August 25, 2008

Tee-shirts, Basset Hounds, and massive security

Here's a continuation of the Death Valley.. er.. Springfield event where Obama introduced running mate Joe Biden to the country.

Security was interesting, and much more extensive and oppressive than Obama's announcement here back in frigid February 2007.

(Extensive coverage and pictures (I covered the hell out of it. It's good, trust me.) of Obama's announcement in 2007 begins here.

And here.

Media and political big-wigs here and here.

And here. And Chris Matthews uncut here.

And yet more here. Good stuff and well worth a look back to the days when I still thought the blog was worth the effort.)

At the February event, there was a loosely fenced off area near the capital where press and apparently invited attendees could get close to the podium. There was no security procedures whatsoever as far as screening the crowd. Anyone that wanted to walk up and listen could do so.

Obama came and went from his motorcade into and out of the hotel and anyone who happened to be in the lobby could see him and his family walk by and perhaps shake his hand.

That's not to say that there wasn't heavy security. There were plenty of police and secret service there, and the ubiquitous sharp-shooters on the roofs, and I'm sure much more security measures were in effect. But it wasn't a huge ordeal to simply come and see and watch Obama speak.

Of course, the arctic temps kept the crowd relatively small, as did the fact that Obama, though a hot property to be sure, wasn't exactly the Democratic nominee quite yet.

But with everyone bundled up like Nanook of the North, it would have been much easier for some lunatic to conceal a potential weapon.

People being overdressed was not a problem on Saturday, though amazingly enough, I did see several people wearing suits, and of course the poor Secret Service guys who dress like they're going to a funeral at all times. I even saw a very obese guy walking along dressed entirely in black, with a tie, no less. I gave him about 4 minutes until he keeled over. But tee-shirts and shorts were the order of the day, and most people were dressed for hot weather.

And security was several orders of magnitude larger. It truly appeared as though there was about one cop/SS agent/quasi-military person for about every 10 people in the crowd. Hell, they had even called in the Illinois Conservation Police.

Every state law enforcement person in the state appeared to be in Springfield at that moment. (which might explain why no cops were seen on the highway the entire trip.)

People hadn't hesitated to bring their kids, from infants to toddlers to school age, no doubt for them to witness a piece of history. It was inspiring to see that, as well as how many diverse sorts of people were all there to show their support of this candidate in whom they've placed their fervent hopes for ridding the country o of Republican "leadership" that doesn't give a rat's ass about them.

Particularly poignant were the many people in wheel-chairs or who were obviously handicapped. When you saw them determined to be there, enduring the retched weather, you knew instantly that the health care debate was more than a mere debating point to them and went beyond silly abstract argument raising the spectre of "socialism" and other phony scare tactics to fight against giving people the care they need. These people, like millions of other Americans, have experienced first hand just how broken our health care system is, and they are committed to supporting someone who is pledged to do something about it besides offering schemes that don't change a thing.

A lot of people brought their dogs along, apparently wanting to share the experience. Not sure the dogs cared, really. Many of them had kerchiefs around their necks and Obama buttons on. While I was standing around on the street, I started hearing these baleful weird noises, loud as hell, like someone was skidding a semi truck at about 2 mph or something. I started to try to find where it was coming from, and it wasn't hard, due to the volume. It was a couple guys who'd brought three Basset Hounds to the event, and they attracted a lot of attention.

I love Bassets, and there happened to be one of the three who felt the thing to do at that moment was to howl, and they howl like no other dog. (when they're not splayed out sleeping or taking it easy, which is 9/10th of the time.) I got a kick out of it as one of the owners pretended to be trying to teach the dog to say "Oh-bah-ma" as the dog howled.

Of course, there were hundreds of interesting tee-shirts. One that stood out was a guy wearing a white shirt with green lettering which said, "Another Irishman for O'Bama"

I got a chuckle when I saw an African American woman walk past with a shirt that said, "Once you go Obama, you never go back." ha! There was "Obama is my home-boy", and every kind of design you can imagine, complete with some including Martin Luther King Jr. and many with the theme that the time is now, and of course, "Yes We Can!"

And I should mention the vendors. They were like a swarm of flies. You literally had a hard time walking 10 ft. without running into one trying to peddle their shirts, hats, pins, belt buckles, dog tags, and on and on. One oriental guy who could barely speak English even had the nerve to use a newer model Mercedes parked in front of the Hilton as his display rack. (Maybe it was his? Who knows. Maybe the tee-shirt business has been good to him.)

