Fight for civil liberties at Baywalk, St. Petersburg

In 2003, in the lead up to the Iraq war, St. Pete for Peace began protesting on the public sidewalk in front of the Baywalk shopping mall in downtown St. Petersburg, FL.  Every Saturday night for about three years, a group of 15 to 200 people peacefully demonstrated, handed out leaflets and engaged in conversations in an attempt to raise awareness about U.S. foreign policy.  The Uhuru Movement also protested regularly at Baywalk during this time.

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 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 make protesting in front of their mall illegal.  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.

By 2009, protests at Baywalk had been 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. In fact, Baywalk had a new owner and shuffled through five property managers in a short period of time.  St. Pete for Peace concluded that its energies would be better spent in other locations.  But the new owners, who were trying to flip the property, felt it was important to privatize the sidewalk, so once again, an attempt was made to make protesting illegal. By this time, so few people protested at Baywalk that it was clear the real targets of the Baywalk ownership were young people, particularly black youth, who were being blamed for "loitering" and scaring people away from Baywalk.  (What was also being conveniently ignored was that the U.S. economy was in its biggest tailspin since the Depression and more than 400 of the 2,000 largest malls in the U.S. had already closed.)

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, but local protest groups countered with a focused, coordinated counter-campaign and won an against-the-odds vote in city council, thus maintaining the right to demonstrate.

After the winning 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, thus defusing the situation in an attempt to help bring the city together.  But city officials undermined this good faith effort (and democracy) and decided to re-vote on the issue.  Baywalk's owners at the time, an out-of-state company named CW Capital, pushed city council members and eventually got to one of them, Herb Polson (a U.S. veteran who took a vow to the Constitution), to flip-flop and vote for the privatization of the 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, flash mobs and more.  Eventually the protests stopped because there were so few people going to shop at Baywalk it was not an efficient use of time.  The point had been made, and shortly thereafter, Baywalk went into foreclosure and was put up for sale.

As of 2013, Baywalk, which has a new owner, is still struggling and not worth having protests in front of.  But to this day, St. Pete for Peace and others have maintained their right to protest in public space, and should the time come where it's worthwhile, protests at Baywalk could begin again.  And as promised, all the city council members, city officials and business community members who hold the Constitution in contempt will be subjected to protests in front of their houses if protests in front of Baywalk are not allowed.

Here are some photos, videos and notations from the struggle for free speech at Baywalk

Videos, photos, stories and more

Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk
Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk
Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk Radical Cheerleaders Say U.S. Out of Afghanistan! St. Petersburg, FL, Nov 13 2009 in front of Baywalk
  • "They privatize, we protest" (photos).
  • City Official's Racially Charged Remarks About Baywalk - It has been glaringly apparent from the beginning of the proposal to privatize the sidewalk in front of Baywalk that the city of St. Petersburg is targeting people based on their political affiliation and expression. What has been less obvious, but surely more insidious, is how race also plays a factor in the situation.
  • Listen to "Views Impeding Traffic" a song that talks about the situation at Baywalk
Radical Cheerleaders Say Stop Shopping!
Radical cheerleaders descend upon Baywalk to defend free speech!
Radical cheerleaders descend upon Baywalk to defend free speech! (watch)
  • Watch councilmember Jeff Danner dodge the truth. This encounter took place outside of city council chambers last Thursday following the Committee of the Whole meeting in which activists were not allowed to speak. (Read Chris Hrabovsky's article). This video was captured by Leonard Schmiege, Danner's opponent in the upcoming election.
  • Watch ACLU's Glenn Katon at city council (YouTube)
  • Article removed from SP Times website:
    This article by Cristina Silva exposed the city's fraudulent pledge to talk to protesters.  It appeared in the St. Pete Times printed version on Oct. 15, the day the city council voted to vacate the sidewalk, but the online version has since been removed.
Sidewalk Liberation Army Flash mob. Baywalk, St. Petersburg
The Sidewalk Liberation Army descended upon Baywalk on Saturday, August 22nd to defend people's rights to freedom of assembly and speech. Watch the YouTube video here
  • Another Attempt to Stifle Free Speech:
    Council chairperson Jeff Danner is requesting city council draft an ordinance regulating the use of bullhorns in public (read).  This contradicts city officials' claims that people's 1st amendment rights would be upheld if they just went on the south side of 2nd Ave.
Baywalk customer assaults 2 protesters
Presentations to the City Council
We will not be silenced
We will not be silenced
Diversity & the Baywalk sidewalk
Diversity and the Baywalk Sidewalk

Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 1)
Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum part 1)
Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 2)
Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum part 2)

Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 3)
Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 3)

Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 4)
Baywalk vs. Free Speech (Public Forum Part 4)
  • Listen to Mike Malloy's coverage of Baywalk arrests on Air America Radio
  • What people on the street said about the city's attempt to stop protests at Baywalk (watch)
Previous unsuccessful attempts to stop our protests at Baywalk also occurred in 2004 and 2005
Baywalk arrests 2005
Aug. 6, 2005 - Six protesters arrested at Baywalk
  • Howard Troxler: Careful with that public sidewalk — you might want it yourself some day (read).
Presentations to the Development Review Commission
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
Limited free speech is not free speech
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
Civil rights are not bad for the economy
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
The $6 million question
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
Public opinion & Democracy
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
Protesters are not a security issue
Baywalk. Development Review Commission. St. Petersburg, FL. 9/2/09
City Attorney tells Commission to disregard 1st Amendment
  • The city of St. Petersburg is on a roll!  In the same week St. Petersburg was ranked the 2nd meanest city toward the homeless (read), the city is (once again!) trying to strip the rights of people to demonstrate in front of Baywalk.
  • "Analysis shows St. Pete taxpayers are BayWalk's biggest investors" (read).
Baywalk 2005

