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St. Petersburg should be careful before closing public sidewalks to protesters

As we know from history books, one of the steps leading up to the American Revolution was a British ban on public protests in town squares.

These expressions of anger over British rule were, the crown said, "detriment'l to the Publick Commerce." Once-public areas were declared to be private property under the control of British merchants.

(Brief pause.)

Okay, actually I am making part of this up. Just testing.

What did happen was the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when Americans sneaked into Boston Harbor and threw a bunch of British goods overboard.

Ooooh, now they were messing with the profits! So the British really got mad. They passed a set of laws called the "Intolerable Acts," and one of those laws was, yes indeed, a ban on public assembly.

This little preface is meant to sneak up on the topic of BayWalk, the downtown entertainment and retail center that opened in 2000 in St. Petersburg.

For a while, precisely because of its success, BayWalk was a magnet for protesters. The most regular of these was an antiwar group called St. Pete for Peace protesting the war in Iraq.

But business has trailed off at BayWalk and the place is in trouble these days. The city, under Mayor Rick Baker, proposes a plan.

Part of the plan is to turn over the sidewalk along the northern side of Second Avenue N to the private ownership of BayWalk. A news article said the goal was to eliminate "loiterers and, at times, protesters."

"We have to be aggressive to respond to the community's concerns over security," Baker said.

Well ...

For starters, c'mon. Antiwar protesters on Second Avenue were not the main reason that people started feeling uncomfortable at BayWalk.

The main reason was wild crowds of kids, especially on weekend nights, leading to an occasional melee. Things got more and more out of control. One night there was even gunfire nearby. Good grief!

Ironically, it might have been better for the city to have given the whole street to BayWalk in the first place. After all, it's a two-block complex with a unified identity.

Instead, the proposed plan actually is less radical — it still allows the public on the sidewalk on the south side of Second Avenue. It's not as spacious at the north side, but it is still right there. The First Amendment does not require minimum sidewalk width.

And yet, by the city's own admission, the intent here is to make BayWalk customers feel more comfortable precisely by eliminating a public forum for protesters.

So it is a trick and a fiction. It's just as well that Southern cities didn't think of this back in the days of civil-rights protests. The City Council at least ought to fret about it some.

Is it just this sidewalk that's the special case? What happens when St. Pete for Peace or anybody else settles upon the next public sidewalk, then, drawing complaints from the merchants of Beach Drive or Central Avenue?

Should we again say, well, Decent People have the right to go about their business without putting up with this kind of ruckus? If the answer is "yes," just remember that people have thought that way throughout history. Even a lot of American colonists approved of cracking down on the "trouble-makers" and "rabble-rousers."

But they were on the wrong side.

St. Petersburg should be careful before closing public sidewalks to protesters 07/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:57pm]
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