One guy I spoke with said he had seen a box van on a side street and inside there were tee shirts stacked to the roof filling the entire truck. There's no doubt about it, political events have become almost like Grateful Dead shows in as far as the incredibly army of street vendors they attract. (although the swag at Dead shows were much more interesting and creative, though no less a rip-off.)

Perhaps in response to the pesky vendors, some people even resorted to making their own spur of the moment magic marker tee-shirt statements. Here's a couple:

These two had made their own magic marker customized shirts. "Yes We Can" and "Obama '08".

This gentleman (or hero if you prefer) was watching the screen nearby. He had a hat on adorned with an American flag and USA. Judging from the shirt, he's Chris Lund, a Vietnam vet for Obama who plans on traveling to Denver to support him. He can't afford the gas for the trip though, "Need gas money for 1990 Obama Wagon" is the bottom line of his shirt, as best I can tell. That probably explains why he is in full support of someone who doesn't represent a continuation of the dark ages we've endured under Republican rule.

And the Official Obama store already had Obama/Biden shirts for sale. (Must have been cranking them out overnight.)

Oh yeah, security. There were numerous snipers on the roofs of surrounding buildings, and even a couple on the rotunda of the Old State Capitol.

And this trooper on a scorching rooftop apparently didn't find much to look at through his binoculars in the crowd (which was in front of the building) Maybe there was a hot secretary in the building or something? (Trust me, the women were hotter outside. And the men, children, and dogs too. EVERYTHING was really hot.)

After the event, suddenly a couple snipers walked past in front of me. They don't have their skis in those backpacks. Also, it's apparently not enough to have high powered rifles with scopes, as they also pack pistols and various other stuff on their belts.

I'm not sure why, but somehow I don't feel any more secure to see heavily armed people able to kill someone in a split second. It seems like there'd be too much room for error. And like doctors, these guys bury their mistakes.

I found myself wondering just how and when they'd ever have to actually shoot. (A chilling thought, but one that's hard to avoid.) With a crowd standing shoulder to shoulder, how would they make the split second decision to shoot. They all had radio communications, I'm assuming, so would they have to get orders first? Would that be too late in some instances? And what if some innocent bystander was in front of the target? All rather disturbing to think about. I can't imagine having that sort of responsibility, essentially tasked to be able to kill someone at will if need be, even with all the training in the world. They couldn't pay me enough. I suppose I should be glad that these guys are able to do what they do. I assume it's possible that a situation might arise where they could literally save a candidate's life, no matter how unlikely. And of course, in that light, it would be horribly irresponsible if they weren't deployed.

There was overwhelming security this time around, with the presence of snipers, rather menacing and intimidating Secret Service agents and hundreds of police, many with full body armor, unmarked black SWAT team trucks crawling through the street with shadowy figures in military garb peering out the darkened windows, concrete barriers and dump trucks used to block access, bomb sniffing dogs being run up and down every alley and building, police planes overheard, and that's only the visible part.

Adding to the mix the nearly unbearable heat, which of course affected the hundreds or thousands of security folks as well, especially in their full uniforms and heavy armor, and it was just a dicey situation, a powder keg. Back in the day, urban riots always occurred during the hottest parts of the summer. Heat puts people on edge.

But despite that fact, the crowds were very well behaved and friendly. Many seemed to be having a good time, and there were a lot of smiles and friendly banter and no trace of friction that I noticed. Of course, this could be because these were Democrats and that's their nature. ;-)

And I also found it odd that there were no trace of protesters. Very odd. Even at the February announcement, there were an extremely vocal group of abortion zealots holding up their grotesque signs and chanting during Obama's speech trying to drown him out. (The even louder chorus of "shut up!" kind of made them wither.)

I'm not sure if the added security and planning contributed to the absence of protesters, or if they hustled them off, or if the heat kept them away, but there was no trace of the sort of protest these sorts of events inevitably attract.

The nearly oppressive security made me feel very uneasy, and I struggled to figure out why. I certainly had no reason to fear. It wasn't my guilty conscience or anything. But I couldn't put my finger on it. At first I thought it might be because it made me feel so self-conscious, with all the unseen eyes scanning the crowds constantly, and everyone probably being monitored at some command center. There were even some guys walking through the crowd in casual dress that just oozed Secret Service, being as they were in top shape, had crew cuts, and shades, and weren't too interested in the event, but seemed to be staring right through everyone they passed, and they never stopped walking around.

I figured that the feeling of being watched like a suspect made me uncomfortable, like I had to be completely conscious of every move I made, lest I arouse some suspicion somehow. Maybe someone would think I didn't look right. At least I didn't have to worry about looking nervous and arousing suspicion by sweating like a pig. Hell, EVERYONE was. (except maybe the Bassets. And their owner provided a big water dish everywhere they went.) You almost felt like you shouldn't even look at any of the cops lest you be considered a suspect.

