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Cops and protesters Occupying the same turf: Who'd have thought?

Comparing the modest-if-enthusiatic Occupy Tampa event to the protests we can expect at next year's Republican National Convention is likening a summer rain to an impending hurricane.

Still, local police working both events — the peaceful gathering of people objecting to greed and other wrongs versus the thousands who will want to make a mark here when a bitterly divided country is poised to elect a president — must be thinking of this as something of a dress rehearsal.

So setting the tone for our version of what's happening in cities across the country — the continuing Occupy Tampa event, and St. Petersburg's own protest today — is important.

In Tampa, reporters heard it from police spokeswoman Laura McElroy: Police aren't here to arrest protesters, only law breakers. If you're here for the First Amendment, we're there to protect you.

Oh, and do you protesters want to use the police station bathrooms?

In St. Petersburg, police Chief Chuck Harmon sounded a similar note: "We're going to take a very hands-off approach" he said, and "I don't expect any problems."

All very kumbaya, which is how it looked earlier in the week at what they call "the settlement" at the edge of Tampa's Curtis Hixon Park. When protesters were told to keep their stuff (chairs, a table laden with organic peanut butter, green tea and donated pizza and eventually a small canopy tent) four feet from the curb so pedestrians could pass, protesters marked the ground with duct tape six feet back to be safe.

They waved "I Am The 99 Percent!" signs and got enthusiastic thumbs-ups, honkings and sometimes single finger salutes.

"Get a job!" came the occasional refrain, to which someone yelled back, "There are no jobs!" (For the record, I talked to protesters who were employed, in school or both.)

In a rather uncop-like observation, Chief Jane Castor said she has been amazed by the diversity of protesters who seem to have little in common but are united for this. She also noted other cities similarly Occupied have had confrontations and arrests. Not here, not so far.

Maybe it's that tone thing.

"I don't feel like any of the police want to arrest anyone out here," Skylar Winslow told me Friday as a drummer in the midst of the protest kept time with the passing downtown traffic. "They're part of the 99 percent, too."

Not that there hasn't been friction.

Earlier this week, residents in sleek downtown high-rises complained (and aren't they supposed to be the hip, tolerant types?) and police working that night and going by city rules said yep, no sleeping on the sidewalk.

Lawyers were called, and it was just getting interesting when …

"What we decided is to go ahead and let them continue sleeping there," McElroy said. "We just turned the other cheek."

But by Friday, one tent had become three, plus four tables, and a coffee maker plugged into an events building with an extension cord. Police said: No. There was some back-and-forth that ended with the coffee pot unplugged and tents down and protesters back to protesting. Still, the relationship, from opposite sides of the fence, appeared, as of this writing, to be a civil one.

And given the intensity and anger we can expect next year, that's a start.

Cops and protesters Occupying the same turf: Who'd have thought? 10/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 14, 2011 7:47pm]
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