Protesters shut down Baywalk in Florida

July 25, 2004 --- ST. PETERSBURG

While all eyes are focused on the “protest pens” built to contain demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, a smaller but no less significant First Amendment drama is being played out in St. Petersburg, FL, where activists are fighting a proposed city ordinance which would create “no protest” zones.

The issue surfaced early last week when St. Pete for Peace, an anti-war group which has been holding weekly peace vigils in front of a downtown shopping and entertainment complex called Baywalk, learned that the City Council would be considering legislation to restrict the days, times and locations that demonstrations in St. Petersburg could be held. Not surprisingly, the restrictions included Saturday evening between 7PM and 9PM, which is when the weekly vigils are held. Also not surprisingly, the sidewalk where the demonstrators stand was deemed a "no protest zone".

The proposed ordinance rather disingenuously cited “public safety” as its impetus, which St. Pete for Peace found curious since there has not been a single protester-related injury or accident in the many, many months that the group has been conducting its vigils. No Baywalk patrons have been leveled by hurtling leaflets, no Baywalk employee has been injured by an unfortunate encounter with a protest sign, no protesters have leapt in front of traffic in order to promote their cause. There has not been so much as a spilled latte during the entire time that St. Pete for Peace has been standing vigil, and in fact, given the number of upscale bars and nightclubs in the complex, one stands a much greater chance of being accosted by a drunken yuppie than by an angry demonstrator.

So, if public safety is not the issue, what is? A video clip from a local television station gives us a clue. Reporting at Baywalk on Saturday night where over 100 people gathered to protest the proposed ordinance, a WTSP reporter begins a portion of his segment with, “If the goal is to make businesses at Baywalk thrive a little better than they have been…” I guess we, the people, must have missed the constitutional amendment that guarantees our freedom of speech except when it threatens the bottom line.

But as WTSP went on to report, on this particular Saturday evening, Baywalk management’s plan backfired grandly. While a typical Saturday vigil turns out approximately twenty committed souls, last night’s protest, as mentioned previously, turned out over 100. WTSP and other local news sources stated that five groups united for the event, but in fact I counted at least nine. In addition to at least thirty members of St. Pete for Peace, representatives were present from the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, AIM (American Indian Movement), Citizens United for Shared Prosperity, Veterans for Peace, the Pinellas County Green Party, the Sojourner Truth Center, the Homeless Coalition and City Council itself, (in the person of Councilwoman Virginia Littrell who opposes the measure).

St. Pete for Peace members began gathering at 5 for a sign-making party in an adjacent park (my own contributions were “Welcome to the Orwell Multiplex” and “My Constitution is bigger than your City Ordinance”) and marched the two blocks to Baywalk accompanied by a bullhorn-led chant of “What do we want? Free Speech! When do we want it? Now!” Simultaneously, other groups converged on the complex from both the opposite side and from across the street. By the time the group had amassed, police had shut down the entire block and patronage of the complex was limited to those who had arrived there earlier and to pedestrian traffic from neighboring restaurants and bars. So much for boosting the bottom line.

Demonstrators had scheduled a 6:30 press conference which was held inside the complex, much to the dismay, I am sure, of ordinance proponents. The conference served as an act of civil disobedience and was led by Chimurenga Waller of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, who earlier this summer won a victory against the Baywalk management and the city of St. Petersburg for unfairly targeting African American youth with trespass warnings and arrests, many of which were made solely upon the way they were dressed (see related story below).

Mr. Waller, simultaneously speaking and fending off the police, stated, "You're protecting money and the rich people in this city!" And in fact this is so. According to demonstrators, Baywalk development company, Sembler Corporation, received $12 million taxpayer dollars to build the complex – not in the form of a loan from the city, but in the form of a gift. Additionally, taxpayer dollars pay for the sidewalks upon which St. Pete for Peace conducts its weekly vigil. So it seems that while the taxpaying public has funded this project, they are now restricted in their right to actually use it.

A little research on Sembler corporation, by the way, yields some interesting – but hardly surprising – connections to the Bush administration. In addition to being large financial contributors to the Republican party, its candidates and its causes, founder Mel Sembler was appointed ambassador to Australia by Bush I in 1989. The St. Petersburg Times article announcing his appointment is instructive:

“After months of waiting, St. Petersburg developer Mel Sembler was confirmed Saturday as U.S. ambassador to Australia and the tiny Pacific island republic of Nauru. The Senate quickly and quietly approved Sembler, who had been among a handful of President Bush's ambassadorial nominees criticized this summer for their lack of foreign policy experience.”

Bush, Jr. has now appointed the hopefully more experienced Mr. Sembler as ambassador to Italy where he and his lovely missus are known for suppressing anti-Bush sentiments abroad.

Mr. Sembler's civic involvement also magnanimously extended to the private sector where in 1976, he founded a “drug rehab” facility for teens. In 1983, a judge awarded a former client $220,000 who claimed he was falsely imprisoned for four months by the center. Straight's Atlanta division, incidentally, was the target of a three-year investigation for human rights violations. Investigations were conducted by Georgia Department of Human Resources Office of Regulatory Affairs and cited Straight for the following offenses: 

*Hiring unqualified staff members
*Ignoring client complaints about being denied water, sleep and medical attention. *Violating state and federal laws on dispensing medications.
*Not evaluating and documenting a policy that allows clients to restrain other clients.
(The Atlanta Journal, April 3, 1992, p. E1)

Sounds like Mr. Sembler and his cronies would have fit right in at Abu Gharib.

Our demonstrators, however, were unimpressed by Mr. Sembler's long history of "community involvement." After completing his press conference, Mr. Waller led protesters out of the Baywalk courtyard and back onto the street where St. Pete for Peace resumed their weekly vigil.

While a small number of Baywalk patrons had a negative reaction to Saturday’s demonstrators - including one man who sat on the overhanging balcony incessantly filming their every move - most reactions were positive. Toward the end of the event, a young man holding his small daughter by the hand approached the protesters and said, “Thank you so much for doing this.” There were no arrests.

And the group will be doing it again next week and the week after that. Because if today we are told we can’t stand here or speak out there, then tomorrow where else might we be prohibited from standing and speaking? If today it is St. Pete for Peace that is told it must be silent and invisible, then who might it be next?

Related articles:

Protesters decry plan to limit picketing


Fight for Free Speech (with protest video)


Truce at Baywalk


Gaining Confidence


Senate Confirms Sembler


Straight: Mel and Betty Sembler's $95 million charity marketing to white families and violating human rights & civil liberties


Straight, Inc.


Muscular Diplomacy


Mel Sembler Bio

Carol Schiffler
July 25, 2004



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