A Tale of Two Worlds for RNC Protesters, Delegates

Aug 31, 2012

Remember how everyone was scared that thousands of protesters would descend on Tampa, throwing the RNC into chaos? Well, that "invasion" never materialized. And the convention delegates and the few protesters who showed up were separated so effectively that their paths seldom crossed.

It was like they lived in two separate worlds. On one end of downtown, well-heeled delegates going to the convention were funneled down scenic Ashley Drive, next to the Hillsborough River.

"I haven't even seen any. (laughs) Are they here?"

That's Deborah Lee Rice, an alternate delegate from Gainesville, when asked if she's seen any protesters. John Steward, a delegate from North Carolina, echoed her sentiment.

"You know, I think I've seen a total of four protesters," he said. "Sunday, before the convention actually started, I think we saw the most of them, downtown. There were like 10 of the Code Pinks out there. But for the most part, I haven't seen or heard of any of them."

Several blocks away, on the far end of downtown, chants arise that few behind the steel gates and concrete barricades surrounding the convention site would ever hear.

SOUND: Workers chant: We built this country! The workers! Not the rich!

This group of protesters at a rally held by the AFL-CIO walked down Whiting Street. It's closed to cars, and is surrounded by empty lots choked with weeds. Squads of police on bicycles lined up wheel to wheel to direct them to a vacant field on a dead-end street. They're led under an expressway overpass, down a rundown brick street and past a stack of grain elevators - to what is called the "Public Viewing Area." Protesters like Heather Merlis of New York City have another name for it.

"When we got there, it was like, oh this is it - this is the Free Speech Cage," says Merlis, who was in town to perform in a skit called "Mr. Satan Goes to Wall Street. "And when we got there, a lot of the activists were barking like dogs and saying this is a kennel. It felt that way. You go into this kind of industrial area, and it feels very bleak and empty, and there's essentially a cage. A cage with a stage."

It's about 4 o'clock on Thursday, the last day of the Republican National Convention, a few hours before Mitt Romney is scheduled to take the stage. I'm within earshot of the Tampa Bay Times Forum, across a forbidding series of steel grates and concrete barricades. I talked to a couple of guys who run the stage here, and they said Wednesday - at the height of the convention - there were six or seven scheduled speakers here, but they ended up not even showing up, or they showed up - there was nobody here to listen to what they have to say - so they left.

Nearby, Lenny Flank stood out in a small crowd with his "Occupy St. Pete" T-shirt. He says part of the problem was a lack of protesters - the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac scared some people away, and others who had planned to arrive en masse found their busses were canceled because of the storm.

I asked Flank if there is such a dearth of home-grown people who believe in these kind of issues that we have to import them to make a splash here.

"This is not the most progressive state in the union, and this is not the most progressive part of the state, so there are not a whole lot of people like me here," Flank says. "If you took the entire progressive movement in the Tampa Bay area, you wouldn't have enough people to fill up a movie theater. So this is what we've got."

What we've got is a giant letdown for protesters who were predicting a repeat of the last GOP convention in St. Paul, when hundreds were arrested. The final tally at the jail here - two arrests. Whether this is the epitaph - or just a speed bump - for the Occupy movement remains a giant question mark.