Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Your lasers, your bike locks, your pieces of wood, and any hopes you had of actually getting near the action.
There is no city ordinance more outlandish than the city ordinance passed by a wild-eyed town about to host a national political convention. These temporary decrees are now a standard part of convention planning, dictating where – as an uninvited attendee – you may stand on the sidewalk, what you can have in your backpack, and which types of liquid you may reasonably keep in that bottle that looks an awful lot like a projectile.
The city of Tampa, host starting Monday to the Republican National Convention, passed a 20-page colossus [PDF] that’s set to expire a minute after midnight on September 1. Charlotte, which opens the Democratic National Convention two days later, will evoke an ordinance passed in January [PDF] that gives the city the right to enforce a laundry list of imaginative restrictions during large "extraordinary events" in town (the DNC is easily the most extraordinary to date, but the same restrictions were also invoked this year for the annual shareholder meetings of Duke Energy and Bank of America).
All of these prohibitions give a good indication of what’s in the nightmares of municipal officials fearing the worst playing out on national TV (masked nun-chuck-wielding rioters planning to… fling human feces everywhere?). In a way, these ordinances also reflect the cumulative fears of every city that has ever hosted a mega-event before.
"What is really striking in the last 20 years is the degree to which these things have become not only more and more restrictive, but more and more identical. City after city after city is using the exact same techniques," says Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the ACLU. We can pretty safely assume that police officials in Tampa and Charlotte had a good long talk with their counterparts in Denver, St. Paul, Boston and New York, hosts to the previous four conventions. "If one kid threw a rock 20 years ago at a demonstration," Hansen says, "then everybody wants to ban rocks for all time."
Of course, this means that with each passing event it gets harder to keep track of which kitchen implements you don’t want to be caught carrying if you’re heading to town. So, as a public service, Atlantic Cities read these ordinances for you. In both cities, they include several types of restrictions: on where you can go, what you can do, and what you can bring with you.
Tampa and Charlotte have both established specific zones around the convention sites, inside of which all of these extra regulations apply. Here’s what the sizable "event zone" looks like in Tampa, spanning dozens of blocks:
And here is the "extraordinary event zone" in Charlotte:
In Tampa, groups of 50 or more who want to demonstrate must get a permit to do so. Charlotte will also establish "free speech zones" for demonstrators – and none of these locations will be particularly close to the main convention proceedings.
"So-called 'free speech zones,' that’s a phrase which drives me crazy because I thought the whole country was a free speech zone," Hansen says. "They are often placed in a very obscure, distant location. That sort of misses the whole point of allowing people to demonstrate in ways that the Republicans in Tampa and the Democrats in Charlotte can see."
Visitors in both cities meanwhile can’t do anything resembling camping. The expansion of anti-camping restrictions in both cities seems to be an obvious response to the Occupy movement. And a related prohibition: no fire.
From there, the restrictions get amazingly specific. Anywhere in the city of Tampa during the convention – not just in the event zone – it will be illegal to carry "any length of lumber, wood, or other wood product, unless it is one-fourth (1/4) inch or less in thickness and two (2) inches or less in width or if not generally rectangular in shape." Also out are:
- "any length of metal, plastic or other hard material"
- "any container or inflatable device filled with urine, fecal matter, blood or any other bodily fluid"
- "projectile launchers" or spraying implements
- weapons such as an "air rifle, air pistol, paintball rifle, explosive, blasting cap(s), switchblade, hatchet, ax, slingshot, BB gun, pellet gun, wrist shot, slung shot, blackjack, metal knuckles, nun chucks, mace, iron buckle, ax handle, chain, crowbar, hammer, shovel" (You can, however, bring actual guns, thanks to Florida’s unshakeable enthusiasm for them!)
Inside the event zone itself, you can’t have, in addition to the above:
- bike locks (or any other kind of lock, for that matter)
- anything that might be used as a "portable shield." This does not include your run-of-the-mill umbrella, unless it has either super-pointy metal tips or other weapon-like modifications.
- "rope, chain, cable, strapping, wire, string, line, tape… having tensile strength greater than thirty (30) pounds and a length greater than six (6) feet."
In Charlotte, it is unlawful to attach yourself to anything, including to other people, buildings, vehicles or fixtures. You can’t attach things (other than yourself) to public or private property, either. And, inside the extraordinary event zone, you also can’t throw anything ("unless a permit specifically authorizes such throwing," which we imagine might refer to an extraordinary Little League tournament). Lastly, you especially, expressly, specifically, may not throw a sock filled with some heavy mass intended to harm anyone.
So while you may not bring, do or think about any of the above prohibitions, you may on the other hand want to be prepared for an experience in a public park in Charlotte or Tampa that will feel an awful lot like a trip to a U.S. airport.
"Cities have been more and more successful in prohibiting free speech anywhere near big events," Hansen says. "As long as they keep being successful, they’ll keep being even more restrictive and more restrictive and more restrictive. There may come a point where some judge is willing to say 'enough his enough.' So far, judges have largely been allowing cities to get away with it."