Crashing the parties

Five leading activists who plan to protest in Tampa this summer.

click to enlarge “THE LAST THING WE HAVE IS OUR VOICE”: Philadelphia-based homeless activist Cheri Honkala is among the protesters headed for Tampa. - Harvey Finkle
Harvey Finkle
“THE LAST THING WE HAVE IS OUR VOICE”: Philadelphia-based homeless activist Cheri Honkala is among the protesters headed for Tampa.

Despite all the talk of anarchists wreaking havoc at this summer’s Republican Convention in Tampa, most of those traveling to protest in the Cigar City this summer aren’t planning to commit mayhem, but to use the RNC as a vehicle to express what they believe is fundamentally wrong with our political system.

CL interviewed five activists from across the country who intend to exercise their First Amendment right to dissent outside the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

They shared common cause in a number of respects: They all intend to protest at the Democratic Convention just days later in Charlotte; they find the idea of a “free-speech” zone abhorrent; and they sincerely hope relations between police and activists will be better than they were at the RNC in St. Paul in 2008. Here’s a closer look.

Keith McHenry

A day before Occupy Wall Street attempted to shut down Manhattan and other cities across the country in massive Mayday protests last week, the New York Police Department visited at least three activists’ homes in New York and interrogated residents about plans for their protest.

For Food Not Bombs co-founder Keith McHenry, the police visitations were a case of déjà vu.

Days before the Republican National Convention in 2008, local officers and the FBI made a joint raid on a Food Not Bombs home in Minneapolis. It was a lousy way to begin the week for the independent collective, which is best known for serving free vegan and vegetarian food to the homeless.

Food Not Bombs plans to be in Tampa for a full week before the convention gets underway. Members will conduct public workshops on a variety of relevant subjects, including puppet-making, cultivating a community garden, learning how to talk your way out of jail, and a “Know Your Rights” session with the National Lawyers Guild.

The Taos, New Mexico resident says the group has never been this ambitious in its plans for a political convention, though its members have attended past conventions to help feed protesters. In late April, FNB chapters throughout Florida met to go over their plans for late August.

He says the group has been looking for a space to rent, but is reluctant to shed any details. Considering what happened in 2008, it makes sense.

The ethos of FNB is simple — nobody should be hungry and homeless, because there are enough resources for everyone. When asked what message he’d like to get across in Tampa, McHenry says, “The agenda of the Republicans is totally against what we’re talking about. They’re talking about austerity, more cuts in services, less freedom for basic rights of the people of the country and for the rest of the world. So we’re opposed to that.”

Tom Burke

The police will be a lot less busy than during, say, Gasparilla. That’s the prediction of Grand Rapids, Michigan activist Tom Burke, and he may have a point. Where the march he’s planning for Aug. 27 is expected to draw between 4,000-5,000, there are typically around 400,000 revelers (many of them drunk) at Tampa’s annual January bacchanal.

At a press conference in Tampa in April, Burke extolled the almost pastoral nature of the march, and continued in that vein in a recent phone interview.

“I’m a father of a little girl. My wife is a scientist. We’re the kind of people you want to have [in your city],” he said. Burke participated in marches in St. Paul four years ago, and said the only violence he saw there was perpetuated by the police.

More than 40 reporters were arrested during the RNC convention while covering the protests outside the St. Paul convention center. The charges against all of them were dropped, with three of the reporters, including Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, winning a $100,000 settlement after filing a federal suit against the U.S. Secret Service and the police departments of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“In Minnesota, the violence I saw came from the police, who from 10-15 feet away shot Mick Kelly, who was holding the lead banner on the fourth day of the protests,” Burke says. “What could a man, standing, holding a banner, possibly be doing wrong? Other than the fact that he’s a leader of a protest and they’re targeting him with physical violence to stop him from organizing,” he adds with urgency.

Kelly filed the first lawsuit related to allegations of undue force by police at the convention. (He filed a suit asking for $250,000 in damages but ultimately accepted a settlement for $5,000.)

In addition to working full-time for the Coalition for the March of the RNC, Burke is also a spokesman for the Committee to Stop FBI Repression. He received a grand jury subpoena in September of 2010 requesting records of payments to Chicago community activist Hatem Abudayyeh, the executive director of the Arab American Action Network. Burke says the FBI claims to want to investigate him for material support of terrorism, but he says his group has never sent any money overseas. He considers the subpoena (to which he has yet to respond formally) “payback” for being an effective organizer from his time with SEIU Local 73.

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