Friday, March 23, 2018

With cameras everywhere, Republican National Convention protest images will zip around the world

TAMPA — The crowd started to swell.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, the sea of people closed in on a couple of police officers on horses. Somebody yelled. People started pushing.

Then, chaos.

You can see it for yourself from a dozen different angles: a five-minute skirmish between protesters and police during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., now preserved forever on YouTube. Just about every bandana-clad person in the video is holding a camera.

If you still haven't gotten the message, turn up the volume.

"The whole world is watching," the protesters chanted.

They're right.

From smartphones in the hands of protesters to news crews following the action to police surveillance cameras silently watching it all — when it comes to large, tense, public gatherings, no movement goes unnoticed. This year's Republican convention, coming to Tampa in just a couple of weeks, will be no different.

Say cheese.

Scene 1: The Street

Jared Hamil wiped the sweat off his brow, adjusted his sunglasses and looked around the grassy park at the edge of downtown Tampa. From Aug. 27 through Aug. 30, the place is expected to be filled with thousands of people, fed up like he is and ready to say so — or scream so. What do they say they want? Good jobs, health care, affordable education, equality and peace.

"We're promoting a people's agenda," Hamil said. "A real view of what it's like."

Hamil, 25, has been working the protest circuit since he was a student at the University of Florida. He marched on campus with Students for a Democratic Society when UF police shot a student with a Taser in 2007 (Remember the infamous "Don't Tase Me, Bro'' video, 6.5 million views and counting.).

Hamil helped occupy UF's alumni hall in 2010 after police shot a student in the face during an altercation at an on-campus apartment. He marched with NATO protesters earlier this year in Chicago.

There was one moment during the NATO protest, right before a scuffle broke out, that Hamil looked over and saw police marching up in a tight line. They each held a baton. They looked ready to fight.

"I wish I'd had a camera," Hamil said.

He was one of the few people there who didn't. Search YouTube and you'll find thousands of videos documenting clashes between protesters and police that weekend in May.

Even at a routine protester news conference the other day, where Hamil and a handful of others updated local media about their planned RNC march, one of the protesters stood in the back with a camera around her neck.

She clicked away as her friends talked to reporters.

"These points of history are being recorded," Hamil said, "from our point of view."

Scene 2: The Force

Against a backdrop of a pristine downtown Tampa, police Chief Jane Castor and Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee smile into the camera. What an honor it will be, they say, to be "part of history" by protecting the political process.

The video, sent to the 60 law enforcement agencies coming to town to help security efforts at the RNC, is intended to provide not just a pep talk, but also a warning: "All eyes will be on us," Castor says.

Everything everywhere will be videotaped, she reminds them. And many protesters, with video cameras at the ready, will try to provoke officers into fights.

They know from talking to other officers — and also from watching protester footage posted online.

"Let's show the world we are the best in our profession," Castor says.

Of course, police will have cameras on their side, too.

About 60 will be installed around downtown, providing an objective, bird's-eye view of whatever action happens on the ground. That's a good thing, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

"The cameras are going to give people the entire picture," Davis said. "They (the protesters) have their cameras, and we have ours."

Scene 3: The Party

Take a ball of string and start walking north as you unravel it. Don't stop until you get to Jacksonville.

That's how much cable fiber has been installed around the RNC event zone to handle the onslaught of calls, emails and media broadcasting expected during one of the biggest events of the year.

That, plus enough electrical capacity to power 7,600 homes, will make it possible to send 250,000 emails at once. Or send about 37.5 million tweets per second. Or capture and post lots and lots of videos.

The RNC already has created its own video channel, offering behind-the-scenes views of preparations and bay area attractions. And during the actual event, Google and YouTube will stream high-quality live video of convention events.

"We're planning on using technology to really open up this experience," said RNC spokesman James Davis. "Anyone across the country can join in and be part of the excitement and part of the action."

Behind the scenes

Years ago, nobody had smartphones. Surveillance cameras were not common in grocery stores, in offices, at intersections.

Remember when Candid Camera was a novelty?

"I bet if you went back 50 or 60 years and you said there are cameras everywhere, it would make people nervous," said Paul Spector, a University of South Florida professor of organizational psychology who has studied the effect of surveillance on behavior. "Now you've got thousands of people with cameras. People just seem to accept it."

For some people, a camera might entice them to behave a certain way. Like a protester who provokes a police officer so he or she can get it on video. By the same token, that camera might make the officer behave more calmly.

"It keeps the honest, honest," Spector said.

But for the most part, he said, people have gotten so used to being watched it's like it's not even happening.

And the growing deluge of videos that's pumped out to the Internet each day makes it harder for any individual video to have an impact.

In other words, more is less.

"There might be so much junk out there that nobody pays much attention to any of it," Spector said.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

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