along what is known as the “Freedom Trail.” These sites include the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, and the Bunker Hill monument. But visitors to Boston this week will be met with the “Free Speech Zone” and other affronts to civil liberties.

While John Kerry and John Edwards can be expected to issue some empty phrases about the “two Americas” at the convention, the police-state experiment being conducted this week in Boston exposes the true state of social relations in America and the chasm separating the mass of working people from the financial aristocracy, whose interests are defended by the two-party system.

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