CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Dozens of protesters clogged streets and blocked traffic Tuesday outside the Democratic National Convention on its opening day, making for some tense moments that ultimately brought more theater than violence.
Just five blocks from Time Warner Cable Arena, where delegates are meeting this week, protesters took over an intersection for about two hours, attracting hundreds of police officers who swooped in to surround them and try to funnel them to more secure areas.
Officers took two protesters away in handcuffs. Other demonstrators got into shouting matches with delegates and cut off the primary route used by buses bringing convention attendees to the area. Still, no violence or significant damage occurred even after the protesters were eventually allowed to march into the heart of Charlotte’s central business district.
It was by far the most vigorous protest since both parties began meeting to formally nominate their presidential candidates. Republicans gathered last week in Tampa, where just two people were arrested by the end of the three-day affair.
Tuesday’s demonstration started when a half dozen Vietnam-era veterans calling for better medical care and other issues were joined in an unauthorized march by dozens of members of the Occupy movement in an unauthorized march. The Occupy group was protesting the incarceration of a soldier accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks.
About 50 protesters disrupted traffic by sitting down in the middle of the intersection. They were quickly surrounded by heavily armed officers in riot gear. A police major using a loudspeaker urged the protesters to enter a nearby fenced-in area designated by the city for permitted convention demonstrations.
“All of America used to be a free speech zone,” said John Murdock, 37, a protester from New York who came to Charlotte after protesting last week at the Republican convention in Tampa.
Gesturing toward the many officers, he added: “This stuff is right out of George Orwell.”
The impasse ended after two protesters spoke to the Charlotte police chief and said they were told they could continue to walk as a group on public sidewalks as long as there was no violence. They then continued past the city’s convention center, which is hosting some convention-related activities for delegates. The facility several blocks from the arena is also where most media are staged.
The demonstrators’ stated goal had been to talk to convention delegates, and the two groups mingled outside the convention center. Some were seen shouting at each other through a line of police officers who were separating them with mountain bikes.
At one point, a group of delegates shouted “Four more years!” The marchers, some of whom carried anti-Obama signs, responded: “No more years!”
As the march continued, protesters turned onto the main thoroughfare of North Tryon Street toward the corporate headquarters of Bank of America, located in the city’s tallest skyscraper. Still, the path police were allowing them to take kept them at least two blocks away from the convention hall, a sports arena heavily fortified with rings of steel fencing and police barricades.
After the group marched all the way to the other end of business district known as Uptown, they stopped on a street corner and one of the protesters called out for a vote on what to do next. Nearly everyone raised their hand to return to the growing tent city in the public park they had left hours earlier.
Next, they quietly headed back the way they came, flanked and outnumbered the visibly fatigued police officers.
The demonstration began around 12:30 p.m. when 200 protesters began marching outside of designated routes and without the necessary permit. They had only made it a few blocks from their home base at the park when hundreds of officers began arriving.
A protester wearing a white boat captain’s hat who tried to cross the barricade was put in handcuffs by officers. Earlier in the march, the protester had identified himself to a reporter as John Penley and said he was a U.S. Navy veteran.
An Asheville resident, the 60-year-old Penley, said he is homeless, sometimes sleeping in the basement of his elderly parents. He receives treatment from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a number of ailments and wanted to talk with Democratic Party policy makers about the bureaucratic maze those like him face.
A second protester was put in handcuffs after the group left the intersection. It wasn’t immediately clear why police stopped the man, who was wearing a mask and combat boots.
Two other people had been arrested during a protest march on Sunday.
New York delegate James Gaughran, 55, said he’d been waiting for a bus but found out that it wasn’t running so he walked over to see what was happening.
Gaughran said he was surprised at some of the venom directed by the mostly left-leaning protesters at President Obama. But he said he was encouraged to see people expressing their right to free speech.
“I guess they’re going to have to find another way to get the buses in,” he sighed. “But I wonder if they can even imagine what things would be like if Romney is elected.”
Associated Press writers Mitch Weiss and Jeffrey Collins in Charlotte contributed to this report.