Hundreds of senior citizens, religious leaders, community organizers, and Occupy Wall Street activists have descended upon St. Petersburg to protest at the Republican National Convention’s welcome event at Tropicana Field.
More than 1,800 law enforcement officers from federal, state, and local agencies worked in tandem over the last 36 hours to secure the stadium by closing surrounding roads, implementing parking restrictions, and monitoring traffic flow to facilitate the peaceful protests.
Some protesters rode down on buses provided by Occupy, including an activist named Susan, 62, who told the Huffington Post she was laid off from her job in a hospital last fall and has since been receiving unemployment benefits.
Working in the hospital, Susan said, she had seen the Great Recession’s effects up close.
“Medicaid is being cut,” she said. “Charity care is being cut. So the hospital is really struggling.” She said she felt compelled to march against Mitt Romney and the RNC. There had been plans for five buses to come down to Florida from New York, but the storm kept a lot of people at home, she said. Only two buses ended up making the 22-hour trip.
Judy Sellers, 66, a retired school teacher, told the Huffington Post she hadn’t attended a protest since Vietnam, but “this is just as important to me.”
Sellers said that she’s been middle-class all her life. She’s concerned that kids won’t be able to afford college and she’s disturbed by the way she thinks Republicans have maligned teachers. “We work our butts off,” she said. “It’s not right.”
Bank of America quickly became a primary target for activists. Carrying a giant statue of Mitt Romney wearing a sign that said “King of the 1%,” hundreds of activists (one report put the count higher at “roughly 1,000”) gathered in a downtown park for an unschedule protest before speakers criticized tax cuts for the rich, and half the group split off to march across the street to Bank of America plaza.
They carried signs and chanted slogans against the “one percent.” Several demonstrators — armed with crayons and stickers — began pasting and scribbling slogans across the sidewalk and building pillars. One sign read: “You stole our money; we want it back.”
The ubiquitous Code Pink was also in attendance and held signs including, “Vagina. If you can’t say it, don’t legislate it,” and “GOP, respect women.”
“I’m completely opposed to the Ralph Reed agenda of the war on women,” said Rae Abileah, 29, of San Francisco. Reed started the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which among other causes is against abortion.
There has been a ton of speculation in the media about if Tropical Storm Isaac would scare off the majority of protesters, and while it’s clear the inclement weather did impede on some of the activists’ travel plans, other demonstrators insist they will go forward unimpeded.
“We’re no longer really considering indoor options. Some regular rain and wind won’t stop us. They would have to be unsafe conditions to make us consider changing the plans,” said Michael Long, of the Florida Consumer Action Network, which is organizing a protest for Sunday evening as the RNC holds its kickoff party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
“I could already see there being less people, but I think there’s a lot of people who are determined to make a statement,” said Pim, who is from Cape Coral, Fla.
Jared Hamil, with the Coalition to March on the RNC, said one of the week’s largest planned events will take place on Monday afternoon.
“Rain or shine, we’re still going to be there,” he said. “The only thing that’s going to change is perhaps how we dress. We’ll be wearing ponchos and galoshes. We’re still going to march.”
As for the action inside the convention, New Hampshire delegate Phyllis Woods told Newsday the protests would be a minor distraction at most.
“We are not worried about the protesters,” Woods said. “It’s not even a blip on the radar screen for most of us.”
Meanwhile, about sixty protesters continue to live in an encampment dubbed “Romneyville” in downtown Tampa. The site was established last month by a local homeless advocacy group, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and is located in a vacant lot just off an interstate ramp.
Now, activists from around the nation are trickling into the camp to join the protesters.
John Penley, a longtime East Village anarchist activist who helped organize Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, holds court at the media information tent. Diamond Dave Whitaker, a self-professed beatnik of the San Francisco Rainbow Coalition scene, takes a break on a mattress from preparing meals outside a beat-up former school bus.
Penley said an estimated 600 Occupy protesters from New York are anticipated to join them, but Isaac has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans of protesters as well as those of convention organizers.