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Occupy Tampa camp not likely to close, unlike L.A., Philly

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 09:35 AM
TAMPA -

Tensions are mounting across the country between police and the sprawling Occupy movements – the main encampments in Los Angeles and Philadelphia were essentially shut down by authorities Tuesday – but Occupy Tampa protesters and city officials continue to work within a somewhat tense but mostly non-confrontational relationship.

This week, the group sent the city a letter asking for unrestricted access to downtown parks day and night, seven days a week. City authorities say they have no plans to grant that request but will continue to allow the movement to protest where it is.

Currently, the round-the-clock occupation is at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, where protesters have camped, waved signs to passing motorists and handed out brochures to passersby since early October.

In Los Angeles, police effectively removed the Occupy L.A. encampment last night and this morning, arresting more than 200 people. More than 1,000 police officers raided the camp and dismantled what was left of the tent city that had stood for two months.

About 50 protesters were arrested in Philadelphia. The two raids were the latest in a series of crackdowns across the country aimed at ending occupations of public parks.

In recent weeks, the Occupy movement in Oakland, Calif., grew violent with confrontations between police and demonstrators. Violence also has erupted in New York.

Here, about a dozen or so protesters have been arrested over the past two months, mostly on charges of trespassing or resisting arrest.

Late Tuesday, two Occupy Tampa protesters were arrested. One was charged with grabbing the arm of a police officer who was removing items from the park and putting them into a truck to be hauled off to the impound yard. Another was charged when he stood in front of the truck and refused to allow it to leave.

Still, Occupy Tampa remains relatively non-violent, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. She said comparing Tampa's demonstration with those of other, larger cities "is like comparing apples to oranges.

"We have a totally different scenario," she said. "We don't allow camping in our parks, so a permanent encampment was never set up. We have just a small number of protesters who stick to sidewalks most of the time."

Protesters in other cities have been allowed to set up permanent camps in public parks, she said.

"We've never allowed camps to be set up because our parks are available to everybody," she said.

For the most part, protesters here understand that, she said. They are allowed to sleep on sidewalks as long as they clear their overnight gear by dawn. McElroy doesn't envision police clearing out the protesters.

"We have a consistent rapport with them," she said, despite occasional arrests.

Still, the group continues to push the city.

In this week's one-page letter to be delivered to City Hall, the group asks Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the city council members to attend a general assembly Thursday to talk about the proposal, which would guarantee space for the protest "no more than one mile from Tampa City Hall."

Buckhorn will be out of town on Thursday, but he said on Tuesday that he has no intention of granting the protesters' request.

"I don't know what will be next," said 32-year-old Alex Valbuena, who stood bundled up against the cold Wednesday morning. He said the protest seems to have shifted online, with postings on Facebook and Twitter that keep demonstrators who can't make it to the site plugged into what's going on.

He said he feels a kinship with Occupy protesters in other cities and hopes Tampa won't violently oust the movement from the downtown park.

He said he has yet to see any police harassment.

Fellow demonstrator Ron Cancilla, 40, said, "I would say so far it's been very peaceful. Police have not been aggressive with anybody." Those who have been arrested mostly have pushed to be arrested, he said.

He said he thinks the movement is beginning to accomplish its goal of raising awareness of corporate greed and government complicity.

"It's waking people up," he said. "It won't be over until the whole nation wakes up and says, 'This is not what we signed up for.' "


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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