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At first dance of police and protesters, rain cuts in

TAMPA — For the most part Monday, the first formal meeting of police and protesters was like a Catholic school dance — the kind that leaves enough room between partners for the Holy Spirit. It wasn't pretty, but most of the time no toes got stepped on.

Late in the day, the music stopped. In the middle of Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street, a scraggly line of drenched marchers sat down.

The riot squad moved in. The officers marched in cadence, "hut, hut, hut." They wore helmets with face shields and had batons. They formed a line across the intersection. Then they made another line, until they covered every corner.

The protesters, mostly the younger men, held their ground.

Something had to give.

• • •

It's hard to say which side the weather favored. All day, police in khaki got just as drenched as protesters in denim. At times, the rain fell so hard they could barely see each other's lines. But the rain did give police a size advantage.

The Coalition to March on the RNC had hoped 5,000 people would show up Monday morning at Perry Harvey Park. Fewer than 500 did. Journalists and police outnumbered them. Compatriots got stuck in cities like Jacksonville and Orlando when Isaac caused buses to cancel.

• • •

Small in number, chanting and singing with gusto, the protesters set off for the Tampa Bay Times Forum hemmed in by lines of bicycle police on every inch of curb, mounted horsemen trailing nearby and National Guardsman looking down from an overpass.

In this fashion, police built a dynamic parade route wall. No need for concrete blockades. These officers could move on a dime.

At about 1:15 p.m., a group dressed in black tried to break out — running down Morgan Street. A woman with a little poodle cheered "Go! Go! Go!"

Police relented when protesters insisted on detouring toward portable potties and Salvation Army trucks handing out water.

Giving that little bit of ground constituted a victory of sorts for police, said Timothy Pool, 26, a self-styled protest watcher from Chicago. He called it a public relations victory.

He walked backward in front of the march, narrating into his iPhone. He has spent the past year traveling around the country filming protest events like this, streaming the footage live on the Web and on Twitter (@timcast).

The experience has made Pool an expert of sorts. He said he doesn't take sides. He knows that historically, if arrests happen, they usually happen at the end of a march. He knows that when protesters start to link arms, they're usually getting ready to rush the police.

He knows that the best officers are trained more in "public relations" than any tactics.

It's a delicate balance.

"In New York, when the police wanted a protest to stop, they just arrested people, and that makes the protesters angry and it makes the community angry," Pool said. "In Chicago during NATO, they had it the other way around. The police were very passive, and the community actually ... got really mad at the protesters."

How has Tampa done so far?

He noted that police made only one arrest Monday afternoon — a protester who wouldn't remove a bandana covering his face. "The chief of police personally came down to the arrest," Pool said.

• • •

Protesters reunited at 3 p.m. for an unpermitted march from the Romneyville encampment on Tampa Street. Cheri Honkala, 50, a vice presidential candidate for the Green Party, called for children to march at the front. She said she wanted to show that children are the hardest hit by economic disasters. But she also acknowledged the tactical value of kids up front.

Kimberly Wrobel, 41, a single mother from Tampa, worried about the safety of her two, Matthew, 9, and Elizabeth, 6.

But she was persuaded by Honkala's own son, Guillermo Santos, who also marched up front. He said he had marched with his mother even before he was born during the Winter Olympics a decade ago in Salt Lake City. "When I was still in my mother's stomach, I got arrested in Utah."

• • •

At Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street, it looked as though both sides finally had enough.

A dozen protesters sat down in the street. Riot police lined up.

"About to get ugly, it appears," tweeted an Occupier.

Then police Assistant Chief John Bennett knelt in the street next to the protesters. Calmly, he said, "The sidewalks are open."

The protesters got up.

And at that very moment, the heavens opened and a deluge drenched all of them.

Protesters fled for cover. Riot police marched away.

• • •

Returning to Romneyville, protesters said the police show of force was far larger than needed. But they had a compliment or two to offer, too.

"So far they haven't seemed like they've cracked down too hard," said Ryan Lash, 26, of Occupy Washington, D.C. "It was just a demonstration of what force they could do."

"I thank Tampa Bay for keeping a level mind," said William G. Estrella of New York, who has marched with Occupy Wall Street, as he rung water out of his socks.

"The fact of the matter is they're not being violent. New York police would have reacted quite violently to that. They would have moved in, attacked us and arrested us."

Times staff writers Jessica Vander Velde, Lee Logan, Stephanie Wang, Kim Wilmath, Jimmy Geurts, Marlene Sokol, Justin George, Laura C. Morel, Mark Puente, Daniel Ruth, Leonora LaPeter Anton, Marissa Lang, Patty Ryan, Susan Thurston and Alexandra Zayas contributed to this report.

At first dance of police and protesters, rain cuts in 08/27/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012 11:41pm]
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