BY Rob Shaw and Josh Poltilove / The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA--Two dozen police officers lined the side of East Whiting Street one day this week to keep a watchful eye on about the same number of Ron Paul supporters making their way to the designated protest area.
Suddenly, the sound of a glass bottle shattering echoed through the area.
One of the protesters accidentally had dropped a cold drink. A couple of the demonstrators stooped down to pick up the debris so they wouldn't litter the city's streets.
That's a snapshot of how the protest scene has gone so far in the shadow of the Republican National Convention.
The city of Tampa had steeled itself for the arrival of as many as 15,000 protesters marching through the streets. Giant fences were put up to protect government buildings and businesses. About $50 million — paid for with a federal grant — was spent on security, mostly for extra law enforcement officers.
After three days, however, only a few hundred to, at most, a couple thousand protesters have appeared, scattered around across the downtown area. An estimate of a couple hundred dollars property damage to the city so far would be "on the high end," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
After hundreds of arrests in St. Paul, Minn., during the 2008 RNC, just three protesters have had been arrested heading into the Tampa event's third day. That includes a protester toting a machete Sunday, one who wouldn't remove a bandana bandanna over his face Monday and one accused of battery following after a fight over a piece of cardboard at a protest camp on Tuesday, police said.
"I'm pretty surprised," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said of the low turnout numbers. "I personally thought we would have had more than this."
Jane Castor, Tampa's police chief, also has been surprised by the low number of protesters. But she cautioned that the convention doesn't end until tonight. Thursday.
"As I said to some of the commanders earlier, ‘Nobody's high-fiving anybody in the end zone yet. We're not done.'"
"Romneyville," the a small lot in downtime downtown Tampa that was meant to be a bustling hub for protesters and activists, sits nearly empty, with only a handful of dilapidated tents and a gaggle of homeless people remaining.
"Everyone's gone home," said the Rev. Bruce Wright, Romneyville organizer and de facto leader.
The story is similar in West Tampa's Voice of Freedom Park, where the group of Occupy RNC activists has dwindled to a handful.
Predictions of wild protesters marauding through the streets of Tampa have not come to fruition. If anyone envisioned gangs of wilding protesters marauding their way through the streets, those fears have not come to fruition.
It's been more of a scene of peaceful coexistence between protesters and police.
On Monday, Castor rode in a vehicle that was at the beginning head of a march of a few hundred protesters. The next day, Gee found himself chatting up a protester named Vermin Supreme — who wears a black boot on his head — and even getting a couple of bumper stickers from him.
"He's a character," Gee said. "But he's very polite."
Most of the protests, and the protesters, have been just that.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pepe Kovanis and six fellow Occupy Tampa members were the only protesters within the protest zone near the Forum.
Demonstrators, Kovanis said, were intentionally avoiding the designated protest area as a protest unto itself. But Kovanis and his colleagues came anyway because "we were bored and walking around. We thought it would be funny to be the only protesters."
It must feel lonely for other protesters, too.
About 15,000 were expected to come to the Republican National Convention. But only a couple thousand showed up in the Tampa Bay area, Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said.
And only "a couple dozen" have tried to incite police by doing things like getting into officers' faces and chanting and screaming, she said.
After hundreds of arrests in St. Paul during the 2008 RNC, just three protesters have been arrested heading into the Tampa event's third day. That includes a protester toting a machete Sunday, one wearing a bandana over his face Monday and one accused of battery following a fight over a piece of cardboard at Romneyville Tuesday, police said.