Navigating the dynamics of power and security at Clinton Global Initiative

The press at work at CGI.
The press at work at CGI.

To interview Chelsea Clinton alongside a small group of bloggers we were directed to meet in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel, home to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard waited for a elevator to take her ostensibly up to her room, while Population Services International head Karl Hofmann awaited for a meeting and Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus exited to travel to more meetings.

The main entrance for the Sheraton is along 7th avenue. People are allowed to freely enter and leave through the automatically rotating giant doors, unless they are carrying bags. CGI staff stand alongside the rails directing people carrying bags to an x-ray machine and personal search. Once cleared they are allowed to enter the crowded lobby flanked by an overcrowded Starbucks cafe and a lounge area converted into a pop-up television recording pit.

New York City is transformed into the closest approximation of a police state every September as the UN General Assembly brings together the leaders of the world. The UN is barricaded off from non-credentialed individuals. Gaining access to the immediate area requires an escort after lining up on a nearby street.

Bill Clinton; Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF; Mo Ibrahim; Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook; Bono; Khalida Brohi, Founder, Sughar Empowerment Society;.
Bill Clinton; Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF; Mo Ibrahim; Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook; Bono; Khalida Brohi, Founder, Sughar Empowerment Society;.
CGI

CGI is different. Only a few blocks across town, anyone can walk alongside the global elite who mill about the lobby for various meetings. Corporate CEOs, high-level government officials, NGO presidents and the like walk about in their suits only broken up by the few hotel guests who were not aware that their visit to New York would require their 5th avenue purchases to be searched.

That is as far as a member of press can get without an escort. Membership of the Clinton Global Initiative is required to gain access to the meeting rooms and plenary sessions. It only costs $20,000 to join and participate in the equivalent of a temporary country club (without the golf course and tennis courts).

Members attend to meet with other important people and make new pledges. It is a manifestation of Bill Clinton’s greatest talent. Pledges range from $80 million to combat elephant poaching in Africa to a $1.5 billion pledge by the Vital Voices Global Partnership to support women-owned businesses around the world. Pledges are a part of membership and CGI works with its members to be in the position to make pledges to do more for their particular issues. Bringing together a variety of actors means that collaborations can lead to pledges which hopefully lead to action.

Attendees giving their undivided attention.
Attendees giving their undivided attention.
CGI

We learned that even escorted press cannot go through the main checkpoint for CGI. The security guards told our handler that we were not allowed in through that way. We had to walk back outside and down 52nd street into the press entrance.

If there ever was a distinct divide between the participants and the people who cover the happenings, CGI has mastered making it clear who is second class. Press have their passes scanned. It is a bright yellow that stands out as a warning sign to all volunteers that the person with around his or her neck should be restricted. Bags are searched, cameras are turned on, metal detectors are passed through and wands verify that belts set off metal detectors.

A volunteer, usually a college-aged young man or woman directs press down further into the press room. Two doors stay open as the only semblance of knowing that there is an outside world. White walls surround the rows of tables and chairs. Photographers keep with their own kind in the front left. The pour out to snap images of celebrities and participants then rush back in to do quick edits before filing or publishing the best pictures. Writers take up the rest of the space with their laptops plugged into the power strips attached to the legs of the tables with masking tape.

Press are heard ahead of President Obama's session.
Press are heard ahead of President Obama’s session.

Some press are allowed in the main plenary sessions and fewer can get into the side sessions (made worse by coverage by CNN which further encumbers press access). Lines form an hour in advance of the big sessions and even longer if it is for the President. Press waits for the opportunity to sit on back risers to be in the same room as Obama. Others, myself included, choose to stay in the press room and watch the livestream on television screens.

Important CGI staffers, you can tell they are by the fact that they do not have to wear white dress shirts and CGI branded gear, adorned in their earpieces shout for writers to line up on the left and photographers to the right. Impatient press members push the bounds into the middle and try to sneak up in the line, a move that only leads to more yelling.

The relationship is more that like between a sheep and a collie. Everything is amiable until it is time to move from one place to another.

To meet with the Clinton’s only child, we waited for the oversized elevators to descend, next to the press security checkpoint. A brief stop at the first floor to let a few people off gave us a glimpse into the other side of security that turned us away only a few minutes prior.

The interior space of CGI is much less chaotic and loud. CGI branding is plastered on the walls. The makeshift wallpaper wrinkles at the edges as a flood of a midnight blue darkens the room. The white CGI logo repeats throughout.

Chelsea Clinton listens to long-winded questions from bloggers.
Chelsea Clinton listens to long-winded questions from bloggers.

Glass centerpieces with white flowers sit on each table, clothed in the same blue on the walls. Food and drinks sit neatly for the attendees looking as if they are more like props than actual nourishment. Yet more security was passed to get into the room to wait for Chelsea. She walked in and introduced herself individually to each person there. She spoke, in a quiet and steady voice, with us for roughly 45 minutes (a story on that conversation will appear in the coming days).

Ushered back down the elevator and to the subterranean home of the CGI press, the group dispersed to the press room to file and watch along with the day’s proceedings. Meanwhile the powerful leaders of the world walked about. Some deep inside the belly of the CGI and others among the confusion of the hotel lobby.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.