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Specter of protests outside Tampa's Republican National Convention stirs concern

TAMPA — For an idea of how rowdy the protests at next year's Republican National Convention could get, consider this:

A pro-Israel advocacy group from Miami Beach is asking Tampa police to establish not one "free speech" zone for protesters, but two — one for its members, the other for its enemies.

The idea: to keep one group from attacking the other.

"We've reached a new level where the intensity between people is really pretty grim," Shalom International president Bob Kunst, a longtime activist, said in an interview last week. "We need to keep the forces separate."

On Dec. 30, 2008, Kunst's group and a pro-Hamas contingent squared off in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. The demonstration and counter-demonstration nearly turned violent, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, as a woman shouted for Jews to "go back to the ovens."

Putting demonstrators whose numbers could include Holocaust survivors in the same area with anti-Semitic protesters at the convention "would be traumatic in the least," Kunst wrote in a letter to Tampa police Capt. Brian Dugan. "Without two areas separated by the police, trouble would definitely take place."

It's the first such request the city has had from a protest group, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said, and it touches on a couple of issues related to convention security.

Tampa expects up to 15,000 protesters when the GOP comes to town Aug. 27-30, and much of the security plan will hinge on where the Secret Service sets the secure perimeter for the event.

Once that happens, city officials will be able to make decisions on a variety of fronts.

Police and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn say law-abiding protesters will be able to exercise their First Amendment rights, but those who break the law will not be tolerated.

At this point, McElroy said, officials consider space outside the secure area to be open for free speech. But the city does have a compelling interest to maintain public safety at such a large event. So officials are considering whether to establish one or more specifically designated free-speech zones.

"They will be mindful of groups with differing viewpoints when they are looking at the possibility of creating free-speech zones, because they want to have the least amount of friction between groups as possible," McElroy said. "At this point, they're looking at what has worked at other conventions and doing a lot of research to develop what's the right plan for our city."

People who live near the St. Pete Times Forum, where the convention will be held, worry about how the event, its road closures and security could disrupt their lives.

"We are concerned that the extra crowds and potential demonstrations may place our residents and our property at risk," Ron Hall, the condominium association president at the Towers of Channelside, recently wrote in a letter to Buckhorn.

Towers of Channelside residents are not alone. Harbour Island and Davis Islands residents also have raised questions.

"Probably the primary concern for most folks is just access on and off the island," said Steve Wigh, president of the Harbour Island Community Services Association. On Friday, Wigh and other Harbour Island representatives met with the Secret Service for about two hours.

"We're in the very early planning stages of this," Secret Service spokesman George Ogilvie said. The meeting was to gather information on residents' issues and concerns so officials can ensure a safe convention with a limited footprint on the surrounding area.

"Overall, I think it was very beneficial for us," Wigh said, adding that it probably was the first of several such meetings.

Meanwhile, city officials are working with a conceptual model that assumes that the security perimeter will include the St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa Convention Center, Embassy Suites Hotel, Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina, some of the waterfront and maybe the Tampa Bay History Center.

"Right now, conceptually, I don't see that any residents will be within that secure zone," city chief of staff Santiago Corrada said.

And the mix of groups marching outside the convention? That's anybody's guess.

Kunst, for example, says it's too early to say how many people he might bring.

Kunst, 69, is a longtime South Florida activist whose causes over the years have included gay and AIDS-related issues. He ran for governor in 2002 without party affiliation, receiving about 35,000 votes. The winner, incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush, received nearly 2.7 million.

In his letter to police, Kunst contended that a member of Occupy Miami, Muhammed Malik, was a leader of that near-violent 2008 rally in Fort Lauderdale.

But Malik, 29, said he was nowhere near the event because he was getting married that day, something confirmed by Miami-Dade County marriage license records. (Told of the wedding, Kunst said he would take Malik at his word.)

In his work with Occupy Miami, Malik, the former executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for South Florida, has helped put on a seminar on "combating Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together."

"He's a uniter of people, not a divider," said fellow seminar organizer Jeff Weinberger. "I'm not a very religious Jew, but I'm a Jew to the bone."

Malik said that if he comes to the convention, it won't be to pick fights. He said he's more concerned about protesters being able to speak freely than about different groups clashing.

And as for Kunst?

"I wish him a Happy Hanukkah," Malik said, "and hope that his rights are protected."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Specter of protests outside Tampa's Republican National Convention stirs concern 12/11/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 11, 2011 8:57pm]
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