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Occupy Tampa protesters arrested after scuffle with police

TAMPA — Something happened early Friday morning at the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, between police and Occupy Tampa protesters.

Listen to Tampa police, and two protesters pushed an officer.

Listen to protesters, and they didn't touch police. It was their cameraman who got body-slammed.

For the first three weeks of the occupation, police and protesters co-existed without arrest. This, the fourth week, brought 11.

Maybe the welcome is wearing thin. Maybe protesters are bored and police are frustrated.

It has been more contentious elsewhere: Police broke up encampments in Oakland, Calif., Atlanta, San Diego and Nashville, arresting occupiers. They filled downtown Oakland with tear gas, and Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, 24, was hospitalized with a skull fracture.

A magazine reporter witnessed that night in Oakland:

"I saw a visible minority spoiling for conflict," James West wrote in Mother Jones. "No one appeared in control and the group was divided into two groups: the largely peaceful, and a small, visible determined group of agitators."

Police in Tampa say they see a contrast between the crowd gathered at the beginning of the month, which called on fellow demonstrators to pick up litter and respect officers, and part of the crowd now.

Now, police employees say they are getting hate mail, and several people identifying themselves as demonstrators called the department Friday between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., prodding officers, saying they were out sleeping and asking why someone wasn't coming to arrest them.

The Friday incident in Tampa began about 3:30 a.m., when police say Keith Cuesta, 24, and Stephen Gentile, 29, pushed an officer checking on a report that demonstrators were sleeping inside tents in the park.

Protesters say their cameraman, Karel Sourcre, 31, was filming when an officer "body-slammed" him. They say the officer then pushed Cuesta into small concrete pillars that line the park, placed him in handcuffs and took him away.

Cuesta, speaking to the Times from attorney Jose Toledo's office, said he was taking down a tent, erected to shield occupiers from the rain, when he felt an officer bump into him. That's when he was arrested. He said Gentile was arrested after grabbing Cuesta's arm, in an attempt to free him from police.

Cuesta and Gentile were charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, a felony, and the cameraman, with obstructing or opposing an officer without violence, a misdemeanor. The felony charges were the first attached to Occupy Tampa.

All day Friday, protesters held signs saying TPD BEAT US LAST NIGHT and TPD LIES TO THE MEDIA. Signs about the arrest far outnumbered the signs calling for a stop to corporate corruption. Protesters said police have been harassing them. In a video recorded during the Friday arrests, someone can be heard yelling at an officer, calling him a "f------ pig."

Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said officers don't believe those arrested in Tampa represent the entire movement, noting that Occupy Dallas held a march this week to show solidarity with police.

"I think that everyone can agree, whether you're an Occupy Tampa protester or whether you are a police officer, that there are problems right now," said Davis. "But it's all about focusing on those problems and not diverting it to the wrong parties."

The defense of First Amendment rights is just as important as taking on corporate greed, Cuesta said.

"I think that TPD was trying to apply more and more pressure, push our buttons and see how far we would go," he said. "We're getting stronger. The fact that our numbers are starting to grow, they may be viewing us as more of a threat."

If there is another escalated incident, Davis said, police will make sure to record it.

Times staff writers Marissa Lang and Danny Valentine contributed to this report, which also used information from Times wires. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Occupy Tampa protesters arrested after scuffle with police 10/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 12:06am]

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