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Presidential convention cities set to manage protests

Activist groups chafe at security restrictions

Protesters walked through the streets of Tampa before the opening of the Republican National Convention on Monday.
Protesters walked through the streets of Tampa before the opening of the Republican National Convention on Monday.(Joe Raedle/Getty images)

WASHINGTON — Now the enclave is called “Romneyville,” a not-so-flattering tribute to the shanty towns of the Great Depression derisively known as Hoovervilles, after President Herbert Hoover. When its organizers pack it up and move north next week, it will have a new name.

Obamaville.

As the Republican National Convention gets underway in Tampa and their Democratic counterparts prepare to converge on Charlotte, N.C., the encampments are intended to be the center of a series of protest marches by homeless, poor, and unemployed citizens and other peaceful demonstrations that coincide with the gatherings of the nation’s political elite.

“It is going to be a staging ground for a lot of activities,” predicted the Rev. Bruce Wright, 51, a member of the executive committee of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which has leased a parking lot next to an Army-Navy store on Tampa Street to erect Romneyville’s tents and park its multimedia truck. “Wall Street controls the government and to some extent the courts. We believe both parties are guilty.”

Police in Tampa and Charlotte have been bracing for thousands of convention protesters inundating their cities. The vast majority of participants are expected to be peaceful, but officials say they are also preparing for the potential that a handful of anarchists or other extremists will seek to disrupt the events.

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In Tampa, a potent police presence and howling winds and rain from Tropical Storm Isaac have dampened activity so far. Only a few hundred protesters marched in a rally Monday morning, instead of the 5,000 people organizers had predicted.

Tampa and Charlotte have tried to stay a step ahead of the protesters.

Tampa passed a temporary ordinance requiring groups of 50 or more to secure a permit in order to demonstrate, and the city leased a lot a few hundred feet from the Tampa Convention Center in an attempt to keep the protesters in one spot.

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Charlotte passed a law allowing the city manager to give the police authority to cordon off and search large areas and small items — including individuals’ backpacks — and to confiscate seemingly harmless items such as face-covering scarves. Under the orders, police can also arrest anyone carring items that could be used to cause injury.

Hundreds of police officers and heavily armed members of the Florida National Guard patrolled downtown Tampa Monday.

The 60 organizing groups for the protests there included labor unions, Students for a Democratic Society, Veterans for Peace, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Occupy Wall Street, and Code Pink, according to the Associated Press.

Another offshoot of the Occupy movement has pledged to recreate the 2011 Occupy Charlotte demonstrations that descended on what is one of the nation’s banking centers.

“We will continue to hold President Obama’s administration accountable,” the loosely connected group said in a statement, citing a host of issues from economic inequality to immigration and the war in Afghanistan among its grievances.

But for local police and the Secret Service, which is responsible for overall security at the conventions, there is more to worry about at events considered prime targets for domestic or international terrorists.

Last week, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin to law enforcement agencies saying the agencies “assess with high confidence” the probability that anarchist extremists could attempt to attack critical sites.

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The agencies urged local law enforcement to be on the lookout for extremists groups such as white supremacists who may have been seeking weapons training or explosive materials.

The activists in such groups as ResistRNC vow to be peaceful. They complain that some measures taken by the cities, including restrictions on what protesters can carry and the fact that the designated protest area in Tampa will be fenced in, overly restrict their First Amendment right to free speech.

“The public viewing area is close to the forum, so thank you for the location,” organizer Amos Miers wrote Tampa officials. “However, the way it is proposed to be managed is still problematic. Fencing it in, and requiring further restrictions upon entering the compound smacks the face of liberty. I don’t understand how a cage can be designed for guests of our city and be also considered something that belongs in a democracy.”

That is why organizers sought to make sure “Romneyville” and “Obamaville” will be located on private property.

“We don't have a permit and we’re going to march as long as we want,” Wright said. “We don’t believe we need a permit for our constitutional right.”

Other groups, including ResistRNC, plan to use the modern shanty town as a staging ground.

“From this site, activists can take refuge from the effects of the militarized zone,” it instructs participants, “as this is private property and not subject to the . . . ordinance. And of course once refreshed get back into the action, stronger than ever.”

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Yet even city officials who support the message of the protesters and raised questions about some of the restrictive security precautions believe there will be ample opportunity for demonstrators to exercise their rights.

“I believe their voices will be heard,” said City Council member CainoYvonne Yolie Capin.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender