PHILADELPHIA — Delegates headed to to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions will find themselves in cities that are bracing for trouble after recent racially charged shootings have heightened tensions between minority communities and the police.
Protests across the nation followed last week’s fatal shootings by police of two black men — Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. And at one demonstration, in Dallas, a sniper killed five police officers.
Not long after the Dallas shooting, Cleveland police said in a statement that the agency was on a “heightened state of awareness for domestic attacks.”
That may not necessarily mean that delegates are in greater danger.
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy said Wednesday that there were no specific, credible threats to the GOP convention, which begins Monday. But Clancy also told USA Today that the agency was preparing for active shooter and sniper scenarios like Dallas.
Earlier this week, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said that the Dallas shooting “required that we do things differently,” according to the Associated Press, but did not elaborate.
Both conventions have been designated “National Special Security Events,” meaning that the Secret Service is in charge of security measures.
Despite ramped up safeguards in both convention cities, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, said security will be challenging.
“I don’t think they are going to go without some incident taking place,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Even before the recent shootings, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia and Cleveland had been preparing for trouble. They sanctioned security perimeters and designated protest zones in parts of the cities.
And last year, Congress allocated $100 million for convention security . According to two lawmakers who represent Pennsylvania, there has not been a request for additional security funds.
Racial tensions are high.
Protesters in Philadelphia held events for five days straight last week. Demonstrators also marched through downtown Cleveland.
Both cities have their own difficult past with police shootings and racial tensions.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by Cleveland police in November 2014. Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was shot and killed the next month in Philadelphia during a traffic stop. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton mentioned Tate-Brown’s killing the day after the Dallas shooting, during a speech in Philadelphia before the predominantly black African Methodist Episcopal Church conference. She also mentioned Sterling and Castile.
Tate-Brown’s mother was in the audience.
“The families of the lost are trying to tell us we need to listen,” Clinton said in her first remarks after the Dallas shooting. “People are crying out for criminal justice reform … Young people are being threatened and humiliated by racial profiling.”
The event had been scheduled before the shootings. It was a coincidence that Clinton was in Philadelphia — a city soon to enter the national spotlight because of a convention, and like Cleveland, one that had struggled with racial divisions.
It was in Philadelphia where a Black Lives Matter protester confronted former President Bill Clinton in April over his 1994 crime bill, garnering national media attention.
The protester in question, Erica Mines, is a leader of the Philadelphia Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice, a group that advocates racial equality. The Coalition has organized the bulk of the recent protests, and is organizing a march during the Democratic convention.
Democratic Rep. Robert A. Brady, who represents Philadelphia, said police have “great relationships” with community groups. But Michael Wilson, a leader of the Coalition group, said tensions persist.
“The Philadelphia police has a very long history of having very little respect for people of color,” Wilson said.
Anthony McKenney, a 19-year-old African-American Philadelphia resident, said part of the problem is the crime in certain neighborhoods.
McKenney, leaning against a cement wall in a downtown park, recalled walking to a store in West Philadelphia on a cold day, wearing a scarf and hood. He said he was stopped by a white police officer, who accused him of planning to rob the store.
“I don’t blame him, because around that area people do get robbed a lot and it is kind of violent,” he said.
McKenney said he was concerned that heightened tensions would lead to violence at the Democratic convention.
“Hopefully, it won’t end up like in Dallas,” he said.
Protests moving forward
Scores of protesters are expected in both cities.
Wilson predicted that the recent shootings would inspire even more people to demonstrate at the conventions.
Local authorities expanded the protest areas in Philadelphia and Cleveland after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.
“Security planning doesn’t give government the ability to have a blank check to put in whatever restrictions they desire,” said Steve David, the ACLU Ohio spokesman.
Guns will be allowed in the Cleveland protest zones because Ohio has an open carry law. That, David said, “defied logic.”
He encouraged protesters to leave their guns at home since police officers will be there to provide protection.
In Philadelphia, protesters have criticized the decision to choose Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park as the protest zone.
The park is separated from the Wells Fargo Center, where convention events will take place, by a very wide street.
“I understand the concern for keeping the protesters at some distance, especially with all of the gun violence that we’ve had,” said Soula Davis, 31, who was walking through the park on a gray Saturday morning. “But at the same time I think it deters from the effect of protesting.”
She pointed through the trees at the Wells Fargo Center in the distance.
“They won’t even see it,” she said.
But a protest march by Black Lives Matter is scheduled down the street in front the Wells Fargo Center on July 26, and more are expected.
And the tensions that followed the shooting in Dallas may well be on the minds of many.
“Dallas has definitely put us on notice that we have to be especially careful of the edginess of police,” Wilson said.