Occupy Tampa protesters build rapport with police
By KEITH MORELLI
In New York, hundreds were charged, and in other cities confrontations have occurred.
But in Tampa, the atmosphere has been much more congenial.
“Maybe it’s the weather,” said Blake Westlake, an organizer with Occupy Tampa, which began its occupation of Lykes Gaslight Square on Thursday. Some protestors stayed around and were still at the downtown park this morning.
Demonstrators have obeyed police commands to keep sidewalks clear and to not camp in city parks, Westlake said. Late Sunday, about 15 protesters were told to move from Lykes park to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, a few blocks away.
They peacefully complied, Westlake said.
So far, officers have not made any arrests in the lingering rally, police said.
“It’s going very well,” police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. “Any rules we’ve explained to them, they’ve been very accommodating. I think they had their mission, which was to make sure their voice was heard on their issues, and they didn’t want to interfere with anything going on in the city.”
McElroy said protesters accommodated a memorial police run Saturday, which had reserved Lykes Gaslight Square. Occupy Tampa put the word out on their website and Facebook page about the run and urged cooperation. Organizers even suggested protesters buy T-shirts, the proceeds of which go into a fund to help families of slain officers.
Police opened its headquarters next to Lykes park so demonstrators could use restrooms when businesses had closed.
Occupy Tampa is loosely connected to Occupy Wall Street, an ongoing demonstration in New York City. There is no central leadership within the movement, which organizers prefer. Word of the rallies is spread through social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which have prompted thousands to join rallies in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Westlake said police have told Occupy Tampa protesters they could not camp in the park but could stay on the sidewalks as long as they didn’t block foot traffic. Officers suggested moving the rally to the Curtis Hixon Park because there was more space to spread out.
“We have a decent relationship with the police,” Westlake said. “They’ve been out there, and they’ve been really helpful.”
Protesters in other cities don’t have such a rapport with law enforcement, Westlake said.
“I guess it’s on a city-by-city basis,” he said.
Just how long the Tampa rally will last is anyone’s guess, he said.
“From Day One,” he said, “we’ve not been planning more than a day or two in advance.”
But once protesters arrived, they decided to stay.
“They really wanted to be out there,” he said.
He said some protesters have been helped by some unlikely supporters in the park.
“We’ve been shown the ropes by the local homeless guys,” Westlake said. “They are showing us the safest places to sleep, what’s dangerous and what’s not dangerous, and the safe places to go.”
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Occupy Tampa gathers again today
The rain isn’t stopping about 50 people gathered downtown to rally against corporate greed and government corruption as part of the fledging Occupy Tampa movement.
Wearing rain ponchos and carrying umbrellas, the protestors huddled together in the middle of an otherwise deserted Lykes Gaslight Park, gathering for what’s part rally, part organizational meeting.
“We’re wet, we’re cold. I think that’s the only thing people are thinking about right now,” Occupy Tampa facilitator Jay Fortner said.
“But it makes me humbled to see the community out here on a day like this,” Fortner, 25, said.
What began as the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City last month has since spread to cities across the country, as protestors identifying themselves as “the 99 percent” gather to demand greater accountability from government and economic equality and opportunity from corporations.
“I think it’s important for myself and my family and the 99 percent of us to have our voices heard,” said Sara Dietrich of St. Petersburg, carrying her sons, 3 and 1.
Dietrich, an emergency room nurse, said she is moving to Colorado in a few weeks and plans to attend Occupy Minnesota on her move out west.
Emanuel Sferios has been keeping an eye on the movement from afar, until today.
“You don’t have to have a political perspective to see that Wall Street has abused its power,” said Sferios, 42, who owns a dry-cleaning business in St. Pete Beach.
As a small business owner, Sferios often can’t take part in rallies during the week, but he said he will participate when his schedule allows.
“I’m reposting stuff on Facebook, and I’ll continue to support it,” Sferios said.
More than 600 people gathered in Lykes Gaslight Park on Thursday for Occupy Tampa’s first public demonstration, and about 300 people gathered there Friday. Six people were there on Saturday, according to the Tampa Police Department.
Organizers are trying to keep the momentum going with today’s gathering, which will be far less visible than their initial protest because of the small number of people downtown on Sundays and, now, the rain.
The next rally is scheduled for Saturday at Lykes Gaslight Park, Fortner said.
People are also gathering today in Bradenton, and similar rallies took place Saturday in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and several other Florida cities.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.