On a sunny Saturday morning that belied the threat of a hurricane, Tampa-based activists Kelly Benjamin, Connie Burton and Life Malcolm Turner organized a press tour far and away from the scenic splendors touted to Republican National Convention visitors.
The ride promoted both as the “99 Percent” and “Keeping it Real” tour of Tampa offered a narrated view of economically depressed areas not promoted on travel brochures. It was by turns disturbingly similar to and starkly different from the coach trips of tourist guides. Photojournalists snapped pics of boarded-up houses, buildings and residents in a manner not unlike moment-capturing dads on a family vacation.
The group gathered at King Corona in Ybor City at 10 a.m. and huddled into a poorly air-conditioned van, taking note as Burton and Turner took turns speaking into a microphone. Turner, before embarking, announced that the tour would “lift up the skirt and pull back the curtain on Tampa.” Both he and Burton provided pointed commentary as the van left Ybor.
Burton directed the group’s gaze to the refabricated Centro Ybor shopping and entertainment complex while heading east on Seventh Avenue. She told visiting journalists unfamiliar with the historic district’s zirconium jewel that the city used funds “on the backs” of independent retailers to revamp the area and then drove them out.
The van then rode into Ybor Heights, taking us down 22nd Avenue North into the College Hill neighborhood, an area Turner described with poignant humor as a “ghost town.” The neighborhood had thriving local businesses before 1998, according to Burton.
“Now it’s just churches, bail bonds and places to buy beer and cigarettes,” Turner said.
While in East Tampa, Burton gave the background on past government programs that provided misguided solutions. “Hope VI didn’t live up to its promise,” she said.
The van stopped at the Tampa Police Department station on 22nd Street, built with funds earmarked to help the community. On the south side of the lawn stood murals depicting African-American scenes, painted by a “Negro from out of town,” Turner said. Police officers in a parked patrol car observed the group as Turner and Burton spoke.
While stopped along 29th Avenue North, the group visited a characteristic strip, an antiquated bit of Spanish-style architecture that, if fixed up, would be considered charming and quaint. Instead, broken windows and condemned notices adorned it.
Business owner Mimi DeWolf, of DeWolf Style, a salon and alterations shop, peeked her head out to ask Burton what was going on. She and Burton exchanged a few words about the lack of opportunity in the area.
“We need businesses and job opportunities,” DeWolf said. “Most of the people here need places to walk to because they don’t drive, and most of the jobs are in Brandon now.”
The van drove by the spruced-up “watering hole” Robert L. Cole Community Lake. When asked if the city’s beautification efforts in East Tampa had helped improve the morale of the community, Burton gave a flat no. “It’s a Band-Aid on a cancer,” she said.
After that, it was off to West Tampa's Central Court apartment complex, where Javon Neal, a 16-year-old shot by Tampa police on July 22, had lived. The van also stopped at the Main Street Choice store. Outside the entrance, owner Jeff Hilaire talked about his bustling Friday night events with comedians, poets, singers and freestyle rappers. Hilaire said the city shut down his event during the week of the RNC, citing the speakers outside as a disturbance. An Occupy Tampa zone in a park next door, owned by strip club mogul and activist Joe Redner, has also been heavily watched. Burton said the cops use the code word “block party” to disperse large gatherings of black people.
On a related note, the van stopped at Robles Park, where the city has effectively put a stop to kickball games on Sundays. The recreants would have to pay $168 each week to play on the property, and No Parking signs were implemented on the right-of-way near the diamond. According to Burton, the TPD narcotics squad even visited with pellet guns to discourage people from playing and congregating.
After veering north to Sulphur Springs through some of the most depressed streets on the tour, the van stopped at Community Stepping Stones, a promising non-profit encouraging critical thinking skills through the arts.
The mood was further uplifted by a visit to a foreclosed house on North Street and Branch Avenue taken over by Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala. The progressive politician, known for going up against law enforcement and banks to take over abandoned properties, held a press conference with representatives of the Poor People’s Economic Rights Campaign. They converged with the help of neighbors to turn on power in the home, paint and fix it up for a homeless couple, VaShon and Gladys Seabrooke. The organizers held protest signs urging an end to foreclosures as famed activist/entertainer Vermin Supreme mowed the lawn.
The afternoon ended on a somewhat strange note at Romneyville, a protest encampment set up near the Army Navy store in downtown Tampa. Law enforcement officers in tan jumpsuits attempted to get the campers to leave, but a protester asked them to come back with a warrant.
Throughout the tour, Burton offered a historical perspective on the downturn of the neighborhoods — along with some startling statistics. She said that Hillsborough not only leads the nation but the world in juveniles tried as adults.
Burton’s beleaguered history with the city influenced her activism. In the 1980s she was a government employee when Republican Jack Kemp was the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, whom she praised for helping advance business in poor communities. (VP candidate Paul Ryan considered the late Kemp to be one of his mentors.)
After Kemp’s housing reign, Burton found herself unemployed and part of the system that once employed her. In the early 2000s, she faced eviction from her own public housing residence because of her son’s misdemeanor marijuana arrest. Burton took her case all the way the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Her appeal was denied, and the federal ruling set a precedent limiting the rights of public housing residents. The Tampa Housing Authority spent $538,000 in the legal battle, and it all stemmed from a $25 bag of pot.
Needless to say, Burton expressed some strong opinions. Among them, she says a lack of economic stimulus is the major factor contributing to “the Great Depression” of Tampa’s black community. Striving entrepreneurs need to provide matching funds to get government grants. “How is someone who needs assistance going to come up with $50,000?” she said. “Mayor Buckhorn is reluctant to employ an economic advisor who works on behalf of the African community.”
Her matter-of-fact statements resonated strongly in light of the huge dollar amounts in RNC expenditures being bandied across the media. The Tampa Bay RNC Host Committee has been raising some $55 million to put on this big political party. What would it take to galvanize the government and citizens to help the neighborhoods on the 99 percent tour with the same fervor?
“We need a mass movement,” Burton said.