Republican convention protesters have questions for Tampa officials during ACLU rights forum

08/08/12 Liz McKibbon
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The Republican National Convention begins in Tampa in less than three weeks; areas of the city designated as the Event Zone and Designated Protest Area will bear additional restrictions. The ACLU of Florida hosted a panel discussion Tuesday night at the University of Tampa to screen questions about personal freedoms during the event.

The panel discussion between city officials and citizens was the third of its kind, since March.

Mike Pheneger is the president of the ACLU of Florida and an outspoken critic of the city’s Free Speech Zones, or designated protest areas near the site of the convention. He said protesters should be considered equal to visitors for other large events.

“What’s the difference between a Super Bowl crowd, a Gasparilla crowd and a demonstration? Anyone wanna know what the real answer is? The people who are demonstrating are likely to be sober.”

Several items that could be considered weapons will be banned from areas of Tampa. People with a concealed carry permit, however, can bring a handgun, freely and legally in those same areas. Some members of the audience criticized the city for the contradiction, even though they don’t have the power to change it. John Bennett, Assistant Chief of the Tampa Police Department was one panelist who conceded there is no hope of modifying the regulation before the Convention. Bennett says the rule would have been tough to monitor.

“Well and the other thing I think we need to look at is even if it was changed, then there’s the operational side of saying well how to do you ensure there’s no guns in that space. I mean if you said there’s no guns allowed on an airplane, and there was absolutely no screening process, then you’re just voluntarily complying to that.”

The event’s moderator invited attendees to ask questions via index cards, but relented to a more casual environment after several outbursts from the crowd. One audience member was concerned that police officers had not been briefed on the rights of photographers.

"They have been told over and over again that they’re not allowed to take anybody’s camera, that they are subject to being videoed and photographed. We’ve showed them examples of how that’s actually worked in favor of law enforcement in the past as well,” Bennett said.

Another concern was where protestors will sleep. Even though the Free Speech Zone is accessible 24-hours a day, camping gear will not be allowed. Bennett claimed hotel rooms are available in the area for as low as $20 a night and suggested visitors reserve one. He said police officers may not necessarily arrest violators for sleeping in public areas or for possession of banned items. Bennett said decisions will be based on public safety.

“You know if one group is looking to overpower part of the community and their carrying weapons and they're looking to hurt people or hurt property, and that keeps other people from coming down and expressing [themselves] because of fear, I mean what have we accomplished as a community.”

An approved parade route has been designated for demonstrations. City attorney Jim Shimberg said the list of groups planning a parade should be on the city’s website by the end of the week.

“There’s still plenty of slots available for groups that are interested in having a parade Monday though Thursday. I think there’s only 4 or 5 that are currently scheduled. The city will continue to accept applications for that and there’s very minimal requirements—you just basically fill out a form. Because there’s no fee required, there’s no insurance required. We’ve tried to make it as user friendly and as facilitating as possible.”

Roads surrounding the footprint of the convention will be closed, including part of Channelside Drive and the Selmon Expressway. Shimberg asserts mobility to and from downtown will not be limited.

“I know there’s been a lot of confusion about that. There’s been people that have said, ‘Oh, the Davis Island Bridge is going to be closed,’ which is not true. ‘There’s not going to be anyway to get onto Harbor Island,’ which is not true. So there’s a lot of misinformation out there, but people—downtown is going to be open for business that week. It’s not business as usual, but people will be able to drive downtown, people are planning to work that week downtown.”

Any person arrested within the Event Zone area downtown will appear at the Orient Road jail. Rocky Brancato is assistant public defender. He said teams of about 20 attorneys have been assigned to 24-hour shifts for each day of the RNC. He expects most arrests to be misdemeanors with a bail of either $250 or $500. In an effort to move people through the jails quickly, more opportunities will be available to see a judge.

“Because we have those dockets that we don’t normally have, the additional two dockets one at 2 [p.m.] and one at 8 [p.m.], if you get arrested that day, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be in court that same day on one of those dockets.”

City Council member Mary Mulhern voted against the Event Zone ordinance. She said many of her concerns were voiced at the forum.

“I’m just gonna really have a lot of faith and hope in our police department, because its really going to be up to them to use their discretion to make sure that things remain peaceful, and that its only the people who come here to be violent and disruptive and destructive that get taken out.”

Mulhern said she’s looking forward to September.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn will host three town hall meetings next week with various city departments to answer additional questions.

Town Hall Meetings with Mayor Bob Buckhorn:

Aug 14, 6pm - 8pm, Florida Aquarium

Aug 15, 6pm - 8pm, Stetson University College of Law, Tampa campus

Aug 16, 6pm - 8pm, Kate Jackson Community Center

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