I’m pretty sure I have just experienced the most disproportionate reaction to a protest in a supposedly democratic society ever, at least since labor organizer Mother Jones faced off all by herself with one hundred members of the National Guard around a century ago. As someone who has personally been fairly actively attending protests since the early 1980’s, and as a student of the history of social movements that happened before my time as well, it seems difficult to put what just happened in Florida into some kind of relevant context, but I’ll just share my own story of the past week in north Florida and attempt to make sense of it, for whatever that’s worth.
I suppose a place to begin might be with my last trip to Florida, in October of last year. It was soon after the birth of what became known as the Occupy movement. After participating in the protest on Wall Street on September 17th, I had gigs further south, and by early October I was in Florida. Going to Disneyworld inevitably includes experiencing certain things along with the roller coasters, such as bad food, bad parenting, and long lines. While waiting with my family in the long lines I engaged in my own, slightly more subtle form of bad parenting, spending much of my time staring at my phone, reading the endless stream of articles in the news related to Occupy protests and encampments that were starting up all over the US, Canada and elsewhere. As the day progressed and the long lines continued, I moved from reading about the news to writing about it, in the form of a song, which I finished by the pool at our hotel the following day.
I debuted the song at Occupy Tampa soon thereafter, where several dozen people of all ages, from all walks of life, had just set up a tent city, as people had done in hundreds of other cities throughout the continent and beyond, at the same time. The first police raid against this apparently very threatening group of peaceful urban campers happened the next day, and was repeated ad nauseum at almost every Occupy site in the US over the next few weeks, involving innumerable cases of unprovoked police brutality and a national total of 7,000 arrests by the end of the fall.
While I was in Florida last fall, many local activists in Tampa, St. Pete, and elsewhere were beginning to make preparations for various protests and other activities to welcome the upcoming Republican National Convention to Florida, which was still a long way off, but you gotta start early with making such plans, and folks were excited that something of national significance was going to be happening in their neck of the swamp, with lots of advance notice. I was asked by many people if I was planning to come, and of course, having no plans yet for August 2012, I said yes, as long as I can line up a couple of paying gigs to cover my travel expenses. The gigs came together, and I made plans for August in Florida.
Of course Florida, like North Carolina, is a “swing state,” which might be the main explanation for why the Republicans decided to have their convention there. It did occur to me, though, that given the extreme paranoia of the various US authorities about protests of any kind, especially ones that might not involve a permit and might potentially feature civil disobedience or maybe even a couple of misguided kids throwing a rock at a window (oh horror of horrors, not that!), Florida in August was the next best thing to holding the convention in a bona fide dictatorship somewhere – but given that this was a convention for a US political party, Florida was the best they could do.
For people in what we might call the activist community, Florida, at any time of year, is not the most welcoming location. Although it is a state full of transplants from New York and Massachusetts, it is otherwise in what we call the “deep south,” which is more known for gun-toting Republicans in oversize pickup trucks than for leftwing organizations. And sure enough, most of the folks coming in to protest were from places like New York, Illinois and California much more than from neighboring states such as Georgia or Alabama. Also, unless you’re from Louisiana or Missisippi or somewhere subtropical like that, the heat and humidity of Florida in August is something most sensible people would tend to avoid. Add to that the fact that, as anyone who remembers Hurricane Katrina would know, August is hurricane season in that part of the world, and what you get is a good formula for very small protests.
There are many other reasons anyone paying attention would have known not to expect much of a protest crowd in Tampa over the past week. The Republicans, while even more terrifying than the Democrats, are in opposition right now – not the ruling party and thus somewhat less of a target for public ire than, say, four years ago. Also, since the Occupy movement fizzled out in most cities for the most part by the end of last autumn, there hasn’t been anything anyone could reasonably describe as a militant mass movement happening in the US. And unless you believe every anonymous statement of anarchist bravado written by suburban teenagers on Infoshop.org, you would have known beyond any doubt that there was not going to be any mass migration of insurrectionary elements to Florida any time soon.
But the authorities were taking no chances. And although there have been dozens of massacres carried out by wingnuts with automatic weapons just over the past couple years, no attempt was made to limit the carrying of concealed firearms near the convention center – to have a few machine guns and a few thousand rounds of ammunition in your trunk while driving around downtown Tampa would have been perfectly legal. The concern on the part of the authorities was clearly not about terrorism of one kind or another. The concern was all about people who might dare to march without a permit, what kinds of dangerous items someone might hide inside a puppet, or whether there might possibly be a handful of black-clad youth who might dare to smash a window or – gasp – set a dumpster on fire or – scariest of all – make and perhaps even use a molotov cocktail. None of which would seem to even approach the chaos that could ensue if someone decided to fire into a crowd with an AK – however, the laws passed in Tampa related to puppets, placards and face masks, not rapid-fire, high-calibre weaponry. That’s protected under the Second Amendment (the First Amendment apparently just being an annoying afterthought not worth anyone’s concern).