I thought that maybe the reason I was uncomfortable was the simple fact that I don't like being around guns. I mean, guns, crowds, making a wrong move without having a clue that you had, let alone realizing it? It was just the atmoshere, with so many guns, and so many cops, the intense heat, and all taking their jobs very seriously, as if somewhere in the crowd was the enemy. Something very bad could conceivably happen. Maybe some crazy person would do something nearby and suddenly a hail of bullets would erupt. I just didn't like that atmosphere.

But that wasn't it entirely. It took a while, but I finally realized that all that security in your face at all times, the appearance of a military occupation, it all was a constant reminder that they were there for a reason, and that reason was, yes, primarily to ensure that nothing bad happened to begin with, but also because there is a real threat that someone may attempt an assassination. And that's a thought that scares me to death, particularly with Obama.

It was subconscious on my part, but it was there. It was a huge military/law enforcement scene, guys decked out head to toe for mortal combat, and that almost heightened the dread of the unthinkable. I suppose I should have felt more reassured by their presence, and to a degree I was. But it was also disturbing in its way, that we now live in a time and place where a presidential candidate can't appear in public without such an overwhelmingly massive police state being instituted.

Downtown Springfield in many ways resembled scenes from some South American coup with troops surrounding the palace to either take it over or defend it. Either that or some action movie where you expect some action star to come rappelling down the face of a building with a huge knife in his teeth. It was a bit jarring to see this in a Midwestern town, in your country, not some banana republic, let's put it that way. And more than a bit sad that it's apparently justified. I think that thought alone was what troubled me.

Here's a few more shots that fit under the security heading.

Some Secret Service agents talking shop with a local policeman. Either that or they're some door-to-door Mormons wanting to talk to Obama and Biden. Nah. I've never known any door-to-door religious types to wear ear pieces.

They'd hauled in big concrete barriers to block off streets. Guess parking vehicles across them wasn't sufficient. These barricades caused a huge bottle-neck when the thousands of people tried to leave the area. Since they couldn't move them, like they could trucks or vehicles, the crowd, who'd had to enter one by one, had to exit through tiny openings as well. With people trying to escape and get to air conditioning before they literally dropped, it got pretty frustrating and tense as they all crunched up against these barriers trying to get out and had to struggle towards and through the narrow openings. At this point, people were exhausted and so was what little patience they had left. An ordeal getting in AND out. Not good planning at all.

This was clear throughout... the priority was on security, period. No thought or planning towards the safety or convenience of the enormous crowd was evident whatsoever, even when it wouldn't have affected security in any way. (such as being able to remove barricades after the event to avoid the crush at the gates, or any attempt at all to provide direction and help in letting people know where to go. And if you were outside the secure zone, you were on your own. If you collapsed or had a health problem, tough luck. There was not one single cop on the streets outside the secure zone. None. And no medical workers to circulate in case of heat stroke, etc.

There was not a single person to help direct people to where to go to find the end of the line, or to answer questions on what the proceedure would be, and I saw many people in wheelchairs who had somehow managed to make their way all the way to the entrance point, being refused entrance by police and getting no help at all when then asked where they should go. The cops were of no help, apparently not knowing what to tell them, and there was no one to direct them to a handicapped entrance, which was hidden down a side alley where you'd never know it was there if no one showed you. (I only noticed it by accident while taking a shortcut.)

After hours in line in the baking sun, and finally getting past the narrow entrance (just off camera to the right) where they had to toss away any liquids and toss any umbrellas (Searing heat, and no liquids or umbrellas allowed.) and take all their pins off, they were then herded to a very large tent, shown below, manned by Secret Service personel to pass through a bank of metal detectors and get further scrutiny before being allowed to enter.

As the speakers began, they allowed some of the people in line to enter through an alley entrance. I walked past latter and noticed this pile of umbrellas and water bottles taken from people and tossed on top of a couple utility boxes nearby and then abandoned. (and I also got accosted by a vendor, even though we were the only two people back there! They were EVERYWHERE.)

More to come (yeah, I know, you're thrilled, right?) Next up will be the media circus, though I couldn't cover it as well as I did the last time Barack spoke in Springfield. The time involved with preparing pictures and vid clips and uploading them is enormous, and I hope I can get to it before this is old news. (which is kind of is already.)
But some people might find it interesting, who knows? I've already had at least two people use this blog as a place to advertise their own coverage, so why not?


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