1. Florida Politics

Protest groups nationwide target Republican National Convention in Tampa

Published Jan. 17, 2012

TAMPA — More than seven months out, protest groups nationwide are being called to march on the Republican National Convention.

Organizers are aiming for Aug. 27, the first day of the convention, when the eyes of the world will be on Tampa.

"We expect thousands of people to converge from all over the country," said Dustin Ponder, 23, an organizer with Fight Back Florida, which represents union members and young people. "I really expect to see a lot of the biggest progressive groups mobilizing around the Republican National Convention come August."

So far, the call to action has drawn support from more than two dozen groups representing organized labor, the anti-war movement, college students, immigrants, welfare rights and gender equality activists.

The groups are in Florida, Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Utah.

"There's a lot of momentum behind these things," said Joshua West, 26, who heads the Utah Valley University chapter of the Revolutionary Students Union, which plans to march. "I think the RNC is going to be the next big thing that's going to share in this kind of people power that's coming to the fore."

Organizing started more than a year ago but picked up speed in October or November, Ponder said. The march has a website,, but plans its public launch outside the Republican candidates' debate that will be held Jan. 23 at the University of South Florida.

At the march in August, protesters will oppose "union busting" and will defend Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and "our children's right to an affordable, quality education," according to the website.

"We're calling on all those ready to fight back against the attacks launched by the Republican Party and their corporate masters to take to the streets and demand a better future for our families, our communities and our children," it concludes.

Tampa police expect up to 15,000 protesters during the convention. To be ready, the city plans to install about 60 surveillance cameras downtown and to have 3,000 to 4,000 police on duty each day of the convention.

But Marc Hamlin, Tampa assistant police chief, said "peaceful demonstrators are no problem."

Authorities are more concerned about unaffiliated saboteurs determined to damage property and disrupt the event.

"We're expecting groups like this," Hamlin said after looking at the coalition's website. "We're expecting tens of thousands of people to come down and protest. And we're not concerned about protesters. We're concerned about people coming down to engage in criminal activity."

Organizers want to lead a permitted, legal march, Ponder said.

"We expect parents with strollers, working people, a broad representation of the people of Florida and the United States," he said. "We're not going to be a bunch of pirates descending on the streets."

The coalition behind the march is similar to one that brought protests to the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., said Stephanie Taylor, 24, an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

But the accounts of those protests can be starkly different, depending on the source.

St. Paul officials estimated that 500 of the 10,000 protesters they saw were anarchists who wanted to shut down the convention. The worst of them rammed a police car with a flaming garbage bin, smashed windshields on cruisers and shattered 15 plate-glass windows, officials said.

At times, local authorities there responded with tear gas, pepper spray and smoke grenades. They made hundreds of arrests. At one point, demonstrators trying to cross two bridges were blocked by snowplows, gravel trucks and hundreds of officers in riot gear.

Taylor said she saw an over-reaction by police who clearly grew tired of the protests.

"I never experienced or saw someone trying to sabotage the event," she said. "That was certainly talked about in the media. No one that I've talked to saw anyone throw things through windows."

During a march that attempted to go to the Xcel Energy Center during Sen. John McCain's speech, Taylor said, the part of the crowd she was in was surrounded by police, and she was among those arrested.

The charge, which Taylor described as unlawful assembly or refusing to leave, was dropped in a letter she received a month or so later, she said.

In Tampa, Taylor expects the organizing coalition to coordinate various groups and come up with a diversity of tactics for demonstrators: marching for some, perhaps nonviolent sit-ins for others.

"I don't anticipate any protesters to organize any violent acts of civil disobedience," she said. "The goal of the coalition is to provide a safe space for everyone — regardless of immigration status, age, race, class — to air their grievances at the Republican National Convention, and the only way to do that is to create a peaceful environment."