Occupy Tampa celebrates its first birthday; members reminisce

10/02/12 Janelle Irwin
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Occupy Tampa turned a year old last week. Supporters marked the occasion with a series of events yesterday in downtown Tampa including a march, sign waving and chalking the sidewalk in front of the Tampa Police Department. One Occupy protester, Andrew Speirs, was confronted by a police officer while drawing political messages in yellow chalk.

Speirs, an active protester during the Republican National Convention in August, complained that police were making free speech less of right and more regulated. A court upheld the right of a protester in Orlando to write political messages on public sidewalks in March. But despite that, Speirs said police officers continue to challenge the act as free speech.

“Really I should be able to write whatever I want no matter what it says because if people can walk around with signs that say ‘God Hates Fags’ why can’t I write ‘fuck the police’ on the ground?”

About a half dozen police officers showed up to monitor activists’ activities in front of the downtown police station, but protesters dispersed before any further confrontation. After the group marched through downtown remembering their inaugural year as an activist movement. Nick Windholz was arrested in November for being in a park after closing.

“I was actually still sleeping when it happened so I got woken up, kicked in the shoulder by one of the faithful TPD officers and basically told us that if we don’t leave the park we were going to be arrested and taken to jail. They took four of us to jail.”

The second time he was arrested was in December when dozens of others with the group were arrested in Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. Protesters had been sleeping on the sidewalk in front of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, but decided to move after falling under considerable police scrutiny. Most of the Occupiers were arrested after police asked them to leave and they didn’t. But Windholz was arrested for violating the trespass warning he was given at Kiley Garden the previous month.

“But it only says on my trespassing warning it only says Kiley Gardens. That’s where I was restricted from and in the riverfront park I was actually delivering the whole group pizzas. I had just gone to the Hub to get a drink and the Dominos guy came in so I spent my last $15 on pizza to bring to the park to share with everybody and then officer Buscher saw me – he was on top of the hill, saw me walking up to the hill where everybody else was at and screamed ‘arrest Nick in the green hat.’”

Even though Windholz spent hours waiting in a police transport vehicle and then more waiting to be booked into and released from the Hillsborough County Jail, the event is one of his favorite Occupy memories.

“Seeing all of our protesters coming in after us because I was the first paddy wagon – seeing everybody else coming in, we were all smiles and cheering and just, so happy there were, like, 30 of us in jail at the same time.”

Protesters with Occupy Tampa found themselves in the spotlight for all of their attempts to occupy public parks. They eventually settled in West Tampa’s Voice of Freedom Park after the owner, Tampa businessman Joe Redner, gave them permission to set up an overnight camp. But by day, the group was hard at work organizing direct actions to call attention to what they see as a failed political system. Chris Kuleci took part in an action where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was mic checked during a fundraising event for his use of Goldman Sachs campaign contributions.

“They pretty much ushered us out. It was kind of funny. A couple people got in – they had revolving doors and so they were pushing us out but they just walked through the revolving door and went back in and kept yelling out the mic check to finish it up. It was a pretty amazing scene.”

Corporate money in politics has been one of the group’s biggest beefs with the nation’s political system. In December, Occupy Tampa protested an accounting office called Robert Watkins and Company because several political action committees were serviced at that address. Sherry Suttrich is an Occupy activist from St. Pete. She said those kinds of actions have awakened the public to the problems created by the 2010 Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to contribute unlimited funds into political campaigns.

“The money in politics – the Move to Amend Campaign, member of Occupy, we’re having a stampede. We’re stamping money and I don’t think people realize what that, when that law was passed, what impact that had on the political landscape and how much money is just pouring into these campaigns.”

The Occupy movement in Tampa has had ups and downs with its number of followers over the past year. Tristan Lear came in late in game to help with opposition to the Republican National Convention. He said one night while camping in Voice of Freedom Park, police officers dropped a woman off at their campsite and told her that she had a lot in common with the group.

“She’s dressed in some kind of costume – some kind of extreme stripper-y, Halloween-y costume. I forget what it was a costume of, but most people just described her as the deranged prostitute – no offense to deranged prostitutes.”

Some of the activists there when she was ushered in by police were concerned that she may be wearing a recording device. When they confronted her, Lear said the woman exposed herself and then ran down Main Street away from the encampment.

“It was a cute gesture from the cops. The sociopathic grin on the officer’s face while he was watching it happen is never going to leave my mind. I would like to think that cops have better plans for people that need mental help, but.”

When Occupy Tampa began as an offshoot to the Occupy Wall Street movement they were criticized by some for lacking direction. But Nathan Schwartz, one of the group’s veterans, said they have accomplished a lot over the past 12 months.

“We have changed public dialogue and people will – I get this all the time, what have you guys done? And you would never have front page spreads about economic disparity or talking about the foreclosure issue or talking about the way that things are being talked about now. We’ve changed language, we’ve changed dialogue and that’s where you start changing minds.”

After the march, Occupy Tampa supporters waved signs in front of Curtis Hixon Park – the place many of them consider their first Occupy home. After that they held a general assembly to plan future events. During their march, Occupy Tampa activists said they would continue protesting until they see changes in the system – they even wrote on the sidewalk, “this occupation is not leaving”.

Here's our complete coverage of Occupy Tampa

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Image of the movement

Writing Fuck the Police on the ground within a few feet from their memorial to cops who have been killed is not very good for public image of the Occupy movement. Some things do more harm then good.