While the Republican elite boozed and schmoozed with media at the RNC Welcoming Party inside St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, several hundred demonstrators took to the streets in light rain demanding an equal share of America's wealth.
On Sunday evening, protesters from the Tampa Bay area and beyond marched from Mirror Lake to the “Event Zone,” a huge, barbed-wire enclosed area near Tropicana field. They chanted “We are the 99%!” and held signs condemning Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Florida Governor Rick Scott. They banged drums and snaked through several blocks of the downtown area, empty except for hundreds of police posted at intersections along the pre-approved parade route.
There were no arrests.
But all the marchers had a similar message: Tax the richest Americans so the rest of the country has access to affordable education, healthcare and well-paying jobs.
“I’m fighting for me,” said Mihiret Gebru, a Washington D.C. resident with a Jamaican lilt. “My ass is working 11-12 hours a day and I’m not getting paid.”
Gebru works at a Dunkin’ Donuts back home. (Dunkin’ Donuts is one of many corporations owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney). “I’ve worked there 15 years and I still get paid $7.25 an hour,” she said. “And I don’t have any healthcare.”
Jasmina Forean pressed the issue of money in politics. “When I first came to this country, it was a democracy,” the Bosnian native said. “Not anymore. Now [politicians] buy votes.”
For some, the state’s poor economy hit close to home. “Captain Kirk,” a disabled 23-year-old wearing a yellow Star Trek T-shirt, said he barely gets by with his $683 disability check every month.
“There are no jobs,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get through college for five years. The cost of education, health care, everything has been going up … It’s a vicious cycle.”
He said he found a voice with the Occupy Wall Street movement, a group that he maintains has gotten a bad rap over the last several months.
“The media says we don’t know what we want,” he said. “That’s bullshit. We know what we want. We want to put the power back in the hands of the people and get money out of politics.”
Many of the other protesters CL talked to had similar stories of woe — losing a job, living without healthcare, or lamenting the high cost of living in Florida. Others wanted to press key issues they say are all connected: the attack on women’s rights, bio-engineered foods, and war.
“I’m 91 years old and I don’t remember a time when we have not been at war,” said Aurora Kellman, sitting on her red scooter, surrounded by black clad Occupy supporters a third her age. “I think that’s pretty sad.”
As the protesters reached the security perimeter surround Tropicana Field, a line of police officers on horseback stood about 10 yards from the fence. Some demonstrators held up signs toward the Trop and a few tried to engage police. A common refrain: “You are part of the 99% too!”
After a half-hour, the wind picked up and the rain drizzled a bit harder. The crowd left some signs on the fence and began the walk back towards Mirror Lake or the several buses that brought them from Tampa. One of the event’s organizers, Kelly Benjamin of the Florida Consumer Action Network, pointed to the Trop.
“These people are in there having their party on the taxpayer’s dime ... and they separate themselves from the American public by this barbed wire fence,” he said. “This is emblematic of our society.”
Benjamin said the light rain didn’t seem to hurt the protest.
“It’s a taste of what’s to come,” he said. “The convention hasn’t even begun yet.”