Many Republican National Convention protesters won't follow Tampa's script

Activist Gregory A. Lockett is working on logistics of a protest planned during the Aug. 27-30 Republican National Convention.
Activist Gregory A. Lockett is working on logistics of a protest planned during the Aug. 27-30 Republican National Convention.
Published June 24, 2012

Tampa will swarm with discontent during the Republican National Convention. Protesters have filed requests to march, bike, rally, pray, party and sculpt ice. But as those permit requests offer local officials an early glimpse of how the city will be transformed in August, they don't tell the whole story.

Many groups don't intend to inform the city, much less ask permission. Their nascent plans will draw activists beyond the event zone to targets throughout Tampa and St. Petersburg. One action to "Shut Down Bain Capital" on the last day of the RNC has identified a dozen businesses — including Outback Steakhouse, Clear Channel Communications and Dunkin' Donuts — for potential protests. Bain Capital, which was co-founded by Mitt Romney, owns a stake in those businesses, according to its website.

The protestors have the potential to snarl traffic and keep police hopping as they spread through the city. Some will likely dress in black and cause havoc.

What's becoming clear is that many won't follow the city's script.

• • •

Long before a large-scale political event like the RNC, a dance begins. Police gather intelligence about potential protesters in the name of public safety. Protesters bent on civil disobedience devise unconventional ways to exercise their free speech through "direct actions."

When it comes time for the actual event, the sparring can get out of hand with injuries, arrests and sometimes property destruction.

Back in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s time, spontaneous marches ruled the day.

But in the 1980s and '90s, cities attempted to exert more control over large-scale demonstrations. Many organizations sought permission to protest. Radical activists with darker agendas disrupted. Police sometimes overreacted, ensnaring peaceful protesters.

Following Seattle's World Trade Organization summit protests in 1999, the city had to pay $250,000 to 157 protesters who sued for wrongful arrest. The payouts continued after arrests during the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

In recent years, police have developed more successful techniques for controlling protesters, corralling them with barricades and bikes. But the rise of the Occupy movement created a backlash.

"It's a thrill to go someplace where police are not expecting you," said James Jasper, author of The Art of Moral Protest and professor of sociology at City University of New York. "If the whole thing becomes too scripted, then it becomes a ritual. That's what you saw in the 1980s and '90s. That has shifted and protest has become exciting again."

Police reaction to the unexpected has varied by locale. In October in New York, police arrested 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters who had filed onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Protesters felt duped because police allowed them to march onto the bridge before the arrests.

"This really outraged a lot of people," Jasper said. "People were fed up with all the overpolicing."

In Chicago at the NATO protests last month, police took a softer approach. They let protesters roam Chicago's financial district, including at times into oncoming traffic. Only when protesters came close to specific locations, like the NATO convention and the glass storefront business district of Michigan Avenue, did police block them from advancing.

Debra Kirby, a Chicago Police Department chief who was in charge of the planning for NATO, said that "one of the best tools in our toolbox" during the NATO summit was patience.

"I think what we did was a more modern approach," Kirby said. "In some ways, people anticipated the old style of response to protests. I do believe that law enforcement and the Chicago Police Department have progressed in their thinking."

Police from Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., which hosts the Democratic National Convention in September, were there to observe Chicago in action. John Bennett, an assistant Tampa police chief, said Tampa planned to handle protesters similarly.

He said Tampa has dealt with dozens of unpermitted marches and demonstrations over the years without a problem.

"If people want to gather and demonstrate whether it's statically or in a mobile way," he said, "the only thing we want to do is be able to service the crowd."

When asked if people take over the streets or block traffic, he said the city would try to respect the rights of protesters to be heard — as long as laws weren't being broken. But police would take "everything on a case-by-case basis."

• • •

Tampa has yet to say where protesters will be allowed to march during the Aug. 27-30 RNC. But it has divvied up its downtown parks.

