Absolutely Five to 500 Believers

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 28 2012 9:44 AM

Absolutely Five to 500 Believers

TAMPA -- It took David Gonzales two weeks to construct the elephant.

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"There's a wire frame, paper mache, and gold paint," he said, as he hoisted the iconic prop. Two, then three fellow members of Occupy Tampa hoisted it from the other ends. They walked through Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood, in full view of tweeting reporters and delegates and power drinkers.

It was notable because there haven't been many protester sightings in Tampa. Boxing off undesirables has become a sort of art, tricks and techniques passed from police department to police department. The Republican convention is taking place in a fenced-off zone policed by National Guard troops, secret service, and -- most unsettling -- Tampa police on bicycles. They pedal around perimeters and shout orders like the Wheelers in Return to Oz.

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These resources are being spent to control the smallest group of protesters anyone's seen in the last decade of conventions. When the Republicans came to New York in 2004, more than a hundred thousand liberals walked down Fifth Avenue in protest. In St. Paul, site of the 2008 convention -- and insanely fenced-off -- there were massive anti-war marches, and a group anarchists were foiled in a plot against the Republicans. (The whistleblower, Brandon Darby, is now a reporter with Breitbart.com.)

This year's protests? Weak, weak, weak. The Tampa Bay Times reported this morning that an Occupy the RNC rally on Monday, pegged to draw 5,000, only drew around 500 people. Activists from New York joined them, braving the spitting rains of the tropical storm. The protesters were outnumbered by members of the press.

So the Ybor City protest was the first to #occupy the collective consciousness of convention-goers. Gonzales marched his elephant down the streets as the satirical, boot-for-a-hat presidential candidate Vermin Supreme played top 40 hits from a portable radio. "Dance party!" he shouted. "Radical dance party!"

There were perhaps 100 protesters and at least one hundred cops. Police cars shut down streets, directing non-Occupiers back to the party zones. When the protest got to Centro Ybor, the cops "kettled" the activists by swarming them and putting gates in front of their escape hatch. The protest dissolved immediately, as most of the activists went into the nearby Castle building to party, and a few stayed outside bullhorning.

"This isn't Chicago!" shouted an eldery Occupier plugging into memories of the 60s. "This isn't Hyde Park!"

Nope, it isn't.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.