"Coalition of conscience" protests in Tampa against recent state actions

Yvette Lewis is the political action chair with the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP. She said the legislature's approval of the elections bill was an attempt to "silence our vote," but said her group was actively engaged to make sure that there would be no erosion in the process of getting people registered to vote in time for the 2012 elections.

Lewis says a local group started a campaign earlier this year called My Voice, My Vote, My Power Taking Back My Community. They are working with college sororities, fraternities as well as churches, to organize the registration of new voters.

"They'll turn their (registration) forms to us, and we'll take them to the Supervisor Of Elections office," Lewis explained. "A lot of organizations didn't want to get involved because of that bill, but the NAACP Legal Defense Team said 'do what you have to do, because enough is enough.'"

The NAACP's national office targeted Saturday for similar protests around the country, including a march to the United Nations building in New York City. The group says efforts to restrict access to voting are taking place in two-thirds of state legislatures over the past year.

But the rally also encompassed addressing the problem faced by ex-felons in Florida in getting their voting and civil rights restored — an issue that first came to the fore after the 2000 disputed presidential election, when tens of thousands of people were incorrectly listed as ineligible to vote.

The ACLU said two years ago that the state's procedures for restoring voting rights to convicted felons are so cumbersome, bureaucratic and confusing that some ex-convicts are being denied their rights.

Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet revised the Rules of Executive Clemency which forces individuals who have completed their sentence to wait 5 to 7 years before they can apply for restoration of their civil rights, and an additional waiting period of up to 6 years before being given a decision.

Members of Occupy Tampa also participated in the rally. Mark Propper with the group said the ability to "change the world" depended on people showing up, and said he was "happy to be part of a coalition."

Longtime Hillsborough County community activist Carl Warren Sr. sounded energized by the Occupy movement, saying "It is so clear to even the most ardent believers of certain types of conservative principles that there is something wrong, the system is broken, and the lies can no longer be hidden."

A Republican for the past 36 years, Warren added, "We see different people from different walks of life, saying, enough is enough."

Protester Sharon Cartwright wore a T-shirt that read, "Youth in adult jails is not the answer," referring to yet another topic of the protest.

That would be a law the Florida Legislature passed in May enabling counties to send teenagers accused of less-serious crimes in juvenile court to jails instead of youth detention facilities. Reverend McKenzie criticized that, saying the state now has a "pipeline" from school to prison.

Bringing up the rear of the protest line was Tampa activist Ella Coffee, who was involved in organizing the event. She was pleased with the turnout, saying, "Tampa is behind at times," but added "it's a start. This could blossom into getting some real dialogue happening. Until the dialogue begins, you can't move forward."

  • Nearly 50 protesters took to the streets of Tampa on Saturday

In Tampa Saturday morning, a crowd of approximately 50 activists marched from the corner of MLK Jr. Blvd and Falkenburg Road to the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections office, protesting recent legislation passed by the state legislature and Governor Rick Scott that they say is moving Florida backwards in terms of social progress.

The coalition of groups participating included the NAACP, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, the ACLU, Occupy Tampa, and others, and was led by the Reverend Charles McKenzie with Operation Rainbow Push, who called the gathering a "sort of coalition of conscience to march and to rally to place these issues before the public."

Perhaps no issue has provoked more widespread complaints than the elections law passed earlier this year that reduces the hours of early voting, reduces the time that a third party group has to turn in voter registrations, and makes it harder for voters who have moved to a different county but failed to notify the Supervisor of Elections to cast a regular ballot on election day.

At a news conference in front of the Supervisor of Elections office before the march began, McKenzie and allies called the elections bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Scott earlier this year an "assault on voting rights."


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