Occupy Tampa and Tampa Police differ at City Council

11/03/11 Josh Holton
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Tampa Police and Occupy Tampa have been at odds lately about the rights of protesters to be in city parks and sidewalks. Thirty people from Occupy Tampa marched to City Hall this morning, and challenged police’s claims that there have been open lines of communication.

Tampa Police have prided themselves what they call lenient accommodation of the city code. But with 12 arrests of Occupy Tampa members on charges ranging from misdemeanor to felony, City Council member Mary Mulhern asked Assistant Chief John Bennett if he has any legal solutions.

Bennett said he appreciated the challenges brought by government and the protesters, but that his only job is to uphold the law.

He claimed that protesters have been breaking the park rules, even though more than half of the protesters who were arrested were detained while they were on the public sidewalk outside the park.

Council chambers were packed with Occupy Tampa members, and ten people spoke in support of the group. Two people opposed the protesters. Yoga instructor Francine Messano gives free yoga in the park, and said their movement is bad for her business.

She claimed that homeless people and protesters crashed her public yoga sessions in the park, giving her business a bad name. She also denounced Occupy Tampa’s new workgroup for women, which met today.

Occupy Tampa holds daily meditations in the park, and protester Samantha Bowden had hoped the two groups would be potential allies. Bowden said the protesters are actually helping several of the other businesses downtown. She disputed Messano’s claim about the women’s group.

During public comment, Bowden challenged Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s claims that the police have been accommodating.

The protesters have been pushing the limits of the city code, but they have also been demanding their First Amendment right to assemble, which protester Joe Jay said is a priority.

Although police confiscated a table last week, there was agreement with protesters that they could use one table for political literature. John Bennett said that when they constructed a 24-foot table, the protesters stretched their informal agreement.

When Council member Mary Mulhern asked Bennett to explain why food, water, and other belongings are being confiscated, he would only say that police have upheld City Code 22-8, and that there has been largely positive dialogue with protesters. Martin Warburton has acted as night security for Occupy Tampa, and disagreed with Bennett’s claims.

Bennett reaffirmed the Tampa Police Department’s position that some protesters engaged officers physically last Friday morning.

He would not say whether Tampa Police has reviewed video footage that the protesters hope could be used to dispute the charges of felony battery on a law enforcement officer.

Bennett said that any complaints about police brutality, or any disputes concerning an ongoing investigation should be directed to the Tampa Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

City Council Member Lisa Montelione said she could not see any police brutality in video footage that has been posted online.

Mediator Don Rhode is working with Occupy Tampa to propose changes to city codes dealing with public assemblies. Montelione said that with the Republican National Convention coming next year, that the City of Tampa is already reviewing potential changes in code that will more clearly define legal boundaries for assemblies, sidewalks, and park rules.

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