Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Protesters leasing private land to escape city's restrictions

TAMPA

During the past few weeks, 10 pink tents have risen behind an Army Navy surplus store in downtown Tampa.

The occupants include the homeless and those who want to protest the Republican National Convention in August. They signed a contract with the business owner to lease the property on Tampa Street for four months. They call themselves "Romneyville."

It's one of several examples of RNC protesters in Tampa and St. Petersburg using private property as the staging ground for activities during the upcoming convention.

All was fine at Romneyville until Wednesday, when the city's code officers showed up. They told Nick Potamitis, who owns the Army Navy business and leases the property, that the tents violated zoning rules for commercial districts. They had to go.

Potamitis, who wasn't in this for the politics, agreed. He asked the activists nicely at first. But by Thursday morning, he was mad. He pulled up in his white Toyota Sequoia plastered with U.S. Navy stickers and rolled down the window. "The city wants you out," he yelled in a thick Greek accent. "Go today!"

"We're not leaving," said Gregory Lockett, an activist with the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

One of the first standoffs of the RNC had begun.

• • •

Lockett, 53, searched for months for a piece of property to lease during the RNC.

The fenced yard behind the Army Navy store, at the bottom of a billboard, was inside the city's RNC event zone. It offered a haven from the city's restrictions.

The Poor People's Campaign signed a contract with Potamitis. Four months for $1,500. That was May 17.

At first there were just two tents. But slowly they multiplied. One activist bought a portable toilet and 14 pink tents from a Girl Scout troop that tried camping and didn't like it. They put down wood chips and ant killer. They set up a shade tent and a table with a coffeemaker.

More people arrived, most of them homeless. By Wednesday, nine tents were pitched and three more were about to go up. About 20 people were staying or visiting regularly.

Several headed out to a local church for a free meal when Potamitis, 66, emerged from the back of his store before lunch.

"You need to move the tents," he demanded. He said he would call the police if they didn't leave.

"I'm not going without a fight," Lockett replied. "You will have to go through property eviction procedures."

Lockett asked Potamitis to stand up to the city code department. He said the Poor People's Campaign, a national organization that advocates for the homeless, would try to help with the fines. He called the city's threats "scare tactics."

"Bye-Bye," Potamitis said waving his hands. "Out! Out!"

• • •

With up to 15,000 protesters coming for the RNC in August, the question has always been: Where will they all stay?

Over in St. Petersburg, one activist has decided to organize a series of concerts alongside a farmer's market on private land on Central Avenue. The community event would serve protesters and residents alike.

"We're going to provide what the city is not providing, which is a democratic space for people," said Amos Miers, who is the webmaster for ResistRNC.org, a website for protesters. He said the group was also hunting for private property in Tampa.

Many protesters will likely go to Occupy Tampa, which is also on private land in the business district of West Tampa and the subject of a petition by the neighborhood to shut it down. The property is owned by strip club owner Joe Redner, who gave the group permission to use the park after numerous clashes with police at a downtown park.

Redner said Thursday that city code officers have never showed up to complain about land-use violations at Voice of Freedom Park. But the neighborhood petition has placed the park on the City Council's agenda Aug. 16.

Dennis Rogero, director of neighborhood empowerment for the City of Tampa, said the Army Navy property is located in a commercial business district. Redner's property is a park. But the zoning department will consider whether camping is a violation at both locations.

• • •

The back doors of the Army Navy store opened again and two police officers stepped outside.

"What's going on here?" asked Officer R.J. Barrett. Lockett showed him the contract, a wrinkled page signed by him and Potamitis. "This is an activist camp," he said.

"We'll be out of here Sept. 2 or 3. But we're not leaving now." The officer studied the paper. "This is a civil matter," he said.

Later inside his store, Potamitis sat behind the counter, deflated. Gas masks hung above him, brass knuckle key chains in jars on the counter. He said he would wait to see what happened. But if the city fined him, he said, the protesters would pay.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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