ACLU: Protesters won't stick to confined spaces during RNC

Demonstrators likely to stray from protest zones

TAMPA, Fla. - Alex Snitker is skeptical of the police.  And he's not ashamed to say so.  The New Port Richey resident gave Tampa city officials an earful about his concerns about protesting at the Republican National Convention later this month.

"We're nervous as heck going down there," Snitker said.  The self-proclaimed libertarian attended a forum at the University of Tampa hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union Tuesday night.  

"We're afraid police are going to go down there, you're going to be carrying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they're going to just start cracking skulls," Snitker said.  He cited problems at similar protests in Chicago last May.  

"They were the agent provocateurs," Snitker said, suggesting police instigated confrontations.  But Tampa assistant chief John Bennett suggests events in Tampa will play out differently.  He said his officers have been thoroughly trained not to engage protesters unless they become a danger.

"It's all about violent behavior and property destruction and those things I don't think anybody would want to tolerate," Bennett said.

Mike Pheneger, Florida's ACLU president, said while he's optimistic Tampa police will be respectful towards protesters, he's not happy with how demonstrators are positioned far away from view.

"There are going to be multiple groups that are wanting to move around downtown," Pheneger predicted.  He said the city's ordinance restricting protests flies in the face of true freedom of speech.

"It provides for a nice, neat and tidy kind of exercise in first amendment rights, but that's not likely to be what's happening here," Pheneger said.

Exactly what will happen is still unclear, as police and demonstrators continue preparing for the RNC week.  The ACLU forum included a discussion about guns, as Florida will allow people to carry concealed firearms in the event zone if they have the proper permit.

That still upsets Brian Becker of Tampa, who said he's likely to be among the protesters at the RNC.  "They're basic purpose is to injure and kill, and they're being allowed," Becker said.  

Becker was among several people at the forum questioned why Tampa is banning balloons, costumes, and some types of dolls, but not guns.

"It's out of our hands," said Tampa city attorney James Shimberg.  He reiterated that state law supersedes Tampa's ability to ban guns.  "We tried," Shimberg said.  

Shimberg recommended people concerned about firearms near the RNC to contact their state lawmakers, even though nothing will be done to change the laws in time for the convention.


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