When they were planning for the Republican National Convention, Tampa city officials, with an abundance of caution, set aside seven acres of land for demonstrations inside a fenced-off area within sight and sound of the arena.
But a few hours before delegates were about to officially nominate Mitt Romney for president, only a solitary protester occupied that vast expanse of land. He stayed for a while and then rode his bike home, promising that more of his ilk would be arriving later in the afternoon. Maybe.
(PICTURES: Protestors Come to Tampa)
The protest scene in Tampa has been most notable for its lack of oomph—a surprise to those who expected that prolonged economic discontent and the blossoming Occupy movement would bring thousands of demonstrators to this year’s conventions. Instead, the 4,000 law-enforcement personnel on hand to discourage mischief-making far outnumber the demonstrators.
The so-called March on the RNC on Monday morning, expected to draw 5,000 people as one of the biggest planned rallies, instead boasted a crowd of a few hundred who were tightly contained. Dozens of khaki-clad police officers on bicycles rode ahead and hemmed in demonstrators if they tried to stray from the designated route. Even masked anarchists dressed all in black, the kind who caused mayhem in Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2008, were prevented from causing serious trouble. Tampa police so far have made only two convention-related arrests—one protester who allegedly refused to take off his mask in the “event zone” and another who police said had a machete strapped to his leg.
John Penley, a 60-year-old activist from New York City who was one of the first to take up quarters in Zuccotti Park at the original Occupy Wall Street encampment, said he had expected more activity when he arrived in Tampa 10 days ago; he said that both the threat of Hurricane Isaac and the large police presence may have deterred many.
“The propaganda that got put out about the possible violence scared people off,” he said. “Every day, there was a story about the jails being emptied to make room for protesters.”
Penley expects a stronger showing in Charlotte, where Occupy protesters and others want to register their disenchantment with President Obama. “Most people don’t think Romney has a chance in hell of winning,” he added.
David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California (Irvine) who studies social movements, blamed the low turnout on bad weather and the nature of the Occupy movement—disorganized and unfocused. Other convention cities that have witnessed mass protests, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, and Chicago, also had stronger activist infrastructures that made it easier to coordinate large gatherings, he said.
In “Romneyville,” a semipermanent tent city set up outside an abandoned Army surplus store to house the homeless and the out-of-town protesters, grievances are wide-ranging—from high unemployment to exorbitant student debt to home foreclosures. On Tuesday morning, organizers in one corner led a workshop called “How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy.” On the other side, food donated by local churches and restaurants was being served under a tarp strung between two school buses.
Richard Rawski, a 56-year-old from Madison, Wis., said he was in Tampa to “feed people and create loving energy.”
“They’re scared of us,” he said of the convention-goers, “but we care about the future of the country, too.”