Inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tropical Storm Isaac reduced the first day's program for the Republican National Convention down to a 30-second introduction.
But there was still a full day of free-speech activity on the streets of Tampa. The storm may have diminished the size of the protests – busses dropping off out-of-town protesters from across the state and region wouldn’t drive into a tropical storm warning zone – there were nevertheless hundreds of protesters on the streets braving the wet to exercise their First Amendment rights.
After a quick morning conference call with our state headquarters in Miami, we headed out to our mobile resource center along the official parade route for the “March on the RNC,” a large rally and march scheduled for midday. Although their numbers were less than expected (event organizers had expected as many as 5,000, but they ended up with somewhere around 700-800), the crowd was nevertheless very vocal and welcoming of the ACLU of Florida and took hundreds of copies of our First Amendment Toolkit.
When the march arrived at the public viewing area, where police far outnumbered the protesters, a small group led an un-permitted march back up along the parade route. Police initially held them back, but ultimately relented and let them head back along the route which they came.
Following the March on the RNC, our staff headed up to “Romneyville,” delivering our toolkit to religious and medical policy groups we encountered on the way. Romneyville is the “Occupy”-style encampment on the north end of downtown. They were planning an unpermitted march through downtown, and we distributed materials to the attendees and answered questions about protesters' rights before the march started.
Though our staff left before the march got underway, we heard from people who were present that the police in riot gear allowed them to march unpermitted for a few blocks and then ultimately stopped them. Protesters sat down locking arms, preparing for arrests, but a Tampa police official kneeled down and spoke with demonstrators at the front, explaining that the sidewalks were open. The crowd dispersed with no arrests.
Monday evening, I was given press credentials to go inside the convention center to talk to reporters about protesters’ rights and security. If the police presence around the protest areas was large, it was nothing like the security apparatus around the convention center and arena.
But in spite of the sheer numbers of police, the relationship of mutual respect that police and city officials worked to sustain with protest groups throughout the planning process and at our First Amendment forums seems to have held up during the first day of the convention. And as of Monday, there were only two arrests in Tampa related to the RNC.
But the ACLU has seen seemingly neutral security laws spiral out of control at these conventions in years past, which is why we started a national petition to the mayors of Tampa and Charlotte asking them to protect free speech. We’ll continue to make sure that people’s free speech rights are being respected and protected and celebrate free speech at the RNC.
(Note: Images or descriptions of protests during the Republican National Convention do not represent an ACLU of Florida endorsement of the individual, organization or message. The ACLU of Florida is in Tampa to promote the First Amendment rights of all groups.)