June 28, 2012

Regional Occupies Brainstorm Ideas to Protest RNC, Tampa Bay

If you believe local news reports, anarchists will be descending on Tampa during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in order to wreak havoc, chaos, and catastrophe. And the police are planning accordingly. I have no supporting evidence for or against these assertions, but I have yet to run into any such anarchists.

My favorite permit-applicant so far is a couple that wants to create Morning In America, a huge ice sculpture in the form of the words "MIDDLE CLASS". In Florida's August heat, the middle class ice would melt, reflecting the actual reality of a middle class that is disappearing. The Organizers for the Coalition to March on the RNC related some of their idealism. The Florida Consumer Action Network, Rainbow Push Coalition, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Students Working For Equal Rights are putting on a Rally Against Voter Suppression at the RNC. The Patients Over Politics Bus Tour organized by Doctors of America will commence with a march into Tampa on the eve of the Convention. Pray Tampa Bay wants to build a house of prayer over the RNC by hosting a non-political, non-partisan 24/7 prayer. The (Ron) Paul Festival will be taking over the Florida State Fairgrounds for three days of music, entertainment, and activism leading up to the RNC.

Some folks equate Ron Paul and libertarians with anarchists (e.g. libertarianism is just anarchy for rich people) . I think there is more simplistic thinking than truth to such a comparison. And I doubt those are the anarchists that the local media and the police are worrying about. If the last nine months are any indication, they are probably targeting journalists and Occupy protesters. I attended the second Tampa Bay Regional Occupy General Assembly in St. Petersburg on June 16, during which there was lots of discussion about RNC protest tactics, but I heard no one claiming to be an anarchist. Here are some snippets from the many creative ideas floating around during the peaceful afternoon gathering.

If you will be attending the RNC, consider joining the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) online on July 10 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. for a free know-your-rights webinar, 2012 RNC in Tampa: What You Need to Know. They will discuss the rights of demonstrators and photographers, the permitting process and other rules and restrictions passed for the event, and take questions from the audience.

June 24, 2012

Forums for a Future, Professor Renner, USF, Tampa

Let me introduce Professor Edward Renner's free book Forums for a Future. The book is an introduction to a course by the same name offered at the University of South Florida (USF). Anyone can take the course for free through USF iTunes University starting in the upcoming Fall Semester. If you start at the same time and stay on the same schedule as USF students, you can essentially be in the class with them.

Online and blended learning environments are springing up at a fast clip. And, sometimes, they are available free of charge. Is it possible that technology and the goodwill of a university could fulfill the fantasy of a free college education for all? Thirty years ago, I watched my friend Val work part-time to pay her school tuition, without taking out a single loan. I don't think she could do that today. In 2010, the Left Business Observer reported the skyrocketing cost of a college degree with statistics -

Since 1980, the overall consumer price index is up 179%; that for medical care, 436%; and that for college tuition and fees, 827% ... Such rates of inflation leave family incomes in the dust. According to the College Board, posted annual costs—and in this and all subsequent cases that means tuition, fees, room, and board—for attending the typical private four-year institution were 26% of average (median) family incomes in 1979; they’re now 58%
Today, students and their families are going into debt. Big-time. With the advent of for-profit universities, the combination of their high fees, sometimes sleazy marketing practices, and access to federal financial aid, student debt has gone through the roof. Last year, total U.S. student loan debt reached $1 trillion, which is higher than total U.S. credit card debt.

Politicians do not have the clear political will to provide accessible and affordable higher education. Just look at the recent Stafford loan debate in the U.S. Senate. Could it be that technology will come to the aid of higher education? We have a Mote Marine Laboratory intern living with us at the moment. She plans to go back to school to get a Masters Degree in marine biology. While researching where to take a calculus class, she discovered Coursera, which offers free online courses from Stanford University, as well as Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. These classes are taught by regular faculty, but do not yield credit on a transcript. Students have access to short interactive video clips with quizzes and feedback. And students can interact with each other, much as they would when engaging in social media. Here is Coursera's self-description

Coursera is committed to making the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it. We envision people throughout the world, in both developed and developing countries, using our platform to get access to world-leading education that has so far been available only to a tiny few. We see them using this education to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.
What a beautiful vision!

