History of St. Pete for Peace protests at Baywalk, St. Petersburg, FL, 2003 - 2009
In 2004, 2005 and 2009 the city of St. Petersburg attempted to stifle free speech on behalf of a shopping mall. Here's what happened when protesters resisted.

In 2003, during the lead up to the Iraq war, St. Pete for Peace and other peace and social justice activists began protesting on a public sidewalk in front of an outdoor shopping mall in downtown St. Petersburg, FL.

Over the next six years we protested hundreds of times in an attempt to raise awareness about U.S. foreign policy.
Baywalk's management clearly did not agree with our antiwar message. So, with the help of various city employees, they attempted to criminalize protests in 2004 and 2005 based on the unfounded allegation that our protests created a public safety hazard.

In 2009, as Baywalk was in a complete state of disarray, the same interests again tried to rid the sidewalk of 'loitering' black teenagers, under the insidious pretext of making Baywalk's customers safe from protesters.
Protesters were young, old, female and male, and we were always non-violent at Baywalk, even though we experienced verbal and physical harassment: 
  • A male protester was punched in the face by a drunk, male Baywalk customer.
  • A female protester was attacked by a drunk, female Baywalk patron who didn't like the protester's message.
  • Drinks were regularly poured onto protesters from Baywalk's 2nd floor drinking establishments.
  • A number of protesters were pelted with ice thrown by Baywalk customers.
  • A glass was thrown at protesters from someone at a Baywalk bar.
  • A person leaving Baywalk violently shoved a protester twice.
  • On multiple occasions, protesters' signs were destroyed by Baywalk patrons.
Not a single pedestrian, patron or passerby was hurt by a protester during any of our actions at Baywalk from 2003 to 2009.

Yet, ironically, the city of St. Petersburg decided our protests should be illegal because we created a public safety hazard.

So, on three specific occasions - 2004, 2005 and 2009 - the city escalated their attempts to stifle free speech and the right to assemble.
In 2004, the management of Baywalk attempted to convince city officials that protesters were creating a safety hazard and the sidewalk should be privatized, thus preventing demonstrations from occurring. (It should be noted that Baywalk's local owner, Mel Sembler, was a prominent supporter of George W. Bush and was once a U.S. ambassador to Italy.) But a wide contingent of groups and individuals fought back and the bid to stop protests was rebuffed.
In 2005, Baywalk again tried to stifle 1st Amendment rights, and the crackdown intensified as barricades were erected and a heavy police presence attempted to intimidate protesters. A woman was arrested for honking her car horn in support of the protests and another for playing drums.
But the heavy-handed tactics backfired and the protests at Baywalk grew in numbers and energy.

When police arrested six St. Pete for Peace protesters, including three teenagers, subsequent protests saw their largest numbers and most intense passion, thus forcing the city and Baywalk to once again withdraw attempts to stop protests.
2006 - 2008
Protests at Baywalk were reduced to the occasional Saturday evening due to the fact that Baywalk had begun to struggle and was experiencing a sharp reduction in the number of shoppers. 

St. Pete for Peace concluded that its energies would be better spent in other locations. So, out of our 35+ actions between 2006-2008, only about 5 occurred at Baywalk.

We started the year by having a powerful rally and march in support of the people of Gaza.

About six months later, we got word that the city was trying to privatize the public sidewalk again. And again, they were blaming protesters.

We thought it was a joke. Everyone knew that Baywalk was a ghost town, and protesters had only been there a handful of times in the past three years.
But it wasn't a joke.  

Baywalk's owner's, CW Capital, were desperately trying to unload their failed investment, so they used protesters as scapegoats.  It was clear to many that the real targets were "loitering" black youth who were scaring shoppers away from Baywalk, in the view of some.
What was even more obvious was that Baywalk's demise was due to a tough economy (400 of the largest malls around the country had recently gone bankrupt), not to mention a horribly managed business.

In fact, Baywalk went through four property managers during a five-month period, including one who was indicted on embezzlement charges and subsequently committed suicide.
  • Slide Title

    Howard Rosenthal was one of four Baywalk property managers during a five month period

A city attorney, Mark Winn, who was actively involved in the Baywalk proceedings, told a few St. Pete for Peace members that he personally didn't go to Baywalk because he didn't "want to be hanging out downtown with the bro's... and with people who were jiving."

Another city attorney, John Wolfe, told a commission that cutting off people’s ability to protest is “not relevant to your decision”.
  • City attorney John Wolfe

  • City attorney Mark Winn

Desperate city officials, business members and media outlets (particularly the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times) launched a fact-denying propaganda campaign to privatize the sidewalk in front of Baywalk. 

Pulling out all stops to facilitate a quick sale of Baywalk was important to the city because St. Petersburg taxpayers were the biggest investor in the failed mall.
  • Bill Dudley

    Bill Dudley: Voted against free speech and then watched as his brother started the fight at city hall

At the time this occurred (July 2009), St. Pete for Peace and others had moved on from the Baywalk ordeals of 2004 and 2005. 

