TAMPA — The little park in the center of Main Street was a gift to the West Tampa community nine years ago, but some residents say they have never been able to use it.
Police would roll up to the cobblestone entrance and tell people to move on, they claim, suspecting they were drinking or dealing drugs.
"We couldn't even sit in the park and enjoy it," said George Smith, who owns a barbershop nearby on Albany Street.
But seven months ago, a band of activists set up camp at the park, inviting the homeless, surrounding residents and anyone interested in fighting the "1 percent" to join them and their tent city. They were Occupy Tampa, and for months they truly occupied the park 24/7 brazenly, without fear of harassment.
Some in the community saw a double standard: Police left the mostly white outsiders alone in the park while they had broomed the black residents away.
"We haven't even been able to use the park ourselves," Smith said. "They're just lounging in the park."
The discrepancy reveals one part of the growing tension simmering between Occupy Tampa and West Tampa, an issue the City Council is scheduled to discuss Thursday.
Like Smith, one of the originators of a petition to drive Occupy Tampa out, others in West Tampa acknowledge this perceived difference in police treatment. But before anyone else points to a racial divide, others in the neighborhood say they have no problem with a double standard because it has actually empowered them.
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Before Voice of Freedom Park existed at the corner of W Main Street and N Albany Avenue, it was just a couple of sandy lots where people parked to go to the nearby bars. In 2003, Joe Redner, owner of the Mons Venus strip club, noticed many of the neighborhood's frequent troubles originated near the spot.
"I kept reading about drugs being sold down there and problems," he said.
He drove down Main Street and saw people going into the neighborhood bars and coming out with pints or half pints of liquor that they'd drink on their car hoods. Redner had been clashing with the City Council at the time, and in West Tampa he saw an opportunity to show up city officials.
"They should be buying up lots and building parks where people could congregate and make the community safer," he said.
So that's what he did. He bought the empty lots, installed sprinklers, planted about a dozen trees, built several concrete benches and put in criss-crossing sidewalks through the park. It cost him $79,700.
He had workers maintain the park but largely left it in the hands of the neighborhood.
Almost immediately, Smith and other residents say, police told people to stop loitering there.
It's a characterization that police dispute. In the year before Occupy Tampa arrived, there were just two police calls to the park and no arrests, city records show.
"We can't just trespass people there," police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said. "We never have been able to unless the owner of the property allows us to."
And Redner said he has never called police to the park.
But Dee Jackson said he's been shooed away before.
"Get out of here now or you're going to jail," he said officers have told him.
When Occupy Tampa moved in, Jackson, 38, noticed how police treated the group differently. He also began to learn some reasons why.
"Occupy knows the laws," Jackson said. "Occupy knows their rights."
He watched as activists pointed their camera phones at officers when police stopped someone on the street, and how they quoted laws as needed. When code enforcement officers came with complaints, Jackson said, he watched Occupy Tampa activists calmly clean the camp and quickly address concerns.
"Code enforcement came over there trying to kick them out," he said. "But Occupy just complied."
Community members began to learn that they didn't need to run when police told them to move along at night on the Main Street sidewalks. There's no curfew.
They learned that they didn't have to leave the park if they weren't doing anything wrong.
"If it's not their property, they can't chase us out," said Bernard Williams, 49, a lifelong resident.
People are getting braver, said longtime neighborhood activist Michelle Williams.
"I have seen a bit of a double standard, but it is what it is," she said. "They need to be there. It's a great cause, and I'm happy Joe Redner has allowed them to be in the park."
Occupy members said one of their goals was to help residents take back their community.
"The fact that we help people protect their rights in our vicinity means that the situation has improved," Occupy activist Tristan Lear said. "Improvement sounds better than nothing, to me. Maybe if word got out that people could safely congregate at OT, we help make that space a true commons, a 'safer space.' "
If neighborhood residents haven't been able to use the park in the past, activist Elizabeth Toms said, Occupy Tampa came to change that.
"We had a barbecue last Saturday, and we invited tons of people into the park," Toms said. "If they haven't used the park before, they were now."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.