Yesterday, Tampa Food Not Bombs and Occupy Tampa jointly held a luncheon at Voice of Freedom Park near central Tampa, Florida. Voice of Freedom (VoF) is a park privately owned by Joe Redner, a Tampa entrepreneur and frequently outspoken public figure. The event included not just some great food from FNB, but several great activities for local kids and training for Occupy participants. There was some press coverage, a good number of visitors both from out of town and from the local community.
Though it was by design small and casual, yesterday’s event represents an important evolution of Occupy Tampa specifically, and may offer some useful points of reflection for other Occupy groups.
Occupy Tampa has, for most of its existence, had to contend above all with both the strategy and practical dimension of a full-time occupation. The City of Tampa and a group of early occupiers hashed out a barely satisfactory compromise – the group was allowed to sleep, without structures, on a narrow strip of sidewalk next to a city park. There have been a lot of advantages to this location – it has relatively high foot traffic, making for a lot of good discussion, as well as the bare minimum of continuity necessary for building an organization. I personally feel that in reaching this initial compromise, the City of Tampa and the Tampa Police Department displayed some willingness to work with Occupy Tampa.
But in practice, and as time has gone on, the situation has proven unacceptable in a few ways. The sidewalk’s location next to a four-lane road makes sleeping dangerous, and it’s not terribly comfortable. But more than that, for uncertain reasons, police harassment has escalated over the past two months. The TPD, who seemed cordial or at least neutral towards Occupiers initially, has increasingly turned hostile, as evidenced by an array of arrests on petty charges such as trespassing (that is, someone stepped over the park’s property line after its closing hour), the repeated confiscation of the property of Occupiers (that is, someone placed their backpack on the wrong side of the park’s property line and walked too far away), and worst of all, a series of trumped-up battery charges against Occupiers who, for example, had the temerity to try and pull their belongings back into the space they are ‘allowed’ to use before police could confiscate them. While Tampa has seen nothing of the scale or severity of the overt militarist policing in places like UC Davis, the police here are nonetheless being put to work in suppressing dissent.
This is why on December 1st, as a way to dramatize the many small ways in which the rights of citizens were being trampled, Occupy Tampa moved forward with Public Space Liberation Day, in which about 150 protestors marched from Curtis Hixon to Julian B. Lane Waterfront Park, where they held a general assembly, told stories about why they were involved in Occupy, held meditation classes, and conducted a candlelight vigil in recognition of World AIDS Day. As you might expect, the City of Tampa’s response to such radical and disruptive activities was to dispatch twelve police cruisers and two dozen police officers to encircle and forcibly eject participants, then finally to arrest 29 Occupiers who refused to leave the park.
While this outcome was disappointing on many levels, it was neither unexpected nor truly a defeat. The action and its reaction served as a slightly more formalized version of the evictions that are now taking place across the country, and like each of them, it was a dramatization of the oligarchic, militarized, anti-citizen, and overtly oppressive – in short, fascistic – ethos that drives many police departments and municipal governments across the U.S.
The playing out of this highly educational drama has left Tampa and other Occupations at an acute transition point – it has been demonstrated quite clearly that the right of the people to assemble peaceably is under very literal attack in the U.S. This has been illustrated as far as any reasonable standard demands. There isn't much further we can push the point. In many ways, this is liberating. As important as the battles for space has been in capturing the public imagination and galvanizing the movement, they have never been the main purpose of Occupy. The confrontation with authority, in which authority showed its illegitimacy so clearly, forms the first and most fundamental part of an argument that Occupy will spend the coming years laying out for citizens of the globe. Now is the time to move on to the other parts of that argument.
Back now to the luncheon. Joe Redner’s offer of the use of this park may ultimately direct Occupy Tampa in one out of a number of possible ways forward. The park is located in a predominantly black, lower- income community. Several Occupation sites have made efforts to reach beyond the (broadly speaking) young, white, middle class demographic that has largely defined the movement. Occupy Oakland and Occupy Chicago have made efforts in this direction with varying levels of success, and (the in my opinion not very well named) Occupy the Hood has worked to encourage the participation of people of color in Occupy.
This luncheon had no such codified purpose – rather, it was simply an effort to notify people in the community of the presence of Occupy Tampa, to begin fostering local connections, and to do something unambiguously positive and constructive after so much energy devoted to important actions that happened to be fairly aggressive in tone.
The atmosphere at the park was both uplifting and slightly surreal. About ten kids from the neighborhood, some with adult supervision in tow but many not, were drawn to the event. We had kickball, four-square, crafts, and of course cookies on hand for them (There was also plenty of healthy food served, at least some of it to kids). But even as the kickball game was going on, a trio of field medics visiting from Occupy Miami were demonstrating the proper use and maintenance of a gas mask, and how to use a formula of Maalox to treat pepper-spray victims. We had a steady stream of locals come through to enjoy the amazing meals prepared by Tampa Food Not Bombs. Many of them were aware of Occupy, but many were not. One very important opportunity for improvement in our outreach efforts would be in literature availability, so that Occupy Tampa can spread the word about what they stand for without seeming like aggressive proselytizers.
Overall, reception in the neighborhood was warm, but cautious. People were trying to get a bead on this strange group of (sometimes very funny-looking) outsiders. We ultimately did not have a general assembly on the site because it had not been previously consented to, though I hope that happens in the future – demonstrating direct democracy in action is certainly the best way to promote interest in it.
There is a clear and inspiring model here for continuing action both on this site and, potentially, at sites across the city. A well-organized afternoon festival that offers immediate practical benefits - programs and information, entertainment, and food – can be a powerful tool for entering communities and beginning the process of spreading the practice of direct democracy, learning about local conditions, educating people about the broad conditions underpinning economic injustice, and broadening the pool of leaders that make up Occupy.
Many things could be offered at future events:
-Generally, Anything we can accomplish that people tell us they want.
-Organized Games for Kids
-Food Not Bombs – Food Distribution
– This should include as much as possible on the basics. What is Occupy? What is consensus? What was the financial crisis, how has it effected us, and how are we responding?
-Daytime public concerts
-Consensus Process Training
-Training in Practical Self-Reliance
-T-Shirt Making! Cleaning-Supply making! Etc.!
-Fitness and Meditation sessions for adults and children
Even the small services that were provided on Saturday meant a lot to the people who came to Voice of Freedom park. The potential to do real good on the same model is nearly limitless.