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Tampa proposes limits on RNC protests

TAMPA — Inside a proposed "public viewing area" near the Republican National Convention, protesters could demonstrate to their hearts' content under rules proposed Wednesday by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's administration. The city might even lend them a microphone.

But outside that area, parades and protests couldn't last more than 60 minutes.

A key reason: With feel-like temperatures in the triple digits in late August, police have told city attorneys that officers in body armor shouldn't work outside for more than an hour without a break.

Hence, the time limit.

That's not all.

The city also is looking to create a secure "Clean Zone" covering much of downtown, Ybor City, the Channel District, Harbour Island and Davis Islands.

Inside the zone, the city would require permits for any gathering of 50 or more people at city parks and would ban items such as padlocks, chains and glass bottles that could be used as weapons.

The zone also would include a yet-to-be-designated parade route for marches, and the "public viewing area" where protesters could gather around the clock near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the convention. No permits would be required for demonstrations inside the public viewing area, and the city might set up a stage and microphone so demonstrators could make speeches, Assistant City Attorney Mauricio Rodriguez said.

Buckhorn said Wednesday the city wants "everyone to be able to make their voices heard."

The proposed rules are written into a temporary ordinance that would apply to the week of the convention. It is scheduled to go to the City Council on April 5 for the first of two votes.

Passing it would lay the groundwork for demonstrations to proceed legally while giving downtown residents and workers a sense of security, Buckhorn said.

Police are planning for up to 15,000 protesters at the convention, scheduled for Aug. 27-30, and are concerned that a small percentage will try to disrupt it.

"We have to let the protesters get within sight and (sound) of the forum; court cases have said that," Buckhorn recently told the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

"You'll have the Save the Whales crowd, you'll have the PETA crowd, you'll have every other crowd, and that's fine," he said. "We welcome those people to come and participate and exercise their First Amendment rights. It's the other ones that cause me consternation."

But an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union questioned some parts of the proposed ordinance, especially the time limit, which applies to parades and other gatherings permitted by the city to take place outside the public viewing area.

"Sixty minutes for a parade is fairly unrealistic and unreasonable," said John Dingfelder, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's mid-Florida office. "For 100 people, maybe 60 minutes will work. But with several thousand people, it's asking for problems."

Officials say another reason for the time limits is the possibility that many groups may want to use the parade route.

"We need to accommodate them all," Buckhorn said Wednesday. For groups that come to express their views and follow the rules, "we're going to be as flexible as we can be."

"And those that chose to break the law, we're going to deal with you," he said. Violations of the temporary ordinance could be punished by up to 60 days in jail and fines of up to $500.

The Clean Zone is not the same thing as the secure perimeter the Secret Service will establish around the convention itself.

The Secret Service isn't saying where that perimeter will be, but city officials are working with a conceptual model assuming that it will encircle the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the Tampa Convention Center, Embassy Suites Hotel, Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, some of the waterfront and maybe the Tampa Bay History Center.

As proposed, city parks inside the Clean Zone would close at 3 a.m. Knives, axes, Mace, clubs and other items that could be used as weapons would be banned.

How these rules would affect downtown businesses, such as cafes with outdoor seating, will be the subject of discussion between the city and merchants, City Attorney Jim Shimberg Jr. said.

For the public gathering permits for assemblies of 50 or more, the ordinance streamlines and removes some burdens from the city's current permit process. Existing city rules require applications 60 to 90 days in advance, the purchase of $1 million in liability insurance and payment for services like traffic control, temporary restrooms and trash cleanup — all of which are more onerous than requirements of the temporary ordinance.

As of Wednesday, two groups had applied to march during the convention.

The West Central Florida Federation of Labor, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has proposed holding a daily 500-person parade from Aug. 26 to Aug. 30.

A second group, Fight Back Florida, which consists of union members and young people, wants to hold a 5,000-person march on Aug. 27 "to peacefully protest the Republican agenda and to demand jobs, health care, education, equality and peace."

Inside the public viewing area, which would be open 24 hours a day, the city would ban items such as aerosol cans, coolers and umbrellas with metal tips. To get into the public viewing area, officials are thinking that demonstrators would go through the same kind of screening and bag exams that fans encounter at Raymond James Stadium.

The city also wants to ban:

• Wearing masks inside the Clean Zone, except by people in the public viewing area or on the official parade route. Gas masks also would be prohibited in the Clean Zone.

• Rappelling from or climbing on buildings, poles, parking garages, bridges or overpasses.

• A tactic known as the "Sleeping Dragon," in which protesters handcuff themselves together wrist to wrist, with their arms inside lengths of PVC pipe, making it hard for officers to cut it.

• Water guns and super soakers, or for that matter, anything filled with urine, fecal matter or other bodily fluids.

The ordinance, however, is not all prohibitions and bans.

It does include a contingency for allowing unpermitted rallies that are organized in response to "news or affairs coming into public knowledge" with less than 48 hours notice. Those, officials say, could be held at the downtown Joe Chillura Courthouse Square.

On the web

To see the city's proposed temporary ordinance for the Republican National Convention, visit tampagov.net/pao

Tampa proposes limits on RNC protests 03/28/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 12:24am]

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