How to Stay Safe While Covering the U.S. Political Party Conventions

    by Frank Smyth
    July 15, 2016
    Photo by mal3k on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    This post first appeared on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.

    The U.S. political party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer carry the risk of civil unrest. While protests have long occurred both inside and outside of convention venues, security experts and political commentators have said this year’s gatherings have the potential for unrest not seen since in the U.S. since the Vietnam war-era clashes in Chicago during the Democratic Party convention in 1968.

    Security experts have said this year's gatherings have the potential for unrest not seen since in the U.S. since the Vietnam war-era clashes in Chicago.

    Many journalists and news organizations are investing in civil unrest awareness training. My firm, Global Journalist Security, has run a two-day Hostile Environments & Emergency First-Aid–Civil Unrest class specifically for the upcoming Republican and Democratic national conventions. (The course was recently profiled in The New Yorker.)


    Cleveland is preparing for potential riots, investing the $50 million in federal grant money given to the host city on purchasing riot gear including 2,000 full-body “turtle” suits, helmets, shields, and batons, along with steel barricades to control protesters. The city’s attempts to establish a 3.5-mile “event zone” to restrict protests near the convention site were struck down last month by a federal judge in a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, according to reports. The ruling judge said that the proposed zone was “unduly large” and restrictive of First Amendment rights. Philadelphia is investing $43 million of its federal grant money provided for security measures to purchase similarly comprehensive riot gear, the Associated Press reported.

    The Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, from July 18 to 21, will occur first and, based on the physical altercations and violent rhetoric reported on the campaign trail, is expected to draw the most unrest. The presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, said on CNN earlier this year that riots could occur if he was denied the Republican Party’s nomination. Some Republican figures have suggested that the convention rules pledging delegates vote for Trump following his primary victories be changed to allow them to vote “their conscious” in Cleveland, according to reports.

    Unrest is also expected at the Democratic Presidential convention, which will take place at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia from July 25 to 29. Bernie Sanders has refused to concede to Hillary Clinton and vowed to take his campaign to the convention. After allegations that Sanders supporters harassed AP staff through emails, phone calls and on social media last month, the news agency allegedly warned its reporters in an email to be vigilant, according to reports.


    At both conventions, the press is also likely to come across special interest and rights groups protesting. Some protesters could be legally armed. Ohio is both an open- and a concealed-carry state. Ohio residents may be openly carrying loaded handguns and rifles to demonstrate their Second Amendment rights. Ohioans with a state permit may also, with few restrictions, legally carry loaded handguns concealed beneath their clothing. The city of Philadelphia, on the other hand, forbids the carrying of firearms within city limits.

    All this makes for an unpredictable, potent mix for journalists covering the conventions. I would recommend journalists consider the following steps:

    • Practice Situational Awareness. This may sound elementary, but in a chaotic situation it is harder to do in practice. Be aware of the groups and forces on the ground. Know in advance their dynamics, tendencies, and prior interactions with other groups and the press.
    • Work in teams. Put aside competitive pressure and form teams of journalists to look out for each other. Have one person in every group tasked with primarily maintaining an eye on the perimeter and for unexpected movement or action from within or near the crowd. Make sure you can always communicate with each other.
    • Know entry and exit routes. Study a map of the city around the venue in advance, and know the entry and exit routes. During every situation, make a conscious effort to continually reappraise where the nearest entry and exit routes are.
    • Identify yourself as needed. Looking like a journalist is important to signal to others, including police, that you are there to observe–not participate–in events. Display your press credentials when required, and use whatever credentials you may have. But keep them inside a pocket or clothing to avoid having them grabbed or stolen.
    • Maintain neutrality. Acting like a journalist is important to signal that you are there to observe, not participate. Much like a referee on a soccer field, get close enough to the action to observe it, but avoid putting yourself in the field of play or between clashing participants.
    • Do not respond to provocation. Attendees and protesters, both inside and outside the venues, may attempt to harass, intimidate, accost or even attack the press. Journalists must maintain their demeanor and practice awareness, avoidance, and escape techniques, rather than engaging with anyone in a verbal or hostile physical exchange. (If you do engage, you risk the encounter ending up on YouTube or cable news.)
    • Obey police orders. Journalists have no clear legal right to report on events beyond those rights afforded to all citizens. Police may also legally arrest journalists for either allegedly disobeying orders to move or for resisting arrest. CPJ has previously documented cases where police arrested journalists without cause, including at a 2008 presidential convention. The charges against the journalists in nearly every case were later dismissed, but the journalists who were detained ended up missing the story. Knowing your rights is one thing, avoiding arrest is another. The National Press Photographers Association has a useful guide for covering high-conflict events. The American Civil Liberties Union has a guide explaining the legal parameters of presidential political party conventions, which fall under the federal category of a National Special Security Event.
    • Protective gear. Gas masks. We would normally recommend that journalists consider bringing well-fitting respirator masks to help protect against the use of pepper spray and tear gas. Local media in Cleveland have reported police using both against Ohio state football fans. However, the City of Cleveland has included gas masks on its list of items banned from the “Event Zone” during the convention with no exemptions for journalists.
      Body armor. Firearms will be permitted within the Republican National Convention “Event Zone.” In the wake of the Dallas, Texas, attacks at a protest on July 7, journalists from at least four major news organizations have told CPJ that news teams headed to the Cleveland conference will be provided with body armor designed for use in conflict zones. Others covering the conferences should consider whether they also want body armor–and at what level of protection.

    In response to demand for security training ahead of the conventions, Global Journalist Security has provided civil unrest awareness workshops to major news outlets in New York, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Los Angeles, and workshops including a “Your Rights vs. Avoiding Arrest” seminar online.

    Both conventions will pose challenges for journalists. There is no substitute for being fully aware and prepared.

    Frank Smyth is CPJ’s senior adviser for journalist security. He has reported on armed conflicts, organized crime, and human rights from nations including El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Cuba, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @JournoSecurity.

    cpj-logo-name-horz-550px The Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide.

    Tagged: committee to protect journalists democratic convention journalist safety politics republican convention safety trump

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