TAMPA — Police arrested six Occupy Tampa protesters Friday morning who they said refused to move from a downtown sidewalk.
They were the first arrests since protesters began their demonstration at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park two weeks ago. All six were warned and told to get off the sidewalk before they were arrested, records show.
Protesters called the arrests the latest example of police harassment. But city officials said they have bent over backward to accommodate the demonstrations and the protesters brought the arrests on themselves.
"We've tried to be hospitable. We've tried to maintain a good relationship," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Police wanted to avoid the kind of confrontations that have marked similar protests around the country, most notably in New York City, where hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters have been arrested.
"But at some point you have to draw the line," Buckhorn said. "And at some point, when some people step over that line and refuse to abide by the police department's instructions, then there are consequences."
Last week, officials gave protesters a list of rules. One said protesters are allowed to sleep along the edge of sidewalks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
When police arrived about 8 a.m. Friday, they said, several protesters were sleeping on the ground.
Arrested were Kevin Andrew Flynn, 32, of Brandon; Alicia Anne Dion, 24, of Redington Beach; Pepe "Slamdunk" Kovanis, 30, of Dunedin; Gregory Michael Priem, 29, of Clearwater; Skylar W. Sabey, 22, of Riverview; and Fitzgerald C. Scott, 40, of Tampa.
All six were accused of obstructing a city sidewalk.
The ordinance police cited typically prevents objects such as tables or chairs from blocking pedestrians' passage.
"We have to balance their First Amendment rights with the rights of everyone else, including those who live and work in this area," said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
Protesters said they have tried to comply. "We've been policing ourselves to make sure we have no issues," said Stephanie Cannon, 24, who slept on the sidewalk and was lying with a sign Friday morning.
"We've made sure there's no way we could be violating the law, but it doesn't matter," Cannon said. "We've been harassed and harassed and harassed."
A dozen of the remaining protesters marched a few blocks to police headquarters, clutching signs, waving American flags and chanting, "Arrest corrupt police," and, "TPD is oppressing me."
A few remained lying on the sidewalk after police left, holding up slogans in silence. One asked, "Why aren't they arresting me, too?"
Officers looked on as the impromptu march made its way into police headquarters. The protesters sat inside chanting to a drum accompaniment for five to 10 minutes. On their way out, they shouted, "police are not your friends" at a group of visiting schoolchildren.
Buckhorn and police said they will continue cooperating with protesters, including allowing them to use facilities inside police headquarters overnight, but can't allow laws to be ignored.
Police had hoped to avoid arrests, Davis said. "We want their voices to be heard," Davis said. "And they can't be heard in the back of a police car."
Hours after the arrests, several television news vans lined the sidewalk as crews interviewed protesters. The fact that no police officers told them to move upset James Cox, 43, who called it a double standard.
"We are here as human beings, expressing our right to peaceably assemble," Cox said. "But we get arrested. Meanwhile, news crews are allowed to block the sidewalk. Why? Because they have a lot of money?" Cox pledged to post the photos online and call authorities.
Police did not respond to several calls for comment about the TV trucks.