Barricades Down, but Harassment Continues

Vibrant Protest

Press Conference

  • Uhurus campaign against city's plan to bolster BayWalk, privatize sidewalks.
  • We protest "No Protest Zones" (photos).
Articles, comics, etc.
  • According to this article in the St. Pete Times, council member Karl Nurse voted to privatize the sidewalk as a return favor to Mayor Rick Baker: "For instance, Nurse got Baker to sign off on a series of energy efficiency projects.... In return, Nurse supported Baker's plans to privatize the public sidewalk fronting the BayWalk complex and annex the northern edge of Tierra Verde, two wildly controversial measures."
City of St. Petersburg proposting to stop protests in front of Baywalk. July 2009

  • St. Petersburg City Attorney John Wolfe says the First Amendment is "irrelevant".  We disagree. Wolfe told a commission that cutting off people’s ability to protest is “not relevant to your decision”.  Mr. Wolfe essentially told the commission that First Amendment rights were not to be taken into account when placing their vote on the sidewalk issue.  The public was not allowed to question Mr. Wolfe’s directive. 
Free speech zone

  • City Council member Jim Kennedy said Mayor Rick Baker or his staff regularly conduct private meetings with City Council members to discuss upcoming business items before public meetings.  Baker is "smart enough" to ensure his ideas will likely receive a majority of the City Council's votes before they come up for vote, Kennedy said.  "I don't know if I really buy the concept that protesters and free speech demonstrators are responsible for the demise of BayWalk," he said.(More)
  • Baywalk's owners (CW Capital) told the city council that if they don't give them the public sidewalk, CW Capital won't go through with plans to invest up to $6 million dollars into the shopping mall.
One of the reasons being given for privatizing the sidewalk is that protesters are a public safety hazard.  Yet, over the 6 years we've protested at Baywalk, there has never been a single incident in which a protester at Baywalk physically harmed anybody.  Conversely, there have been numerous occasions when the opposite has been the case:
  • A protester was punched in the face by a drunk Baywalk customer.
  • A female protester was beat up by a Baywalk patron who didn't like the protester's message.
  • Drinks have been poured onto protesters from Baywalk's drinking establishments.
  • A number of protesters have been 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 have been destroyed by Baywalk patrons.
We all know that protesters at Baywalk aren't a public safety hazard.  That's just a ruse.  At the heart of this is the notion that young, black people scare white people away from going to Baywalk.  Officials understand they can't say this out loud, but if the city is going to snub its nose at the Constitution, they should at least be honest about their reasons why.

Here are more YouTube videos of people speaking on behalf of the Constitution at last week's City Council meeting: Leonard Schmiege, Mike Fox and Ed Helm.  Here's Mark Kamleiter's comments, as well.

Latest on the Baywalk sidewalk issue

July 2013
Baywalk owner Bill Edwards' company levied an FTC record $7.5 million fine for 'do not call' violations; Edwards' company accused of trying to dupe U.S. veterans and active service members into home loans (read).

Feb. 2012
Former mayor Rick Baker -- who pushed for the public sidewalk in front of BayWalk to be off limits to protesters, and ordered the slashing of homeless peoples' tents -- will leave his high paying job at USF to run Bill Edwards enterprises, including BayWalk (read).  This is good news on two fronts:  1) Taxpayers will no longer be paying Baker $250,000 a year; and 2) The reinvention of Baywalk is now more likely to fail with Baker at the helm because he believes young black people and free speech are bad for business.

Nov. 2011
Baywalk's new owner takes taxpayer money to fund projects, despite saying otherwise (read).

Oct. 2011
Baywalk's new owner, Bill Edwards donates $5,000 to St. Petersburg City Council candidate (and Republican) Bob Kersteen's campaign (read). (Note: Under campaign contribution rules, any individual or corporation can give up to $500 to a council candidate per election. Edwards contributed the money through 10 separate companies.)

Sept. 2011
ACLU letter to St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster regarding the Baywalk sidewalk (read).

Aug. 2011
St. Petersburg's BayWalk slapped with code violations (read).

Mar. 2011
St. Petersburg's BayWalk: the true cost of a ghost town (read).

Oct. 2010
One year after a controversial vote, BayWalk is more vacant than ever (watch, read). When asked if there's anything he'd do differently, council member Herb Polson, who cast the deciding vote last year said, "I would like an opportunity to do it again." 

Apr. 2010
The BayWalk Gazette, all the news that's fit for satire (read)

Nov. 2009
In addition to passing an ordinance last month banning protests in front of Baywalk, the city of St. Pete and Baywalk's management last week announced a plan to stop protests on the OTHER side of 2nd Ave N as well (read).  Even though they are just now saying it aloud, it was part of their plan all along.  It's right here on page 8 of the Baywalk Revitalization Plan, which was made public in July, and we brought it to their attention during the City Council meetings.  How can council member Karl Nurse now say "That's news to me," when asked about the new proposal to prevent protests on another public sidewalk?  Nurse, Mayor Baker, council member Polson and others rationalized their approval of the sidewalk giveaway by saying protesters rights were maintained because they could still protest across the street.

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