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Protesters denounce the city's decision to give public sidewalk to BayWalk at Friday night demonstration

ST. PETERSBURG — For more than an hour Friday night, about 75 protesters voiced their discontent over the City Council's controversial decision to privatize the sidewalk in front of BayWalk.

The protesters, many from St. Pete for Peace and the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, lined the sidewalk in question as bewildered moviegoers made their way into and out of the downtown entertainment complex.

"Boycott BayWalk," the protesters chanted. "City Council, you can't hide. We won't let this bailout slide."

Dozens more held signs admonishing the city, saying it sold out civil rights and free speech.

"I wanted to stand up for my constitutional rights," said Jimmy Dunson, 24, a free speech advocate worried about the precedent set by Thursday's 5-3 vote. "If we don't stop them now, I think they will continue to stomp on our constitutional rights."

For now, the sidewalk on the north side of Second Avenue N remains public property until the city finalizes its deal with BayWalk. It is unclear how long that will take.

Until then, protests can continue, though none had been held in months.

"We have a responsibility as citizens to stand up for the constitution," said protester Melissa Baird, 55, of Tarpon Springs.

The council's decision Thursday provoked strong feelings and verbal attacks among some in the audience at City Hall. After the vote, council member Bill Dudley's 76-year-old brother, Frederick, and Ronald Deaton, 61, a free speech activist, traded insults.

Then Dudley attacked Deaton.

Each man grabbed the other's neck, and they tumbled to the ground. Deaton wound up on top and was seized by police. Eventually police escorted both men from City Hall and arrested each on a disorderly conduct charge. Dudley was released on his own recognizance, and Deaton, who did not provide a home address, was released on $250 bail. It's unclear why they were treated differently.

Neither man could be reached Friday.

Council member Dudley said he couldn't speak for his brother, who he said lives a block from City Hall and recently began attending council meetings.

"He's my older brother. He's 76 years old. I have no control over him," Dudley said. "It's an unfortunate incident."

Dudley said the council's vote to privatize the sidewalk was good for business and the community. BayWalk's intimidated patrons have rights, too, he said.

"You can't protest in front of the White House. You have to go across the street. … This is similar," Dudley said. "It's certainly not the White House, but we need them to go to the other side of the street."

BayWalk, he added, needs "a chance to make it work because there's been a lot of money and time invested in BayWalk."

Dudley said Friday night's protest didn't surprise him.

If protests continue or get bigger and more aggressive after the sidewalk is made private, "we'll be proactive about it," he said.

BayWalk's retail space is about 70 percent vacant, and the remaining tenants had threatened to leave if the sidewalk was not made private.

"We are grateful for the decision of the City Council," said Greg McNutt, a property manager for BayWalk, as he watched the protest Friday.

McNutt said potential tenants have been insisting on the private sidewalk.

"It was something that they were telling us, that the history of BayWalk is a concern for them."

Still, many BayWalk customers reported mixed feelings about both the vote and the protest.

Laura Matchim, a 40-year-old from Tierra Verde who said she visits BayWalk nearly every weekend, said protests have never been a problem for her.

She had no idea there would be one Friday but said that, besides the noise, she wasn't disturbed.

Ultimately, she said, it will take more than a private sidewalk to turns things around at BayWalk.

"I think they need to move past the sidewalk," she said.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Protesters denounce the city's decision to give public sidewalk to BayWalk at Friday night demonstration 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 6:59am]
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