After a festive pre-RNC party at the venerable Civic Media Center in Gainesville last Friday night, I headed into Tampa on Saturday. As with other major meetings of the elites in recent years where some kind of protest was anticipated, the corporate media stenography machine had been going full-tilt for weeks, fueled of course by the propagandists in government who they obediently echo, telling all who would hear them that violent anarchists from the west coast were coming to destroy the city. The propaganda is clearly meant to scare all but the hardest hardcore of activist types from showing up, as well as to psychologically condition the local population to fear the streets, to fear the protesters, and to sympathize with the police, who are there to protect the law-abiding citizens of Tampa from the crazed, bomb-toting revolutionaries from Oakland and Seattle and corrupt places like that where most people don’t go to church enough anyway.
Upon arriving in Tampa on Saturday, I headed downtown to see what was happening. The RNC was not scheduled to kick off until two days later, but the lockdown of the city was well underway. Every government building, whether or not it had anything to do with the RNC, was surrounded by ten-foot-tall, black steel fences. Entire areas of downtown were blocked off to all traffic except for Republican delegates and others directly involved with the convention. Thousands and thousands of police on foot, on bicycles, and in cars, vans, buses, open-air Jeep-type vehicles, and in helicopters were everywhere. To overstate the police presence would be very difficult. If you were anywhere near downtown Tampa, which is a very large, spread-out, car-oriented city, you were always within view of at least a few cops – always. And usually you were within view of several dozen cops wherever you went. And if you were participating in a march or something like that, you were, without exception, going to be “escorted” by hundreds of cops – dozens within view, and hundreds in bullet-proof riot gear hiding around every corner, waiting for the orders to pounce. (And in case you think I’m being metaphorical here, I’m not – I literally mean hundreds of cops hiding around the corner, trying – and failing – not to be too obvious about it, by virtue of the fact that the larger number of cops were generally carefully staying on the other side of the block from the march itself.) Almost at all times during the entire week, wherever I was in Tampa, there was at least one helicopter directly overhead or within view, and very much within earshot – the damn things are very loud, and almost every outdoor event involving a sound system was badly affected by this constant noise.
In the wake of 9/11 and the almost weekly massacres that have been happening in the US more recently, one might think these helicopters would be hovering over the convention center or other places where Republican delegates were having meetings and cocktail parties and such, looking out for Al-Qaeda or something. But no, the helicopters were invariably hovering over us, the peaceful protesters, waiting to see if we left the park and decided to take a collective stroll around town, so they could tell their Ninja Turtles to “escort” us, and, if we were marching without a permit, to surround us, box us in, and generally prevent us from getting very far. (Note that nowhere in the First Amendment does it stipulate that a group must have a permit in order to peaceably assemble, and in most democratic countries this is not necessary.)
As I walked around the deserted ghost town that was the center of Tampa for the past week I had many conversations with police officers. With most of the groups of police there was always a majority of red-faced white men who had an unmistakably aggressive expression on their faces, as if they were just itching to break some bones. When you look someone like that in the eye with a friendly expression, inviting them to relax just a bit, and they don’t change their expression in the least, you know what’s going on – it’s blatant intimidation is what it is. But in every group of cops that I talked to there was always a minority (which usually included a greater percentage of nonwhite cops, but also white ones) who were friendlier-looking and ready to engage in conversation, often initiating it themselves when they saw by my facial expression that I was open to it – unlike a lot of the protesting youth who were as aggressively unfriendly to the cops as some of the cops were to them, which seems to me to be entirely counterproductive. (Remember Tunisia, where the cops switched sides? It can happen here, too. But this would seem like a more distant prospect if too many people are treating them like they’re subhuman.)
What I learned from talking to the cops who were willing to engage with me was they had all watched the same video, presumably shown to them by their superiors, of a molotov cocktail being thrown by a black-clad youth in Oakland last May 1st. What was also clear was that the police had been told that not all of the protesters planned on doing stuff like that, but that those who were intent on doing such things would always be lurking amongst the ranks of unsuspecting, nonviolent-type protesters, so they needed to be ever vigilant, watching out for anyone who might do something unspeakable like cover their face with a bandana and break a window or worse – throw a bottle at an armored vehicle perhaps! What they clearly hadn’t been told was that the one case of a molotov being thrown at a riot cop in Oakland happened only after months of terrible, unprovoked police attacks on the Occupy movement that had resulted in some very serious injuries, repeatedly.