We already fought for free speech on two occasions, and we needed to spend our time on the struggles from which we were formed: speaking out against US foreign policy.
  • Herb Polson

    Herb Polson: The council member who flipped his vote then later said he wish he could vote again.

We were starting a new weekly film series and protested multiple wars around the state and country. We were also active with Food Not Bombs and other actions to support the homeless community.

So there was serious talk about not doing anything about Baywalk because it was so passé.
  • Karl Nurse

    Karl Nurse: The liberal council member who traded recycling for free speech

But we were so repulsed by those who would once again try to trade civil liberties for potential profit, we decided to join up with other groups, and we countered with a focused, coordinated campaign. 

We eventually won an against-the-odds vote in city council, thus 'maintaining' the right to demonstrate for the third time in six years.
  • Mayor Rick Baker

    Mayor Rick Baker contended that his treatment of protesters and homeless people is consistent with his faith

After winning the vote, in a good faith effort, St. Pete for Peace announced that it would not protest in front of Baywalk for at least 12 months. 

But city officials undermined this good faith effort and decided instead to re-vote on the sidewalk issue. This was another shocking instance in which the city mocked democracy. 
CW Capital tried to push certain city council members, and eventually the mayor made a deal with a council member, Karl Nurse, to change his vote in return for "energy efficiency projects".  
Another council member, Herb Polson, flipped his vote, and it was ruled that the public sidewalk would be given to an out-of-state business that wanted to turn around and sell the same sidewalk.
In the aftermath of the announcement in the chambers of City Hall, the brother of Bill Dudley, one of the council members who voted to stop free speech, attacked a protester by grabbing his neck. But not all protesters are pacifists and this one stood his ground and took the attacker to the ground.
Regardless of the vote, St. Pete for Peace immediately descended upon Baywalk and protested in front of the shopping mall with demonstrations, radical cheerleading and flash mobs for months.

The irony was that we wouldn't have been at Baywalk had they not tried to make it illegal to do so.
Eventually the protests stopped because there were so few people going to shop at Baywalk, so it was not an efficient use of our time. 

The point had been made, and shortly thereafter, Baywalk went into foreclosure and was put up for sale.
Additional information about our protests at Baywalk

 Songs about Baywalk

All videos related to Baywalk

"I don't know if I really buy the concept that protesters and free speech demonstrators are responsible for the demise of BayWalk"

- St. Petersburg city council member, Jim Kennedy said in 2009.  Nonetheless, Kennedy repeatedly voted for the criminalization of protesters
"I would like an opportunity to do it again"

- St. Petersburg city council member, Herb Polson, when asked in 2009 if there's anything he'd do differently regarding Baywalk
"I was assured that the protesters' right to continue protesting was not being prevented by the barricades. Now do they have as much freedom as they did before those went up? Probably not."

- Then St. Petersburg city council member, Richard Krisemen said in 2005
"[the protesters]..are abusing the privilege of free speech, [and] are jeopardizing my freedom to run a small business."

Tom Silverberg, owner of Jess Jewelers (a store near the public sidewalk on which protests occured) lamented in 2005
"While its a given that in most cases, and on most subjects, we (and StPeteForPeace) will never see eye-to-eye, there is one in which we will ALWAYS agree -that is the first amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. We ... thoroughly enjoyed standing with StPeteForPeace last night. We look forward to getting out there again soon."

- Protest Warrior, Tampa chapter in letter to city council and the mayor in 2005.
"Public protests can be inconvenient, annoying and noisy affairs. But our Constitution has chosen the mess of freedom and democracy over the order that comes with repression."  

- St. Petersburg Times, Robyn Blumner, 2005.

Baywalk media coverage




Final notes
The St. Petersburg Times editorial board was on the side of free speech in 2004 and 2005.

But in 2009, around the time it took on a new name - The Tampa Bay Times - the board was on the side of criminalizing protests. We asked the Times why their position had changed, particularly since their rationale in 2004 and 2005 was based on protecting Constitutional rights.  We did not get a response.

Finally, we feel that solidarity, persistence and being peaceful were the reasons the people of St. Petersburg have been able to continuously fight off the city's attempts to take away our Constitutional rights. 

Young people played critical roles in all of our struggles, and we were represented by at least as many women as men. 

People with previous experience were counted on very heavily, as were Anarchists, Democrats, Libertarians, anti-capitalistas, Food Not Bombs, The Refuge, Protest Warriors, NatureCoast Coalition for Peace and Justice, Women in Black, the Uhuru movement, the Green Party, Tampa Bay 9/11 Truth, Tent City, WMNF radio, St. Pete College/Eckerd/USF students, local high school students, fellow activists from Gulfport, Dunedin, Clearwater, Palm Harbor, Sarasota, Tampa, Pasco and Hernando counties, Orlando, Glenn Katon and Mark Kamleiter from the ACLU, and others.

(Most of) the photos are courtesy of Bob Van Wyk and Kathleen Mannion.
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