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Protesters as surprised as anyone at anemic RNC showing

TAMPA — Andrew Speirs climbed a statue of a former Tampa mayor and tied a black bandanna around the bronze head. He and other black-clad protesters were getting impatient.

A paltry crowd of 300 moved to the cobblestone street in front of Centennial Park for a march against voter suppression.

Speirs and other anarchists, dressed in black to shroud their identities, chanted ominously.

"Whose streets? Our streets! Tear up the concrete."

Was this the moment that the long-feared violent protests materialized? Was this the menace that the police had trained for months to handle?

Just then a man in a red vest stepped forward from the less rowdy end of the crowd. "This is a voter suppression march with people who are not as radical as you," he said.

Speirs and the Black Bloc protesters conferred.

"Point of information," the 23-year-old yelled on a bullhorn. "Black Bloc is here to make sure everyone's rights are protected. We are not here to disturb anyone's march."

And just like that, Speirs and the anarchists parted down the middle — like gentlemen holding the door for a lady — to let the voting rights activists move ahead.

• • •

Most people did not expect so few protesters to attend the Republican National Convention and most certainly did not expect the self-described anarchists to be so conciliatory. Not four years after 800 were arrested during violence at the last RNC, in St. Paul, Minn. Not after the NATO protest in Chicago in May when protesters clobbered police with sticks and police punched back.

But by Wednesday, after several days of marches — permitted and unpermitted — police had arrested exactly three people. The largest demonstration drew 500 protesters at most — far fewer than the 10,000 some had predicted would swarm the city.

"Where are all the protesters? Where are our supporters?" wrote on its website Wednesday.

Hurricane Isaac chased many of them away. But activists who travel from one large protest to another say other factors are at work here.

"That $50 million for security and police," said Yoni Miller, 18, of Occupy Wall Street. "That intimidated a lot of people."

Some blamed Tampa's small size, that it was too far south, that it was too hot, that the city doesn't have good mass transit.

But for whatever reason, as the convention approached its final day, it became clear that the hard-core angry anarchists — the ones who chain themselves together, who smash windows and sometimes rush police lines en masse — had failed to show up at one of the biggest political shows of the year.

No one was as surprised as the protesters themselves.

• • •

One night about four days before the RNC was to begin, Speirs sat on a palette on the sidewalk at Voice of Freedom Park in West Tampa, home of Occupy Tampa.

"If you want to learn how to survive during the RNC," he called out to people at Occupy Tampa, "get over here."

Speirs, with his overgrown dark mohawk and thick beard, was teaching protest tactics he had learned in the year since he had quit his job at a deli in North Carolina and joined the Occupy movement.

"Cops are not your friends," Speirs began, looking around the group. "Their sole objective is to lead you to a path, to a spot where they can trap everybody. If you are in a kettle and some cops are using billy clubs, try to break through another cop line."

Speirs was expecting the police to use violence against protesters. He warned that police might shoot rubber bullets and bean bags. The LRAD sound cannon, if deployed, hits you in the innards. "I'm not trying to scare everybody," Speirs said. "Expect the worst and hope for the best."

On the weekend before the convention, Speirs and Nathan Schwartz, a 20-year-old University of South Florida student, whose parents had given him a Lexus, went shopping for supplies for the confrontations they expected on Monday.

Schwartz had asked his parents for his 21st birthday money early. He'd bought glasses so he wouldn't have to wear contacts if tear gas was used. They had spent the rest on mouth guards in case they got punched, eyedrops in case of pepper spray, cold packs, grape glucose tablets, gauze, Bacitracin. Schwartz handed over his last $21 for a bag they could use to hold everything.

• • •

Late Sunday night, as Isaac churned out in the Gulf of Mexico, two white buses pulled up to Romneyville, the camp in downtown Tampa that protesters had leased. The doors opened and 72 Occupy Wall Street activists, most of them in black, stepped out. Some carried Guy Fawkes masks.

Speirs and the other activists were glad to see them, but disappointed, too. They had expected more than 300 from New York.

Greg Gifford, 47, of New Hampshire was one of the 72. He blamed the persistently bad economy for the low turnout. "I think basically it's the money issue," he said. "People don't have the money to be able to travel, to stay outside and buy their own food."

"Has anyone seen the bus from Dallas?" someone asked.

Everyone shook their heads.

Word began to spread that 16 buses from New York, Miami and the Panhandle had canceled.

• • •

Monday morning, with storm clouds sweeping over the city, the March on the RNC stepped off from Perry Harvey park on the north end of downtown, headed south toward the Tampa Bay Times Forum. There were 500 people in the crowd.

Lining their route through downtown were easily twice as many police dressed in khaki, their black bicycles fencing off the side streets. When they reached the city's designated protest zone, Speirs and some of the other Occupiers tried to stop the protesters from entering what they labeled "a giant cage."

Some turned back north, walking past wary police on horses and bikes. At one point, Speirs ran out front, looking for another path. He led about 40 protesters, running through a parking lot. They turned around when the bike police walled them off. Then the protesters tried to reach a cluster of portable toilets and a Salvation Army water station. But police on bikes blocked them again.

"You are blocking pedestrian traffic," Speirs yelled. "Please move!"

Instead of pushing them back, an officer issued an order, and the bike police moved. The protesters took a water break.

As the demonstrators made their way back to Romneyville, they taunted the officers. But the attacks seemed tame compared with the NATO convention, when protesters had verbally abused individual officers.

"Mic check," yelled one protester. "I just want to acknowledge how cute the Tampa Bay police look in their shorts."

• • •

The riot police showed up Monday afternoon at an unpermitted march. For a half-hour police and protesters squared off at the intersection of Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard.

"There's no way out," said Ryan Lash, an Occupy protester from Washington, D.C.

Protesters sat down in the street. Assistant Chief John Bennett knelt down on one knee and implored the protesters to move to the sidewalk so he could open the street.

"Folks are trying to get home," Bennett said. "We need everybody to get out of the street."

Just then, rain came down in sheets and the protesters dispersed.

Not a single baton had been swung. No blood, no bruises.

Back at Romneyville, the protesters expressed surprise at the police response.

"I thank Tampa Bay for keeping a level head," said William G. Estrella, an Occupier from New York.

There was even a hint of relief.

"Police do not want an altercation," Speirs said, "and we don't want one either."

• • •

Protests continued throughout Wednesday. Occupy protesters marched in the neighborhoods near Voice of Freedom Park without any police intervention.

The city was so quiet police canceled an afternoon briefing. Idle officers had time to pose for group photos.

Speirs and Schwartz both wished more people had showed up. But they felt they got the opportunity to protest on issues they care about: providing everyone with basic human rights, such as housing and food; eliminating corporate control of the political system; the right to protest in public spaces without a permit.

Today — on the day Mitt Romney accepts his nomination — they plan to take their protests to the spots connected most to him. Bain Capital, the company Romney helped found, holds ownership in Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba's Italian Grill, Staples and Domino's Pizza.

And the protesters had a new gripe: the $50 million the government spent on security for them.

Times staffers Natalie Watson, Melissa Lyttle, Justin George, Peter Jamison and Alex Zayas contributed to this report.

Protesters as surprised as anyone at anemic RNC showing 08/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 8:10am]
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