But what if there had been a contingent of young people intent on trashing corporate property, as happened a couple years ago at the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh, where the police presence was similarly overwhelming? How many cops were required to deal with the 80 or so kids who marched down the street beside the University of Pittsburgh, set a dumpster alight, and smashed three or four store windows? How much was the value of those windows altogether – maybe a thousand dollars? Maybe two thousand dollars? As I recall from my time there in Pittsburgh, the response of the police at the time was to collectively punish – and I mean physically punish – anyone who happened to be on or near the college campus that night, whether they were black-clad kids with masks on, or sorority girls fruitlessly trying to defend themselves by chanting cheerleader slogans that the cops might recognize from local football games (the cops beat them anyway, as they chanted their Pitt slogans). And it didn’t require more than a couple hundred cops to savagely put a lid on that riotous mini-mob. (Among those who were hit with a police baton that night was yours truly – and I was just as innocent of any window-smashing or dumpster-burning as those sorority girls, though at least I was actually wearing black clothing…)
As counterproductive as window-smashing generally is (although quite cathartic, therapeutic, etc., no doubt), nobody in Pittsburgh got hurt by that incident, nor has anyone been hurt (except by cops) at any protest that I know of in the US for decades. The cost of those windows would be a tiny fraction of the cost of just one of those fences that surrounded so much of downtown Tampa. But nevertheless, preemptive collective punishment of any potential protester was the order of the day, and is the new norm throughout the USA.
I attended most of the planned and unplanned protests in Tampa over the past week, I think, including the biggest protest events, and by my count none of the protests involved more than 300 people. I probably have a tendency to under-count, and many other estimates of the crowds generously involved numbers like “500 to 1,000,” but I think in all cases, 500 was probably an exaggeration. The fear-mongering, the massive police presence, the season, the location, and the impending hurricane had done what I had expected it to do, and kept most people away.
Romneyville was an encampment taking up one square block of private land maybe a bit less than a mile from the center of the Republican storm in the center of town. It was run largely by a combination of folks from Cheri Honkala’s Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, plus two buses full of folks from Occupy Wall Street in New York City, who were thriftily and wisely spending the money many people had donated to the campaign to rent two buses and take everybody to Florida and North Carolina to protest the two corporate parties that rule our land on behalf of the 1%. Romneyville had a squad of cops watching over it at all times, and more often than not, a helicopter hovering directly overhead.
Nearby Romneyville, on the way to downtown, was a fabulous Arabic restaurant. Me and my friend Jun, a fellow musician from St. Pete, went in there for dinner one evening, and while we ate we did some people-watching, which mostly meant cop-watching. Two small marches passed by, each accompanied by many times as many police. We were talking with the owner, who told us that a few weeks before some men in dark suits had visited and explained to her that because of the RNC she could assume she’d have approximately three times as much foot traffic in front of her establishment than normal. Predictably, what really happened was a serious loss of business and revenue due to the police state, not just for her but for most downtown establishments aside from the 5-star hotels.
The Food Not Bombs World Gathering was happening in the days leading up to the RNC in Tampa, which involved a fair number of dedicated Food Not Bombers from around the country, plus at least one from Russia. Keith McHenry, a co-founder of Food Not Bombs who had, along with several others, spent time in prison recently for daring to feed the hungry in the very image-conscious, poverty-stricken (Disney-stricken) city of Orlando, was there too, participating in workshops and marches and feeding lots of people. One of the last events of the FNB gathering before the RNC kicked off was a concert that took place at a spacious bar in the Ybor City neighborhood, an area that’s fairly deserted during the day but at night is packed, teeming with bar-crawlers of all description – well-off people dining in fancy restaurants, toothless street dwellers trying to panhandle enough money for a meal, gobs of college students, strippers, and others. It was striking that aside from the six or seven cops standing directly across the street from our bar all night, the rest of Ybor City had a relatively low police presence – although I think I can confidently say that far more drunken idiocy, violence and property destruction probably takes place in Ybor City on any given Saturday night than occurred throughout the week of the RNC, as far as us protesters were concerned. (As far as I know, nobody was hurt and no property destroyed by protesters at all during the whole week, and there were a total of three arrests.)