At MacDill Park on the Riverwalk, a pair of Brooklyn artists will carve a 20-foot block of ice to form the words "middle class" and let it melt in the sun. Planned Parenthood will rally at Centennial Park one day and Doctors of America will gather at Herman Massey Park another. The Coalition to March on the RNC, which represents labor activists, war protesters and Occupy protesters, plans to gather at Perry Harvey Sr. Park.

Tampa has rejected all requests to march, saying groups will be offered space along the "official parade route," which will provide "sight and sound of the Tampa Bay Times Forum."

Organizer Jared Hamil, a University of Florida graduate who works in a warehouse, expects about 5,000 protesters to march on the first day of the RNC from Perry Harvey Sr. Park to as close to the Tampa Bay Times Forum as they can get.

"We respect the diversity of tactics," he said. "But what we're going to have is a peaceful, permitted march of people from many different groups."

There are just as many protesters who don't want to follow the rules though, who think the city's plans for an event zone complete with a protest area are too controlling, who might try to get their message out other ways.

Occupy RNC, which is separate from the better-known Occupy Tampa, has set up camp in Ybor City and plans to protest without permits. "We made an official decision at our community gathering that we are willing to protest, to do civil disobedience throughout the city of Tampa," said co-founder Al Suarez.

• • •

The movement to "Shut down Bain Capital" on the final day of the RNC boiled up recently at Occupy Tampa, a square of land covered in tents in West Tampa.

According to a Facebook page of the same name and Occupy Tampa General Assembly minutes, Occupiers hope people across the country will protest Bain Capital businesses in solidarity against Romney and the business he helped found.

"It's an investment firm that did a lot of venture capitalism or vulture capitalism, depending on what you want to call it," said Jake Vigness, a 24-year-old college student as he sat on a bench at Occupy Tampa one day this week.

Romney ran Bain Capital from its inception in 1984 until he left in 1999. The firm is known for amassing investor cash and loans to buy companies. The buyouts can shrink the companies and result in layoffs. Research has shown that private equity takeovers can sometimes create more jobs down the road. But protesters don't see that. They see the rich getting richer.

"The idea is that when Mitt Romney officially is put forth as the candidate, we're going to shut down Bain Capital," Vigness said. "That isn't always literal. People will do whatever they are comfortable with. It could mean picketing or going inside and mic-checking (protesters call out, and others repeat) the place."

Exact strategy has yet to be decided, he said. Options include Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse, Burlington Coat Factory, Baskin-Robbins, Gymboree, Staples, Toys "R" Us, Michaels Craft Store and HCA, Hospital Corp. of America.

"The most effective things tend to be spontaneous," Vigness said.

A spokeswoman for Bloomin' Brands Inc., which owns Carrabba's, Outback, Bonefish and Fleming's, said the company could not comment because it is in the midst of a potential IPO offering. Other companies did not respond to calls.

Vigness said it is unlikely the groups would seek permits.

"Permits are not particularly important and are an infringement on our rights," he said.

Jasper, the sociologist, said it's an old tactic that works only if the media pays attention.

"I'm not sure that Bain Capital worries about bad publicity," he said. "But Outback Steakhouse does."

• • •

Somewhere in the city's downtown event zone, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign has leased land for a protester encampment. They won't say where, only that it's within three-fourths of a mile of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and that it will be called Romneyville. They have demonstrated at previous conventions and they say they are expecting 10,000 people. They too will march without a permit.

Gregory A. Lockett, a coordinator, says the group will participate in marches and sit-ins at banks and other locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg. He declined to specify except to say that some actions may focus on mortgage foreclosures. He said some in his group might be willing to get arrested.

"But we are not violent anarchists," he said.

• • •

So what are the rest of us to do while all this is going on? Stay away? Check it out?

It depends on your perspective.

"These protests tend not to disrupt normal everyday life," said Jasper, the sociologist.

"I would say it may be exciting to see a protest like this up close. It's not dangerous. It can be exciting and fun. Police could use Mace and there's some possibility for arrests. But people don't get killed in protests anymore."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.