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RNC protesters not deterred by Isaac, bad weather

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:16 AM
TAMPA -

Blowing horns and banging drums, throngs of tightly packed protesters marched through downtown Tampa on Sunday afternoon in one of the city's first organized marches surrounding the Republican National Convention.

As the skies above started sprinkling, the roughly 1,000 marchers strolled the exact parade route laid out by the city. Ensuring they did so, several hundred troops comprised of police, sheriff's deputies and others hemmed in the marchers around each corner and flanked them on both sides and behind along a gauntlet of concrete barricades.

"We are the 99 percent," became the rally cry of the marchers, along with, "Say no to the Ryan budget," in reference to vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

The 99 percent refers to the group's message that most don't share in the wealth of America. Often, younger people make up the Occupy protests, but in Tampa, several older people were part of the marchers.

Marchers came from as far as Minnesota for the protest, and the overall group came with their own medical crews and videographers. The parade remained especially polite, as organizers with megaphones directed the flow of people away from the moving flank of armed troops who followed the parade's every turn.

The centerpiece of the march was a giant statue of Mitt Romney wearing a sign that said "King of the 1%."

The parade culminated at a predetermined and fenced-in protest zone across from the Forum and adjacent to a set of railroad tracks, where rail giant CSX last week parked dozens of luxury passenger cars for a private reception for RNC VIPs - all guarded by high fences and armed troops at each checkpoint.

According to police, about 100 other protesters marched to the Bank of America tower, at 101 N. Kennedy Blvd., and entered the front plaza. They put stickers and were writing with chalk on the private property. Crowd management officers asked the demonstrators to leave, and they complied without incident, police said.

The protests stayed small by mid-afternoon. And not all had the same message.

Some came to oppose just Romney, who officially will become the Republican nominee for president on Thursday. Others didn't seem to care for Romney nor President Barack Obama. And though jobs and wealth were strong messages, others had different agendas.

About 30 people, many with dogs, held a rally against Romney, who infamously strapped his dog in a crate to the top of his car on a family vacation years ago.

"If somebody is going to treat their animal inhumanely, how are they going to treat our country?" said Kim Swygert, 37, a law student from Tampa, who came with her Great Dane.

"He strapped his dog to the top of the car because he crapped, excuse my French," she said.

Several carried anti-Romney signs including one that read, "Don't roof rack me, bro."

About 50 people from Occupy Wall Street and Code Pink groups marched from the park about two blocks to the Tampa Theatre, where the Faith and Freedom Coalition was holding an event.

The protesters waved signs in front of people waiting to get into the theater, and seven of them lay down in front of the entrance. Other protesters covered them in a red cloth.

They were on the ground for about five minutes. When police asked them to move, they did, and then marched back to the park.

Code Pink is a women-focused group pushing to end the U.S.-led wars abroad. They held signs including, "Vagina. If you can't say it, don't legislate it," and "GOP, respect women."

"I'm completely opposed to the Ralph Reed agenda of the war on women," said Rae Abileah, 29, of San Francisco. Reed started the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which among other causes is against abortion.

Many protesters gathered to St. Petersburg to get their message out before the RNC's kickoff party Sunday night at Tropicana Field.

Outside the domed stadium David Demske, of Dunedin, said came out to hold "a funeral for democracy."

"Our freedoms are being taken away," said Demske, a retired accountant. He and his wife, Dixie, held a red umbrella and said they were part of a larger group of protesters staging at St. Petersburg's Mirror Lake for a protest march later in the evening.

Mark Klutho, a retired Army sergeant living in Largo, served in Vietnam and said he came out to protest the Republican Party's "lack of science.

"They deny global warming," said Klutho. "They deny evolution."

Klutho, who served in the Airborne, said troops should come home from Afghanistan.

"It's not a war, it's an occupation," he said. "I wear my Airborne pin not because I am proud, but to show I was there. We haven't learned anything."

Most protesters said the rain and wind from Tropical Storm Isaac would not deter them from trying to get out their message that America needs to change, especially for the middle class.

The weather wasn't a deterrent to 52-year-old Donald Butner, who said he's been sleeping at the Occupy camp in Tampa for a few months and that "we're here, baby, rain or shine. The weather is going to do what it is going to do."

In downtown Tampa, giant blocks of ice spelling out the words "middle class" are melting on a warm, sticky day. Occupy protesters said it represents the melting away of the middle class in America.

As many as 15,000 demonstrators were expected to converge on downtown this week, with many rallies and demonstrations scheduled for Monday.

"We don't know about the protests," Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "but we will be prepared for whatever comes."

Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said the decision about whether to go on with those protests were up to the participants.

Though protesters vow to stay put, if the weather threatens their safety or that of visitors on the streets, police officers will use public address systems and go person-to-person to warn them to leave.

"As it is right now, there will be high winds and there will be rain but it's not going to be something that is going to prohibit anyone from doing what they want to do out on the streets," Castor said. "If it changes ... and it becomes an issue of public safety, we will order people into shelters."

She expected the foul weather Monday would keep protesters at bay, but come Tuesday, when the weather improves, they will come out.

"The better the weather gets," she said, "the more activity there will be."


Information from The Associated Press and Tribune reporter Keith Morelli was used in this report.

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