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.
Hundreds of other students have gotten involved in Occupy Orlando, which has drawn as many as 1,500 people to day-long demonstrations. There is so much momentum that Orlando will host the first event in the nation intended to unite occupiers from across a state. Seventeen occupations have signed on for the People’s Convention on December 10.
Valerie Cepero, 25, studies biology at Valencia Community College, and plans to go to medical school. She’s helping organize the convention, which will facilitate occupiers crafting a “People’s Plan” for state-level change. Then they’ll march in Tallahassee on January 10, she said, and deliver the plan to the state legislature as it begins a new session.
Cepero is originally from Miami. Her father, a successful dentist, emigrated from Cuba after struggling against Communism there. He’s distrustful of Occupy and what he sees as its Socialist overtones. “We’re not against corporations, we’re against corporations ruling politics,” the younger Cepero explained. Articulating a thread that unites occupiers around the country, she added, “This is about making things fair, having a government for the people by the people. The voice of the average person should matter more than a corporation or a lobbyist.”
Ed Wujciak is from southeast Florida, where the political landscape is a mix of Cuban immigrants—like Cepero’s father—who lean conservative, and liberal retirees from New York. Occupy has gathered momentum in the southeast as it has in the rest of the state. Wujciak, who recently retired from set building and lighting work in Florida’s entertainment industry, said retirement gave him the time to look around and see “unbelievable levels of dysfunction coming from our government.” The dysfunction serves a select few, he said, who profit from lucrative contracts with the military and state corrections departments, among other government entities. Wujciak participates in occupations in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, with other “gray-haired supporters.”
Occupy Miami and Ft. Lauderdale are among those that have signed on for the People’s Convention. According to the event website, the forthcoming People’s Plan will lay out priorities intended to resonate with “any ethical person.” Cepero said that voting rights were likely to be at the top of the list, as Florida lawmakers have added voter registration rules which effectively disenfranchise young and low-income people. One high school teacher in the Florida Panhandle is facing a $1,000 fine because of her efforts to register eligible students as part of her curriculum on democracy. The fine is the upshot of a law that levies a $50 fee for every voter registration form turned in by a third party more than forty-eight hours after being completed by the prospective voter, a rule that supposedly is intended to deter fraud.
Cepero wonders if Florida will start a trend in Occupy, spurring other occupations to join together and confront these kinds of state-level issues before moving on to tackle the multitude of problems rooted in Washington. “Some people are saying that having a national convention is next,” she said, “but we’ve got to do state level first.”
McLeish, who will participate in the convention with others from Occupy Daytona Beach, said she hopes Occupy can move the country beyond “the false divide of Democrat or Republican.” Other occupiers have expressed similar sentiments. Wujciak eschewed electoral politics as a means for accomplishing needed change, and, like many others, is disappointed with President Obama.
Occupy is consistent with Wujciak’s progressive take on many issues, but it represents his first political action in decades. “You get busy making a living, bringing up kids—you say, I’ll get to politics one of these days.”