Tampa- Despite a seductive tango with Hurricane Isaac and more than a few opportunities to cut a rug with the Tampa Police Department’s $50 million budget, the Occupy movement turned out in Tampa with remarkable enthusiasm and endurance... despite less than remarkable numbers.
The view of Occupy presented in the sweltering heat of South Florida is one that is full of radical contradictions and escapes any easily gained assumptions or analyses.
Only a few Occupiers actually showed up (compared to thousands at Chicago’s hosting of NATO this May). Those that chose to do so came from as far afield as Colorado, Oregon, and Maine. Yet, rather than a sprawling camp teeming with radicals, Tampa witnessed only a few dozen tents sprinkled across a privately owned vacant lot (dubbed Romneyville) next to an Army-Navy surplus store.
Among those to arrive in Tampa were two bus loads of anarchists from New York. In the weeks leading up to the convention, numerous news outlets hyped a report by the FBI warning of their imminent arrival and intent to disrupt convention related activities in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Those aboard the buses laughed openly and decried the reports and media attention as “classic FBI scare tactics” and “black baiting” that attempted to wrap an aura of fear and criminality around anarchist civil disobedience.
Despite their enthusiasm, Occupiers stumbled slightly when taking a travel break in Jacksonville before the final drive into Tampa. Propelled by genuine and morbid curiosity, they wandered into a Dixie Heritage store. In the ultimate object lesson in culture shock, the Occupiers were asked to leave immediately by employees of the Confederate Flag-bedecked store as well as local police officials after one Occupier bluntly asked the young woman behind the counter “Are you a racist?” Minutes later, Occupiers were headed further south amid animated discussions of racism, the Civil War, and the difficult position of the employees at the Dixie Heritage Store.
Proceeding directly to St. Petersburg, Occupiers finally disembarked at a what can only be described as an anti-Romney rally comprised of Occupiers, non-Occupy anarchists, members of the Green and Progressive Parties, and numerous Democrats running both hot and lukewarm about President Obama, soundtracked by tunes such as “I’m a Better Anarchist than You” and “I Wanna Know Who (Are the Terrorists).”
Weaving carefully in and out of the various protesters and performers were green vested police officials handing out copies of the “RNC Event Zone Guide” that outlined the various newly enacted restrictions and prohibitions for downtown Tampa, including prohibitions on camping gear, coolers and ice chests, non-plastic containers, ladders and tripods, and any hard material exceeding ¾” in thickness. Puppets were also banned in Tampa for the duration of the convention.
Dismissing these restrictions, the whole crowd proceeded from the banks of Mirror Lake down nearly abandoned streets to demonstrate outside Tropicana Field where many GOP heavy hitters were engaged in what was described to those gathered as “the world’s biggest cocktail party.”
Storm clouds darkened the sky as Occupiers made their way back to Tampa with every hand around a phone as they scrambled to find emergency shelter. “Every shelter is full!” shouted someone near the front of one bus, “And they’re saying to get in anywhere you need to be on some fucking priority list!”
Excepting the sound of rain on the roof, the bus went silent. The Occupiers came to a realization: they would have to ride out the hurricane with no more shelter than the flimsy tents stuffed into their backpacks. More than half looked around the bus in urgent fear until finally somebody spoke after a long silence: “What if we don’t have a tent?”
The rain began shortly after sundown. Little more than a drizzle at first, it built for several hours until becoming a torrential downpour, flooding much of Romneyville in a calf deep quagmire of wooden mulch, saturated sleeping bags, and other errant camping equipment. Those lucky enough to be in tents spent much of the night desperately trying to anchor their lightweight shelters in the steadily rising wind, a task made all the more difficult by the bed of concrete discovered just one inch below the surface.
Awake, shivering, and soaked to the bone, dozens of those without tents ultimately ended up huddling closely together beneath the nearest highway overpass as they waited for morning.
The following days witnessed marches both permitted and unpermitted as Occupiers alternately praised and cursed Tampa’s climate: At one protest in downtown Tampa, about 50 Occupiers, some using Black Bloc tactics and clothing, refused to move from an intersection where they’re way was block by some 200 police clad in riot gear and brandishing weighted batons as long as broomsticks. “You must move from this intersection. If you do not move voluntarily you may be moved by force.”
A ripple of tension moved through the gathered Occupiers and journalists as an addition 100 riot police marched from around the corner of a building. Journalists moved into protected positions and Occupiers locked their arms together sat down on the pavement.
A few moments later, an LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device, a type of sound cannon meant to disable crowds) was moved forward towards the opposing lines by police. “You have 5 minutes to disperse or you will be dispersed by force” announced the police. Then the whole event changed: the skies opened and rain poured down in buckets. Police, journalists, and occupiers alike sprinted for the nearest awning, entryway, or other shelter as the streets quickly filled with water in a hilarious display that rivaled any slapstick comedy production. Only the riot police remained, motionlessly awaiting orders. One famous journalist was seen laughing as her colleagues ran for cover.
Receiving their orders several minutes later, the riot police marched away as water audibly sloshed and squished inside their black armor.
