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Police tell Occupy Tampa protesters to take down tents and tables

Janelle Mondragon, 19, of Tampa displays signs for drivers on Ashley Drive after police asked the Occupy Tampa protesters to take down tents that they had erected on the sidewalk in front of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Janelle Mondragon, 19, of Tampa displays signs for drivers on Ashley Drive after police asked the Occupy Tampa protesters to take down tents that they had erected on the sidewalk in front of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa.

TAMPA — Occupy Tampa protesters have made themselves comfortable during the past week. They've spread out blankets, set up a lawn chair and even plugged in a coffee maker.

After largely looking the other way, Tampa police said they'd had enough Friday morning, when they saw three tents and four tables at Curtis Hixon Park, the recent home base of the protest.

Capt. Brian Dugan told the group they had to disassemble their camp and, later in the day, officers distributed printed copies of the rules going forward:

No sleeping in the park, only along the edge of the sidewalk. No items are allowed on the sidewalk except for one table.

"We wrote it down on paper to be very clear so we don't have another issue like what happened today," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Friday.

A few protesters resisted. They argued they weren't blocking the wide sidewalk along Ashley Drive. But after a 30-minute discussion, the approximately two dozen occupiers complied.

John Dingfelder, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believes police have been very fair with protesters, but he disagreed with authorities telling them to put away their tables.

"To me, it wasn't obstructing," he said. "And it was the appropriate forum for free speech and expression."

Protester Blake Westlake, 27, said he asked police to cite the ordinance the group was breaking. Westlake says police never did and instead replied that they didn't want to get into a debate about constitutional rights.

"I was told that as long as we have 4-foot clearance, we're not obstructing traffic," Westlake said.

Tampa police say they want to avoid the arrests and confrontations that have been happening across the nation, most notably in New York City where hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters have been arrested.

Early Friday in Denver, dozens of police in riot gear arrested about two dozen protesters and dismantled their encampment.

McElroy said police have built a good rapport with the Tampa group and have been working to make sure the occupiers protest peacefully and safely. Police had a verbal agreement with the group they said seemed to be working — until late this week.

Because that agreement was broken, McElroy said, police distributed hard copies of restrictions late Friday afternoon. Dingfelder said he was pleased the rules state that the protesters can have a table for literature.

The document also warns that the rule allowing protesters to sleep along the sidewalks will likely change. City attorneys are reviewing Tampa's ordinances in preparation for the Republican National Convention next year, and one of them is the ordinance relating to activities on sidewalks.

McElroy said it was too early to speculate on what the changes could include. Dingfelder said he hopes Tampa City Council members will talk to the Occupy Tampa protesters before making any decisions.

Though protesters have been in Curtis Hixon Park for the past several days, the group plans to move back to Lykes Gaslight Square, where the protests were launched, on Saturday. And this time, they plan to boost their numbers with protesters from Orlando and Miami.

Westlake said he expects more than 1,000 people.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Tampa police's list of rules

• No one is allowed in a city park after dark, and all property left after closing will be disposed of or impounded.

• No items are to be placed upon city sidewalks, including lawn chairs, canopies, tents, coolers and boxes. An exception is that one table will be allowed if needed for leaflets, as long as the table is continuously attended.

• People are allowed to sleep along the edge of sidewalks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• To the extent feasible, encounters between officers and demonstrators will be audio and video recorded.

Occupy St. Pete

Another local version of the Occupy Wall Street protests is planning a Saturday rally. Occupy St. Pete plans to gather at 3:30 p.m. in South Straub Park.

Police tell Occupy Tampa protesters to take down tents and tables 10/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 11:38pm]
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