TAMPA, Fla. – Protesters blamed Tropical Storm Isaac and a massive police presence Monday for their weak showing at the Republican National Convention. Only a fraction of the 5,000 expected demonstrators actually turned out to criticize the GOP's economic and social policies.
Hundreds of police officers and heavily armed members of the Florida National Guard patrolled the streets of downtown Tampa. The protesters were required to conduct their rallies and parades in designated areas and along specified routes, none closer than about a half-mile from where Republicans would be gathering.
"They've militarized Tampa. The chilling effect has succeeded," said Cara Jennings, a voter outreach organizer from Palm Beach County.
About 200 people marched as part of the Coalition to March on the RNC's rally in an empty lot near the arena where the Republicans will be nominating Mitt Romney as their candidate for president. Sporadic heavy rain lashed the city and winds were gusting at 35 mph as Isaac passed to the west of Tampa in the Gulf of Mexico. The Republicans themselves had canceled most of their Monday activities because of the storm.
A breakoff group later marched against the wars that are ongoing overseas. Tampa police blocked traffic for the unplanned march and arrested one protester when he refused to take off a bandana covering his face. Officers led him to a waiting SUV and he was driven away. Police were not immediately available for comment.
The 60 organizing groups for the protests included labor unions, Students for a Democratic Society, Veterans for Peace, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Occupy Wall Street and Code Pink.
Florida labor organizer Jose Soto said 16 buses of protesters from New York, Miami and the Florida Panhandle canceled because of the storm. He said the bus companies didn't want their equipment and drivers headed into possible problems.
"It's a calamity but all the people here are delegates for those who can't be here," said Soto of the University of Florida's Graduate Assistants United local.
Protester Mick Kelly of Minneapolis said the organizing groups were carrying on with the planned march, saying U.S. politics are dominated by the richest 1 percent.
"We demand and we will fight for good jobs," he said.
Jennings, who wore a pink, neck-to-knees vagina outfit decorated with sparkles, said she was protesting the GOP's position against abortion rights.
"The right-wing agenda is turning back time regarding women's bodies," she said.
In an encampment about a mile north of the convention center dubbed "Romneyville," a group was planning a march by midday to rally for the poor and unemployed.
Cheri Honkala, the Green Party's vice presidential candidate, told the crowd that, "On Election Day, we need to occupy the ballots." She said more women need to be involved in the nation's leadership.
"It's time for the men to move over. It's time for the mommas to right the wrongs," she said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the protesters had been given additional space and access to toilets and water.
"We are being supportive of people who want to come and want to offer an alternative opinion," Buckhorn said.
But he said that police planned to respond quickly if groups broke off from protesters and were intent on damaging and destroying property.
"We want folks to know that we are here to help, but we are also here to stop you if you choose to do anything to the contrary of what we expect," Buckhorn said.