Citizens Struggle in the Shadow of the RNC

Everywhere you look, there are flocks of police on bicycles, on horseback, jumping out of trucks in full body armor. Roads are blocked, and downtown Tampa is ringed with high fences, forcing anyone who strays outside the convention compound to walk extra miles to circumnavigate the heavily guarded RNC.

Even local library branches are closed.

"Oh my god, they walled off the county building!" Terrie Weeks, an environmental activist who works at a local law firm, said as she drove through town. "You can't believe how weird this is to a local."

Who is all this security keeping away?

"For weeks, the local news kept warning everyone about violent anarchists," said Mark Skogman, a radio reporter and multimedia specialist who is involved in local politics. "People on the local council were so terrified about these violent anarchists coming in, they were talking about leaving the area. I finally calmed them down."

Overkill is too mild a word to describe the contrast between the heavy security and the protests in Tampa, which have been peaceful, and somewhat muted by the weather.

There is a shantytown called Romneyville at a local park, which was the starting point for a 500-person march demanding an end to foreclosures. There was a beautiful melting ice sculpture in the park that formed the words "middle class."

A group called Progress Florida has a complete "progressive's guide to the RNC" on its website:

Darden Rice, Progress Florida's executive director, moderated a panel discussion in St. Petersburg on Monday night titled, "Is This What Democracy Looks Like?"

In the shadow of the RNC, where helicopters buzzed overhead, local activists expressed their disillusionment with both political parties.

People feel powerless in a democracy hijacked by corporate interests and seemingly as inaccessible to ordinary citizens as the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the Republicans are ensconced.

Rice seconded a comment from one activist in attendance about feeling like "a grain of sand trying to fight against the ocean."

Despite the inspiring examples of the massive protests in Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street, activists are not sure where to put their energy in this election year.

Panelist Arun Gupta, a progressive journalist and chronicler of the Occupy movement, spoke for many in the crowd when he talked about the disappointments of the Obama Administration--from continuing the war in Afghanistan, to pursuing policies of assassination and torture, to the coddling of Wall Street bankers and an inadequate rescue effort for the American middle class.

On the other end of the panel, Judithanne Scourfield-McLaughlin, a professor at the University of South Florida who worked for the Gore campaign in 2000, urged progressives to pour their efforts into getting out the vote for Obama.

Scourfield-McLaughlin warned that a Romney-Ryan administration would be a disaster. No one disagreed.

The key problem, she said, is that people who ought to vote for the Democrats don't vote--or, in 2000, that they voted for the Green Party.

Inadvertently illustrating the biggest problem with the Obama campaign, Scourfield-McLaughlin dismissed the failed effort to recall governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as a distraction from the "real" election.

Talk about out of touch.

The President literally phoned in his support for the Walker recall effort. He deliberately avoided a grassroots fight on the core principles his party is supposed to represent. Yet now his campaign expects activists in Wisconsin to pour their hearts and souls into getting out the vote for him.

The fact that the Democrats are making the same argument they made in 2000--that the left must fall in line and vote for the lesser evil--even if it's true, as almost everyone in the room agreed--shows what a long way we've come from the excitement and optimism of 2008.

People all over the country are hurting. Yet there have been no criminal charges against the bankers who caused the financial crisis--let alone serious bank regulation. Cutting government spending, "entitlement reform," and reducing the deficit are talking points not just for Republicans, but for Obama, too.

No wonder people are discouraged.

But if national politics looks terribly alienating, local activists groups -- including Awake Pinellas, which sponsored the panel in St. Petersburg -- are doing serious, constructive work.

Awake Pinellas is part of a massive citizens' movement in Florida called Awake the State, which grew out of Wisconsin-like protests from Pensacola to Key West opposing Governor Rick Scott and the Republican legislature's program of deep cuts to education and health care.

St. Petersburg is one of a handful of cities where elected officials are now talking openly about raising taxes to protect citizens' quality of life.

Rice credits the local Awake coalition, which includes the SEIU, League of Women Voters, the NAACP and smaller, local groups.

Awake Pinellas launched something called the People's Budget Review to fight a program of austerity on the local level that was choking schools, libraries, and services for the poor.

"We had a lot of workshops on the budget, and packed the room at city council meetings with citizens calling for an alternative," Rice explains.

The result: The Republican mayor who is facing reelection is no longer talking about more budget cuts, and instead the council is debating between raising property taxes and imposing new fees. Cuts to services are off the table.

Packing those meetings gave council members "cover" to talk about how public investment is key to attracting business, how budget cuts hurt the area, and how citizens' quality of life is adversely affected by austerity, Rice says.

"It's not all roses," Rice adds--some regressive fees are being debated.

But slashing public jobs, reducing library hours, and closing polls--all of which were on the table--are now off.

The violent anarchists may be AWOL, but in St. Petersburg at least, citizens are winning battles in the fight to take back their government.

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