During the last three Republican national conventions, police officers have arrested hundreds of people as the gatherings have drawn thousands of protesters objecting to the party’s positions on a range of issues, from wars to the economy to the environment.
But this time around, the protesters planning to gather in Tampa, Fla., the last week in August hope their ranks will be swelled by the Occupy movement, whose members have said that they see the party’s expected nominee, Mitt Romney, as the embodiment of a financial system that favors the rich and corporations over ordinary citizens.
Now, in an effort to control demonstrations and prevent disturbances, officials in Tampa are taking unusual steps that they say will help ensure public safety but which many demonstrators and civil liberties advocates say will place unacceptable limits on public dissent.
In May the city adopted a temporary ordinance that will clamp down on protest activity in dozens of blocks near the Tampa Convention Center. Among other things, the ordinance requires a permit for groups of 50 or more to gather in parks, sets a time limit of 90 minutes on parades, and bans an array of items, including glass bottles, aerosol cans and pieces of rope longer than 6 feet. It also provided for an official parade route for protesters along with viewing areas.
During public debates, some Tampa residents and City Council members opposed the rules, calling them excessive. Others complained that while the ordinance outlawed water pistols, actual pistols were allowed for those with permits to carry a concealed weapon. Although Tampa’s mayor, Bob Buckhorn, had asked the state’s governor, Rick Scott, to ban firearms during the convention, the governor has refused.
Buckhorn said the city did its best to accommodate varying interests in coming up with the rules.
“This balances the concerns of the vast majority of people coming here to protest peacefully,” he said recently, while “providing for a reasonable expectation of safety for the delegates and the convention guests.”
But protest organizers strongly disagree. Members of a protest group called resistRNC say they will avoid the official parade route and viewing areas. Amos Miers, 35, a spokesman for the group, said members preferred to pick their own spots to assemble and march.
“We were born with the right to move freely from place to place and speak our minds,” Miers said.
Weighing security concerns and First Amendment rights has become a quadrennial issue in cities hosting national political conventions. While both major parties’ conventions have become targets of protests, the Republican gatherings have involved larger demonstrations and resulted in numerous lawsuits by people who have said that they were wrongly arrested.
Buckhorn said that in devising the rules, officials in Tampa have studied previous conventions and economic summits that have drawn protesters. The Tampa police have said that they expect the majority of protesters to be law abiding, but that a certain number will likely be bent on disruption and may engage in vandalism or violence.
Protesters, on the other hand, said that officials may be using the specter of disorder to justify heavy-handed tactics. They added that over the last few years the authorities in cities where large protests took place have appeared to follow a script that includes pre-emptive detainment, indiscriminate mass arrests and infiltration of protest groups.
The resistRNC website includes a “Notice to Law Enforcement Spying on Us,” which states that the group is not planning violent actions. The site’s creators also said that people who identify an informant may receive an award that they have named after Brandon Darby, a man from Texas who worked secretly for the Federal Bureau of Investigation while organizing a group to travel to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
The police may also absorb lessons from the 2008 convention in St. Paul. On the first day of the convention there, large crowds of masked youths smashed bank windows while the authorities appeared to be taken by surprise. Later, officers used plastic bullets and tear gas, sometimes targeting onlookers, journalists and protesters who appeared to have done nothing wrong.
James H. Shimberg Jr., the city lawyer for Tampa, said that the police department there has trained officers in how to monitor protests effectively while respecting the rights of participants.
“Our goal is not to arrest anybody,” he said. “But if there are troublemakers out there they will not be tolerated.”
As the convention approaches, both the police and protesters are preparing.
The Tampa government has paid $57,000 to sublease a lot, which will be open to protesters 24 hours a day, a few hundred feet from the convention center. About half of a $50 million federal security grant has been allocated to pay 1,000 local officers and 3,000 officers from other cities to police the protests. The city has also bought gas masks for officers and installed security cameras in downtown Tampa.
At the same time, the National Lawyers Guild is assembling a legal support team of volunteer lawyers from Florida to represent protesters. Members of Occupy groups from around the country are planning caravans to Tampa. And the Rev. Bruce Wright, of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, said that he is arranging for an encampment called Romneyville to be set up on private property, where he said the city’s rules will not apply.
“We are looking at it as kind of a refuge,” Wright said of the camp, adding that on the first day of the convention it will be used as a staging ground for a march meant to highlight the problems of poverty, unemployment and homelessness.