BayWalk protesters demand free speech not corporate bailouts

10/19/09 Seán Kinane
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On Friday night, over 80 free speech activists demonstrated at BayWalk to protest the St. Pete City Council’s decision to give away the sidewalk in front of that failing entertainment complex.

Two weeks ago, after an earlier vote where the City Council refused to give the public sidewalk away, the activist group St. Pete for Peace said they would not protest there for a year as a good-faith gesture. But following Thursday’s reversal by City Council, that group, as well as others including the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, quickly called demonstrations for Friday night.

There was a festive atmosphere during the demonstration on what might have been the last warm, humid night of the extended summer season. Greta Hunziker is a member of the Radical Cheerleaders, a group of women who brought pom-poms to help lead their cheers. She’s a nineteen year old sophomore at Eckerd College.

The sidewalk vacation was only a part of the so-called “BayWalk revitalization” plan passed by the City Council. The city will give away $700,000 of federal stimulus funds to the nearly vacant downtown mall for security improvements. For its part, the current controlling owner of BayWalk, C.W. Capital, pledged in a letter to the city that they would invest $6 million into the open-air entertainment complex. But the sidewalk vacation was essential to the deal, according to BayWalk managers, because they want to be able to shuttle protesters to an area across the street.

Eckerd College student Fabio Urbina was one of a small number of BayWalk patrons Friday night. After he finished watching a movie, Urbina said that contrary to the claims of BayWalk owners, the protesters did not detract from his experience.

Not all activist groups joined St. Pete for Peace in the proposed moratorium on protests after the original vote against sidewalk privatization. The International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement and the African People’s Solidarity Committee marched, held signs, and chanted at BayWalk Friday night. Chimurenga Waller, the international president of the Uhuru Movement, says the $700,000 should not go to wealthy corporations but should be used for economic development in impoverished African communities of St. Pete.

Activists and lawyers have said they would sue to keep the sidewalk private or at least to allow demonstrations on that site. In an August letter to the Mayor and City Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida cited four cases that held “that local government efforts to privatize public sidewalks do not change their character from traditional public forums to private property whose owners can exclude people engaging in First Amendment activity.”

In one of those cases, an appeals court struck down First Amendment restrictions in the case of Salt Lake City public space that was given to a church. Mark Kamleiter is an attorney in St. Petersburg.

BayWalk could play a role in the upcoming elections for Mayor and City Council. Mayoral Candidate Kathleen Ford opposed the sidewalk privatization. According to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll released over the weekend Ford leads her opponent Bill Foster 39 to 34 percent. Foster has said he preferred a temporary measure to outright vacation of the sidewalk. The same poll found that 46 percent of voters approve of the sidewalk privatization, while 44 percent oppose. Of the Current City Council members who are running for reelection, two voted against sidewalk vacation – Jeff Danner and Leslie Curran, and two voted for it – Karl Nurse and James Kennedy.

Several of their challengers opposed the sidewalk privatization, including Danner’s opponent Leonard Schmiege. “The corporate welfare issue, the economic issue, is another reason to not vote for the vacation.”

Letter from ACLU of FL to city

First Unitarian Church v. Salt Lake City Corporation

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