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Places Everybody! We’re About to Begin

Four years ago on his way to the White House, candidate Barack Obama carried three southern states: Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Maybe America’s political map is changing, the experts speculated. Maybe Democrats do have a shot in the South after all, the party mused.

So the Democrats put their 2012 quadrennial convention in Charlotte, N.C. The next four years have not left a majority of Americans feeling very good about their future, and the rough races Democrats have to run in the South looked even tougher after the “shellacking” endured in the mid-term elections of 2010.

But here they are. North Carolina is close, but Mitt Romney has been ahead lately, though not by much. On Sunday, the mayor of Charlotte, Anthony Fox told me the president is close enough to take North Carolina with a superior ground game: “Romney’s spending all his money on television; we’re spending it getting ready for a long ground game that starts with early voting.” Mayor Fox noted that the president carried North Carolina by a small margin because of a big advantage in early voting, “He lost on Election Day.”

South Carolina’s Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said as the party convention was preparing to open, that win or lose in November, holding the convention here was an important investment in his party’s future in the South. “And besides,” he said, “Charlotte’s a big time city now.” There’s plenty to back up that idea. Charlotte’s the biggest city in this important and growing swing state, the 17th biggest city in the country, and an important center of a major American industry, banking.

I got to test Fowler’s proposition on a jaunt through the Central Business District with a few thousand protestors, reporters and police. I hadn’t been in Charlotte since the late ’90s and could see big changes. More skyscrapers. More swanky restaurants. More investment in making the major downtown streets inviting for shoppers and strollers.

Protestors provoked by a raft of issues marched through Charlotte under the watchful eye of hundreds of police officers from a long list of forces from all over North Carolina and nearby states. The marchers chanted, sang, and carried signs deploring the bailout of failing banks, the current immigration policies of the United States, bankers’ investments in coal production in the region for electrical generation, and other issues.

Charlotte Police Ready for Trouble
A Charlotte police officer has a pistol, baton, and plastic cuffs at the ready as he watches a peaceful protest march proceed through downtown Charlotte. Photo by Ray Suarez/PBS NewsHour

The crowd was exceedingly well-behaved and never posed any real threat, but the police carried long batons, hand restraints for arrests, and many wore the kind of body armor that prepared them for serious physical contact. I’ve watched police confrontations with protestors on three continents and come to admire restraint as a tactic. I have no doubt there are other valid schools of thought on the question, but I mourn the loss of the idea that a few thousand people can make their feelings known in public without police forces having to lay on crowd control that signals not only preparation, but expectation that something is going to go wrong.

When I look back at my first convention at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1976, I marvel at the difference in security. It’s like it happened in another country. The cities that take on these national events also agree to have their downtowns ringed in barriers, concrete bollards and chain link fences.

The cities lock down in a way that seals off not only people who might arguably mean harm, but also a curious and engaged public that might feel more ownership of civic events that ask for their inconvenience. Surely there is reason for worry. But surely also, there’s reason to wonder if a major American city must become an armed camp to host a party political event.

The Democrats I spoke with over the last day seem prepared to make a counter-argument to the one made last week in Tampa, Fla. One fired up local campaign worker from Jacksonville, N.C., told me health care is her core issue, and she spends hours every week knocking on doors and cold-calling people in her town to talk about the Affordable Care Act. I asked her if she realized how many Americans now oppose the president’s health care reform. She said it’s only because they don’t understand it and she was going to try to change as many minds as possible in the next two months.

I’ll have more from Charlotte later in the week in this space, on the NewsHour, and from the convention floor during live PBS coverage Tuesday through Thursday night. Hope to talk to you then.

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