TAMPA, Fla. — The three dozen chanting anti-GOP protesters hit a lull of silence as they marched through a low-income neighborhood in west Tampa. "What are you guys doing? Taking a nap?" shouted one protester to his cohorts, exhorting them to yell. Another shouted, "You guys are reeeeaaal quiet now!"
Quiet is the right word for protests at the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week. They have been unexpectedly muted and even the protesters know it. Thousands of demonstrators had been expected but only hundreds arrived, mostly Green Party supporters, Occupy Wall Street activists, anarchists and union stalwarts.
Only two arrests have been linked to protests so far — one man for carrying a machete, the other for wearing a bandanna in violation of a city ordinance. That's compared to several hundred in St. Paul, Minn., four years ago. Her streets have been so tranquil that Police Chief Jane Castor canceled news conferences because there was no trouble to report.
Activists blame the threat of Hurricane Isaac, the overwhelming police presence, undercover law enforcement infiltration of their ranks and even the ghost-town nature of downtown during the convention week. Some activists worry they have no momentum built for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week, and then the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street next month.
"Unless you have the numbers out on the street, you really can't change anything," said Nick Sabatella, 25, an Occupy Wall Street activist from New Jersey.
The protesters were behind the eight ball even before the convention started. The threat of Hurricane Isaac stopped at least 16 busloads of activists from coming to town because bus operators didn't want their equipment and drivers headed into possible danger. Downpours on Monday put a damper on a kickoff march that drew only several hundred protesters, not the 5,000 marchers that had been anticipated. And rain continued off and on throughout the week.
"Nobody came down because of this weather," said Jeff Smith, a 38-year-old construction worker from New York, who is part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Smith also faulted the protest leaders and the tight security.
"They don't seem to be too organized down here," he said. "Probably because there are cops on every corner."
Groups of officers are stationed on almost every corner of downtown. They are riding around in packs on bicycles and are using helicopters for surveillance.
While many activists praised the police for their restraint and politeness, they said the number of officers on the streets was overkill.
"I'm really sad that every four years there is more of a militarization of the police at these conventions," said Cheri Honkala, the Green Party's vice presidential candidate. "It's a waste of taxpayers' dollars and it really scares me that someday there will be nobody left marching."
The police presence isn't just in uniform.
In "Romneyville," a tent village of protesters about a mile from the convention, the residents are well aware that undercover officers have infiltrated their ranks and that they tend to be among the more aggressive "activists."
"You know how if you go into Macy's around the holidays and somebody tries to shoplift something, and you then realize there are actually no shoppers, that they're all undercover police officers? That's the case here," Honkala said.
Without hard confirmation, they have let their suspected undercover officers stay.
"You can't get rid of people if you can't prove it on the spot," Honkala said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a news conference Thursday that he had expected few arrests as the convention wraps up Thursday night.
"We have trained so hard and so long for this," Buckhorn said. "When this is said and done, this will be the benchmark that every city should strive for."
Castor said her strategy was to approach the protesters, ask what their goals are and then help them reach them. Often, protesters simply wanted to pose in an intersection for the media. She let them if they didn't intend violence. Officers even took leftover food to Romneyville.
"Everyone was to be treated with dignity and respect," Castor said.
The nature of downtown also made it harder for protesters to be heard. Few people live there and many businesses told their workers to stay away during the convention, leaving the streets nearly empty.
"We could protest until we're blue in the face but there weren't people normally around to see that," said Darrell Prince, a 35-year-old political fundraiser from New York who is part of Occupy Wall Street. "Whether it was intelligent design or they were just fortunate, it worked out for the RNC."
On Thursday, 16 protesters, watched by 35 officers, marched from Romneyville to Domino's Pizza to protest corporate-owned businesses. Despite the low numbers, protesters eked out some victories.2 comments on this story
As Paul Ryan was in the midst of a speech accepting the vice presidential nomination on the convention floor, he was disrupted by a pink banner and a yelling protester from the feminist group Code Pink. She was escorted out as some in the crowd shouted "U-S-A, U-S-A."
Many Romneyville residents are relocating their impromptu community to Charlotte and the Democratic convention. They are hoping for bigger crowds and more energy, drawing on Occupy activists from cities along the Eastern seaboard.
"Who knows?" Sabattella said. "Maybe it can still happen."
Correspondent Tamara Lush contributed to this report.
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