But wait; there's more. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently started a joint venture, edX, to offer free online courses from both universities. Here's a wonderful statistic from the BBC: the first online course from the prototype MITx had more students than the entire number of living students who have graduated from the university. There are unanswered questions such as how to grade students, how much student and/or teacher interaction is ideal, whether to confer a degree, and what the revenue sources will be. Even so, when the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT are participating, online learning has entered the mainstream. And given the changing face of social interaction for younger generations with access to social media, this may fit nicely into their idea of what education should look like.

The university students who are striking in Quebec have a vision of a free and accessible college education, much like Coursera's vision. The students are protesting a $1,625 tuition hike by marching in the streets and banging pots and pans every night. The Nation reports that it is North America’s largest and longest-running student strike to date. Much like the Occupy Movement, they have little faith that voting will resolve their grievances. They are looking for a resolution in the streets. Perhaps part of the solution lies in the emerging online landscape of higher education.

Back to Professor Renner's, Forums for a Future. His intent is to "engage students in a series of civic discussions about the economic, social and political issues we must deal with to have a future." He takes on environmental issues, student debt, and economic inequality. In other words, this course takes on many grievances that underlie the Occupy Movement.

June 21, 2012

Will Tampa Response to RNC Protests Mirror Chicago Response to NATO Protests?

Is it just me or is it getting harder and harder to put on a big, peaceful protest here in the United States of America? The City of Tampa has been busy coming up with protest restrictions surrounding the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC) at the end of August. I could tell from the start that they did not want ME there, because they were considering prohibiting monopods, bicycle locks, and squirt guns. The video footage that I embed in my articles requires raw video footage that I shoot using a monopod. When possible, I use my bicycle for transportation and would not consider leaving it unattended without a bicycle lock. But, it was the squirt gun ban that set me off. Although Tampa officials thought it prudent to ban handguns outside the convention hall, they were stopped in their tracks by a new state law that prohibits any such local ordinance. This new law does not stop Tampa from banning squirt guns. So the obvious, yet illogical, consequence is that someone outside the convention hall will be allowed to pack a handgun, but not a squirt gun.

With Tampa free to ban potential weapons, but not necessarily real weapons, the Gun Lobby has shown just how powerful a force it is in protecting our Second Amendment rights. Do we need a Protest Lobby to do much the same thing to protect our First Amendment rights?

Joe Iosbaker spoke in Tampa on Saturday attending the Organizers Conference for the Coalition to March on the RNC. He shared the opportunities, the successes and the difficulties his group, CANG8 (Chicago Against NATO/G-8), encountered organizing the peaceful march against the NATO meeting in Chicago in May.

I was surprised at the extent to which authorities were willing to go to limit peaceful protest. Joe spoke at length about the difficulty of obtaining their permit. He spoke about arrests made preemptively, during the week leading up to the anti-NATO march. I find it ironic that anti-war protesters would be arrested and held on terrorism charges. And I am dumbfounded at their bails. There are three people whose bail was set at $1.5 million; another at $750,000; and another at $500,000. Perhaps there is merit to these charges and bails. Since the evidence has not been made public yet, some see these arrests as an attempt to frighten people away from the protests. I hope they are wrong. Despite evidence to the contrary, mainstream media reported a small protest with remarkably well-behaved police. Other reports claim it was the largest anti-war protest in the history of Chicago and many, many groups participated in a host of activities. Police officers from around the state descended on Chicago closing down whole sections of the city. The National Lawyer's Guild says that it has received reports of more than 70 instances of police brutality during the week of the demonstrations. I hope they are wrong as well, but video footage says otherwise. Additionally, the national media did not focus on the potent symbolism of veterans throwing their medals back at NATO.

Why dredge up this recent history? As it turns out, Tampa area law enforcement traveled to Chicago to witness the police response at the Chicago NATO protests. They compared their own security plans for the RNC with that of Chicago's strategy for the NATO summit. The RNC has been designated a national special security event. Alternet reports that Tampa has received $50 million from Congress for convention security. That is a staggering amount. These funds will pay for surveillance cameras, a tank, gas masks, and other equipment as well as hotel rooms for thousands of visiting police officers who will work during the convention. Was there even a debate about militarizing the Tampa police force? Or does $50 million silence all debate?