The Occupy/leftist protester experience in Tampa of is one exceptionally courteous police conducting seemingly unparalleled surveillance of a remarkably small group of dissidents. Among the potentially dangerous activities requiring law enforcement supervision: groups of as many as 60 people standing in line for food from a multi-colored school bus, the appropriation of any un-sodden surface to dry clothing in the sun, and the array of 38 cell phones and camera batteries patiently waiting their turn on one of the six available outlets for charging.
Reformation or Revolution?
Far more interesting than the goings on of the GOP just a few blocks away is the ongoing debate between Occupiers and other leftists: to reform or to revolt? Familiar to most Americans are those who support Obama, the Democratic Party, and entities such as MoveOn.org who argue for campaign finance reform, increased regulation of financial markets, measures to eliminate the evils of crony capitalism and the revolving door of Washington.
Opposing them, the Occupy movement: an anarchist movement espousing horizontal democracy, consensus decision making, and the outright rejection of electoral politics altogether. Asserting the candidates are merely two puppets controlled by the same hand of American plutocracy, Occupiers also reject the notion of crony capitalism and implore citizens to consider the failure of contemporary capitalism globally: from ecological destruction across the map to the economically parched communities across the U.S.
Continuing to defy labels, anarchists as they are, Occupiers can’t be label as wholly and unilaterally revolutionary. One occupier who wished to remain anonymous said: “Not only are we against the selling of democracy to the highest bidder, we’re appalled that there’s bidding going on to begin with.” Rather than, wholly rejecting conventional politics and governance, he spoke passionately of the merits of localized governance: organizing at the community level; be that a small town in Montana or a single neighborhood (or park) in New York City.
This dynamic played out in several ways throughout the convention, but was most noticeable during the large marches that left each day and night on their way to the heavily fortified convention center as well as other areas of Tampa. One occupier and practitioner of Black Bloc recounted a story of Green Party representatives becoming increasingly that a march that left Romneyville was refusing to stick to party scripted chants lead by that party’s VP candidate, remembering an aide to Cheri Honkala demanding that marchers “respect her [VP candidate’s] authority.” Needless to say, the group of anarchists refused.
This is not to say that groundswell of dissent shares no common ground. When a contingent of seven (count ‘em) members of the Westboro Baptist Church arrived in Tampa with infamous signs proclaiming “GOD HATES FAGS” and “SOLIDERS DIE 4 FAG MARRIAGE” were appropriately met with over 200 anarchists, Green Party members, and Democrats; each united in their rejection of blind spreading of hatred and homophobia.
Not only did the Occupiers reject such hatred but also enthusiastically demonstrated how people might loving engage one another, embracing and energetically kissing members of the same sex around them. The performance spawned a media circus of photographers and camera men literally climbing over one another to get footage of the of a gay kiss, thoroughly neutralizing the media event crafted by the WBC.
At their request, the seven members of the Westboro Baptist Church were escorted away by over 150 fully armed riot police.
The following day, Occupiers boarded buses and headed to the TECO Big Bend Powerplant to stand in solidarity with members of the radical environmentalist group Earth First. Locking themselves together as well as to the roadbed for several hours, the Earth First’ers who successfully shut down access to plant were allowed to leave without arrest following their careful extraction via circular saws and other hardware. The TECO Big Bend Powerplant is known for soaring carbon emissions as well as being one of the RNC’s largest sponsors.
Citing the interconnectivity of economic and ecological issues, many Occupiers spoke of eliminating enormous energy subsidies for large utility companies while many Americans struggle to put food on the table as well as prohibiting oxymoronic resources such as clean coal plants, widely believed to cause health problems for nearby residents as well as massive greenhouse gas emissions.
After the conclusion of the convention, featuring Mitt Romney formally anointed as nominee of the Republican Party, the Occupiers sit in the baking sun in front of the Army-Navy lot formerly called Romneyville, considering what’s next on the horizon. Most obviously, the long journey north to Charlotte to protest the Democratic National Convention, perhaps against some of the very people that marched alongside them in Tampa.
Among the issues discussed are drone attacks overseas, the continued operation of Guantanmo Bay Prison, the trial and persecution of famed whistle-blower Bradley Manning, and the deportation of over 1 million people under Obama’s reign thus far. But further on everyone’s mind is the impending September 17th anniversary of the occupation of Zucotti Park, an event that sparked occupations on every continent.
What’s going to happen? In the year that has unfolded since, the tone of the global conversation has changed, ALEC; perhaps America’s largest lobbying firm has been brought to its knees... and countless Occupiers, fellow protesters, and journalists have been surveilled, arrested, persecuted, and brutalized in blatant human rights abuses by the NYPD as well as other police forces across the country: Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Burlington to name a few.
September 17th represents not only an anniversary to Occupiers. It is also a symbol of what lay ahead. Many Occupiers see their movement as they best shot that The People with a capital “P” have had at major change in a long time, too long.
The fact that an anti-capitalist movement has survived long enough to have an anniversary is seen as a victory in itself and many Occupiers and anarchists from all across the world are expected to “come out of the woodwork” to mark the occasion next Monday morning in New York City. Nobody knows exactly what will happen, just as the original Occupiers had little idea of the impact a few tents on Manhattan concrete would have around the world.
My next report will be from Wall St. on the 17th. Wish me luck.
For more photography by Dylan Kelley visit his photo blog here.