The liberation of property and humankind can at times demand the bondage of those in pursuit of it – on Thursday, the 1st of December, the latter would be fulfilled after Occupy Tampa settled atop a hill within Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park to celebrate Public Space Liberation Day, a themed event created in recognition of the Constitutionally protected rights to public assembly and free speech.
The arrest count, on charges of trespass after warning and resisting arrest without violence, would total 29 come the night’s end – after being told to vacate the park by the Tampa Police Department, some members chose to obey and others locked arms, sat down, and united against the order to clear out. Those who stayed would be cuffed and loaded into police vehicles with the property of the group seized and taken away in trucks.
Tampa police cleared the park, locking its entrances and standing guard as remaining Occupy members and media representatives stood outside North Boulevard perimeter, organizing and discussing. One officer recorded the crowd with a handheld digital camera – a tactic regularly practiced by the Tampa Police Department – occasionally stepping forward towards protesters for what seemed to be close ups. When the officer was asked by a protester what would become of the video, she briefly explained it would be “used by the city.”
The stand-off was largely awkward, but not without humour.
At one point, a squad car eased to the curb, lights aglow. A small group gathered at the vehicle, only to discover an officer had arrived to deliver coffees to his peers – the laughter was immediate and abundant.
“Hey officer, I left my democracy in the park – can I go get it?” one protester said to Officer Peter Bucher, at the park entrance.
Officer Bucher – a regular part of the police presence monitoring Occupy Tampa, to the point of being on a last name basis with many demonstrators, who was also witnessed by WMNF reporters pushing Occupy Tampa journalist Mike Madison that same evening – yielded little response and maintained the boundary.
Throughout the police’s occupation, squad cars periodically left; their sudden departures to presumably respond to emergencies were recognized by some Occupy Tampa associates as the consequence of poor management.
When the police force finally vacated entirely, Occupy Tampa took advantage of the crosswalk located directly outside the park’s entrance and created a moving, temporary, and legal human barrier by marching – theatrics intact – from one side of the street to the other in accordance with the signs for pedestrians.
Reverend Bruce Wright, an active advocate for homeless outreach and a recognizable component of Occupy Tampa’s legal team who has been with the local collective since its inception, had witnessed the raids and stayed in solidarity with those who were being arrested.
“I’m here joining fellow Occupiers, trying to seize our right to public land and our civil rights through freedom of speech and also trying to create a new world of horizontal government, so that everyone has a say in it,” Wright said.
He saw the raids as an injustice, depriving him and his peers of basic entitlements and harming the city as a whole. Wright would say that it took less than two hours for police to respond to the park’s occupation.
“It represents an assault on human rights, civil rights, and the Constitution, and really, a gross misallocation of resources. Forty, fifty cops – wouldn’t they have been better spent dealing with rape, murder, other kinds of potential crimes?” Wright said. “At the end, ironically, they have to get out real quick – some of them – to go deal with serious crime. Maybe if they had been out there to begin with, that crime wouldn’t have been so serious.”
Of the police, Reverend Wright perceives them as being prone to be one with who and what Occupy opposes:
“It’s my opinion, while some call them the ninety-nine percent; I say they’re the one percent until they start enforcing the will of the people.”
And Wright urges the attention and participation of the public.
“People need to be brave and come out here and support what’s going on.”
A similar sentiment of departmental misuse was earlier shared when a demonstrator spoke to one of the guarding officers: “If they’d been out there to begin with instead of arresting people for stupid stuff, maybe their life wouldn’t be in danger. Think about it,” he said.
After the police and media vanished from the site, Garrett Burgess was asking his friends if they were in the mood for pancakes at a nearby restaurant, but earlier in the day, he had encountered what may have been a subtle act of surveillance and planning by Tampa police.
“What I did was run around shaking hands, trying to get to know as much people as I can. I started getting into the groove – everybody was so receptive, so in love – then I stumbled upon these two fellas, that I greeted as normally, and they basically responded with such, like, freaking out. That’s when I knew: uh-oh. These are undercover cops. I went to the security committee. I was like, ‘Yo, chief. I got these two detailed suspects, down there on the bleachers by the trashcan. I think they’re undercover.’ I’m prior security forces – Air Force – so I sense what it’s like to think like a cop, and they were thinking like a cop.”
Garret believes that, like the raids they conducted, the police officers are representative of more.
“They take orders from a hierarchy. That is not them we see – you’re looking at the one percent in those bodies. They are basically servants for that one percent. They are just following standards and procedures – basically, it’s a test. This is a test of persistence,” he said.
Raids or no raids, peace or conflict, Garret is certain of Occupy’s place in history and humanity abroad.
“Once they know that we will not go away – that our voice will be heard – they will know that this is more than an idea. You can’t evict an idea,” he said. “This is growing – over 2,673 cities worldwide are being occupied. Tell me, in the world’s history, has that ever happened?”
An impromptu mic check was held: “What example does it make if we go to Curtis Hixon instead of here?” someone asked.
The group would later return to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
There, Dave Gonzalez, a Detroit native and resident of Tampa since 1983, was leaning against a post as others slept or talked amongst themselves. When we spoke, only his eyes were visible from between the scarf and cap.
It was cold and growing colder in the quickening grip of a Florida winter – silent bodies were wrapped in layered blankets all along the street. A helicopter buzzed overhead, drowning out the block. Gonzalez tilted his head to the sky. “They’re back again,” he said.
A marriage and two children had plunged him into what was a personal awakening – the America he thought he knew was no more.
“It’s become a world filled with hate. Me, I always thought the United States was a peaceful nation. It seems to me now, we go around the world fighting the most fights there are. People don’t listen to what’s been said in history, like Dwight Eisenhower. He said beware of the military machine, because it makes too much money, becomes too powerful – I think that’s what happens. We’ve made money and people have died for it,” Gonzalez said.