June 16, 2012

Organizers for Coalition to March Against the RNC, Tampa

The 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC) will be held at the end of August in Tampa, Florida. The attendant media exposure will attract groups from around the country who wish to protest and get their message out to the masses. Several coalitions have formed in Tampa to plan logistics for the large crowds that are anticipated. I wanted to get a sense of the range of creative actions being planned and how they are going to keep out-of-towners in good health during a week-long exposure to Florida summer. So I headed up to Tampa to attend the organizer's conference for one such group - the Coalition to March on the RNC.

The two people staffing the registration desk were from the Gainesville chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In my mind, the SDS was the student group at the heart of student political organizing in the 1960's. I thought they had disbanded long ago. Yet here were two young SDS activists handing me a packet of registration materials. Once inside, Jared explained to me that the SDS resurrected itself in 2006, primarily to fight rising student tuition and to oppose United States sponsorship of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Go Team Go!

I met SDS members from Tampa and Orlando as well as Gainesville. I met an Atlanta radio show host. She was talking to Mick who had come down from Minneapolis to share some of his experience organizing the 2008 march against the Repulican National Convention in the Twin Cities. He brought a small contingent with him. I sat down next to Joe, who was a lead organizer from last month's huge protest in Chicago against the NATO and G8 summits. There were quite a few members from various local union chapters. Food Not Bombs has already announced their second-ever National Convention to be held in Tampa during the week leading up to the RNC. So, I was not surprised to see a Food Not Bombs representative. A Veterans for Peace representative was on hand. As was Vivian from Pinellas National Organization for Women (NOW). A couple of folks identified themselves as members of Occupy Tampa. One man was from Occupy the RNC, which appears to have some affiliation with a group called Resist The RNC, but also seemed to be part of this Coalition to March Against the RNC. Perhaps there is more coordination than meets the eye.

After speaking with several attendees, I realized that although this was a protest against the Republican National Committee, most of the organizers in this room would be just as happy protesting the Democratic National Committee. This was most unexpected! But as the website for Resist the RNC states, "Both parties are intricately tied to corporate rule, war, economic injustice, and profess freedom and democracy but crack down on dissent." The desire to claim power for the 99% permeated the room. In order for attendees to get to know each other a little, the following question was put to the group: if you could change just one thing about the world, what would you change? Each attendee answered in their own way. The answers were full of hope and idealism. The following video captures some of that spirit.

June 14, 2012

People's Budget Summit, St. Petersburg

Depending on when you tuned in, there is in the vicinity of a $10 million shortfall projected for next year's city budget in St. Petersburg, Florida. But the People's Budget Review is finding that after several years of budget cuts, a large number of residents would rather see a property tax increase, than more cuts.

You read that right. The People's Budget Review has provided an electronic survey for residents to voice their opinions. In some sense, it's the same issue that has surfaced in Greece, Spain, Ireland, and a good chunk of Europe. What is the best governmental response to a deficit - austerity or stimulus? Granted, St. Petersburg doesn't have its own bank, so it has fewer choices than a sovereign nation. But the people are weighing in, and they are tired of austerity. So far, 4200 people have responded. The large majority, 76%, are in favor of a property tax hike to maintain quality services in St. Pete. And they aren't timidly going about their business. They have made large showings at three budget summits.

I admit it. You'd be hard-pressed to get me to attend a budget summit meeting. And yet, on Wednesday night, I schlepped up to St. Pete to cover this meeting. That's because, it has the taste and feel of real democracy - a flagging institution. People are coming together to define their common priorities. They are doing this before the initial budget is pulled together, so the timing is good. In prior years, such budget meetings were attended by a handful of people. But this year, this third meeting, held at the Manhattan Casino, was full. As you would expect, residents expressed a variety of opinions. Some veered off topic. Some made it personal. Some pointed out the unfair disparities between two sides of town. But the overwhelming message was the attendees' desire for their city to invest in their neighborhoods, their businesses, their youth, and the arts. And, many are comfortable, if that requires a small increase in taxes.

Generally, raising taxes is a very unpopular move. I fell in step with Mayor Bill Foster as we headed out to the parking lot. He pointed out how unlikely it was that he, as a Republican, was willing to talk about a tax increase to fill the City's $10 million dollar hole. And yet, that's exactly what is happening. As an outsider, my interpretation is that the people are flexing their muscle and that their representatives are listening. This is a surprising turn of events. The recent recall election in Wisconsin brought home the power that money has in our democracy. I don't claim to know what the future will bring, but there is a glimmer of hope in St. Petersburg.

