As a candidate, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn pledged that the city would support the First Amendment rights of protesters during the Republican National Convention.
"People who want to express themselves need to be given an opportunity,” Buckhorn said during a televised debate sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 on March 8, 2011.
The question was, as mayor, how would he balance the rights of citizens to protest during the convention with his responsibilities to keep downtown Tampa functioning and safe?
"You break the law, you're going to jail,” candidate Buckhorn said, foreshadowing a warning he would give again and again as mayor. "Absent that, you're entitled to say whatever you want to say within reason.”
Planning for the convention was already well underway when Buckhorn made his promise. After taking office on April 1, 2011, Buckhorn and police consistently said their responsibility was to keep the city safe while protecting the ability of peaceful demonstrators to march.
Security inside the convention, which took place Aug. 27-30, 2012, at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, was controlled and paid for by the Secret Service. But federal officials also closed many streets in the southern part of downtown, including the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the Platt and Brorein street bridges, and those closures shaped the city's security plan, too.
Like Charlotte, N.C., the host of the Democratic National Convention, Tampa received a $50 million federal grant to pay for security outside the convention. Tampa spent the federal money on personnel (including more than 3,500 officers on temporary duty from other Florida agencies), plus improved radios, surveillance cameras, body armor, summer-weight cotton uniforms, vehicles, bicycles and fences for some government buildings.
The city also established an Event Zone covering downtown, the University of Tampa's campus, Ybor City and the northern part of Harbour Island. Inside that zone, the city banned certain items that could be used as weapons. It also established an official parade route and a total of 7 acres of designated protest areas.
To facilitate protests, city officials took reservations for blocks of time on the parade route, in city parks and in the protest area, which included a stage and a microphone. They budgeted $115,000, which did not come from the federal security grant, to provide demonstrators with drinking water and access to about 600 portable toilets. They also worked with the Hillsborough County Health Department to bring in misting stations so protesters could cool off.
In training officers to work the convention, police and Hillsborough County sheriff's officials said they put particular emphasis on the need to protect the First Amendment rights of demonstrators and journalists.
Toward this end, police worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and put some tips from the ACLU on a map of downtown that the city handed out to protesters. Top police commanders and city attorneys met repeatedly with a lead organizer of a major protest. Police also received training on working with journalists from Mickey H. Osterreicher, the general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association.
Going into the convention, police estimated they might see 15,000 or more protesters.
Instead, with Tropical Storm Isaac threatening the bay area, the total number of protesters for the week was maybe 2,000, according to Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.
Protests were peaceful, and police said they worked to defuse potential confrontation by finding out what protesters wanted, and, if it didn't hurt anyone, letting them do it.
On Aug. 27, for example, an unpermitted march led to a sit-down at the intersection of Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard.
In response, police brought up officers in riot gear, but kept those troops standing by so news photographers could take photos of demonstrators. Eventually, Tampa police Assistant Chief John Bennett knelt down on one knee and asked protesters to move to the sidewalk so he could open the street. Just as the skies opened in a drenching rainstorm, protesters left peacefully.
Similarly, authorities struck a deal with protesters who chained themselves together for several hours on the last day of the convention at the entrance to the TECO Big Bend Power Station: If officers freed them and they left peacefully, there would be no arrests.
At the end of the week, authorities had made just two RNC-related arrests -- one of a man who carried a machete onto the official parade route the day before the convention and one of a protester who refused to remove a bandana. (Masks were allowed on the parade route and in the designated protest areas, but not in other parts of the city's Event Zone.) Beyond some graffiti, there was no reported property damage. No officers were hurt, and police didn't use tear gas, pepper spray, batons or bean-bag projectiles in dealing with protesters.
Michael E. Pheneger, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he spent the week watching protests and that in every case but one, the demonstrations ended up going some place the city didn't anticipate.
Pheneger praised the city for having senior officials -- including Castor, Bennett and City Attorney James Shimberg Jr. -- on the scene of the protests, for making decisions that avoided confrontation, for training officers to be friendly and communicative, and generally for "being flexible under the circumstances.”
Pheneger said demonstrators deserve credit, too, and that local officials got lucky.
"I don't know that anybody can complain that they were not allowed to get their message out,” Pheneger said. "The police pretty much let them go the directions they wanted to go and facilitated it.”
Even some protesters said the police surprised them -- in a good way. "I thank Tampa Bay for keeping a level head," said William G. Estrella, an Occupy Wall Street protester from New York, after the peaceful resolution to the sit-down at Tampa Street and Kennedy Boulevard.
But not everyone felt that security presence was proportional to the need.
With police on virtually every corner, downtown Tampa was safe. But the state and federal courthouses, the Fred B. Karl County Center, Old City Hall and main downtown library all closed for the convention. Heavy steel fences surrounded some of those buildings, with law enforcement officers or National Guard troops standing guard. Some restaurants closest to the heavy security complained they lost business the week of the convention.
And one protest leader contended that while protests were peaceful, "scare tactics were used by the mayor's office to prevent people from coming out.”
In the months leading up to the convention, "they militarized the police force, and they geared up for war,” said Jared Hamil, a leading organizer of the March on the RNC, which had expected 5,000 marchers but saw only a fraction of that number. Local officials turned Tampa into a "police state,” he said, creating an atmosphere that was "the opposite of inviting.”
Still, when asked whether protesters who were on the ground during the RNC had a chance to express themselves, Hamil said, "Yes,” though he added that downtown Tampa looked like one big cage during the convention.
In an interview on Sept. 11, 2012, Buckhorn said he meant for the message to be clear and consistent that they were not going to tolerate criminal behavior, but he said officials distinguished between "those who were just coming to protest versus those who were coming to break the law.”
"I wanted that message to get out to the entire world, that if you're coming here and you intend to break the law, we're going to be ready for you and we're going to deal with you, and we're not messing around” he said. "I'm not going to sacrifice this city and our police officers and put them at risk to a bunch of folks whose only cause was destruction.”
As a candidate, Buckhorn said that during the Republican National Convention "people who want to express themselves need to be given an opportunity.” Tampa's RNC security plan created inconvenience for downtown residents and businesses, but the city worked to create a safe, predictable environment for protests, to meet the physical needs of demonstrators and to work with protesters even when they marched onto streets that were not closed to traffic. As a result, demonstrators who came to Tampa for the RNC had the chance to express themselves. We rate this as a Promise Kept.