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'Occupy Tampa' protesters decide against overnight stay in park, vow to return

TAMPA — Behind a kid with blue hair, in front of an old guy in tie-dye and overalls, walked a man named Dale Smrekar. He wore a button-down shirt, tie and name tag specifying his profession: estate liquidator.

This wasn't his usual crowd.

But Smrekar said he's fed up — by big corporate profits, by a shrinking middle class, by college graduates with huge debts and few job prospects. So he decided to join a Thursday afternoon protest march of nearly 600 people through downtown.

"The banks got bailed out, and the people got screwed," said Smrekar, 61, of Tampa. "It seems like the American dream is fading away very quickly."

Occupy Tampa, a spin-off of the ongoing New York City demonstrations called Occupy Wall Street, organized its largest event on Thursday. Similar solidarity demonstrations are popping up in other cities.

The Tampa group gathered in Lykes Gaslight Square, where demonstrators held "workshops" on strategies and waved signs ranging from "Being Greedy is not the Key to Goodness" to "Don't Pepper Spray Me, Bro."

They borrowed heavily from their New York counterparts, including a lack of specific demands. But the gist is that the country is being controlled by the wealthiest Americans — the 1 percent — to the detriment of everyone else. Hence, their slogan, "We are the 99 percent!"

"We're not here to protest a single act, or a politician or a media outlet," said Chris Dorsey, 24, a University of South Florida student. "We're here to protest inequities and people at the top deciding what we get."

The group decided not to stay overnight, which might have gotten protesters cited for trespassing, but plans to return to the park today and Saturday.

Fred Green, 25, of Clearwater said he started paying close attention to the news a couple of years ago. His wife, Toni, had gotten out of the U.S. Navy and couldn't find a job. He had to drop out of college to take on another job. Three months ago, they had their first baby.

"The more I have to lose, the more reason I have to protest," he said, nodding to his baby daughter, Sofia. "It just doesn't seem fair that corporations are being treated more like people than people are."

Some passers-by weren't that impressed. Many of the downtown office workers on their lunch break took in the scene before continuing on their way.

Standing at a crosswalk near the park, one man told another, "Our stocks have gone up the last three days, so I'm not protesting."

Bob Taylor, 74, was sitting on a park bench, waiting on his bus. He shook his head at the rally. "It'd be interesting to see these protesters build a bank," he said. "Traditionally, it's the military that's going to start a revolution. Them? They're just killing time."

Police were stationed nearby, but didn't interfere. A threat posted earlier on an anonymous YouTube video, saying that the Police Department would be wiped off the Internet if it did, never came to pass.

Some protesters were ready to stay the night. Skylar Winslow, 22, a Hillsborough Community College student, had already pitched a tent by 3 p.m. "That's what the whole occupy movement is about," he said. "You stand your ground."

But the all-night occupation was a matter to be taken up by the whole group, or the "general assembly" as it is called.

City rules require them to be out of the park by nightfall. Police told organizers they faced trespassing charges if they stayed.

In the end, the consensus reached at the late afternoon general assembly was this: Don't risk arrest — not yet.

Angela Hadley, a protester, suggested the group obey the nighttime rule but come back every day while the American Civil Liberties Union helps it mount a legal challenge.

Celeste Arredondo, 29, said protesters should plan carefully their next big move. "Four people getting arrested is not international news," she said. "Five hundred people getting arrested is international news."

By 8:15 p.m., protesters were in the park, chanting "We are the 99 percent!" But, at about 50 people, they weren't 99 percent of the group. Everyone else had left.

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report.

'Occupy Tampa' protesters decide against overnight stay in park, vow to return 10/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:58pm]
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