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Year-old Occupy Tampa lives and connects online, and marches on

By Marissa Lang, Times Staff Writer
Published: September 30, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2012 at 12:28 AM

TAMPA — They do not call themselves revolutionaries.

These Occupiers, who for a year have marched and shouted and held signs; who have slept on pavement, fed the homeless, taunted police and watched as the world forgot — or stopped caring — that they're still here.

This is no revolution, they say. Not yet.

It's big talk for a group that for months has verged on irrelevance.

Today, on Occupy Tampa's one-year anniversary, organizers hope that can change. A 2 p.m. gathering at Lykes Gaslight Park will recall the day Occupy Tampa held its first meeting, allowing dozens to air grievances and hundreds to see that they weren't alone in their frustration.

A march will follow to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, where the group's first struggle began, fighting for a piece of sidewalk many say meant much more: freedom of speech, assembly, dissent.

Several who have been a part of the group since its inception hope today will serve to remind this city, and themselves, that they're not finished.

"Just because we're not on the sidewalk or in the park, people think this is the end," said Derek English, 25. "They thought it was the end when we left Curtis Hixon, they thought it was the end when we left Voice of Freedom, they thought it was the end when the RNC was over, but this isn't the end. It's just the beginning."

• • •

Before Occupy Tampa was Occupy Tampa, there were eight people in a park.

Inspired by the thousands who converged in New York's financial district to protest America's "corrupt democratic process" and corporate money in politics, a small contingent of Occupy Wall Street sympathizers met in Lykes Gaslight Park on Sept. 24, 2011.

Few knew each other. Each had gripes with the government and ideas on what it would take to change this country.

"I never considered myself an activist, but I felt like there was something wrong in this country, and to see that I wasn't alone, that there are other people out there with the same humanitarian concerns, it was inspiring," said John Thomas, 40. "We realized right away that hey, we have a local chapter."

Occupy Tampa announced its presence on Facebook. The group used social media to connect with other activist organizations and plan its first meeting.

They call it General Assembly. An open forum in which anyone can opine, and a simple majority does not mean consensus. All group decisions were made in these meetings.

Sometimes, things got heated — shouting matches, frantic hand gestures, emotional outbursts. Several blame this model for Occupy's inability to stay on message, or even define what its message was.

But on Oct. 1, 2011, for the more than 400 people who came to the park, none of that mattered.

"The idea that everyone was their own leader, that this group could be an umbrella for all injustices and problems that we wanted to address, it was very appealing," said Stephen Gentile, 30. "I don't think anyone thought it was going to be perfect."

• • •

It wasn't long before the meetings stopped being enough.

An occupation means seizing and holding a physical space. That space would soon become the sidewalk along the border of Curtis Hixon park.

They took the park armed with blankets, sleeping bags and pillows. They held it with pamphlets, cardboard signs and a handful of bodies.

"It seems like such a simple act, sleeping on the sidewalk," said Greg Priem, 30. "But it's more than that, it's empowering knowing that some people don't think what you're doing okay, but because you're doing it for a reason, you're doing it anyway."

Occupy Tampa's goals were never made clear. On any given day, there were signs against corporate power, banks, genetically modified food, Apple's treatment of its Chinese workers, police brutality, freedom of speech and Occupy Tampa's right to sit on the sidewalk.

Arrests became more frequent. The tally neared 50 by December. Anyone caught in the park after hours was slapped with a trespass charge. Protesters alleged police harassment.

Some began to worry the Occupy message was getting lost, that the fight was more about pavement than poverty.

"We couldn't have lasted in downtown much longer," Priem said. "We were there day in and day out, in the rain, in the sun when it's 90 degrees, when the police were waking us up at 6 a.m. and harassing us overnight. It was too much. We were putting everything we had into just holding the sidewalk."

On New Year's Eve, a group moved into Voice of Freedom Park, a West Tampa parcel owned by strip club mogul Joe Redner

To some, relocating was the worst decision Occupy Tampa ever made. Becky Rubright, who stopped participating in Occupy actions after spending months deeply entrenched in the organization, blames herself.

"In hindsight," she said. "I never would have suggested it."

They built a garden and tried to engage the community, but for most, Occupy Tampa was out of sight and out of mind.

"I think we could have been relevant," Priem said. "We weren't that far from downtown, but the illusion that we were light years away created a mental barrier that we never really overcame. Yeah, the police left us alone, but so did everyone else."

• • •

Tampa has not been occupied for nearly a month. Occupy Tampa moved out of Voice of Freedom Park on Sept. 15 after eviction warnings from Redner.

With no land to hold on to and August's Republican National Convention a thing of the past, Occupy Tampa was ready to reinvent itself. The group will now focus its efforts online, connecting activists and organizing rapid-response marches that address local issues, target specific corporations and causes.

"What Occupy ended up being was not a movement," said Owen Gaither, 32. "It's a hub, an outlet for civic engagement and civil disobedience. It connects all of us under a common goal of changing the world."

Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386 or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.