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Outsiders Looking in at the Republican National Convention 2012

Photo: Todd Sumlin (Charlotte Observer / MCT)

In spite of all the rhetoric coming from Chief of Police Jane Castor in the days before the RNC about reserving extra jail space for the thousands they expected to arrest, as of Wednesday morning only three protestors had been arrested: one for wearing a mask, and another two who started a fight with each other at Romneyville.

Tampa, like most of Florida, is inhospitable to human inhabitation. The layout of the city seems like an afterthought, the accidental hodgepodge result from frenzied waves of developers and hucksters who bought (or stole) cheap land and sold high to the next unsuspecting dreamer. No one in his/her right mind willingly moves down here. The state most likely wouldn’t exist if not for the fevered dreams of conquistadors who imagined mountains of gold and the secret of eternal youth hidden somewhere behind the swamps.

Not dissimilarly, the Republicans descended upon the city with equally deluded visions of manufacturing a renewed America from their tired clichés and bloated sense of entitlement, modern day conquistadors who retired their swords for stock options and outsourced the dirty work to the very people they hold in contempt. Welcome to the Republican National Convention.

Contrary to the deluge of news coverage that foretold hordes of anarchists invading and seizing hold of the city, terrorizing the citizenry with property destruction and never ending drum circles, only 300 protestors dribbled into their encampments. Many blamed the threat of Hurricane Isaac deterring others; 16 buses were cancelled from New York, Miami, and the Panhandle. Others suggested that the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street redirected some protestors’ energies. Yet another theory suggested that the economic downturn simply made it difficult for protestors to afford to travel to Tampa.

Overall, there was no singular cause. During my past three years of research on media activism, I had interviewed around 80 people who are intimately involved in media and activism. I asked many of these contacts to see if we could meet-up in Tampa during the RNC. Yet most said they were skipping the event for various reasons.

But before declaring counter-summit protesting dead, one must remember that a series of low-turnout events plagued protestors even during the white hot years of the early 2000s when the alter-globalization movement was in its prime. Some protestors bemoaned the low turnout during the 27 Septembe, 2002 Washington D.C. counter-summit. Mark Lynn Andersen suggested that the low attendance revealed how the action “had little or nothing to do with those it claimed to represent” (All The Power 196). Other protestors pondered how the anti-terrorism fervor generated by September 11th had effectively neutralized such rallies. For example, Starhawk asked, “How to continue gaining momentum in a climate of public fear and increased repression?” (Webs of Power 2). Yet Noemi Klein rightfully noted in 2001: “Our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is declared dead with ritualistic regularity before and after every mass demonstration” (Fences and Windows 236). So one needs to see how the Democratic National Convention protests progress before proclaiming the end of a moment.

Yet it's hard to maintain one’s enthusiasm for such counter-summit protests after ritualistically attending them year after year. As one activist I interviewed a few years ago stated, “It’s all becoming the same event: the same activists with the same signs with the same speeches with the same riot cops with the same tear gas cans. You have the same people being outraged with the same jail walk. I became jaded about the whole thing.” However, at this year’s RNC, the police unexpectedly changed the script by allowing the protestors to do what they initially set out to accomplish: protesting.

I came to Tampa to follow how various people mobilized media to organize and transmit their actions at a counter-summit protest. I define media in rather broad terms that incorporates word-of-mouth, written communications, the internet, video production, theater, and the like. The RNC allowed me to see how media enabled protestors to develop their actions during the tumult of the moment as well as respond to new developments spurred on by the police and chance events.

Grassroots Media

As I drove into town, the community radio station WMNF (88.5 FM) broadcast live from the streets. Throughout the day, community reporters attended events and offered critical analysis of what was happening on the streets. They also carried Democracy Now’s two hour coverage of the RNC. When not busy reporting, the station played protest-themed music like Gil Scott-Heron’s, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", the Beatles, “Revolution”, and Jimi Hendrix, “House Burning Down”.

Overall, the station served a vital function in discovering upcoming events and gaining of glimpse of missed opportunities. For example, some reporters attended the screening of the anti-Occupy film, Occupy Revealed, on Thursday night. They played excerpts from a lively Q&A that followed the screening with Brandon Darby, an activist turned FBI informant, and Medea Benjamin, founder of the activist group Code Pink.

That Wednesday morning I drove into Romneyville, a makeshift encampment located on donated private property along Tampa Street. It partially encircled a Christian-based Army/Navy surplus store. A police chopper flew overhead and a line of cops stood along the perimeter of a parking lot about 20 feet away from the camp. Overheated protestors sat before them underneath the shade of some trees. Tents dotted the landscape with a large eight-foot high stage behind them against the store’s left side.

A small mini-camper sat at the camp’s east side with foldout table before it under an awning and a sign scribbled with “press information” on it. A couple of gray haired, ponytailed men looking as if they just stepped out of Ken Kesey’s bus sat behind the table. I was handed a map of Tampa with its reverse side holding an events schedule. Each day was divided into a particular theme that had little-to-no-correlation, I was soon to find out, with the actual occurring events. Monday was supposedly Economic Rights Day. Tuesday was Human Rights Day, and so on. After digesting this information, I checked-in with Flux Rostrum, who was offering a live-feed and cutting short videos throughout the days and nights of the protest to distribute on his website, Mobile Broadcast News.