In past decades, the authorities in the US have tended to differentiate between different kinds of protests – like if it was the “direct action” crowd they might have a heavy police presence, but if it’s a mainstream labor event they’d tend not to. As far as I know it’s been many decades since there was anything approaching a riot that involved a union rally, and it used to be that the authorities generally recognized this reality, but at the small march held by the Service Employees International Union in Ybor City the police were taking no chances, and were there in their hundreds, covered in body armor, wearing night sticks, pistols and handcuffs as usual.
The SEIU also marched in St. Petersburgh, a small city not far south of Tampa, where the Republicans had an event at a stadium there. St. Pete was an even more eerie scene than Tampa, with most businesses having closed in preparation not for the hurricane, which was still days away and mostly bypassed the area, but for fear of violent protesters. The streets were almost completely deserted except for lots of cops, a few protesters trying to find their way to the rally, having to navigate a ridiculous maze of steel fences that the police had set up, which made both walking or driving through St. Pete very difficult. Every other street was shut down and cordoned off with fencing. For what? Who knows. No pedestrians or cars were permitted to go down these streets. Perhaps they were available for emergency vehicles to use if needed…? Who knows. Eventually the three buses full of union members wound their way to Mirror Lake, where the rally was taking place, and then the 300 or so people who came marched around town a bit, nowhere near where the Republicans were meeting, nowhere near anything or anybody, since the city was bereft of local people or even businesses that were open. Walking down the street after the march, looking at one closed business after another in this normally bustling, normally pedestrian-friendly tourist town on the water, I walked for blocks before I finally found a restaurant that was open. (It was a very good Greek restaurant complete with a real Greek bazouki player playing real Greek music, being thoroughly ignored by all those dining in the restaurant except for me.)
Code Pink did what they do best, repeatedly, every day, to great effect. There were very few of them, mostly folks I knew from lots of other protests in the past. Once again, Medea Benjamin, Ann Wright, Rae Abilae and others managed to infiltrate and disrupt the convention on both days. As usual, as the police are keeping their eyes pealed for masked anarchist youth, the real disruptive types were petite, pink-clad women. Outside the cocktail parties of the Republican elite they flirted with the rich and powerful with bags full of (mostly fake) money in their hands, representing the latest incarnation of Andrew Boyd’s Billionaires for Bush – Millionaires for Mitt. No massive number of police could prevent these women (and some men) from disrupting various events, and with the massive media presence at all of these events it seemed the police decided that attempting to arrest small, pink-clad women for standing on a public sidewalk and verbally harassing rich people was a bad tactic, so they let it go on uninterrupted from what I saw.
While it was more or less impossible to have a protest anywhere in Tampa that could be heard or seen by anybody actually at the convention itself, because the authorities were making sure we were always kept out of sight and out of mind, at least one group – Planned Parenthood – was apparently so freaked out by the police state that they canceled their plans to march, and decided to hold their small (maybe 300 people again) rally in the middle of a park on the other side of the bay from downtown – far away from the action, in what the organizers must have figured would be a safe space. There were a couple dozen cops visible at that event, and I heard one of them say that “the anarchists are trying to blend in with the crowd, but they’re here.” Given the violence certain rightwing, Christian thugs have rained upon pro-choice advocates such as Dr. Tiller, Dr. Gunn, Dr. Slepian, and so many others, perhaps in this one case the police presence served a useful purpose.
For all the overwhelming police presence and the kettling of nonpermited marches, it should be said that the police apparently were under orders to avoid mass-arresting nonviolent protesters as has happened on so many occasions at other protests in recent years, such as the RNC in New York City in 2004 and Minneapolis in 2008. But the scariest thing for me that I experienced in Tampa was that when I engaged local citizens in conversation, most of them seemed to think that when a few hundred people are going to protest in a major city, it is normal and perhaps even necessary for there to be thousands of cops and steel barricades all over the place. As one veteran journalist at WMNF who has lived in Tampa for 33 years pointed out, these were the biggest protests in Tampa he had ever seen. (Maybe he was on vacation in April, 2006, when there were much larger protests in Tampa around the issue of immigrant rights, but I don’t want to split hairs…) Presumably they were the biggest protests that most other local people had ever seen, and so how would they know that this is a completely, outrageously over-the-top police state response to a protest? It’s here, it’s now, not in some dystopic future – the police state is here, the new normal. It’s morning in America all over again.
David Rovics is a musician living in Portland, Oregon. He is on tour throughout Europe and North America for all of September and October. Help him record his new album, Unindicted Co-Conspirator, by donating to his Kickerstarter page.
COMING IN SEPTEMBER
A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch
Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …