Relations souring between Occupy Tampa protesters and police

Derek English, 24, of Tampa plays guitar as Austin Coton of Tampa, right, plays the djembe Wednesday on the sidewalk off Ashley Drive. The protesters were awakened earlier by police.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Derek English, 24, of Tampa plays guitar as Austin Coton of Tampa, right, plays the djembe Wednesday on the sidewalk off Ashley Drive. The protesters were awakened earlier by police.

TAMPA — Relations between Occupy Tampa protesters and police are souring as the protest nears the end of its second week.

Protesters say police are waking them at 6 a.m., videotaping them while they sleep at night, driving by more frequently and preventing them from sleeping in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park during the day.

It's harassment, protesters say.

"It seems like they are tightening the screws," said Derek English, 24, of Tampa. "The more they try to tighten down, the more we're going to push back to get back to that equilibrium. Meanwhile, the rapport is deteriorating."

Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said city ordinances prohibit anyone from sleeping on the sidewalk at any hour.

She points to Tampa's ordinance 22-8, which states that a person cannot place items on the street or sidewalk without a permit. The ordinance doesn't specifically address sleeping but, according to police, lying on the sidewalk is covered under it.

"We have tried to work with them and be accommodating," she said. "And so we told them we'd turn the other cheek and allow them to sleep between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. as long as they are up and remove items" before residents are out and people come downtown to work.

John Dingfelder, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, says he interprets the ordinance as dealing with objects — not people.

"Whatever city council that adopted that, if they wanted to include people, they'd have said 'people,' " he said. "I mean, sidewalks are made for people, and sidewalks are also made for public discourse."

On Wednesday night, Tampa councilwoman Mary Mulhern addressed a gathering of more than 100 protesters at the amphitheater near the park, explaining the city code acts as the law of the city.

"Our Police Department has been good about enforcing our city code," Mulhern said. "If you are concerned about any of those laws, the City Council are the ones you talk to."

Attendees at the gathering expressed a variety of frustrations, including concerns about their confinement to a narrow strip of sidewalk at the front of the park to sleep on at night.

At least 11 police vehicles, many with flashing lights, were parked in front of the park early Wednesday just after the scheduled wakeup time for the roughly 30 protesters who were there.

Police said they have received an increasing number of complaints since the protest began Oct. 6. Most of the complainants say they support the protesters' right of free speech, but say the protesters are interfering with others people's rights, police said. They complain of people cheering and yelling after midnight.

Police have also told protesters they can't sleep in the park during the day, another rule Dingfelder questions. City ordinance 16-39 prohibits people from sleeping overnight — not during the day — so enforcing the rule against the protesters is "arbitrary,'' he said.

McElroy said the ordinance means there's no sleeping in the park any time. Asked if that meant someone couldn't take a nap in the park on a lunch break, she said the comparison was "silly."

"If somebody is closing their eyes taking a nap, it's a far cry from somebody taking a sleeping bag and sleeping in the park," she said. "There's no sleeping 24/7 in the parks."

Many also complain that police come by throughout the day and night and video record them. They said they were recorded at least twice after midnight Wednesday.

"It's invasive and they are doing intimidation tactics," said Ehren Richter, 29, who was at the protest early Wednesday. "We're sleeping, and they are videotaping."

Police have said that encounters between officers and demonstrators will be audio and video recorded when feasible.

Protesters said they will bring up their concerns at today's City Council meeting, which Mulhern encouraged them to do.

"The issues you believe are important are also important to me," Mulhern said. "What helps is to get the message out. Figure out how you can get your message across and don't worry about the theater or the hours."

Some complained that their calls to other elected officials, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, have gone unanswered. Mulhern told them to keep trying.

On its website, occupytampa.org, the group urges supporters to show up at the council meeting. "TPD will answer to their harassment of occupiers and hear the concerns from the camp," it states.

McElroy noted that police have not arrested any Occupy Tampa protesters.

"We're not interested in arresting peaceful protesters, but they do have to follow the law," she said.

Times staff writers Jodie Tillman and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

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Ordinance 22-8(a):

It is unlawful for any person to place in or upon any place, street, sidewalk, alley, landing, wharf or pier owned or controlled by the city and located within the city limits any article or thing without a permit therefor, unless such article or thing is otherwise authorized by law.

Ordinance 16-39:

No person shall sleep, camp, lodge, or park a vehicle overnight within any department managed land except in areas designated by the department for such purpose. The department may establish rules and regulations for designated camping areas.

Relations souring between Occupy Tampa protesters and police 10/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 1:10am]

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