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500,000 clogging streets? Unlikely

Activist organizations and experts pooh-pooh the official estimate of half-million protesters in Tampa if the GOP picks the city as its convention site in 2008.

Published July 4, 2006

TAMPA — The memo about protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention sounded ominous.

If Tampa hosts the event, wrote a Tampa Fire Rescue administrator, the city should prepare for up to 500,000 protesters to descend, pitch tents in parks, build bonfires and burn effigies and flags.

Initial word of the estimate, based on reports from the 2004 convention in New York City, put Tampa’s convention bid organizers on the defensive. But weeks later, even antiwar protesters and staunch Republicans find common ground on the subject. They both agree:

No way.

“It’s nice to know the police have such active imaginations,”  said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella organization of more than 1,300 groups.

Sharing her skepticism is Al Austin, a bid organizer who strongly supports the war in Iraq. Tampa is too hot in September, there would be no place for the protesters to stay and difficult for them to get around, they say.

“It would not be much of a significant number,” said Austin, who is leading the local effort to bring the convention to Tampa. “I would say in a worst case scenario, a couple thousand.”

 Cagan wouldn’t take a stab at predicting actual numbers.

“It’s not like selling tickets to a concert,” she said by phone from the World Peace Forum in Vancouver. “We and others will work as hard as we can to turn out large numbers of people, but it is hard to imagine 500,000 people showing up on the streets of Tampa.”

Some might say those same factors that would limit the numbers of protesters also would scare away conventioneers. But those visitors will charter buses to cart them from air-conditioned hotel rooms, which will be set aside as part of the city’s convention contract with the Republican National Committee.

Protesters will be out on the streets.

“The real issue would be getting people hydrated,” said Chris Ernesto, a member of St. Pete for Peace, which stages small weekly demonstrations in downtown St. Petersburg.

Cagan said in New York, demonstrators were able to stay in the homes of friends and families and areas surrounding New York City and ride the subway to protest sites.

“The fact that the Republicans chose to have their convention in 2004 in New York City, which is right in the heart of a greater metropolitan area with one of the largest concentrations of people in the whole country, made it easier to draw large numbers to a demonstration, particular in an area highly critical of the Bush policies,” she said.

In addition to New York City, Tampa is competing with Cleveland and Minneapolis to host the event. The Republican National Committee will announce a host city early next year.

“The Midwest has such a heavy concentration of people within driving distance, my hunch is you’d get larger turnout in either of those cities than Florida,” Cagan said.

The relatively mild protest climate in Tampa and the region is a factor as well.

“Demonstrators like to feel like the people in the area are on their side, partly because they need a place to stay,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University professor who studies protest movements.

A place like New York is better able to accommodate that because it has a large protest culture, he said.

“One doesn’t think of Tampa that way,” Kazin said.

Cities like New York and Washington, D.C., the home base for many activist organizations, are usually the sites of large demonstrations, even without a national event to rally around.

And those groups have long relationships with local police, which makes planning easier, said Steve Theberge, the program coordinator for the War Resisters League in New York City.

An antiwar protest in April drew 350,000 people to New York City, and hundreds of thousands turned out for a demonstration in Washington in September.

National organizers depend on regional groups to help with planning. And though groups like St. Pete for Peace and the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace hold weekly demonstrations, they rarely attract more than a dozen or so people.

“The activism is smaller there, but there is the backbone,” Cagan said. “Those weekly vigils, even though they’re small, the consistency of them is an indication of the level of commitment and the willingness to do whatever the work is. They could provide the on-the-ground anchor for a larger demonstration.”

Local protest organizers pledge they will rise to the challenge.

 Ernesto said the local chapter of Food Not Bombs would be able to provide sustenance.

“If it’s 30,000 or 500,000, we’ll find some way to feed them,” he said.

But he was skeptical about having to feed a half-million hungry demonstrators.

“I would envision there would be nowhere near that number of people,” he said. “On the other hand, if the country continues in the direction it’s going and the Republican candidate is as egregious as (President George) Bush … a lot of it is very dependent on circumstances.”

Regardless, don’t expect bonfires and flag burning. Ernesto said he was among the 500,000 in New York, and most protesters simply want their voices heard, not to burn things.

 He said he hopes the convention comes to Tampa.

 “It would be a great way to energize the progressive community,” Ernesto said.

Chris Uhl, an associate member of the Tampa Bay chapter of Veterans for Peace, pointed out that thousands of people — police estimate 8,000 — turned out for the recent immigration demonstrations, and those were just locals. The Republican convention should generate even more.

“It is a national event,” he said. “It is going to draw a lot of people. I don’t think we’re going to have a half a million people. I don’t think that many people will travel all the way to Florida. I could see tens of thousands.”

Uhl’s organization is considering holding its annual convention in Tampa at the same time as the GOP gathering.

The veterans group typically draws up to 400 people to the event, said Jay Alexander, board member of the Tampa Bay chapter for Veterans for Peace.

Whatever the number, coordinating the protests will be a critical part of convention planning.

Demonstrators will be welcome, said Maj. John Bennett, special operations division commander for the Tampa

Police Department, who will coordinate convention security. But if they want to block city streets or use parks, they’ll need to do advance planning.

“Things that involve an impact on government services need to be permitted,” he said.

And he issued a stern warning to protesters.

“If you want to peacefully demonstrate your First Amendment rights, that’s fine. We will find a way to allocate resources,” he said. “But if you have disruption and anarchy in mind, that’s going to be addressed very assertively.”

Theberge cautioned law enforcement officers against overreacting.

“The most important thing is an understanding on the police’s part that 99 percent are there for a nonviolent expression,” he said. “When there’s clear and open communication, when people feel safe and comfortable, that’s when these demonstrations really work.”

In Miami, at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in 2003, at least 12,000 protesters turned up. When some demonstrators tried to pull down a fence separating them from the conference, police in riot gear subdued them with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.

More than 200 people were arrested, and some were charged with assaulting a police officer. During the GOP convention in 2004, more than 1,800 people were arrested. In both cities, most charges were dropped, leading some critics to say police were more interested in quieting dissent than keeping the peace. Lawsuits followed.

Typically, protesters are separated from the convention attendees. Austin, in fact, said he saw few demonstrators when he went to the 2004 convention in New York.

And even if conventioneers did see a massive demonstration, it wouldn’t affect the party’s platform, said Kazin, the Georgetown professor.

“This is an old part of the repertoire of social movements that served the movements quite well in the last century,” he said. “But it’s become kind of (routine) and people think, “Oh yeah, another mass demonstration. They have their First Amendment right, let them do it, but we’ll go back to doing what we’ve been doing.’”

That’s okay, say activists. Even if the Republicans don’t see them, the voters will.

“It’s a lot of press coverage there. It’s a chance to clearly demonstrate your opposition to the administration,” Theberge of the War Resisters League said.

And if the protests go well, that could mean as much to Tampa as the GOP event itself, he said.

“It’s not just about hosting a convention,” Theberge said. “It’s about engaging in the democratic spirit of the debate and discussion.”

Information from Times files was used in this report. Janet Zink can be reached or

[Last modified July 4, 2006, 22:17:03]

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