Tampa protesters hold first overnight occupation of downtown park

10/10/11 Josh Holton & Seán Kinane
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Occupy Tampa protesters occupied a public location downtown all night long for the first time, moving one step closer to a 24-hour-a-day occupation in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. But Keith Cuesta said this is just a tryout for the real deal.

"But this is the preliminary trial run of the occupation. It's almost like a beta test, you know when you're doing computer testing and stuff like that. We're seeing where the bugs are, and we're trying to work out the kinks."

Despite rainy weather, about 80 people came out to Gaslight Park yesterday to march and speak out against what they call economic injustice spanning across America and the world. The General Assembly decided not to begin a full time 24-hour occupation, but they did agree to one thing: sending out a team to stand their ground. Dana Lazarus said the occupation is only a trial run.

“To test the waters on what it’s like to occupy and stay overnight in parks. It’s like a science experiment where they’re gonna go out and collect data, and test their hypothesis and bring it back to the group so that we make sure we do it right when it’s time- when about thousands of people are here.”

By about 4:30 p.m. the group was still split on whether or not to begin full-time occupation. One of the group’s moderators, Blake Westlake said maintaining a good relationship with the police is a concern.

"The one side of the camp is saying, 'Do we step on these toes, you know, do we kind of test our limits with the TPD because they've been so cool with us?' you know, 'Or do we wait? Do we see; you know do we give them the space and stuff like that? Do we give them the space?' And we're balancing those concerns - I shouldn't say we - the whole general assembly is balancing those concerns: Whether or not we do, we don't, why we do or don't, and I think actually given another week or so, a lot of those people will actually have figured it out for what they want to do."

They have had good relations so far, and even refrained from gathering at the park on Saturday to respect a memorial fundraiser for fallen officers. But when they stayed past dark on Sunday night, the protesters were told to leave Gaslight Park by Tampa Police Corporal Robin Penix.

Penix “Y'all plan on stayin' out here tonight, 'cause you all know the park is closed?"

Protester "So, are you telling us we have to leave then?"

Penix "Yeah, the Park is closed. And once the park is closed, you cannot be in the park once it’s closed … alrighty … alrighty … alright y’all have a good night."

The encounter was peaceful, and no one was arrested. Then they migrated to nearby Curtis Hixon Park, where they would continue to push the envelope. A police officer who would only identify himself as Officer Rice approved of the group’s new camp.

“They can stay on public property.”

White blocks lining the public sidewalk along North Ashley Drive were the only thing between the occupiers and handcuffs -- no one is allowed in the park to the west of the blocks after 10 at night, while the public sidewalk to the east is fair game. That’s where about a dozen protesters slept last night – they were required not to block the right-of-way. If the general assembly decides this spot will be permanently occupied, Officer Rice could not say how he might respond.

“I guess we’d just have to wait and see what happens when it happens.”

Members of Occupy Tampa aren’t yet ready to risk arrest for their right to assemble. Some folks said that Occupy Wall St. is successful because the action was planned well in advance. Some of those protesters like Angela Hadley are preparing to Occupy Tampa by consulting the people most familiar with finding a safe place to sleep in public: people without homes.

"So they're gonna show us where they sleep where people have lost their homes and lives, and have now had to take to the streets- Where do they sleep? And we've been meeting people who have degrees and had careers three years ago and lost everything; and have been occupying the streets of Tampa, and they've been kind enough to share that with us, and that's the plan for tonight. And so what happened right now, was the officer came out and told us that the park was closed. And we asked exactly what that meant, to get clarification, and she said that we would have to leave the park."

Blake Westlake saw this as an opportunity for the movement to walk the walk, by working with those in need.

"Particularly there is and has been a homeless problem for a while, and not that 'Oh, there's too many homeless,' but that they're being criminalized for not, you know, having a place to live, or having a place to sleep. And look at what happened in St. Pete over the last couple of years. It's happening here faster and faster by the day. So a lot of these [homeless] guys agreed that we're showing direct solidarity with the the 99%; the most disenfranchised of the disenfranchised. So, you know we want to make sure that they see that we're not here just protesting the system, we're out here supporting the people it's hurt.

The general assembly considered taking a stand against the second reading of a partial ban on panhandling at Tampa City Council. The group also voted to support collective bargaining in the local fire department in hopes of getting their support in return.

"We can take on Tuesday in solidarity with Tampa Fire Department. There is a public forum where you can voice your opinion on their collective bargaining rights. This would show great respect. Solidarity with the fire department, the 99%. They're facing budget cuts and layoffs of 200-400"

The crowd chants: "We are the 99%!..."

Occupy Wall Street and similar movements around the country have received mixed reactions to their leaderless assemblies and diversity of demands. No person can speak for the general assembly, or the 99% of who they say who aren’t super rich. Keith Cuesta thinks the core mission is rooted in democracy.

"Well if we as the people can come together and say that we're not going to accept as much money as is in politics right now, then politicians are going to be forced to listen to the people, which is the point of it all, which is what our democracy is about: listening to the voice of the people, not the voice of the people who have more money."

They plan to begin continuously occupying a public space by this Saturday. That’s when several groups plan solidarity protests with October 15, World Revolution Day & United For Global Change.

Here is our full WMNF coverage of Occupy Tampa

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