According to an earlier interview I conducted with Flux, he became interested in activist video after September 11th, when he felt he had to counter the deceptions of the government and commercial media. “I had spent the previous two years teaching myself video editing and web design and had produced travel documentaries and short films,” Flux asserts, “so when I assessed my skill set it felt destined that I become the media.”

He had repurposed a school bus to establish Mobile Broadcast News from it. The bus contains a few tables, an editing platform, internet access, and a general comfy atmosphere for someone inhabiting it for a good part of the year. Flux defines Mobile Broadcast News as a website that provides a platform for “a loose-knit affinity group of indy video journalists, most of whom have ties to their local Indy Media Centers. We try to support each other’s projects and hope that by distributing our content under the MBN banner we can help each other reach wider audiences.” In Tampa, Flux was also serving as the video arm of Free Speech TV, a Boulder, Colorado-based independent television network that has went through some hard times due to the economic downturn and the resulting laying off of much of its staff.

When I asked what was going on, Flux stated, “Nothing much,” as he ate some pancakes produced by some volunteers who were manning the veggie grill outside the bus. Turnouts were low and the actions uneventful since the police largely accommodated the protestors. In spite of all the rhetoric coming from Chief of Police Jane Castor in the days before the convention about reserving extra jail space for the thousands they expected to arrest, as of Wednesday morning only three protestors had been arrested: one for wearing a mask, and another two who started a fight with each other at Romneyville.

Leaving the bus, I spoke with a few people from Romneyville. Many participants were homeless. Leon, a 37-year-old man who had only been in Tampa for the past seven months, accidentally stumbled upon the encampment a few weeks before. Almost immediately, he became essential in overseeing the camp and participating in its vital functions like garbage duty and feeding others. He also served as the camp’s unofficial spokesperson, someone outside the activist scene but who was benefiting from its presence by giving him a new sense of purpose. “It was the first time I ever did a march,” he told me, referring to the poor people’s action on Monday afternoon, “I'm just taking this all in: meeting new people and helping out where I can.” He would respond to questions with a smile and a “yes, sir,” before further explaining himself. He held a generous attitude towards others. Even when a few self-involved teenagers entered the camp and littered over his carefully groomed grounds, he excused their actions, “They are young. What can you expect? They are learning.”

People like Leon remind one that underneath the spectacle and actions and bombastic rhetoric of political parties and some activist groups, new profound connections between people who would never have met are nonetheless being forged. At its best, encampments like Romneyville assert its participants’ humanity and value as they assist one another. Even among the occasional bickering, the encampment forces participants to act outside of the routines that normally confine their lives within a limited socio-political geography and outlook.

In spite of the camp’s anarchist overtone, a Christian vibe also resonated throughout it. Leon told me that every morning began with an optional prayer group. They would read excerpts from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, a book that combines traditions from various denominations in the service of a more socially engaged outlook. This was his first introduction to radicalism, and he found it quite compelling. “I never experienced any of this before,” Leon confided to me. He decided to stick around after the convention ended to help assist with the camp and perhaps continue on with the church group that has sponsored the space.

A workshop on “How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy” was held later that day at Café Hey, an independently owned café that became a de facto anarchist hangout since it was only a few blocks away from Romneyville. Despite the workshop’s incendiary title, its message was rather tame. A young woman from Global Exchange, a nonprofit social justice group located in San Francisco, ran the workshop. She stressed how her nonprofit produced a study that analyzed the contributions by finance, insurance, and real estate sectors to various federal legislators. Although she tried to engage the group in discussion, the workshop was mainly self-serving, geared towards popularizing the study Global Exchange produced, which most participants dismissed as a rather lame observation about something they already intuitively knew.

Two unemployed older people, a man and woman, rambled on about the decadence of those in power. The man, an Iraq veteran, launched into a diatribe about how “those in power always take, take, take. They don’t care about the little people. Even the unions steal from their members. They don’t care. No one cares.” They were clearly overwhelmed by their situations and feeling helpless, using the forum to give voice to all their pent-up frustrations. The moderator was clearly out of her depth, not used to dealing with such disruption. She kept trying to soft-guilt people back on task: “Is it okay if we get back on track? I would really like to get back to the study.”

This disconnect between the moderator and the two older participants speaks to a more significant gulf that often exists between the nonprofit world and the constituencies they are supposed to represent. Rather than altering the presentation to accommodate and address the frustrations erupting from some of the participants, the moderator kept trying to return to her script. Just like the corporations and politicians that Global Exchange critiqued for being unresponsive to citizens’ needs, the moderator also ignored her participants’ albeit rambling and incoherent concerns that she had initially elicited from them by asking earlier, “How has the economic crisis affected you?”

