I was struck, attending the Republican and Democratic political conventions, by how woefully inadequate the two southern host cities were to the task. I completely understand the political calculations that spurred these choices—Charlotte and Tampa are both “new” Sun Belt cities in important swing states. But c’mon. Minneapolis and Denver, the 2008 choices, were bad enough. This was ridiculous. Charlotte looks like Stamford, Connecticut, on steroids—a collection of overgrown glass boxes with bizarre roofs that are mostly the result of a fight between two of our greediest banksters, plus a NASCAR museum bigger than many NASCAR racetracks. Its slogan reads: “If winning were easy, losers would do it.”
Words to live by.
Charlotte’s merchants seemed genuinely taken aback by the arrival of the convention, which was awarded to the city in February 2011. Breakfast-and-lunch eateries less than five blocks from the arena where the convention was held duly closed at two o’clock, steadfastly ignoring the year’s worth of foot traffic that flowed past their doors in the course of three days.
The bar of the Westin Hotel at the entrance to the festivities, jam-packed with delegates and journalists at all hours, shrewdly refused to hire additional waitresses or barmen at the magnificent wages the largest city in this most antiunion of states no doubt pays, thereby slowing service to a crawl. Nevertheless, at one point the bar managed to run out of vodka. Who could’ve seen that coming? A little up the road, and even closer to the actual speeches, the restaurant of the Omni hotel managed to run out of butter, which for a dining establishment in the South is the equivalent of an Irish pub running out of beer.
Traversing the Queen City was made all the worse by the rapaciousness of its private-parking-lot owners and by the Lynx, Charlotte’s adorable toy-rail line. Squeaky clean, shiny new, the Lynx prowls up and down a few miles of straight corridor from the suburbs into downtown, much of which was sealed off for the convention. Yet for some reason, the outgoing Lynx never managed to anticipate the end of the night’s speaking, always forcing a long wait on a crowded platform.
All of this was exacerbated by the DNC’s predictable decision to transfer President Obama’s grand finale from a 73,298-capacity outdoor stadium back to the small, generic basketball arena where the rest of the convention was held. This was not the city’s fault, of course, but the municipal authorities did absolutely nothing to try to alleviate the situation. For more than five hours before the president’s speech, a large crowd of media and others was left to mill about aimlessly in the dripping humidity outside the entrance to the arena, with no announcements about what was happening or what their chances of gaining egress were likely to be. Others were directed on a long snipe chase all around the other side of the hall, then repeatedly misdirected around much of the perimeter of the city. This was so egregiously mishandled, and led to such an extended march, that one might have thought it a deliberate attempt to get Charlotte’s guests to put out for more food and drink, had anyone been equipped to serve them.
And Charlotte was the good city.
For all of its shortcomings, its overweening glass skyscrapers, and its provincialism, much of Charlotte is built on a human scale. Its remaining small shops and arcades, strategically planted trees, housing that comes right up to the business-oriented downtown, and signs of culture beyond its tribute to the stock car—all make it seem like an urban oasis compared to downtown Tampa, which looks as if it were built solely to serve as the set for a zombie movie.
According to at least one urban analyst, half of Tampa’s downtown acreage is devoted to parking, and it’s easy to believe. Traversing the city was an endless plod across empty lots and along treeless sidewalks under a broiling sun. The town was all but deserted during the convention, but I know from experience that even without several thousand extra Republicans in town, there is precious little foot traffic during the day, and a Walking Dead level of human activity in the evening.
Tampa’s Democratic mayor, Bob Buckhorn, is reportedly working hard to get people to move downtown, but he’s finding it hard. There is a sort of electrified trolley running out to Ybor City, but at least when we were there, it was not operating in the mornings. Buckhorn tried to get his constituents to approve a one-penny sales tax for the exclusive purpose of building a more extensive light-rail system, but that sort of thing is perceived as being on the slippery slope to Communism. Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but in Florida they can’t get them to run before noon.
Attending these conventions, one can’t help but wonder if they don’t reveal how the parties’ leaders and their wealthy backers want and hope to live in the future. That is, in sterile, luxurious enclaves, protected by steel, barbed wire, and heavily armed security guards. The police presence in Charlotte was a little less dystopic than in Tampa, where it even included mounted police, who waited in pocket parks under the town’s few clumps of trees like so many crows waiting for carrion.
In each city, the merest whiff of dissent attracted a swarm of police on bike and foot, hemming in the protesters and trying to direct their every movement. We witnessed this up close, outside a downtown hotel, when a small band of Occupy demonstrators tried to rally. Instantly, they were surrounded by the Swarm, the sort of wild security overkill that now accompanies every political convention, major economic summit, or military conference held in the United States.
After Tampa, authorities were saying that they had expected “a much larger number” of protesters, and I’m sure they are saying the same thing after Charlotte. But this is a lie. The people who run our now-limitless security apparatus must surely understand that they have so throttled even the chance of effective protest that most protesters have given up.
A single broken window or protest banner unfurled during a speech would be an intolerable black eye by the standards set by the security legions and their masters. The burden they impose on all who must work and live and visit on their watch becomes physically and mentally wearying in the extreme after a few days. It’s past time we realized that this regime has nothing to do with keeping our leaders safe from “the terrorists,” but is all about keeping them safe from us.