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Occupy Tampa Gets Ready for Republican National Convention

When the attention of the political world turns to Tampa in August for the Republican National Convention, groups like Occupy Tampa say they'll be ready. They've been active for nearly a year, and are planning non-violent protests around the city.

On a recent Saturday night, about 20 people gathered in a circle to plan for the protests. They're at a postage-stamp sized park that's been the site for Occupy Tampa for many months now.

The sun has finally gone down after a blistering hot day. A young man starts to speak:

"Mic check. MIC CHECK! Welcome the General Assembly. WELCOME TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY! Is anybody new here today? IS ANYBODY NEW HERE TODAY? We're all familiar with the process. WE'RE ALL FAMILIAR WITH THE PROCESS. Ok, you can stop repeating..."

Tampa Police basically chased Occupy Tampa out of the more upscale setting of downtown's Curtis Hixon Park for these working-class environs of West Tampa.

They're staying on land owned by strip-club operator Joe Redner. They renamed this patch of green off Main Street "Voice of Freedom Park."

They share the neighborhood with several barbecue joints, bars, and, as the first speaker had to deal with, traffic from nearby Interstate 275.

"So, there's one proposal, Elizabeth has one. Um, Maximo, mic check. MIC CHECK. Maximo. MAXIMO. with Take Back the Land. WITH TAKE BACK THE LAND. is coming to Tampa. IS COMING TO TAMPA. To do two workshops with us..."

Nearby, John Alexander pets his dog Chico - an Australian shepherd mix - as he eases into a makeshift shelter that's home to a coffee maker and scattered brochures.

The Plant City resident sports a ballcap shielding a short graying ponytail and a "Peterbilt" tattoo - marking him as a self-employed truck driver.

"Even though I'm part of the corporate entities and I do work and live in a house, pay a mortgage and all that stuff," he says, "I still have a heart and want to feel and get out there and say my piece."

Occupy Tampa is making arrangements for the thousands of people expected to descend on the Republican National Convention. Alexander says the group isn't going to be confined to West Tampa for long.

"Reverend Bruce Wright of the St. Pete Refuge has organized a piece of property for a 'Romneyville' - which is what we're calling it, in the stature of the old 'Hoovervilles,'" Alexander says.

"There's going to be a strong presence of the poor people, et cetera, in this area. And it is within - I'm going to say - three quarters of a mile or less - of the convention center. And it's within the security zone."

But most of Occupy Tampa's events will skirt around the so-called "Event Zone" set up around the convention site. They instead may do things like causing traffic jams by driving slowly on area bridges, holding demonstrations at places like Tropicana Field - where one of the big GOP events are planned - and performing skits in public areas.

Alexander spent part of the summer with Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco. He says the California Occupiers seem to be more intense than their Florida counterparts, and he expects the intensity level here to ratchet up as the convention draws nearer.

Nathan Schwartz seems to have no problem with his intensity.

"We're working on some street theater skits to pull off during that, we've put in a national call to Occupy Bain Capital, so we'll shut down Bain Capital on the day that Mitt Romney gets nominated - officially - on the 30th of August," he says. "So there's that, there'll be other actions as well, we're going to have lots of protesters down here who are going to be hungry for some stuff."

Schwartz is a senior studying psychology at USF. His long reddish dreadlocks drape over a T-Shirt reading "Brave New World Order." He doesn't think the city of Tampa is ready to handle the expected crush of protestors.

"I think the city handled the whole thing wrong with the event zone. I don't think that that's a good idea," says Schwartz. "I think it's creating a militarized version of the police.

"And it's just going to cause more violence, rather than if they were just set up in plainclothes, not riot gear - which they're likely. They're saying that they're not, but their likely going to be, and it just creates that dynamic - which they love."

And while people like Alexander have precious little in common with the Republican Party conventioneers, he does share with them a desire to have his position reflected at the ballot box.

"One of the things we need to do - besides getting ourselves heard and out there," says Alexander, "we have to start getting people into office. And that's my next step."

Soon, the meeting adjourns, in signature "Occupy" style: "With that, the General Assembly is closed. Thank you for participating in direct democracy."

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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