Of Security, Masks And Presidential Visits

I have to believe that in the post-9/11 epoch, there is really no such thing as a routine presidential visit — although there are certainly routines to follow. And most such visits, fortunately, are without notable incident.

But these are some dicey days. Presidential politics haven’t been this polarized since Vietnam brought down a president. An unnecessary war, a botched occupation and a Strangeloveian foreign policy pretty much accounts for it.

Plus, Michael Moore is on the loose and Whoopi Goldberg is on the case. In fact, the political dialogue is so poisoned that best-selling author Nicholson Baker easily rationalizes a plot line in his latest novel, “Checkpoint,” which references the possible assassination of President George W. Bush.

But much more to the point is the chilling prospect — and ongoing reminders — that suicidal murderers are a real — if not omnipresent — danger. The rules are not just different over THERE anymore. That’s why we now live with a permanent yellow alert.

I was musing on all this a week and a half ago as I was noting — and noticing — the democracy-in-action scene around the Marriott Waterside Hotel where President Bush would later speak on human trafficking. Some 30 years ago — in a political rite of passage — I had witnessed my first presidential visit when Gerald Ford came to Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg.

I saw my first sharpshooter. I saw a lot of police, a lot of barricades, a lot of curious well-wishers and a lot of obvious Secret Service types, including a guy sitting in a low-hanging bough of a tree talking to someone electronically. Crowd-control went well, and the post-Watergate assemblage — with allowances for a few folks who never got over the Nixon pardon — was friendly. But this was the President of the United States, and you never know where the next Squeaky Fromm might be lurking.

The signs at the recent presidential drive-by were manifest around the hotel and convention center. Police on boats. In helicopters. In squad cars. On horses. On rooftops. On foot. They seemed to outnumber the 150 or so protestors — mostly gathered at the intersection of Franklin Street and Channelside Drive. They complemented the expressionless folks with earpieces, corporate haircuts and seemingly suffocating dark suits. Would that they were only scouring the landscape for Squeaky wannabes.

What you see is what you get from the behind-the-scenes planning that is the province of the Tampa Police Department’s Special Operations Bureau. They get a penciled-in itinerary from the president’s advance team. From there, they know the drill, says TPD spokesman Joe Durkin. It’s a matter of coordinating location, route and manpower and working in concert with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Secret Service.

“It’s the unscheduled visits that are much more difficult,” Durkin explains. “This is more like a Super Bowl. You take the last schematic and then update it. We adapt accordingly.”

There is even a benefit, if you will, of heightened homeland security, says Durkin. “We now have a tremendous communications network among all law enforcement agencies.”

But back to the Bush visit.

The requisite protestors and supporters were not placard-challenged. The anti-war signage included “‘W’ Is What Went Wrong,” “What Would Jesus Bomb?” and “What Price Glory Now, Lt. Bush?” As a backdrop they had the dueling-taunt banners Joe Redner hung from his vacant (now razed) building at Florida Avenue and Channelside Drive: “Is Bush the Anti-Christ?” and “Bush: ‘God Told Me To Invade Iraq.'”

Directly across from the convention center was a large, inflated rodent with a cigar that was the center of trade union and feminist messages such as “Don’t Privatize Medicare” and “Stop The Bush-Whacking of a Woman’s Rights.” Etc.

Another day at the cacophonous security office, I surmised. And yet.

These are such high-anxiety, high-surveillance, high-stakes times. Can’t be too vigilant. Can’t take anything for granted. Especially those of us for whom observational skills are part of a journalist’s tool kit.

Having said that — I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a maintenance worker in a mismatched uniform and sunglasses. He was pushing a cart of something to somewhere.

And then there were all those folks involved in a gymnastic tumbling competition who were exiting, almost on cue, from the convention center. Mostly animated kids, but also a mix of squinting, serious-looking adults — family and officials no doubt.

Then the ubiquitous, equipment-lugging media types. They looked especially burdened down with cameras and lenses and related stuff.

And that distracting guy with an emigration agenda and a non-Romance language accent. He seemed to be making the rounds of all possible pundits.

And some bandana-masked folks idling on the Harbour Island bridge behind the Marriott.

Say what?

Call me paranoid. Or a serial profiler. I’ll certainly accept prudent. Perhaps 100 feet behind the Marriott were a half dozen or so masked people milling about. Reconnoitering came to mind. Some were still working on signs. Not far, near the apex of the bridge was a TPD officer on horseback.

“So, what’s with the bandanas?” I asked of one masked man. He stopped. He lowered his mask to reveal a 20-something, All-American sort of visage. He was succinct but not impolite. “We’re fighting pollution and identity,” he revealed. He didn’t linger for obvious follow-ups and then sidled off with his identity-concealing colleagues.

He was not a mosque man, and this was hardly a jihad moment, but it took me — if no one else — aback. What was the case for permitting people in masks near a presidential motorcade route?

“People are passionate about their politics, and they have the freedom to protest,” reasons TPD spokesman Durkin. “We watch for all kinds of potential threats.

“It’s not what they are or are not wearing,” he emphasized. “Whether it’s a three-piece suit or a bandana. It’s how they act.”

John Ashcroft, I sense, might not have been that understanding.

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