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GOP convention protests in Tampa muted, small

Posted: August 27, 2012 7:00 p.m.
Updated: August 27, 2012 7:00 p.m.

Hundreds of protestors gathered a park in downtown St. Petersburg to march in demonstration against the Republican National Convention.

 

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There have been no speeches inside the convention hall and it's nearly as quiet outside, too.

So far, the protests have been muted and only two people have been arrested as of Monday night. That's in stark contrast to four years ago, when hundreds of protesters were arrested at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said police this week are trying to give leeway to protesters in the street, but when a 20-year-old man refused to remove a bandanna covering his face on Monday, he was arrested. Face coverings are prohibited in the event zones.

Protesters can say and do whatever they would like "as long as they don't cross the line into criminal behavior," she added.

And protesters, who for months planned to converge on Tampa to showcase their gripes and messages, have been peaceful and small in number. The lingering rain bands and wind from Tropical Storm Isaac that skirted Florida's west coast and the massive police presence kept the crowds away, organizers said.

A march that had been predicted to draw 5,000 people in the morning drew just a few hundred.

"Obviously, to go from an estimated 5,000 to a couple hundred, the weather had to play a part," Castor said.

When about a dozen protesters sat in front of a line of police in riot gear, Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett squatted down and chatted with them for a minute. They agreed to stand up and walk away. The line of riot police quickly multiplied to about 100 as a downpour started, dispersing the already small group, except those who danced in the rain.

"They've militarized Tampa. The chilling effect has succeeded," Cara Jennings, a voter outreach organizer from Palm Beach County, said earlier in the day.

The soggy weather also was no help. Sporadic heavy rain lashed the city and winds were gusting at 35 mph as Isaac passed to the west of Tampa in the Gulf of Mexico. The Republicans themselves had canceled most of their Monday activities because of Isaac, whose path was tough to pinpoint.

The 60 organizing groups for the protests included labor unions, Students for a Democratic Society, Veterans for Peace, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Occupy Wall Street and Code Pink. They are here to protest the GOP's economic and social policies. But organizers said there was no question the storm predictions kept their numbers down.

Florida labor organizer Jose Soto said 16 buses of protesters from New York, Miami and the Florida Panhandle canceled because of the storm. He said the bus companies didn't want their equipment and drivers headed into possible problems.

"It's a calamity but all the people here are delegates for those who can't be here," said Soto of the University of Florida's Graduate Assistants United local.

Still, dozens of self-described anarchists gathered in "Romneyville" about a mile from the convention center said the weather wasn't dampening spirits.

"Republicans are like 'Ahhh, I'm melting,' " said Curtis Hunt Jr., 27, a homeless protester from St. Petersburg. "The weather isn't affecting the energy level."

Dave Whitaker, an activist from the San Francisco area, said presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney doesn't understand people like himself or others camped out a mile from where the convention was being held.

"He is a multimillionaire," Whitaker said. "There is no way he can understand life, living down here at the bottom."

Chevelle O'Bryant took video of the protests while standing behind a chain link fence in downtown Tampa. O'Bryant works at Verizon and stood in the company's parking lot, enjoying the spectacle.

"It's overwhelming but it's good at the same time," she said. "I think it's a great thing."

She said she "absolutely" agrees with the protesters and wished she was marching.

"If I could, I'd be out there," she said during her lunch break.

A report on the riots in St. Paul concluded police weren't ready for the anarchists that descended on the city and that they were a bit heavy-handed. Thousands of protesters packed the city and hundreds were arrested during the convention's first day and hundreds more on its last. Some smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles in a confrontation with pepper-spray wielding police.

Tampa police say they learned from the mistakes there and tried to be better prepared. At times, they seemed to easily outnumber the demonstrators.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the protesters had been given additional space and access to toilets and water.

"We are being supportive of people who want to come and want to offer an alternative opinion," Buckhorn said.

But he said that police planned to respond quickly if groups broke off from protesters and were intent on damaging and destroying property. Castor said that's what happened when the protester was arrested Monday. He was part of a group that broke off from the main, peaceful march. The only other arrest came Sunday when a man carrying a machete in the event zone resisted officers, police said.

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