Few & Far Between

Protesters Say They Were ‘Successful’ in Tampa Despite Low Turnout

Plagued by sparse attendance throughout the GOP convention, protesters from Code Pink and Occupy Wall Street still say they had some success. Lynn Waddell reports on the mass arrests that never materialized.

08.31.12 5:10 PM ET

As delegates cheered Mitt Romney inside the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, 500 protesters at a downtown Tampa park eight blocks away crowned an effigy of the presidential nominee “king of the one percent.”

The “Romination Coronation GOP Send Off” brought together various groups that had demonstrated throughout the week. They congregated under ominous clouds as a storm once again threatened to dampen their messages. But as this was the final RNC protest, activists were not to be deterred by drops of rain and forecasted lightning. Members of Code Pink, a feminist antiwar group, donned pig noses and top hats and performed brief skits mocking the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, who they say don’t pay enough in taxes. An anarchist in a panda suit mingled in the crowd while a protester wearing a rubber boot on his head shouted through a bullhorn. Union members carried signs demanding a fair wage. Occupy Wall Street protesters itched for action, though they were ragged from a week sleeping in tents at an Occupy Tampa encampment and another dubbed “Romneyville."

Activists said they were disappointed by the low turnout at demonstrations throughout the week—the largest march had only about 1,000 participants—but said they hoped their voices were heard just the same. “It was successful in that we got to talk to some people. We were able to get into some of the RNC events,” said Karen Boyer, a member of Code Pink from Portland, Ore. During the convention, the group’s focus was what they perceive as the GOP’s war on women.

Boyer and other protesters blamed the sparse attendance on the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac and reports that law enforcement was preparing for violent protests.

“I think people were afraid there might by violence and that they might get arrested for protesting,” Boyer said as law-enforcement officers lined the streets and police helicopters circled overhead. “The police presence is overkill. They outnumber the protesters probably 3 or 5 to 1.”

Earlier in the week, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn defended deploying 3,500 law-enforcement officers to secure the city. “In a post-9/11 environment, you can’t have too many,” he said as a small group of protesters faced off with police in SWAT gear nearby. “There is a very small minority of folks in these crowds that will cause problems. We will deal with them, but we want the others who are here to express themselves, to let them do that. That’s why we are being flexible when it comes to these types of events.”

But the city’s expectation of 10,000 protesters was unrealistic from the start, said Michael Long, a spokesman for the Florida Consumer Action Network. “This is Tampa Bay, not New York or L.A.,” he said.

Fearing mass arrests, Tampa authorities had set up a streamlined processing system at the county jail. As of 10 p.m. Thursday, police had made two arrests related to the event. The only reported convention-related serious injury occurred late that night, when a National Guardsman accidentally shot a fellow soldier while showing him his gun in a hotel room.

The two arrests came early in the week. One demonstrator was arrested for carrying a machete and another for refusing to uncover his face, violating the city’s weeklong ban on masks. But police soon backed off enforcing the face-covering ban and also allowed lively but peaceful marches without a permit. Ultimately, even the rowdier protesters were hard-pressed to get arrested, though a few pushed the boundaries.

On Thursday afternoon, a handful of Occupy activists and environmentalists chained themselves together and blocked entry to a TECO coal plant about 15 miles south of Tampa. Law enforcement was forced to saw them apart but arrested none after the protesters agreed to leave.

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask said Thursday night that police had swiped one of his masks from the back of his head earlier in the week but had since allowed him and others to wear them on the backs of their heads.

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Following the park demonstration, the protesters set out on an impromptu march through the downtown streets of Tampa, singing and shouting. Independent presidential write-in candidate Kay Hayes, also known as “Occupy mom” in L.A., campaigned through a bullhorn and was trailed by a supporter carting a television screen that played her ad.

The marchers’ messages were countered by others in Yiddish blaring from a colorful bus of Hasidic Jews from New York who support Romney.

Many of the protesters peeled off as the march reached the security boundary more than four blocks from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the convention. But about 50 anarchists, mainly from Occupy Wall Street, carried on and formed a wall with arms linked and faces covered. They demanded that police allow them to get closer to the convention hall. When stopped by law enforcement, the protesters sat in the street and chanted.

They dispersed as the hours ticked away, and by 1 a.m., as the RNC after-party Journey concert winded down, the protest had dwindled to six.

By Friday, many were on the road to Charlotte, N.C., to send their messages to delegates at the Democratic National Convention, which begins Tuesday.

“All our issues aren’t partisan,” said Aaron Black, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who will escort many of the group’s members to the DNC.

The march goes on.