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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Broad range of protesters expected outside GOP debate at USF



TAMPA — Tonight’s Republican presidential debate at the University of South Florida is expected to draw protesters from across the political spectrum.

Making its public debut, for example, will be a coalition of organized labor, student radicals and anti-war activists that has issued a nationwide call for a march on the first day of the Republican National Convention.

“We’re expecting a couple of hundred protesters out there from a number of different groups and coalition members,” said Dustin Ponder, an organizer with Fight Back Florida, a group created to bring together unions and young people.

The Coalition To March on the RNC also includes interest groups focused on immigration, gender equality and welfare rights, with participants based from Florida to Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Utah. For the debate, the group plans a 7 p.m. protest at USF’s administration building. The goal, according to organizers, is to rally a wide range of people to stand up and oppose the Republican agenda.

Coming from a different point of view will be the anti-President Barack Obama, pro-Israel demonstrators of Shalom International, which plans a 5 p.m. demonstration at the Fowler Avenue entrance to campus. “We have people coming in from Sarasota and Lakeland and the local area,” said Bob Kunst, a longtime activist who is president of the Miami-based group. “Our real purpose is to open up Israel and how Obama’s treated Israel as his Achilles’ heel.”

Kunst also plans to bring demonstrators to the Republican National Convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
In advance of the convention, Kunst has asked Tampa police to establish not one but two “free speech” zones for protesters — one for its group and the other for its enemies, to keep tensions and violence to a minimum.

At USF, authorities expect a lot of heavy traffic and even less available on-campus parking than usual — if that’s possible — but are hoping that there will be no trouble. As a state-funded public university, USF deals with issues of open access and free speech all the time, so university police have not  established designated protest areas, USF police Lt. Chris Daniel said Monday.

Instead of telling protesters where to go or what to do, campus police have tried to make clear what not  to do: Don’t block doorways or the sidewalk. Don’t jeopardize the safety of others or university property. Stay in an area that’s customary for the activity.

“Let the students study, let the professors teach and let the university do the things that it’s supposed to do,” Daniel said. “If they choose not to, then we have to intervene. It’s up to them. They choose the manner in which we have to deal with them.”

Richard Danielson, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Monday, January 23, 2012 12:17pm]


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