Tampa RNC Clean Zone ordinance vote delayed two weeks: too many holes

04/05/12 Janelle Irwin
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A first vote on Tampa’s proposed RNC “Clean Zone” ordinance was put off for two weeks so that city council could address some concerns about it. Residents and activists filled council chambers and spilled into another viewing area. Twenty-six of them asked council members to reconsider parts of the ordinance they thought were a violation of their rights.

“I don’t think there’s any way that we could adopt it today. I think that you could drive a tank through all the holes in the constitutional problems with it.”

Speakers told council member Mary Mulhern and her peers that limitations on where and how long they could protest were a violation of their First Amendment rights. As written, the ordinance would require a permit for groups of 50 or more protesters and would limit them to one hour. It also provides for a free-speech zone called a Public Viewing Area and a designated Parade Route. The locations of those have not yet been determined. Tampa resident George McDowell is concerned that those rules could silence protesters by pushing them out of sight.

“I feel strongly about many issues including the environment, civil rights, etc. When the RNC gets here, I may want to go downtown with a sign. I’m not going to go to some cordoned off area in Pinellas County so that I can talk, or show my sign, or do whatever I want to do. As long as I’m not violating anyone’s private property or their bodily whatever.”

The Clean Zone includes all of downtown and some nearby residential areas. McDowell and many of the other speakers said pushing such strict rules into areas where people live is unnecessary. Council member Frank Reddick agreed.

“No one is going to go north of I-4 unless they’re lost. And when they find out where they’re at, they’re going to be looking for the police to get them back in the right direction.”

Inside the Clean Zone what a person can carry or wear would be limited. Prohibited items were mocked by some speakers – one tied a 7 inch piece of string into a noose. That could be considered a possible weapon under the ordinance. Russell Fox said that language is hypocritical.

“This is an Epoch (newspaper) that I bought outside. Roll it up really tight. Hear that? That’s a weapon. It can be a weapon. They actually disallowed this sort of thing in prisons because you could kill somebody if they do it right. I’m not going to do it, don’t worry. But the interpretation of that stuff and the fact that firearms are allowed inside the zone – that’s because of state laws and that makes sense there – I can’t carry the newspaper, I can’t carry string, I can’t carry tape, but if I had a concealed weapons permit I could carry that.”

And anyone within the Clean Zone area could be arrested if they are in possession of any of the prohibited items. Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin said officers are trained to use common sense when making those decisions.

“All arrests must be approved by command authority. There not just arbitrary and an officer doesn’t make an arrest on his own accord. It goes through a process. And we’ll have prosecutors and attorneys embedded into that process so that we know we’re making lawful and proper arrests.”

Tampa resident George McDowell brought up an issue that’s not in the ordinance. Tampa City Council has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment for use during the RNC. Riot gear is among the items approved for purchase out of the $50 million federal grant given to the city for RNC security.

“I strongly believe that when the police force looks intimidating, they generate insurgency. I strongly feel that way. When someone gets in your face, you react. If you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. I strongly feel that the police should keep a low profile. Be available in case something occurs, but don’t promote it or instigate it.”

And that prompted Mulhern to ask Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin about just what officers would be wearing

“The uniform of the day will be the short-sleeve shirt uniform that you see me wearing, I just happen to have the long-sleeve shirt uniform on. I don’t think I’ll be wearing long-sleeves those days either. There will be officers that will be able to put on riot gear, but that’s only if necessary. I hope that they sit in the duffel bag that the officers are issued. Not every officer will be issued riot gear; those will be specific officers that are assigned to specific assignments. You will see several hundred officers on bicycles with an even softer uniform like a Polo shirt and shorts so that they’re comfortable riding their bikes in August. That’s going to be the approach. If people come out there in riot gear that means bad things have already happened.”

“That’s good. We did buy a lot of it though.”

And the possibility that some officers may have to suit up in heavy and hot protective gear is one of the reasons the proposed ordinance contains a one hour time limit on permitted protests. Officers and attorneys drafting the ordinance say the time limit protects both officers and protesters from the scorching August heat. But Dave Schneider, an organizer for the Coalition to March on the RNC, said that was yet another violation of First Amendment rights.

“The patriots back in 1770, almost 242 years ago, went to go protest the British occupation of the colonies. It wasn’t them that struck first. It wasn’t them that were violent. It was the British soldiers that gunned them down in Boston. And you all have an opportunity to say that Mayor Buckhorn’s characterization of protesters is wrong. And his ability and his attempt to limit our speech is wrong. You have an ability to be the patriots that I know you hope to be.”

Council member Lisa Montelione expects some changes to the ordinance. That includes increasing the time limit on permitted protests to 90 minutes. Most of the council agreed with that except for Mary Mulhern who doesn’t think there should be any time limit. A first vote on the ordinance is now scheduled for April 19.

Here's our full RNC coverage.

Tampa revised proposal for RNC "Clean Zone"

NLG Comments to Tampa City Council on Proposed RNC Ordinance: WMNF News

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