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  1. Florida Politics

Nuisance or neighbors? Battle lines emerge over Occupy Tampa camp

Published Jul. 9, 2012

TAMPA — They say they came for the people, by the people, pushed out of downtown into Voice of Freedom Park in West Tampa.

They put up tents and shook neighbors' hands, saying they weren't here to occupy the community, but become part of it.

The members of Occupy Tampa cleaned up litter, displaced drug dealers and planted a community garden.

Then, late last month, came the petition saying they are no longer welcome. A City Council hearing has been scheduled for July 19 to discuss the concerns.

Sure, there have been problems, Occupy Tampa members acknowledge. Fights, drunks and garbage. But the good they think Occupy Tampa has sprinkled far outweighs the bad. And the protesters suspect a conspiracy:

They think development interests want the demonstrators out so the area can be redeveloped.

"This person may have personal motives for this petition," activist Dave Gonzalez, 53, surmised.

The petition exposes divergent views inside and outside the community on a crucial question: Who knows what's best for West Tampa?

• • •

In December, tired of repeated police clashes at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Occupy Tampa moved to a park at 2101 W Main St. It's owned by Joe Redner, a strip-club proprietor and political activist who shares many of the group's views.

Over the past few months, many residents say Occupy Tampa has turned into a messy homeless camp.

The petition, signed by more than 100 people, including West Tampa business owners and residents, asks city leaders and Redner to relocate Occupy Tampa. Free meals and resource sharing are robbing stores and restaurants of business, the petition claims.

Around Occupy's setup of tents, signs, tarps, a barbecue smoker and the U-shaped help desk are a handful of businesses, including a Stripper Wear shop, convenience store and barber shop.

A Metro PCS across from the park sells $25 unlimited talk and text plans, as well as pocket digital scales and a smokable herbal mix fashioned in the shape of 50-cent pieces.

"They're not really bothering us," said clerk Abraham Nakshabendi, 17. "They're not real active, so I don't know why they call themselves activists."

At Royal Crowns Barber Shop, barber Ben Baisden said he has no concerns. Neither does Denerio Everett at the printing business Dot Com.

"They're all right by me," he said.

Main Street Groceries, which sells hair extensions, pretzels, condoms and an array of cheap cigars, often has demonstrators stop in for soda, chips and beer.

"They don't bother us," said Gina Welch, who runs the store. "They spend money every day. They may have problems over there. Right now, someone's getting beat to death, but they don't bother us."

As she spoke one afternoon last week, a man indeed was cowering on the ground after a violent exchange. Tampa police labeled it a disturbance because no one wanted to press charges.

Camp resident Joshua Bey, 40, who goes by Buddha, said the man came into the park drunk and propositioned people. He had also assaulted a pregnant woman. The skirmish followed.

Outside problems do sometimes creep into the camp, activists Dave Martinez and Tristan Lear said. The camp is open to homeless people and anyone who wants to join the movement. Everyone has to follow a "safer space agreement" that includes no drinking, drugs or violence or behavior "that perpetuates oppression."

Redner has given Occupy members the authority to report trespassers, and they do.

Martinez and Lear said Occupy Tampa has made Voice of Freedom Park safer, though police records show officers have been called there 19 times since December. The site had just two calls in the same period a year before.

Occupy members have invited the community to meetings and a barbecue to discuss the petition. They wrote an open letter saying they even share some of the same grievances.

"We need your help," the letter said. "Rather than ask for your help, we'd like to turn the tables and ask you how WE can help YOU turn the campsite into the park that you would like to see it become. We want to blur the line that divides 'us' from 'the community.' "

While they acknowledge problems, Occupy members believe the petition is really about a sign at the park. It features two white hands hovering above the silhouette of a black family: "Hands off West Tampa!"

• • •

In February, the Urban Land Institute sent Tampa several recommendations for redeveloping downtown riverfront areas. It included demolishing the aging North Boulevard Homes, a 682-unit subsidized apartment complex in West Tampa, to make way for a development with businesses and mixed-income residents.

The vision, which could be years away if feasible, was endorsed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn. But it spurred fear in North Boulevard Homes that the public housing complex was going to be bulldozed.

Occupy Tampa heard the rumblings. Up went the sign.

Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association and crime watch, has publicly supported the redevelopment vision. He's also being blamed by Occupy members for the City Council petition.

Vannetta said the petition started at a neighborhood association meeting after two nonmembers, including Joe Robinson, a West Tampa engineer and Republican activist, complained the park had become a nuisance.

"Our petition is strictly over Occupy there making a mess, making an eyesore and competing with some businesses," Vannetta said. "Long-term, I really wouldn't want a tent city in that park. Politically, I really don't care what they think and what they do. This is not a political issue with me. It's a beautification issue."

Kimberly Poitier, owner of Kimist Barber Beauty on Main Street, signed the petition and said Occupy Tampa is driving away her customers, as well as investors who might create jobs.

"Main Street is already known as a very bad area to begin with," she said. "We wanted redevelopment, but now you have people bathing outside like Little House on the Prairie."

• • •

A week ago, Vannetta met with Occupy members, who quickly moved tents back so the blooming crape myrtles could be seen again. They also picked up garbage.

It was enough for him to rethink his position.

"Ultimately, at this point," Vannetta said, "I don't think they have to go. I'm just speaking for myself."

Vannetta even told Redner that his group might hold back presenting the petition.

Redner, who remains an Occupy supporter, was adamant that the petition has to be presented. He wants council members to take back the responsibility of housing and protecting Occupy Tampa in a public park. "Where it belongs," he said.

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3368.

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