The relationship betwixt police and the greater Occupy movement has proven consistently terse; one not spared bloodshed and what may be perceived as needless, unwarranted injury and mistreatment. The images of battered faces and riot gear had long seeded the concern Gonzalez has for the movement – the concern was as alive as it ever had been, that night.
“They’ve broken up their places and arrested so many people that I seriously thought that was going to happen tonight: violent arrests,” he said.
Gonzalez had been there when police arrived.
He reflected on what went down and who didn’t make it out:
“I was up on the hill. We were all pretty happy because it seemed like we had misdirected the police as to where we were going to be tonight – you never know if that’s true or not. It’s a sad state of affairs that there’s so much surveillance. People put up the tents as quickly as we could, to kind of make it our place – to try to relax. Everybody was laying down, saying it was grassy and better than being on the sidewalk. We were there for about an hour, then we got the word – we could see the cops coming, driving up. We had to decide who’s there to be arrested, and who isn’t going to be arrested. People getting arrested deciding they’re gonna stick together, they’re gonna be peaceful, not gonna say anything, provoke anything. Then everybody else gets ready to leave. It’s kind of scary. The way it was…some of us backed down the hill. The police came en masse and went up there. We basically left because they started coming after us. I wasn’t prepared to get arrested tonight.”
With the power and leverage retained by law enforcement, Gonzalez is uncertain of what may come of it.
“You’re at the mercy of what the police are gonna do,” he said. “We know that we’re just gonna sit and not respond to anything, but you don’t know what they’re gonna do. “
But this conflict is far from fleeting. He has observed that regardless of Occupy’s numbers, nationwide support, universal exposure, and ubiquitous cultural relevance, the stance of the state and police will seemingly remain at odds.
“If you’re here enough and you interact with the police a little bit, you find out that the ordinances are in place and that’s the law. They are definitely going to remove anybody. It’s been proven around the company – it doesn’t matter how many people you have. They’re simply going to not recognize the First Amendment: our right to speech, our right to assemble. If they’re determined, they’ll just bring a bigger and bigger force and take as many people as they have to.”
James Bell had been at the forefront of the perimeter set by police back at Julian B. Lane. He had also witnessed the raids, but left at the advice of an uncle.
“He said if I get locked up I’d end up being in there,” Bell said.
He related the Occupy struggle to an advancement of greater human rights, one connected to the earlier struggles of blacks and others who experienced vehement prejudice in America.
“It goes to show that even though we’ve struggled for the longest time – me being black – in general, just to have our own right to say anything. Now we’re trying to take a stand on, even though racism is supposedly abolished, the economic system is crazy. People are trying to work for a living and they’re not getting paid what they’re worth. At the same time, these people who do have the big banks, they’re the people who are the upper-class, they don’t even wanna show some type of regard, like, ‘maybe I should help out this type of society.’ I guess they really don’t care. If they don’t wanna hear our words, I guess we gotta take action. I look at it as a slap in the face, man.”
Though the Tampa Police Department is certainly watching the movement, Bell wishes they would consider listening.
And what if they were?
“You guys work just as hard as we do. If anything, show some type of gratitude,” Bell said. “We’re in the same predicament – think about it. Once they start not really needing the officers they want and they start buying the officers they want, they can let you go.”
Another who had returned to Curtis Hixon was Dave, who declined to be identified by his last name for reasons of privacy and personal liberty. He had arrived shortly after the raids were in full force – he observed the police were keen to back off protesters as the media gathered.
For Dave and Occupy overall, the problem at hand exceeds even issues of law enforcement and public ordinances.
“The big picture has nothing to do with cops or police. We have an economic inequality situation,” he said.
And to the pundits and critics that dismiss the movement on the grounds of perceived joblessness, he identifies erroneous thinking.
“They say ‘get a job’ – it shows me they have a gross misunderstanding of capitalism. If you think people stop being lazy there’ll be a job for them, it’s a complete fallacy.”
But it doesn’t end there – Dave has heard the opposition and sees some of their critique as a construct of delusion and belief in a myth of work ethic.
“To those people who scream and shout, I say take their twenty hours of forty hours and give it to someone else who needs it. You may even work hard, but what if the company decides to downsize? Can you walk into your boss’s office and say you’re a hard worker?”
Of the police and specifically the Tampa Department he recognizes, like James Bell had, the human condition that is inherent in the actions and roles of the officers, who remain as burdened by the consequences incurred by current economic conditions as anybody else.
“We are on the same side, because we’re all middle class,” Dave explained. “The reason they’re doing this is to keep their jobs. I understand why they’re out here. If the boss says ‘do this’ and the officer doesn’t, are they gonna go home to their wife and kids and tell them they’re moving out?”
In the wake of mass arrests and proactive raiding, one is left to contemplate the direction the Tampa Police Department and Occupy Tampa are to turn. What was witnessed and documented at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park is certainly symbolic of something greater and more commanding than the local Occupy chapters and police forces. This approach of law enforcement – one for paddywagons and expandable batons – is being witnessed throughout the United States, frequenting headlines and front pages on an unnervingly regular basis. May it be Oakland, D.C., New York, or Tampa, the image is presented in bold clarity: non-violent, entirely innocuous protesters, united for a cause, and acting within the parameters provided by the Constitution, being routinely met with savage violence and incarceration by state and local government.
Occupy Tampa, like its kin, remains active – against occasional public condemnation and police action – with no intention of being denied the foreground.
Additional photos of the raid and aftermath can be viewed via Mike Madison of Occupy Tampa, at this link.