Iowa Braces for Occupy Protests
Republicans across Iowa are bracing for trouble on Tuesday, concerned that caucus sites will be the next stop for the Occupy protesters who've staged demonstrations and disruptions at election events across the state.
Occupy leaders say they're not planning to interfere with the voting, though they expect actions leading up the vote at candidates' headquarters and afterward at victory parties. But even if 99 percent of the 99 percenters comply, the prospect of scattered protesters inciting confrontations with Republican voters has people from both camps on edge.
"Tempers can flare, and people can start to get out of control," said Jack Whitver, a state senator and precinct captain for one of the larger caucus sites, just outside of Des Moines. "With a crowd of over 700 people, you just want to keep everything under control and make sure that something ugly doesn't happen."
Whitver promised a polite response to those who might try to chant or stage other disruptions at his caucus site - but that's not a unanimous position.
Iowa state Rep. Clel Baudler predicted that potential protestors at his caucus site in Adair County should expect a response that "will be swift and it will be sure."
"Since I'm not a state trooper anymore, they probably won't be handcuffed - but I have friends," Baudler said. "If an officer asks for help, I will help, believe me."
"We're just not going to tolerate in rural Iowa what's going on in the big metropolitan areas," Baudler said. "A little thump therapy never hurt anybody."
Handling Occupy protesters was part of this year's state GOP precinct captain training. The protocol: Don't give them any special treatment. Any Iowan who arrives should be offered the opportunity to register as a Republican on site and then to vote. Anyone else should be allowed in the allotted observation areas.
The state GOP has already moved the vote tabulation off site, but now there are worries of hackers infiltrating the reporting system. Instructions are being circulated directing caucus leaders not to touch protesters or yell at them, along with a number to call if things do get out of hand.
Doug Heye, who's been advising the state GOP on operations ahead of Tuesday's voting, wouldn't comment on those measures or security contracts.
"We have seen a lot of talk from the Occupy folks that they're not disrupting the caucus process itself, which for us is encouraging. We're still taking precautions," Heye said. "Because they're security precautions, those are things we generally can't discuss."
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and his staff have been meeting with the local offices of Homeland Security, Public Safety and Emergency Management to work through contingency plans for Tuesday. But for now, there's no plan for state police to secure the sites or be on site at all.
"As a law enforcement agency, unless we know that something's happening that we can react to, there's really nothing for us to do," said Department of Public Safety spokesperson Jessica Lown.
Lown said that she was so far unaware of any requests for assistance from precinct captains or GOP officials, or of any articulated criminal threat that would call the Iowa State Patrol into action. The closest was a video released last month by the hacker group Anonymous, which Lown said state police reviewed but found did not constitute a criminal threat.
Lown said for now the plan remains to follow standard procedure and defer to local law enforcement. But police departments are already struggling to handle actions like the 50 people who briefly swarmed Michele Bachmann's campaign headquarters ahead of a planned stop there Saturday.
Several of the protestors Bachamann afterward chided as "President Obama's reelection advance team" were arrested on trespassing charges, and the campaign event went ahead with just a slight delay.
Even that, though, left local law enforcement feeling overwhelmed.
"We don't have the resources for this, no," said Kent Knopf, one of the Urbandale officers responding to Saturday's actions. "Our department isn't prepared."
But Ed Fallon, a former Democratic state representative who's helping lead Occupy protests, said they've made clear that disrupting the caucusing itself isn't a goal, and accused Iowa Republicans of purposefully stoking fears.
"The people expressing concerns are mostly partisan Republicans trying to use any opportunity they can to dismiss the concerns of the Occupy movement," Fallon said. "The voting itself we regard as sacrosanct."
Fallon said he and other Occupy leaders would condemn any disruptions, especially those that tilt into violence.
"That would be contrary to what we've all agreed to - I can't promise you that there's not some lone wolf or loose cannon who goes out and does something," Fallon said. "But we have been adamant about people's rights to vote."
In fact, Fallon said that he and other Iowa resident Occupiers are planning to join the voting by registering as Republicans at their local caucus sites on Tuesday night. He hasn't decided whom he'll be voting for, but he knows there's sizable support for Ron Paul that he expects will give the Texas congressman a few extra votes from a constituency he hasn't exactly been courting.
But Iowa Rep. Steve King joked that any Occupiers who come into the caucuses - whether to vote, observe or even try to mount a protest - may walk away from their precinct sites on Tuesday with an unexpected result.
"I think they run the risk if they come inside the caucus - as people that are against free enterprise, against our capitalist system, against our national defense - of hearing some logic inside there," King said. "Some of those Occupy Wall Street people who would not be Republicans when they walked in, will be registered as Republicans, and I think some of them will stay Republicans."
"I don't know how large that number will be," King conceded.
Juana Summers contributed to this report.