Mr. Sembler's Neighborhood

Q. How is the Sembler Co. like Al Qaeda?

A. They hate us for their freedoms

Well it’s that time of year again, folks. Last July, as you may recall, Mel Sembler and his freedom-hating junta, made an ill-advised attempt to throw a local peace and social justice group (St. Pete for Peace) off the public sidewalk where they had been holding anti-war vigils since before the run-up to Iraq War Redux. The attempt was beaten back by a coalition of local progressives that ranged, in the political spectrum, from Pax Christi to the African People’s Solidarity Movement. 

I would love to be able to report the proverbial, rosy “what a difference a year makes” here, what with support for Bush’s war plummeting, but unfortunately this does not appear to be the case as evidenced by an e-mail from Greg Sembler, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act entitled “Bay Walk’s request to own the sidewalk.” That would be the public sidewalk…as in “paid for by residents of St. Petersburg.” Unfortunately that public sidewalk lies in front of the crown jewel of Mel Sembler’s Neighborhood – the Bay Walk entertainment multiplex/shopping mall. (For background information on Mel Sembler, see “Protesters Shut Down Baywalk in Florida”.)

Apparently the city has been holding forums on the “Bay Walk situation” since March of this year. The forums have targeted three specific groups: kids who use the Bay Walk venue as a local hang-out, the homeless and protesters. All, it seems, must be removed from the public sidewalk in order to accommodate the mindless consumption needs of Bay Walk shoppers.

But that’s not how the debate is being framed – at least not for the media, where city officials are calling it a “public safety issue.” This, of course, is a polite euphemism for “how on earth are we going to gentrify down town St. Petersburg unless we rid ourselves of these inconvenient non-conformists?”

Fun fact: Number of protester-related pedestrian accidents in the past three years: zero.

According to meeting minutes from the forums, the public safety issue was to be addressed in the short term by establishing “a dialogue with leaders of protest groups that routinely use Bay Walk as a venue for their activity. Attempt an understanding of the need to maintain safe conditions for pedestrians.”

Fun fact: Number of attempts to contact St. Pete for Peace organizers since the forums were held: zero.

Directly underneath the short term goal section of the meeting minutes are the long term goals. The long term goal consists of this: “City to allow vacation of a sidewalk on the north side of 2nd Avenue North between 1st and 2nd Streets.” This would, coincidentally, be the same area that the protest vigils are held, and in this context, the word “vacation” does not mean that the city is planning to send the sidewalk on a leisure cruise to the Bahamas. “Vacation of the sidewalk” means that the city will no longer manage it. “Vacation of the sidewalk” means that the sidewalk is being ceded to Sembler Co.

Logic exercise: Compare and contrast long term goals vs. short term goals. What would be the point of engaging local protest leaders in conversation about pedestrian safety if the long term goal was to throw them off the sidewalk? Here’s one suggestion: curtailment of First Amendment rights does not sit well with the public, therefore we will make believe that we have dialogued with them and they just wouldn’t listen to reason. Sounds a little like Bush’s attempt to justify the Iraq war by saying Saddam wouldn’t allow us go snipe-hunting for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Guess the neo-con imperialists are thinking globally and acting locally these days.

It should be noted that the public sidewalks are not yet vacated. As a temporary measure, the city has erected metal barricades to block off the portion of the sidewalk upon which the protesters stand.  Every week, the barricades are rearranged to gradually constrict the area allowed for protest activity. This week, the area was literally cut in half so that in order for one half of the group to communicate with the other half, they had to “trespass” across Sembler’s portion of the sidewalk, and in fact, two protesters received citations for trespass – one was merely attempting to cross over to the other area in order to reach a trash can. She was not carrying a sign, at the time, nor was she engaging in any type of protest activity while trying to reach the trash can. There were no catchy slogans on the coffee cup she was attempting to discard and no cleverly disguised anti-war messages up her sleeves.

Fun fact: City Council member Rick Kriseman is either suffering from early-onset dementia or he is just…well...lying through his teeth. On July 26, in response to an inquiry from a St. Petersburg Quaker, Slick Rick claimed the following: “there have been no council workshops, committee meetings in which the subject of barricades or other similar type actions [been] discussed. As such, Council had no involvement in their placement nor knowledge that placement of the barricades was going to occur.” While technically true (moral relativity alert!) the recommendations for barricades (a.k.a. ”temporary right-of-way closure”) had been discussed in forums which the council either participated in, or received summaries of, as early as March 15. Not a council workshop. Not a committee meeting. A forum. Well that just changes everything.

Now where did these recommendations come from? “Mr. Don Shea, St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership President and CEO made the following recommendations: 1. Public Safety - …Long term: Vacate the sidewalk portion of 2nd Avenue North, between 1-2 streets.”

And what is the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership? It is “…a business-supported, non-profit 501 (c) 6 organization with a purpose to promote business growth and redevelopment in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida." And who else is a member of this partnership? Not just any member, mind you, but on its Executive Committee? Mr. Craig Sher, President and CEO of Sembler Co. which owns Bay Walk.

Protesters have vowed to fight both the barricades and the proposed vacation of the sidewalk. As part of a larger trend toward the suppression of dissent and the privatization of public spaces, it is a battle that must be won. Neighboring Hillsborough County residents are currently struggling to preserve the right of gay citizens to use public facilities as venues for their events, for example. Other examples range from the recent arrest of five “Raging Grannies” who had the audacity to enter a military recruiting center (that would be a publicly funded facility, last time I looked) to make their voices heard, to Easton, PA activists who were barred from handing out anti-war leaflets during “Heritage Day.” Apparently our early American Heritage is A-Okay with Easton city officials provided one does not include certain inconvenient aspects of the Constitution in their celebration.

It’s time we reclaim public spaces for public use. It’s not only time, it is imperative and urgent. The time for hand-wringing and muttered discontent is over. These are our streets, our cities, our communities, our parks and our tax dollars are paying for them. To be penned in, barricaded out and shut up is not a petty inconvenience – it is an outrage. On a global level, people in much less privileged positions than ours are engaged in the struggle against hostile corporate takeovers of their lands and their resources. Some of them are paying for their stand in blood. If our part of this struggle is to reclaim one stretch of sidewalk, one public street, one publicly funded facility, then we need to do our part.

Interestingly enough, as the focus moves toward freedom of speech at Bay Walk, anti-war activists attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights were joined in solidarity by none other than two members of the anti-war counter-demonstration group known as the Protest Warriors. Said one Warrior to a St. Pete for Peace organizer, “We may not agree on much, but we agree on this. And this (motioning to the barricades) is bull sh*t.”

Take action! Please feel free to write St. Pete city officials to tell them what you think of barricading dissenters.

Mayor Rick Baker
(727) 893-7201

St. Pete City Council
(727) 893-7117

Carol Schiffler
August 1, 2005



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