Republican National ConventionRepublican National Convention Hits Tampa, America Stays Sleeping
Downtown Tampa transformed into police state as protesters stay home
Deputy News Editor TAMPA, Fl. – They sent the National Guard, the Secret Service, many flavors of Homeland Security, police from all the sheriffs offices in Florida and the departments of nearby cities to Tampa … The only problem was noone else showed up.
Downtown Tampa looked like it was under a military occupation during the Republican National Convention (RNC) late last month as thousands of police on foot, bicycle, riot-equipped horse, car and van roved the streets with helicopters idling overhead. The “event zone,” as the government called it, was in a complete state of lockdown in anticipation of protesters who were expected to show up from all over the country. According to local news reports, 1,700 jail beds were vacated ahead of the convention for potential mass arrests, however the only remotely dissident activity to take place on the streets of Tampa was “Romneyville,” a small tent city which sprouted on the outskirts of the event zone.
Romneyville proved to be less of a protest camp and more of a vagrant gathering – no major protests were staged from this location. Instead there were nightly dance parties and a bus sporting an arm of the “Rainbow Family,” a hippy group originating from the 70s, which left town early on the last day of the convention. Members of the press who visited Romneyville did not stay very long before drifting back into greater Downtown where the streets were barren except for the police and the pockets of bored journalists not knowing what to do next. The final morning of the convention saw a single protester outside the heavily fortified checkpoint before the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the venue for the RNC. He held a sign reading “Jesus Saves” as he recited lines from the New Testament over a megaphone. The “free speech zone” set up in a roughly football-field-sized and barricaded plot of land across from the forum stayed perpetually empty throughout the Convention, except for a brief period on the second-to-last night of the convention when a permitted pro-Obama march of roughly a hundred people arrived at the end of the event’s parade route.
Around noon on the last day of the convention, Robert Couveras, 59, an engineer for Hillsborough County, and his daughter stood alone in the center of the free speech zone. “I was hoping for more protesting … if you want my personal opinion, the 99 percent need to wake up,” he said. "If these people [in the RNC] don't see that the people are upset then they'll just continue on with their conservative platform."
Couveras said he was disappointed with the low volume of protests and that he would have joined in if a serious protest had occurred. "I want people like my daughter to have a government that works for the people," Couveras said, "The problem with people are that they are always at home at night watching Dancing with the Stars."
In the empty streets of Downtown Tampa, the police touring the city in hordes were quick to make contact with any passersby. “Why do you think the city is empty?” one deputy sheriff in a group of 20 asked rhetorically, “because they saw us and high-tailed it out of here! We're not liberals in this city, like Minnesota or New York or Charlotte.” Another deputy sheriff from a different group said he thought the Tampa Bay RNC would go down as the "calmest convention in history." By contrast, the 2004 RNC in New York City saw 800,000 protesters hit the street, according to a statement from NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne. Kim Travis, 49, a delegate from Wisconsin who voted for Mitt Romney, said she saw more protests at the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis. Talking about why there were so few protesters, "maybe the hurricane scared people away … but obviously there hasn't been any [hurricane] activity … maybe there weren't as many planned [protests] as they thought there would be," she said sitting in front of the Hyatt Hotel on the final morning of the convention. “Maybe I'm just used to protests because I'm from Wisconsin."
Hopeful protesters were not the only ones afflicted by the convention; small businesses also took a hit. On the final day of the convention, many businesses in Downtown Tampa remained closed, according to the posted hours on their storefronts. Kenny's Sports Bar and Eatery, located along the permitted parade route, opened late that day amid a disappointing RNC showing.
"Not only has it [the RNC] hurt our business this week, we really stocked up expecting it to be busy,” said Kenny Fowler, 48, co-owner of the bar, "but also in June they started preparing the convention center, so they stopped doing concerts and events which is a big part of our business.” Located near the local county building, Fowler said, many of the bar's customers were county employees coming in on their lunch breaks. During the convention, the county building was heavily barricaded with National Guard soldiers standing between the barricades and the building. “They moved them [county employees] out a week and a half ago to work out of satellite offices,” Fowler said, “[business fell to] at least half of what we normally do, if not 25 percent."
Fowler said he also expected a boom in business from would-be protesters, "we thought 'oh, parade route,' that's going to bring all these protesters they said were going to come to town – but that didn't happen," he said.
As the RNC came and went and election season swung into high-gear, it was unclear why so few Americans were protesting as compared to one year ago when the Occupy movement was at its peak.
“I just think they are unorganized,” Fowler said.