Tampa passes temporary "Event Zone" ordinance for Republican convention; protesters infuriated
Tampa City Council passed an ordinance Thursday that will prohibit certain items and actions in downtown Tampa during the Republican National Convention this August; protesters say it violates their free speech rights and city officials are still working on finding a way to skirt a Florida law that allows guns in the so-called Event Zone.
Among the provisions passed today, groups of 50 or more will have to get permits to march or assemble in certain areas. Even though Tampa City Council added more opportunities for permits and fewer restrictions, Occupy Tampa’s Samantha Bowden is still worried that she and her first-time voter sister could find themselves in a sticky situation.
“I’d really like to know how they intend to make sure that every person is permitted. Otherwise, they could simply be arrested for marching, for walking in the wrong park – being that wrong person that pushes the number overboard. It’s incoherent. It’s not complete.”
Bowden was one of seven members of the public to speak out against the ordinance. None spoke in favor. Previous versions of the ordinance limited permitted rallies to what had been called the “Clean Zone.” But the version passed today includes at least 5 more parks outside what is now called the Event Zone. In the original version, marches could be no longer than 60 minutes; now they can be an hour and a half. Amos Miers is an organizer for the Free Speech Project, but he declined to say how large his coalition is. said he doesn’t think any restrictions should be placed on speech.
The ordinance bans people from wearing any kind of mask, including gas masks. But right before passing the temporary ordinance, city council members also approved the purchase of extra gas masks for officers to wear. In previous meetings they’ve allocated funds to things like armored vehicles and riot gear. Opponents argue that those items give police an intimidating presence. Michael Pheneger, president of the ACLU of Florida, suggested that council should adopt policies that softened that image.
“Why not establish a host committee to welcome demonstrators? Why not have city leaders visit these groups when they come to town to welcome them? Assign city liaison to identify and resolve problems before misunderstandings arise. Commit the city to providing water and shade to demonstrators along parade routes. Ensure that every law enforcement officer understands that demonstrators are not enemies, that they have a right to be there and to have them smile, be friendly and welcoming; to be flexible in enforcing the regulation and not be slavishly adherent to it.”
Both protesters and city council members are concerned that firearms can’t be banned because of an overriding state law. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn appealed to Governor Rick Scott to provide an exemption to that but it was quickly rejected. Council member Lisa Montelione hopes to get a different answer by drafting letters to other entities like the Tampa Bay legislative delegation and Attorney General Pam Bondi. The board voted unanimously to move forward with that plan.
“Several of friends, associates, colleagues, people that I’ve met sometimes for the first time at events who admitted that they are concealed weapon permit holders and that they felt that it was a prudent decision; that they did not mind leaving their weapons at home during the four days of the RNC.”
The Event Zone ordinance passed 4-2. Charlie Miranda was absent. Council member Yvonne Capin voted against it because she said the area was too large. The other no vote, Mary Mulhern, doesn’t think it’s necessary.
“I feel like there are so many things in it that will allow, possibly allow things to escalate so that those that are here for peaceful reasons can be arrested, can be isolated. And I don’t feel that confidence from this ordinance that we’re making it a safer place.”
Activists from various groups like Occupy Tampa and ResistRNC grinned when Mulhern spoke. Council member Mike Suarez wasn’t received as fondly. He made some comparisons that drew groans, growls and flailing arms from Event Zone opponents.
“The people that came out of reconstruction in the 1880s created Jim Crow laws that restricted the right to vote, the right to hold property, many other rights of former slaves and people that were considered citizens under the 14th amendment and we survived. We have had Japanese citizens interned in California and other parts of the west and took their property and trampled on their rights and we survived.”
About an hour before the meeting started, members of Occupy Tampa wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. When approached by officers, Michael Fernandez said he was exercising his First Amendment Rights. Officers didn’t threaten arrest, but Fernandez was still concerned that he would be anyway.
“The protection of my constitutional rights was, in fact, more important than any one thing or anything that I wanted to do. It is the duty of all citizens to do things like this when their government becomes tyrannical.”
Two Occupy Tampa members had been arrested before City Council voted on the ordinance’s first reading earlier this month. Police said they were defacing property, but the protesters argue the chalk could be easily washed off. Fernandez criticized the double standard because a child wouldn’t be arrested for drawing a hopscotch court on a sidewalk. Council member Frank Reddick also called protesters out for writing in the City Hall bathroom at a previous meeting. He sad they had the right to be heard, but not to deface property.
“Now, we sit here and allow you to talk, say what you have to say and when I hear people make comment about criminalizing protesters, you are putting yourself in that position because you are criminalizing this building.”
Firearms will be forbidden in the area immediately surrounding the Republican convention. The Secret Service has not yet disclosed how large that area will be. City council considered asking the Secret Service to make the area excluding weapons larger. City Attorney Jim Schimberg said he didn’t know whether the agency would work with the city on the matter.
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