By Saundra Amrhein
TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - A group of protesters in pink tents are creating a headache for Tampa city officials after they rented land inside a restricted zone near the location of the Republican National Convention being held in Tampa later this month.
The small camp, dubbed "Romneyville," population roughly 15, could soon swell to 300 activists who plan protests over social and economic issues during the convention.
The group found a prime location on a lot behind an Army-Navy Surplus Market in downtown Tampa, where those attending the convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum a little over a mile away will be sure to see the protesters' placards.
Despite efforts by the city and others to evict them, the protesters say they will fight removal, handcuffing themselves to fences if necessary to stay.
"We are not going to leave," said Bruce Wright, 51, one of the organizers with Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. "We are here to deal with issues of poverty, homelessness and unemployment."
Wright and other organizers spent months searching for private property to lease inside the zone. The owner of the Army-Navy Surplus Market, Nick Potamitis, was all for it at first, Wright said. He agreed to rent the lot for four months for a total of $1,500 and a lease was signed on May 17.
A local business donated mulch to spread over the parking lot, someone brought in a portable toilet and another protester found 14 pink tents on Craigslist, sold by a Girl Scouts troop leader for $60, Wright said.
But last week the relationship with Potamitis unraveled. Potamitis - who declined to comment for this story - ordered protesters to take down the tents and get out, said the Rev. Gregory Lockett, another organizer.
Local officials had told him the tents were in violation of commercial zoning. Police were called, but an officer looked at the signed lease and told the parties that it was a civil matter, Lockett said.
Lockett thinks that by the time eviction or city zoning procedures wind through the system, the August 27-30 convention will be over and the protesters will be gone. He stressed they have a legal right to stay. "We did everything according to the law," he said.
Organizers want to send a message to both major political parties about growing poverty rates, income inequalities, the unemployed and the homeless, he said.
City zoning officials are looking into the case to see if land-use laws are being violated, said Dennis Rogero, the city's director of neighborhood empowerment. But even if a violation is found it could take weeks to legally force the camp to be removed, Rogero added.
The city attorney's office was also reviewing the "Romneyville" lease and the lease between the Army-Navy store and the property owner, he added.
At a meeting on August 16, the city council plans to discuss the camp and what the city can do about it, as well as an Occupy Tampa camp outside the event zone in West Tampa on the property of strip club owner Joe Redner, Rogero said.
Lockett said protesters were willing to help the property owner pay fines and are policing their own camp with rules, which are posted on cardboard at the camp entrance.
If they are physically forced to leave before the convention, they will not go quietly, he added.
"We will handcuff ourselves to the fences."
(Editing by David Adams and Jackie Frank)