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Tampa police prepare for anarchist attacks at Republican National Convention

Protesters push a trash can into the street outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Getty Images (2008)

Protesters push a trash can into the street outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

TAMPA — Up to 15,000 protesters are expected to descend on Tampa next summer for the Republican National Convention. Many will wave signs and march peacefully.

Then there are the anarchists.

Authorities are preparing for hundreds of well-organized lawbreakers whose sole intent will be to shut down the convention.

If it's anything like the last Republican convention, in St. Paul, Minn., they'll come with gas masks, slingshots and bolt cutters. They'll throw rocks, block intersections and break windows. They'll use water guns to spray urine at police.

Discard the stereotypes of disorganized punks running amok. In St. Paul, authorities found an anarchist command center downtown with state-of-the-art communications equipment.

"They'll assault law enforcement officers, and they'll attack businesses that represent capitalism,'' said Marc Hamlin, an assistant Tampa police chief.

To Hamlin, "anarchist" is just a word. He divides protesters into two categories: those who follow the law and those who don't.

Protecting the peaceful is important, he said. Police want to encourage the exercise of First Amendment rights and avoid the bad publicity of unwarranted arrests. But if they're up against hundreds whose goal is to shut down the convention, targeted arrests will be necessary, he said.

So will collaboration with other law enforcement agencies and lots of planning, said Mary Vukelich, who was part of a commission that reviewed law enforcement actions leading up to and during the 2008 Republican convention.

"And being prepared for the unknown," she said. "You just don't know what's going to happen."

In St. Paul, law enforcement agencies started planning months in advance. They held about 200 community meetings and infiltrated an anarchist group.

Their investigation led them to three Minneapolis homes, where they seized bombs, machetes, fireworks, knives, slingshots and marbles.

They knew that the first day of the convention — Sept. 1, 2008 — would likely bring the most violence. But they were still surprised by the "organization, tenacity and aggressiveness" of the anarchists.

They blocked intersections, threw rocks at police, and rocked the cars of employees trying to get to work.

Some said St. Paul looked like a police state. But the law enforcement response was fairly ineffective at first, according to the review commission's report.

It was a game of "cat and mouse," the report states. By the time police got to the site of violence and destruction, the anarchists would flee and go elsewhere.

"These were not unruly or wayward students," the report states. "They were well organized, sophisticated and tenacious."

Tampa police are being trained to tell the difference between peaceful protesters and lawbreakers.

It'll be easy to point out someone lobbing a rock at police, Hamlin said. But from there it gets tougher.

Anarchists will likely disguise themselves as lawful demonstrators.

In St. Paul, a video showed anarchists dressed in black with bandannas over their faces disappear behind buildings and then reappear "looking like students and waving peace signs."

"It's definitely going to be tricky," Hamlin said.

Tampa police won't divulge their tactics. They figure lawbreakers read the news.

They also plan to carefully evaluate every arrest, Hamlin said.

Just because people are taken into custody doesn't mean they'll be charged, he said. Once they're with law enforcement, police supervisors and attorneys will examine the facts.

Hamlin said he couldn't say if this will happen at the jail or at temporary stations set up downtown.

"We don't want to give away secrets," he said. "But prosecutors and legal advisers will be embedded to the point where they will be weighing in on all the arrests."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa police prepare for anarchist attacks at Republican National Convention 11/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 11:30pm]
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