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St. Petersburg protesters march in the shadow of RNC welcome party — but don't stay long

ST. PETERSBURG — As hundreds of protesters approached the high barbed wire fence, their drums beat louder and their chants grew more profane. The wind picked up. The skies darkened.

On the other side of the fence, between the protesters and the Republican National Convention kickoff party inside Tropicana Field, police wearing body armor sat atop horses wearing body armor. Dozens of other officers stood by or leaned on bicycles.

The protesters held up signs of dissent and raised middle fingers. They yelled rhymes about the 99 percent and corrupt government and, once or twice, impending anarchy.

Then, about a half-hour later, they were gone.

Organizers of Sunday's march on the Trop had promised it would be a peaceful protest, and it was exactly that.

"I think that people just really want to be heard," said Jennifer Kenny, 56, of Brevard County, an organizer for the Alliance for Retired Americans who wanted nothing more than to participate in a safe protest.

Authorities wanted, and got, the same thing.

"They were orderly, they were lawful," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

The protest group gathered at Mirror Lake. There were grandmas and hipsters. Preschoolers and union presidents. A guy in a kilt with a red T-shirt that read "Thank God I'm an atheist."

By 5:30 p.m., the crowd had swelled to about 500. There were more than three times that many law enforcement officers — 1,800 in all — involved in securing the Trop for the up to 15,000 people who attended.

Organizations represented included Food Not Bombs, Moveon.org, a City of St. Petersburg union and at least one protester from Occupy Wall Street.

Many people said they opposed the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan GOP ticket. Others said they wanted to ensure a social safety net would still exist for their children.

About a dozen men and women dressed in all black, their faces covered by bandanas, lounged by Mirror Lake. They wouldn't reveal who they were but said they weren't affiliated with any other groups. In passing, they used the term "black bloc" several times.

Black Bloc technically refers to a tactic in which protestors conceal their identities behind dark clothing so they appear as one unit and become harder to break up. Those who use the expression are often accused of violence.

The atmosphere Sunday, however, was anything but.

Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, addressed the crowd.

"We need to understand: We are not just fighting for the 2012 election," he said. "We are fighting for the future of America."

Protesters carried a giant Mitt Romney puppet, wrapped in rain-protecting plastic.

The march produced a constant stream of peculiar juxtapositions. A group carrying a black coffin, which represented the death of democracy, walked alongside three gray-haired women on scooters.

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, about a dozen men and women dressed in black yelled a chant, rife with four-letter words, about fascism. A few feet away, 5-year-old Josh Rinehart held up a sign: "Whose food stamps would Jesus cut?" His mother, Shelba Waldron, wasn't too concerned about things getting out of hand.

"There's so much security around, I just can't imagine that anything could happen," she said.

She was right. Police didn't arrest anyone.

By 6:45 p.m., as many of the party's guests were arriving, the protest zone was empty. A pair of small signs, one about taxes and the other about the middle class, was still tied to the fence.

In the street, a rising wind and a skipping can of Olde English malt liquor were all that remained.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Times staff writer Andrew Meacham contributed to this report.

St. Petersburg protesters march in the shadow of RNC welcome party — but don't stay long 08/26/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 26, 2012 10:49pm]
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