As RNC convention nears, ACLU covers ground rules for protests

Published Jul. 11, 2012

TAMPA — Leave umbrellas with metal tips at home when ponchos and umbrellas with plastic tips will do just fine.

Don't wear masks in a special downtown zone.

And if a police officer asks for identification, give it.

Those were some of the tips given by Tampa officials during a Tuesday night forum for those who plan to protest or demonstrate at the Republican National Convention in late August. The forum was actually a "webinar," where about 250 people watched on their computers or listened via telephone to a 90-minute panel discussion organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"Everyone in our office will be working the week. We hope we don't meet you all," said Hillsborough County assistant public defender Chris Watson. "Our advice is to use your common sense. If the police ask you to move on, our advice is to move along."

Watson was joined by assistant public defender Rocky Brancato, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, Assistant Chief John Bennett, City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. and assistant city attorney Mauricio Rodriguez in describing the limits that await the 15,000 demonstrators who are anticipated. Moderating the discussion was ACLU attorneys Lisa Streater and James Shaw.

Know your rights, Shaw and Streater explained during the first half of the presentation.

When encountering police, they said to always follow directions, always remain polite, never resist. While refusing to answer questions is legal, refusing identification is not, they said.

Photos are allowed of anything in plain public view. Police officers may not view photos taken by demonstrators, nor can they seize cameras and destroy or delete footage.

"We won't be arresting individuals who are photographing police," Castor said, as long as it doesn't interfere with them doing their job.

Protesters can demonstrate by drumming, dancing and chanting. But they can't wear a mask in an "Event Zone" that covers downtown north of Interstate 275 and Interstate 4.

Masks are allowed in two public viewing areas within sight and sound of the Tampa Bay Forum and in a parade route along Washington Street, Whiting Street and Nebraska Avenue.

"We've learned that, historically, those doing illegal acts want to do them anonymously, and wearing a gas mask is one way to conceal a face," Castor said.

But she said there won't be a need for gas masks because it's unlikely chemical agents will be used. Castor was optimistic that the week would be relatively peaceful.

When Michael Pheneger, president of ACLU of Florida, said that other cities that had hosted conventions had experienced jail overflows from arrests, Castor said that wouldn't happen in Tampa.

"We believe our planning, communications and preparation will prevent mass arrests from happening," she said.

More than 3,500 officers will be working the event. Officers will be wearing khaki beige uniforms that are light to wear in the summer heat. The public won't see SWAT gear unless there's a disturbance, Castor said. They also won't likely witness a small contingent of the National Guard tucked inside a smaller security zone "out of sight of the general public," Castor said.

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This was the second forum organized by the ACLU. The first was held in April, drawing about 200 people to the Stetson University College of Law.

Another forum is planned for Aug. 7 at the University of Tampa's Reeve's Theater from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The convention is scheduled for Aug. 27-30 and is expected to draw, along with the demonstrators, 15,000 journalists and about 5,000 delegates.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or