Ben B The Truth spiced up the evening with some home-grown, spoken-word poetry. Although he definitely went off topic, the audience appreciated his passion. Ben has been bringing poetry to St. Petersburg schools for the last couple of years and he is about to take it on the road. Although poor audio quality prevented the inclusion of all voices in the video above, please enjoy Ben's performance below.

Related article: March 20, 2012 People's Budget Review campaign

June 8, 2012

Rick Scott: Urge To Purge Protest, Longboat Key, Florida

The Governor of Florida continues his push to have suspected non-citizens removed from the voter rolls. But he seems disingenuous at best, given the procedures used. The Florida elections office put together a list of about 180,000 potential non-citizens gathered from the state motor vehicle database, which contains citizenship data. However this information is not updated, when citizenship status changes. And some of the data was from as long ago as 2000 and 2001. So it is a foregone conclusion that this list will provide incorrect data. This purge is more likely a political move, designed to keep specific groups of people from voting.

So how did the purge go? The state election office sent out its first batch of 2,700 voters to the Supervisors of Elections in each county. The Miami Herald found that 58% of the people on this list were Hispanic, and 14% were black. Whites and Republicans were least likely to show up on the list, according to the paper. Many of the Supervisors sent out letters to these folks advising them that they had been deemed ineligible to vote and were about to be removed from the voter rolls. Florida Senator Bill Nelson sent me an email about a World War II veteran, a recipient of a Bronze Star for his part in the Battle of the Bulge, who had received one of these letters. Although some of the recipients admitted they were non-citizens, the large majority of respondents provided proof-positive that they were indeed citizens. Today, the Miami Herald reported that Miami-Dade had so far found that 514 people on the list were citizens and about 14 were noncitizens. Pinellas County initially removed 14 voters from the list provided by the state, but reinstated them after it came out that the list was full of errors. Think Progress reported that Sarasota County received 14 names from the state as sure-fire non-citizens. Two or three of them have already proven their citizenship, and one was removed after indicating they were not an eligible voter. None of the remaining non-responding 10 or 11 voters will be purged due to the significant inaccuracies on the list.

Where do all the players stand today? Determined to follow the law, all 67 county Elections Supervisors have suspended the purge for now, because they don’t trust the accuracy of the lists provided. Governor Scott continues to push for removing voters. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) weighed in with a letter to the Governor telling him to halt the purge. The DOJ states that the purge violates both the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act. The Florida state legislature passed a string of voter suppression laws in 2011 that resulted in reduced early voting and virtually stamped out voter registration drives (see the people's response here and a full rundown of nationwide suppression laws here). A couple of weeks ago, a federal judge cut key provisions of these laws.

Why is this so important? In 2000, a few hundred votes in Florida decided the outcome of a presidential election. Prior to that election, Florida tried to remove ex-felons from the voter rolls. By using very broad matching criteria, many non-felon black voters were purged. With Governor Scott, the Florida tradition of disenfranchising legitimate voters continues.

Sarasota's Response. Today, Governor Scott came to speak to the Argus Foundation in Sarasota. Occupy Sarasota had put out the call to gather at the entrance to Longboat Key to let him know that they are angry with him. Each member of the group articulated a similar feeling about democracy that had led them to the conclusion that all of us, including Governor Scott, should be helping people to vote, not making it more difficult. And each person brought a sense of the history of voter suppression in Florida, when they spoke.

June 4, 2012

First Tampa Regional Occupy General Assembly

On Saturday, delegations from St. Pete, Lakeland, Sarasota, Bradenton, and Tampa converged on Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa. Occupy Tampa had felt a need to do some planning for the Republican National Convention (RNC), which is slated to gallop into Tampa for a few days at the end of August. Several groups are actively engaged in planning for this over-sized opportunity to attract media attention. So far, I know of Resist The RNC, Occupy The RNC, and March On The RNC, along with the official RNC itself. Within minutes of arriving at the Regional Gathering, I had gathered that although these separate groups are each coordinating strategy, tactics, and logistics for the RNC, they may not be coordinating with each other. And, at the moment, they are tight-lipped about their plans. There are other reasons to hold a regional get-together and after the "Meet And Greet", we broke into smaller groups to discuss the possibilities.

