Remember Occupy?

Tampa’s Occupy encampment is one of the longest-lasting in the country. But what’s been accomplished?

click to enlarge CRITICAL MASS: Occupy Tampa protesting on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa on Oct. 6, 2011. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
CRITICAL MASS: Occupy Tampa protesting on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa on Oct. 6, 2011.

On a recent Saturday morning inside Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa, the humidity is quickly rising as 15 members of Occupy Tampa sit languidly in a shady area underneath the large oak trees. Although a General Assembly has been called at noon, it’s not until about 12:10 p.m. that Occupy member Nathan Pim asks, “Do we have an agenda for today?” After general agreement that there are issues to discuss, at 12:20 somebody else suggests they should begin — at 12:30.

The consensus protocol was essential when the crowd for General Assemblies numbered in the hundreds, but is still employed for these more intimate sessions. For the next 50 minutes, discussions cover the various protests that will be taking place during the Republican National Convention (and transportation to and from the protests), with Occupy member Chris Kuleci writing down the events on a chalkboard.

If the meeting seems devoid of urgency, well, at least they were meeting.

After Occupy Wall Street made its presence felt at Zuccotti Park in New York City last fall, similar efforts cropped up across the country. But, just months later, most of those encampments were history, shut down by big-city mayors.

Since then, except for the occasional outburst by members in Oakland, there hasn’t been much Occupy action in 2012. During a recent national conference call, the conversation ranged from foreclosures to protests about police shootings. In Nashville a representative discussed participating in a two-day strike with the Communication Workers of America against AT&T. Local Occupy members are concerned about a plan for West Tampa that that would raze a venerable public housing complex. But the events are all relatively low-key compared to last fall.

As Natasha Lennard, a reporter for Salon.com who has covered the movement extensively, says, “May Day was going to be a real big kickstarter, and it sort of wasn’t, and I think that took the wind out of a lot of people’s sails.”

In June, the progressive blog Common Dreams asked, “The movement has gone from hibernation to invisible, but can rebirth still flourish from summer and beyond?’

In the case of Occupy Tampa, its continued existence has been buoyed by two factors. One was its move to private property away from the heart of downtown. The other was the fact that, as host city for the RNC, Tampa was about to be flooded by activists — so why not have a welcoming base for them?

Unlike other cities that saw major Occupy encampments, Tampa and its mayor never allowed the group to sleep overnight in a public park. So there was never any encampment to break up. Some members of the movement instead chose to sleep on the sidewalk in front of downtown’s Curtis Hixon Park, an effort that led to lots of back and forth with Tampa police, with Occupy members claiming they were being unfairly harassed (some of those arrests are still tied up in the courts). They also held their nightly General Assemblies inside the amphitheater in Kiley Gardens, up until mid-December.

That’s when Occupy members decided to accept the offer from adult entrepreneur/political activist Joe Redner to take up residence at his own privately owned park off of Main Street in the heart of West Tampa, a working-class neighborhood that, though only a few miles away from Curtis Hixon in downtown, was completely off the grid in terms of exposure to the “1 percent,” opposition to which was part of the group’s DNA.

Some OT members think the move to Redner’s Voice of Freedom Park was a mistake. One member who refused to be identified said frankly, “We got gamed. Joe Redner got to us. It was a mess, it was a bad time and we made a poor choice.”

The relative lack of intensity among Occupy in West Tampa coincided with the national movement losing some of its mojo. But the group got re-energized when some local neighborhood activists began grumbling this summer that the camp was an “eyesore,” with Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association collecting hundreds of complaints that were given a platform at City Hall.

The fact is, West Tampa has been economically depressed for decades, so to blame the Occupy movement for its further deterioration would be a bit of a stretch. In fact, when Tampa City Councilman Frank Reddick set aside time on the council’s agenda to allow complaints about Occupy to be voiced, Councilwoman Yolie Capin called his concerns “a lot of hype.”

Capin knows of what she speaks. Over the past year she’s toured the area on random Friday nights, sometimes riding with a Tampa police officer, other times just with her husband. She says she received complaints a year ago from residents about noise, much of it emanating from Voice of Freedom Park well before Occupy took up residence there.

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