TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — You can’t see them. You can barely hear them over the din of the wind and rain swirling in the skies above from Tropical Storm Isaac. Protesters are here but it’s highly unlikely they’ll come close to crossing paths with Republicans for the presidential nominating convention.
Protesters are being kept blocks away and, so far, they’ve gathered in groups several dozen to a few hundred. But the worries of massive protests that might bring violence and a cacophony of chanting have been elusive.
With Isaac making its way northward toward the Gulf Coast, brushing Tampa Bay, the Republican National Convention has been pushed off to a later start. Protesters might also be staying away because of the storm, whose path and intensity has been difficult to predict. Isaac’s outer bands were already bringing intermittent rain and gusts of wind but no downpours, and the usual August heat and humidity was being kept relatively at bay.
Sunday’s protests ran the gamut from unionized labor and Occupy Wall Street to a hearty band of 30 who criticized presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for putting his dog Seamus in a crate atop his station wagon on a long-ago family vacation.
“If somebody is going to treat their animal inhumanely, how are they going to treat our country?” said Kim Swygert, 37, a law student from Tampa, who came with her Great Dane.
Several carried anti-Romney signs including one that read, “Don’t roof rack me, bro.”
Those who turned out said they were hoping for more demonstrators, but the lousy weather kept people away.
“A lot of people were afraid to come out because of the approaching rain and thunder,” said Sarah Kilker, who was accompanied by a long-haired Chihuahua and a mixed chow and terrier.
The streets of Tampa didn’t resemble St. Paul, Minn., in 2008, when thousands of protesters packed the city for the last Republican convention. Some smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles in a confrontation with pepper-spray wielding police. Hundreds were arrested over a few days, including dozens of journalists. Authorities in Tampa say they learned from that convention and Congress allocated $50 million for security.
A few hundred protesters braved the intermittent rain and wind at a park about a half-mile from the convention site of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. They were watching large blocks of ice that spelled out the words “middle class” melt, saying it represented the erosion of the middle class in America. The art installation was planned for Monday but moved up because of the weather.
Fifty-two-year-old Donald Butner says he’s been sleeping at the Occupy-Tampa camp for a few months and that “we’re here, baby, rain or shine. The weather is going to do what it is going to do.”
Marchers chanted “we are the 99 percent” and carried homemade signs. The 99 percent refers to the group’s message that most don’t share in the wealth of America.
That message rang true for 52-year-old Tom Gaurapp and 54-year-old Cheryl Landecker from Freeport, Ill. Both worked for Sensata Technologies, owned by Bain Capital, in the city of some 25,000 people. They say 170 jobs there, including their own, were outsourced to China.
Gaurapp and Landecker said that just a few years ago, they never would have considered joining such a protest.
“But then again, we wouldn’t have dreamed our jobs would have gone to China,” Gaurapp said.
For months, protesters were gearing up for scores of people to converge on Tampa the day before the convention began to showcase their laundry list of beefs and key messages.
Neither protesters nor the GOP, however, could foresee Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to become a dangerous Category 2 hurricane by the time it makes land over the northern Gulf Coast sometime late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Tampa won’t bear the brunt, but winds, heavy rain and perhaps flooding are expected Monday.
Though jobs and uneven distribution of wealth were strong messages, those who did show up didn’t seem to have a universal theme.
Some came to oppose just Mitt Romney as a candidate. Others didn’t seem to care for Romney or President Barack Obama.
A more spirited but still tame protest of 500 to 1,000 people was held for about an hour in St. Petersburg, about 15 miles away, at the Republican kickoff party at Tropicana Field. The relations between protesters and police — who were on foot, bikes and horses — was amicable. One protester was spotted chatting with an officer under a palm tree about the track of Isaac.
Though protesters vow to stay put, if the weather threatens their safety or that of visitors on the streets, police officers will use public address systems and go person-to-person to warn them to leave, said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor.
Castor said if “it becomes an issue of public safety, we will order people into shelters.”
At least one arrest was made. A man that police said had a machete strapped to his leg was subdued after he resisted officers, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.