But her question wasn’t really there to establish discussion. It was to give the appearance of it. The question really functioned as a veiled prompt to tie our interests with that of Global Exchange’s. But we had bigger concerns than Global Exchange’s study could address.

As the workshop reeled out-of-control, one of the younger males dressed in button-down shirt with a Rolex watch asked, “Why don’t I have the freedom to donate a million dollars? Everyone has the opportunity to earn a million dollars.” This immediately set-off the older woman who yelled, “No, no, no. How can I donate a million dollars when I don’t have enough money to pay rent?” The younger man kept raising issues straight from the book of Ayn Rand, baiting the entire group. Midway through, he announced that he was leaving, and two other males who were filming the event followed along.

Apparently, they had all been plants for the republican-based video group, Revealing Politics, that attempts to catch liberals in awkward situations. Tellingly, none of the footage made it to their website since it placed them in a negative light, bullying the Global Exchange moderator and disregarding other people’s concerns only to then abandon the discussion altogether after fully disrupting it. Needless to say, the entire workshop was beyond resurrection as the moderator futilely pleaded, “Please let me show you this after having traveled across the country.” No one cared.

Much of the rest of the day was uneventful except at eight o’clock someone handed me a sheet that read: “RNC Civil Disobedience Action and Flash Mob. WE NEED TURNOUT FOR THIS ACTION!!!!! Location: N. Ashley and E. Whiting Streets from 9pm until 11pm sharp! Flash mob will lay down at the location and display signage with the following message as delegates depart the RNC: ‘TAX CUT FOR THE 5%, TAX HIKE FOR THE 95%’ and “Romney-Ryan Plan: WALK ON THE MIDDLE CLASS.” The man handing it told me to “spread the word.”

As one can see, the more disruptive the action, the more clandestine its distribution. None of the unpermitted actions were listed on any website for fear of police infiltration, though many people already assumed that informers already lurked among us. This led to a semi-paranoid atmosphere where people occasionally questioned me about my background. One person asserted, “I didn’t you see here earlier today. I saw you downtown by the convention. You aren’t with it?”

As I neared downtown where the action was to take place, the city became increasingly fortified. Police forced me to cross the street and walk on the other side for no apparent reason. I passed clusters of cops with truncheons, tazers, and camel bags they occasionally drank from. A security officer warned, “Careful, sir, the streets are dangerous.” I couldn’t help but ask myself: “From whom?”

By the time I reached the intersection at 8:50PM, 60 cops guarded the street’s four corners. A few protestors stood on one corner with a banner stating: “$ Out of Politics.” Scattered Ron Paulites, dressed in beach-bum attire of colorful shorts and open Hawaiian shirts, complained about their delegates going unheeded. Two young women from South Beach mocked them, feigning interest with heavily sardonic comments, “You don’t say? Tell me more.” Time passed... but there was no action.

I spoke with some travelling vendors as I waited. They hauled their wares in red wagons behind them. Sales were low. The police scared away the tourist crowd. One vendor stated, “Look at it. It’s a nice city but no one’s here.” Another vendor complained, “The Republicans are just plain cheap.”

The police seemed visibly bored. I spoke with one officer from Orlando. He said he had nothing to complain about: “We get a lot of goodies.” “And overtime,” I replied. “And overtime,” he smiled.

I asked about where they stored the riot gear. He said it was on reserve and close by. He then further commented, “We’re in a more conservative state, but we’re laid back. Out there in Chicago [during the NATO summit protests in the summer], they’re more liberal, but also more brutal.” Little did I know that this was to become the general line of the Tampa police force: a kinder and gentler police state. Their presence constantly reminded you that they could descend like a fist onto you at any moment, but that they instead humored your actions as insignificant enough to not warrant much reaction on their part.

I gave-up waiting for the action and walked back to my hotel just in time to catch the 11 o’clock news. The action had finally taken place around 10:45. The protestors blocked the street holding their signs and the cops stood by and watched. There were no arrests. The coverage praised the amazing restraint of Tampa police and offered extensive quotes from the Chief of Police that “one of the things we have in our arsenal is restraint, which we chose to exercise generously.” No mention was made of what the activists were protesting.

A second news story followed of the Planned Parenthood rally that occurred earlier in the day. Unlike the first, the media framed it as a legitimate demand and how women’s issues were downplayed by the Republicans. Four or five protestors spoke about women’s right to choose and how such concerns were deeply related to the economy since women compose more than half of the workforce.

The juxtaposition of these two news stories illustrates the ways in which commercial news media implicitly divides direct-action protesting from permitted rallies into respectively “bad” and “good” categories. The news provides “good” protestors airtime to express their views. “Bad” protestors concerns are drowned out beneath the focus on the police’s actions in relation to unpermitted action. This raises significant problems for direct action protestors when the police are not behaving badly since it ultimately results in not only garnering positive press coverage for the police, but also ex post facto justifies the militarization of the police as somehow deterring larger numbers of rowdier protesters. Essentially, the protestors are assisting in generating positive PR for the police that many of them see as an extension of a highly undemocratic, money-driven system.

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