[Marxism] 500,000 Clogging Tampa Streets?

Michael Hoover mhhoover at gmail.com
Sun Jul 9 10:59:50 MDT 2006

500,000 clogging streets? Unlikely

Activist organizations and experts pooh-pooh the official estimate of
half-million protesters in Tampa if the GOP picks the city as its
convention site in 2008.

By JANET ZINK, [St. Petersburg] Times Staff Writer
Published July 5, 2006

TAMPA - The memo about protesters at the 2008 Republican National
Convention sounded ominous.

If Tampa hosts the event, wrote a Tampa Fire Rescue administrator, the city
should prepare for up to 500,000 protesters to descend, pitch tents in
parks, build bonfires and burn effigies and flags.

Initial word of the estimate, based on reports from the 2004 convention in
New York City, put Tampa's convention bid organizers on the defensive. But
weeks later, even antiwar protesters and staunch Republicans find common
ground on the subject. They both agree:

No way.

"It's nice to know the police have such active imaginations," said Leslie
Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella
organization of more than 1,300 groups.

Sharing her skepticism is Al Austin, a bid organizer who strongly supports
the war in Iraq. Tampa is too hot in September, there would be no place for
the protesters to stay and difficult for them to get around, they say.

"It would not be much of a significant number," said Austin, who is leading
the local effort to bring the convention to Tampa. "I would say in a worst
case scenario, a couple thousand."

Cagan wouldn't take a stab at predicting actual numbers.

"It's not like selling tickets to a concert," she said by phone from the
World Peace Forum in Vancouver. "We and others will work as hard as we can
to turn out large numbers of people, but it is hard to imagine 500,000
people showing up on the streets of Tampa."

Some might say those same factors that would limit the numbers of
protesters also would scare away conventioneers. But those visitors will
charter buses to cart them from air-conditioned hotel rooms, which will be
set aside as part of the city's convention contract with the Republican
National Committee.

Protesters will be out on the streets.

"The real issue would be getting people hydrated," said Chris Ernesto, a
member of St. Pete for Peace, which stages small weekly demonstrations in
downtown St. Petersburg.

Cagan said in New York, demonstrators were able to stay in the homes of
friends and families and areas surrounding New York City and ride the
subway to protest sites.

"The fact that the Republicans chose to have their convention in 2004 in
New York City, which is right in the heart of a greater metropolitan area
with one of the largest concentrations of people in the whole country, made
it easier to draw large numbers to a demonstration, particular in an area
highly critical of the Bush policies," she said.

In addition to New York City, Tampa is competing with Cleveland and
Minneapolis to host the event. The Republican National Committee will
announce a host city early next year.

"The Midwest has such a heavy concentration of people within driving
distance, my hunch is you'd get larger turnout in either of those cities
than Florida," Cagan said.

The relatively mild protest climate in Tampa and the region is a factor as

"Demonstrators like to feel like the people in the area are on their side,
partly because they need a place to stay," said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown
University professor who studies protest movements.

A place like New York is better able to accommodate that because it has a
large protest culture, he said.

"One doesn't think of Tampa that way," Kazin said.

Cities like New York and Washington, D.C., the home base for many activist
organizations, are usually the sites of large demonstrations, even without
a national event to rally around. And those groups have long relationships
with local police, which makes planning easier, said Steve Theberge, the
program coordinator for the War Resisters League in New York City.

An antiwar protest in April drew 350,000 people to New York City, and
hundreds of thousands turned out for a demonstration in Washington in

National organizers depend on regional groups to help with planning. And
though groups like St. Pete for Peace and the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans
for Peace hold weekly demonstrations, they rarely attract more than a dozen
or so people.

"The activism is smaller there, but there is the backbone," Cagan said.
"Those weekly vigils, even though they're small, the consistency of them is
an indication of the level of commitment and the willingness to do whatever
the work is. They could provide the on-the-ground anchor for a larger

Local protest organizers pledge they will rise to the challenge.

Ernesto said the local chapter of Food Not Bombs would be able to provide

"If it's 30,000 or 500,000, we'll find some way to feed them," he said.

But he was skeptical about having to feed a half-million hungry demonstrators.

"I would envision there would be nowhere near that number of people," he
said. "On the other hand, if the country continues in the direction it's
going and the Republican candidate is as egregious as President George Bush
... a lot of it is very dependent on circumstances."

Regardless, don't expect bonfires and flag burning. Ernesto said he was
among the 500,000 in New York, and most protesters simply want their voices
heard, not to burn things.

He said he hopes the convention comes to Tampa.

"It would be a great way to energize the progressive community," Ernesto said.

Chris Uhl, an associate member of the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for
Peace, pointed out that thousands of people - police estimate 8,000 -
turned out for the recent immigration demonstrations, and those were just
locals. The Republican convention should generate even more.

"It is a national event," he said. "It is going to draw a lot of people. I
don't think we're going to have a half a million people. I don't think that
many people will travel all the way to Florida. I could see tens of

Uhl's organization is considering holding its annual convention in Tampa at
the same time as the GOP gathering. The veterans group typically draws up
to 400 people to the event, said Jay Alexander, board member of the Tampa
Bay chapter for Veterans for Peace.

Whatever the number, coordinating the protests will be a critical part of
convention planning.

Demonstrators will be welcome, said Maj. John Bennett, special operations
division commander for the Tampa Police Department, who will coordinate
convention security. But if they want to block city streets or use parks,
they'll need to do advance planning.

"Things that involve an impact on government services need to be
permitted," he said.

And he issued a stern warning to protesters.

"If you want to peacefully demonstrate your First Amendment rights, that's
fine. We will find a way to allocate resources," he said. "But if you have
disruption and anarchy in mind, that's going to be addressed very

Theberge cautioned law enforcement officers against overreacting.

"The most important thing is an understanding on the police's part that 99
percent are there for a nonviolent expression," he said. "When there's
clear and open communication, when people feel safe and comfortable, that's
when these demonstrations really work."

In Miami, at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in 2003, at least
12,000 protesters turned up. When some demonstrators tried to pull down a
fence separating them from the conference, police in riot gear subdued them
with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 200 people were
arrested, and some were charged with assaulting a police officer. During
the GOP convention in 2004, more than 1,800 people were arrested. In both
cities, most charges were dropped, leading some critics to say police were
more interested in quieting dissent than keeping the peace. Lawsuits

Typically, protesters are separated from the convention attendees. Austin,
in fact, said he saw few demonstrators when he went to the 2004 convention
in New York.

And even if conventioneers did see a massive demonstration, it wouldn't
affect the party's platform, said Kazin, the Georgetown professor.

"This is an old part of the repertoire of social movements that served the
movements quite well in the last century," he said. "But it's become kind
of (routine) and people think, "Oh yeah, another mass demonstration. They
have their First Amendment right, let them do it, but we'll go back to
doing what we've been doing.' "

That's okay, say activists. Even if the Republicans don't see them, the
voters will.

"It's a lot of press coverage there. It's a chance to clearly demonstrate
your opposition to the administration," Theberge of the War Resisters
League said.

And if the protests go well, that could mean as much to Tampa as the GOP
event itself, he said.

"It's not just about hosting a convention," Theberge said. "It's about
engaging in the democratic spirit of the debate and discussion."

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