The Florida Department of Children and Families dwindled to little more than computer kiosks, where low-income residents sign up for food stamps. For Shannon McLeish, it was one more sign that it was time to take to the streets.
McLeish, 44, is from a small town in central Florida, not far from Daytona Beach and Nascar’s Daytona International Speedway. Shortly after Occupy Wall Street debuted in lower Manhattan, she helped gather a group of protesters along Speedway Boulevard in downtown Daytona. McLeish carried a sign that said Buy Back Congress. It was the beginning of Occupy Daytona Beach.
The Sunshine State seems unlikely territory for the movement, but Occupy has taken root in cities and towns across Florida. Swaths of the state are deeply conservative—ostensibly more hospitable to the Tea Party than Occupy Wall Street—and the state is known for beaches and Disney World, not political action. But Occupy has resonated here, drawing hundreds of people to demonstrations even in the smallest towns. And this month, Florida will be home to the first-ever state Occupy convention—the “People’s Convention.”
Occupy has been a long time coming for many in Florida. Several years back, McLeish grew concerned about rampant industrial pollution and high asthma rates in her area. She feared for the health of her two young children and blamed elected officials for failing to regulate industry. Florida has one of the highest rates of air pollution in the country.
Then she noticed that Florida lawmakers were rolling back social services even as poverty and homelessness were on the rise. “Families with children are living in cars,” she said, describing a gloomier Daytona landscape than the panoramas of white sand and turquoise water in the tourist brochures. McLeish began to organize her community to protest a government that was failing abysmally at what saw as its most basic responsibilities. Then suddenly there was Occupy, and it resonated with everyone, she said—students, retirees and working parents like her.
There’s plenty to protest. Terry Buckenmeyer is a retired social worker from St. Augustine, a town of 13,000 in the northern part of the state. Buckenmeyer works part-time at a convenience store, where his customers bemoan the terrible wages and lack of benefits or job security that come with working in Florida’s tourist industry. For his own part, Buckenmeyer draws a Social Security check each month, and pointed out that the cost of living keeps rising, “despite what Social Security is telling us.” Occupy St. Augustine drew 200 people to its first rally.
In Florida nearly one out of every eight families is impoverished, and one in five workers is unemployed or underemployed. Like many other states, Florida faces a vast budget shortfall that has led to cuts to agencies like the Department of Children and Families. Tax revenues in the state are expected to fall $1.6 billion short of previous projections this year, and Florida draws a third of its revenue from federal sources—$20.6 billion in 2009—so budget cuts in Washington mean still less money for state programs.
In the wake of this budget crisis, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed eliminating all funding for aid to the homeless. “All of these programs are very important, but nobody wants their taxes to go up,” he told the Naples News on Thanksgiving.
Daniel Fisher is a 24-year-old student at the University of Central Florida. He said low-income residents in the central part of the state have long been disengaged from politics. “Even local politicians don’t go to these places [where poor residents live],” he said. Fisher has joined up with Occupy Orlando and Occupy Daytona Beach. A double major in psychology and political science, he attends college on a need-based scholarship. Tuition is rising, he pointed out, while grants are disappearing, and gas prices are raising the cost to commute. He worries education will become something only for the one percent.