What would MLK do?

The Clean Zone, Mayor Buckhorn and a questionable analogy.

click to enlarge SUNNY SKIES: Mayor Buckhorn giving his State of the City address last week. - Mike Madison
Mike Madison
SUNNY SKIES: Mayor Buckhorn giving his State of the City address last week.

“What the hell is he talking about?” seemed to be the question on the minds of many of Tampa’s political movers and shakers last week as they patiently sweated in their seats looking perplexed toward the conclusion of the mayor’s long, oddly dramatic State of the City address. The speech started with humble thank-you’s to city workers and ended with the rising crescendo of “Where the Streets Have No Name” pumping out of the speakers behind Bob Buckhorn’s swaying fists.

Sure, it’s nice to have a mayor who’s a bit of a showman. One that plays along each year when the pirates invade and cheers for our teams even when the season’s looking crappy. Bob even looks good in a leprechaun outfit while dyeing the Hillsborough River green for St. Patty’s Day. But there had to be one point when the mayor, practicing his speech in front of the mirror while cueing up U2, had to think to himself, “This might be a little over the top.”

I’m not talking about the U2 part; I have a high tolerance for cheesy. But for the last 10 minutes of his speech last Tuesday, Buckhorn told the inspirational story of Martin Luther King Jr. and somehow attempted to compare the historic struggle against racial oppression and injustice during the civil rights movement to his own noble effort to balance the City’s budget during this economic recession. “The City of Tampa will pull through and triumph just like the dream of Martin Luther King” appeared to be the theme he was going for. I am not kidding.

It would be easy to chalk up the mayor’s tasteless juxtaposition to typical political braggadocio if it weren’t for one glaringly hypocritical thing about his State of the City speech: Just one week before evoking the name of Martin Luther King Jr. to elicit inspiration in his audience, Bob Buckhorn introduced his proposed “Clean Zone” ordinance intended to chill dissent during the Republican National Convention and make it harder for those who would follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr. by staging marches, rallies, and protests, and the like. Want to exercise your First Amendment rights in Tampa by peacefully protesting against oppression and injustice during the RNC? Well, according to at least the first draft of Buckhorn’s “Clean Zone” proposal, you’ll have to apply for a permit, keep your protest to 60 minutes, and practice it far, far away from the intended target: the massive throng of Republicans hanging around downtown.

It could be that Mayor Buckhorn, in reciting his speech, was ignorant of the fact that MLK spent time in jail for practicing non-violent civil disobedience himself. Maybe Buckhorn somehow missed the fact that King was locked up in Alabama for “demonstrating without a permit” or that he regularly challenged those who would place limits on freedom of speech or assembly throughout his life. Or maybe Bob was just grasping for a useful metaphor, and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. somehow made sense in his mind.

You didn’t hear much about this strange little irony in the media last week. After all, the speech was moving, and it had plenty of nifty soundbytes… even if it was a tad bit nonsensical. But Buckhorn’s homage to King raises an important question: If the practice of public protest and civil disobedience is admired historically by our mayor, why is he going out of his way to diminish the voices of the current generation of activists by making it more difficult for them to be heard during the historic occasion taking place in Tampa this summer?

The U.S. Constitution defines the entire country as a free speech zone — not a few heavily secured fenced-off blocks. And despite whatever horror stories of “anarchists gone wild” Homeland Security is whispering into Mayor Buckhorn’s ears, the overwhelmingly vast majority of protesters coming to Tampa to petition their government for a redress of grievances will be peaceful. The City of Tampa would do well to welcome them with the same open arms it is extending to the Grand Ole Party. After all, it’s what America is all about.

Kelly Benjamin is a community organizer, freelance journalist and former candidate for the Tampa City Council.

Originally published April 12, 2012.