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BayWalk sidewalk privatization plan draws varied groups to protest

ST. PETERSBURG — They represented at least six different groups with as many disparate agendas. They agreed on the perceived injustice of the overall matter, if not the most offensive part.

But the 30 or so equally diverse citizens who stood at the steps of City Hall holding banners, placards and chanting slogans had a common purpose on Thursday: an opposition to Mayor Rick Baker's proposal to privatize a section of sidewalk in front of the struggling BayWalk complex that has become a focal point of political protest.

The main themes were the defense of civil liberties, economic justice and racism. There were senior citizens, men and women in their 20s, blacks, whites, Hispanics, a man in Dale Earnhardt hat hoisting a sign asserting his right to free speech.

The groups hoped their unified front could convince the City Council gathering inside to scuttle the $700,000 plan to bolster BayWalk.

"We're clear that not everybody here opposes this for the same reason," said Uhuru Movement president Chimurenga Waller. "But there is a convergence of intent."

Bob Collette came in support of the American Civil Liberties Union and its fight to allow public protest near the tourist and entertainment complex to continue.

"I get very upset every time the Constitution becomes inconvenient for political or religious reasons," he said. "I will always question it when the autocrats go into action."

In addition to free speech, Uhuru Movement protesters called for "economic development and reparations to the African community " Particularly galling in the BayWalk plan, Waller said, is the $700,000 that could be applied elsewhere. Waller predicts the plan will fail although "the City Council isn't known as a progressive group."

Eric Rubin of the Serve the People House of Worship was one of many protesters sensitive to what they feel have been negative portrayals in the media, although groups like St. Pete for Peace have staged vocal but peaceful antiwar demonstrations.

"People out there aren't rabble-rousers," he said. "The rabble-rousers are the people in the bar (at BayWalk) getting drunk. Perhaps we should do something about them."

Protest organizer Dwight Lawton of Veterans for Peace wondered what the city would do if protesters moved following privatization to even more visual tourist areas such as Beach Drive. He deemed the underlying thrust of the revitalization plan to bolster BayWalk "racist" and "mean" because it would benefit a few "white bosses" while ignoring lingering issues of economic decay in Midtown and south St. Petersburg and care for the poor and homeless.

"What I see," said the Rev. Bruce Wright of the Refuge Ministries and Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, "is a city being made into a playground for white, rich and powerful people."

Mayoral candidate Ed Helm, while opposing the privatization, said protesters would be within their constitutional rights to protest on the disputed patch anyway because of existing Florida constitutional precedent allowing peaceful political activities in "quasipublic" space.

BayWalk sidewalk privatization plan draws varied groups to protest 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 12:44pm]
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