WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters are expected to jam the streets of Denver and St. Paul at the Republican and Democratic conventions in a noisy counterpoint to the parties’ carefully scripted speeches.
In St. Paul, where John McCain will accept the Republican nomination early next month, anti-war and anti-abortion activists could be joined in the streets by off-duty cops picketing for higher pay, while self-described anarchists aim to paralyze the city.
In Denver, where Barack Obama will accept the Democratic nomination later this month, the City Council recently outlawed the possession of “noxious substances” after a councilman warned that activists could use buckets of urine or feces against police.
Activists say their plans don’t involve human waste.
“The intent of this ordinance is to smear protesters and make them appear as if they’re somehow criminal,” organizer Glenn Spagnuolo said at a recent council hearing
U.S. presidential nominating conventions historically have drawn activists of every stripe who hope to confront the political establishment and elbow their way into the media spotlight. The 2004 Republican convention in New York attracted more than 100,000 demonstrators.
The FBI officials in each city said they are unaware of any specific, credible security threats this year. The street protests are expected to be largely peaceful, though the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota expects 800 arrests in St. Paul, most for minor infractions during an anti-war march that could draw between 30,000 and 60,000.
Still, they will pose an additional challenge for security officials who will also have to protect senators, governors, President George W. Bush and thousands of other political bigwigs, along with the actual nominees for the November election.
St. Paul’s 600-member police force will swell to 3,500 for the convention, police spokesman Tom Walsh said. Denver’s police force of 1,400 will also receive reinforcements from around the region. Both cities have received $50 million each in federal funds to pay for overtime, training and equipment like surveillance cameras.
Federal agencies have been planning for the events since 2007, Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley said.
The Secret Service won’t have a problem securing Invesco Field, the open-air football stadium where Obama will accept the nomination, Wiley said, as the agency handled Pope Benedict’s two April masses at baseball fields in New York and Washington, as well as Bush’s appearances at baseball games.
“Whereas it’s a new venue it’s not a new challenge for us,” Wiley said.
Airspace around Denver will be restricted and the interstate that runs by the stadium may be closed, he said.
Others see possible problems.
“It could be a real nightmare to get 76,000 people into Invesco Field,” said Denver City Council member Charlie Brown. “Do we close the interstate or will the protesters? That’s a very big issue.”
Protest organizers have also been sparring in court with local officials over when and where they’ll be able to rally. Both cities have laid out march routes and designated “free speech zones” near the convention halls, and both cities will provide a stage and sound system for protesters.
But some have vowed to ignore these restrictions.
In St. Paul, a self-described anarchist group dubbed the RNC Welcoming Committee aims to blockade downtown St. Paul and bridges and disrupt transportation shuttles.
In Denver, anarchist groups plan to target fund-raisers and hotels where Democratic delegates are staying.
Groups espousing similar tactics have managed to wreak havoc at other events, most notably the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, where protesters smashed store windows, set fires and caused an estimated $2 million in property damage.
“These noises do need to be taken seriously,” said Norm Stamper, Seattle’s police chief at the time.
“If you identify the anarchists early and they engage in criminal behavior, snatch them up right now,” he said. “The further you delay the more damage they can do to the process of legitimate protest.”
Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Cynthia Osterman