Upon our arrival, Food Not Bombs was on the scene serving a vegan lunch to all attendees. In Sarasota, the thoughtful Food Not Bombs crew has served the hungry during a number of the weekly Occupy rallies. I recognized Katie, who had been active with Occupy Tampa and is now volunteering with Food Not Bombs. I have met many people for whom the Occupy Movement has been a conduit, connecting their sense of injustice and disillusionment with a local activist group that stirs their passion. Like the Occupy Movement, Food Not Bombs is composed of volunteers who are dedicated to nonviolent, societal change. Like Occupy, each local group is autonomous. Like Occupy, there are no leaders and they involve everybody in the decision-making process. And like Occupy, Food Not Bombs supports protests organized by others. With that in mind, it is no surprise that they have decided to have an international convention in Tampa, during the week leading up to the RNC. Undoubtedly, there will be many more groups calling for a national march on the RNC.

At prior state-wide and regional gatherings, folks spent hours deciding the meeting processes that would be used. HOURS! Would we use consensus or super-majority voting? How would we decide on an agenda? Nine months into the Occupy Movement, and these folks have learned from past experience. It only took a few minutes to decide on "house rules". We would follow the rules used by the hosting Occupation. There was even some discussion about learning from prior mistakes. Acknowledging organizational and ideological difficulties and a willingness to share lessons learned are surely marks of maturity.

First on the agenda were announcements. I was not fully aware of the depth of activity nearby. Occupy Tampa is producing a TV show. Occupy Daytona has started a radio show. Occupy Tampa is starting a street theatre group. The OccupPlayers from Bradenton, who performed at the WSLR radio station in Sarasota a couple of months ago, is planning a performance in St. Pete and will make themselves available as requested by other locations. And for those holdouts who still like to read, there is an Occupied Tampa Tribune.

The General Assembly whipped through a number of proposals. All attained consensus, but one. The Tampa Region stands in solidarity with the student protesters in Quebec. The Tampa Region will hold a General Assembly at different locations, every two weeks, until the RNC. A most interesting proposal was brought forward to put out a National Call To Action Against Bain Capital. The actions would take place all over the country on the day Mitt Romney accepts the Republican presidential nomination. There is something almost romantic about this idea. Romney continues to receive a passive profit share and interest in Bain Capital investment funds. Bain Capital always made a profit even when the companies they bought went under, even when many workers lost their jobs, their pensions, and their healthcare. Such vulture capitalism is the poster child for what's wrong with how our economic system functions. What better time to highlight these cold deficiencies than on the day of Romney's acceptance speech.

A recurring concern voiced at the Gathering was dwindling participation. Leslie from Occupy Tampa was curious and concerned about attendance at other Occupations. A local religious leader made a plea for presenting a clear and constant message about the profound issues of economic inequality. He is hoping for a format that will draw people in and get them involved. Jason, who is from Tallahasse but has been staying with Occupy Tampa for the last month, threw out a concrete suggestion to the General Assembly. How about renting a truck, covering it with sheets, projecting messages onto it, and driving through Ybor City on a Friday night. Go to where the people are and make a bold statement. Leslie volunteered to coordinate outreach efforts to help bring more people out to participate.

Soon after the General Assembly came to a close, folks made signs and marched around downtown in solidarity with the Quebec students. Students there had called for a tuition freeze. Nightly protests consisted of clanging noisy pots and pans in the streets. The students wore red felt squares to symbolize being financially in the red, crushed by debt. In Canada, as in the United States, tuition hikes are leading to increasing student debt. Even after almost 100 nights of protest, the students hadn't garnered much community support. But, when the government passed emergency legislation to limit students' right to assemble and protest, thousands of community members flooded the streets in support. As I understand it, the strike by the Quebec students is the longest and largest student protest in Canadian history. And yet their debt is small potatoes when compared with the $1 trillion in debt taken on by college students in the United States. In addition to marching in solidarity with Quebec students, folks here are motivated by the spiraling student debt in the United States. A jubilant procession from the Tampa Regional Gathering marched through downtown, banging pots and pans and wearing red felt squares.

Watch the proposals put forth during the General Assembly followed by the march in solidarity with the Quebec students.

More Info: Food Not Bombs World Gathering, Occupy Tampa TV is streamed online, Occupied Tampa Tribune, Occupy Daytona radio show, March on The RNC, Resist The RNC, Occupy The RNC, Shut Down Bain Capital,