Tampa's Republican Convention Event Zone passes first reading; protesters bid farewell to First Amendment

05/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa City Council passed the first reading of their modified “Clean Zone” ordinance Thursday morning; in the past few weeks the city has addressed some concerns with the proposal, like increasing time limits on protests and shrinking the area. They even changed the name to “Event Zone”. But some activists still aren’t happy with it.

In the original “Clean Zone” ordinance, protesters would only have 60 minutes to hold demonstrations in certain areas. It also would have charged large groups a fee of $50 to apply for a permit to hold a protest. In the new “Event Zone” version, the time limit has been increased to 90-minutes and the fee waived. But the proposed ordinance still includes an outright ban of masks, including gas masks. Council member Mary Mulhern said she did not support that prohibition.

“You’re banning bringing in toxic irritants by the public. So, If you can ban that you shouldn’t need to ban the masks. So, I can’t support that and I want to continue to talk about that.”

But Tampa’s assistant police chief John Bennett, argued that the provision was still necessary. Not because of peaceful protesters who abide by the rules he said, but for those who might smuggle harmful chemicals into areas where they are prohibited.

“If you’re committed to harming the public or harming public officials or the government and you’re deploying a weaponized irritant, you’re going to protect yourself while you’re doing it and it’s just another opportunity for us to intervene before that happens.”

The resounding rhetoric in this debate is that the ordinance is intended to protect the city from chaotic demonstrators and not to punish the good ones. But Mulhern, one of only two council members to vote against the ordinance, pointed out that it is the peaceful demonstrators who are often the innocent bystanders of things like pepper spray. Chief Bennett said even though those items are routinely carried by law enforcement officers, they would only be used under certain circumstances.

“If you have a group of people that are doing criminal behavior, it’s a less lethal option. Obviously we try and use all kinds of less lethal options in our tool kit. Even if someone has deadly force on their side, we’re trying to something lower than that to preserve life, that’s our ultimate goal. So, the only time we would get into that tool kit is if the element or the threat – everybody was involved in that act, it was completely criminal.”

Yvonne Yolie Capin also voted against the measure. One of her concerns was that people who travel to Tampa for the Republican National Convention in August be given a designated place to sleep – like a parking garage.

“That would protect people from inclimate weather. It would also be a secure location. It would help law enforcement know - instead of people being scattered all over the city, this would be a better way of knowing where our guests are staying or helping our guests.”

About 25 activists from various organizations showed up in opposition of the ordinance. About a dozen spoke to City Council against, but it only one speaker, Tampa resident Laura D. Zahn, spoke in favor of the proposal.

“Freedom of speech offers us the right to agree or disagree. It does not offer us the right to be disobedient, disrespectful or destructive. It is not freedom of attitude. It is not freedom of anger. It is not freedom of anarchy. The saying ‘actions speak louder than words’ is not constitutional law. Our freedom is the freedom of speech, not freedom of actions.”

The pending temporary ordinance bans a long list of items within the boundaries that cover all of downtown and some nearby areas like Ybor City and the University of Tampa. That includes things like metal-tipped umbrellas and squirt guns. Due to an overriding state law though, it does not ban real guns. Mayor Bob Buckhorn asked the Governor to make an exception to that for the Republican Convention, but was turned down. One opponent of the Event Zone ordinance, Jake Vigness agrees with the Governor on that one, but does have another problem with the issue.

“I think that the constitution should be protected at all costs. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to feel the same way about the First Amendment as we do about the Second. And that’s my concern.”

But other opponents were still annoyed by the contradiction. Several speakers during public comment said that they would hold Tampa accountable for people injured or disenfranchised as a result of the ordinance. Council member Lisa Montelione supported the ordinance and cautioned those who didn’t.

“This morning with several of the speakers and as well as on radio and articles and on Facebook and blogs that I’ve been reading, there are already threats being made. In my opinion, we were already threatened here this morning.”

And her colleague, Mike Suarez, compared Tampa to Denver where he said things went smoothly with the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

“Restraint is very important on both sides. If something happens, Chief Bennett, Chief Castor, the rest of the police department are going to be held accountable. This is not Oakland. This is not New York. This is not Minneapolis. This is Tampa. And we have to remember that whenever we talk about other movements in other parts of the country. We’re different. We have not had the kind of police disturbances and police brutality that you’ve seen over the course of 50-years.”

Following the meeting, opponents of the measure held a retirement party for Mr. Bill O. Rights. During that they served refreshments and sent a copy of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, soaring into the Tampa skyline. Food Not Bombs activist Robert Pelchat went wearing a spray painted “no event zone” t-shirt and a party hat.

“What we’re doing is we’re giving the Bill of Rights a proper farewell because the city today decided to have the police which they assign to Occupy – beat it and shoot it in the head – with this draconian, Orwellian ordinance which will limit our free speech in every possible sense.”

Some changes were made to the ordinance this morning in addition to those already written. That includes council member Harry Cohen’s amendment to add parts of Harbor Island back into the Event Zone area and Lisa Montelione’s to include all city parks in the Event Zone rules to make permitting easier.

Previous Coverage of the Republican Convention and the Clean Zone

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Co-chair, Green Party of Florida

The arrogant and misguided action taken by the City of Tampa is an affront to the Bill of Rights and to all freedom-loving citizens, and it is clearly unconstitutional. Nothing points up the absurdity of this ordinance more than the fact that squirt guns are outlawed but REAL guns are not. Why is that? Because a citizen's right to legally carry a weapon for self defense is enshrined in state law. Do we need a state law that also says we have a right to carry an umbrella? Or a gas mask, in case we are an innocent victim of the mass teargassing and peppers praying that has occurred in so many places? Any government official who supports this kind of draconian law in unfit to serve in public office. There are ample laws already on the books that prohibit violent behavior against persons or property, and violators can and will be prosecuted. Any law that seeks to remove inalienable rights guaranteed under the Constitution should be opposed, and I hope there are attorneys willing to challenge this atrocious attack on our Civil Liberties.