October 20, 2012

My Ballot: An Idealistic Write-In Moment

Soon after moving back to Florida, I noticed that for many races on my ballot, there is a line for a write-in candidate. In my naivety, I thought that meant I could meaningfully write in anyone I chose. I recall one Republican Party primary for Congress in which the infamous Katherine Harris ran against a write-in candidate, who was in fact a dog. His campaign motto was "Never made a mess in the House! Never will!" As it turns out, in Florida, write-in candidates are qualified ahead of time with the appropriate elections office.

Recently, both of Florida's major parties started using write-in candidates to close their party's primary, and effectively disenfranchise a whole swath of the electorate. If only one party is running candidates, Florida allows all voters to vote in a primary race, since the final outcome will be decided during the primary. By way of example, in Sarasota's 2012 race for Supervisor of Elections, there were only two Republican candidates. In order to close the election from Democrats and Independent voters, the Republicans found Victoria Brill, to register as a write-in candidate. In this manner, only registered Republicans were allowed to decide the winner of the race.

Many times, a write-in candidate is a sham candidate or a protest candidate such as the dog mentioned above. Once in a while, a write-in is a bona fide candidate without party backing. My 2012 Sarasota ballot includes at least one such entrant - Robert Sublett - who is running for Clerk of the Circuit Court. He is running in response to the ongoing mortgage and foreclosure crisis of the last five years. A Sarasota organization, the Mortgage Justice Group, is supporting his candidacy. Over the last year, organized resistance to foreclosure and eviction has sprouted in localities from coast to coast. Many of the participants have migrated from the Occupy Movement. Forms of resistance vary due to differences in local laws and enforcement. In some jurisdictions, protesters disrupt foreclosure auctions. Many groups have "adopted" especially egregious cases and devoted themselves to camping out in front yards and galvanizing neighbors in support. Direct confrontations with lending institutions are not uncommon. In Sarasota, the Mortgage Justice Group holds workshops where residents help other residents facing foreclosure. And in a handful of jurisdictions, motivated citizens are running for office hoping to get some form of retribution for the victims of this crisis. Most of Florida's candidates, running on such a platform, lost in their respective primaries. But as a write-in candidate, Robert Sublett is still on the ballot.

Friends and family frequently ask me, "Why should borrowers who have stopped making their mortgage payments get special treatment?" They made bad choices and got in over their heads and that is behavior we don't want to encourage. I don't disagree. And if we were talking about a few borrowers, the discussion would go no further. But when millions of people have lost homes and millions more are likely to suffer through foreclosure, this is not the time to ignore the plight of others. When the financial corporations responsible for bringing our economy to its knees are bailed out, but do next to nothing to extend a helping hand to their borrowers, I am glad there are those willing to keep sounding an alarm. When a secret bailout by the Federal Reserve dwarfs the enormous bailout approved by Congress, it is no wonder there is an outcry for more financial regulation. When mortgage companies intentionally set up shop in neighborhoods where people do not understand the contracts they are signing and encourage poor people to get in over their heads and no one lands in jail, the system needs adjustment. When securitization of home mortgages leaves those responsible for deciding the appropriateness of a loan and the valuation of the associated properties unaccountable for their decisions, it is no surprise that many borrowers default on their loans. When state legislatures attempt to destroy the judicial safeguards afforded homeowners prior to foreclosure, homeowners will call foul. When we entrust mortgage documentation to a private system with no oversight and add irregular robo-signing, it is only to be expected many will call it fraud. These examples of bad behavior leave many folks feeling angry, as well as justified in expecting their lending institution to work with them to modify their mortgage agreement.

My Sarasota ballot is a reminder that each of us can do something to help someone struggling with foreclosure. A reminder that we need to elect politicians who are willing to flex government muscle and regulate our financial institutions. My ballot presents a write-in moment of idealism. Maybe your ballot affords you the same opportunity.

October 13, 2012

Pillow Fight (for Peace)

How could I resist participating in a Pillow Fight for Peace. Billed as fluffy, fighting fun, the rules were simple

  1. swing lightly
  2. no down pillows
  3. don't hit anyone with a camera unless they specifically ask you to
Instead of an anti-war demonstration or a march for peace, we were going to play. This appealed to me as a natural political evolution of a flash mob. A flash mob typically results in public performance art. Here it would result in a public political statement.

In countries where there is significant political repression, this type of action is a way to avoid a harsh response from authorities. Just over a year ago in Belarus, following a currency devaluation and its concurrent skyrocketing prices, there was great discontent. Those opposed to the government engaged in clapping protests. Due to the government's strong response to protest, people would gather in main squares around the country at an appointed time and start clapping. It was a non-protest form of protest. As ridiculous as it sounds, police responded by arresting clappers.

In the United States, a public pillow fight has broader goals in mind. We can make social connections, involve folks of all ages, enjoy our diminishing public space, and get out from behind our television sets. A large pillow fight would be just as easy to organize and enjoy as a small one. Just prior to a presidential election, conservatives, liberals, radicals, and centrists could all engage in a fun activity without hurling insults at each other. There would be no clear victor, but I can live with such ambiguity.

On my drive over to Straub Park, I envisioned round pillows with peace signs, literature with statistics outlining how much this country is spending on war, and Where Have All The Flowers Gone playing in the background. Not to be. The planning for the Pillow Fight for Peace had stopped just short of Peace. Elizabeth Dunn, the main organizer, plans to follow up on that aspect next time round. But great fun was had by all, and I recommend it for anyone with the ability to run around without glasses on.

October 8, 2012

My Ballot: Rename Florida State Amendments

So what makes my November ballot the longest in history? It's not the presidential race, even with twelve candidates in the running. It's those proposed Florida Constitutional amendments, which are quite wordy and, many times, deceptive. Many of the amendment titles are full of compassion, but are nonetheless misleading. Not one of these amendments was proposed by a citizen or a group advocating on behalf of citizens. They are all coming out of the Florida legislature. The advice coming from many thoughtful corners, such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, is to VOTE NO on all of them.

In an effort to make these amendments more accessible to the average voter, I have re-titled them to reflect their actual content. My son added a few creative flourishes. He's probably responsible for the ones you like the most.

#1 Sore Losers Amendment. The legislature's attempt to thumb their nose at the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Additionally, if the Affordable Care Act were repealed, this amendment would limit potential health insurance reform options at the state level.

#3 Formulaic State Spending Limits (That Might Lead to a Fiscal Crisis) Amendment. This amendment would set a revenue spending cap each year based on population growth and inflation, rather than personal income. Colorado implemented a cap back in 1992 and it went awry. The state was hamstrung in its ability to provide basic services, when the economy faltered.

#5 Power Grab Amendment. The legislature wants to have more control over the judiciary. Are they still mad that the Florida Supreme Court ruled in support of a recount in the 2000 presidential election? This amendment would require Senate confirmation of Florida Supreme Court justices and make it easier for lawmakers to change the process rules in the court system.

#6 Increase Government Regulation of Women's Bodies Amendment. Currently, there is no public funding of abortion, but most of this amendment is dedicated to putting an exclamation on that point. The real meat of this amendment is in the change to privacy law. This amendment would provide an opening to outlaw all abortions in Florida, if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

#8 Taxpayers Fund Religion Amendment. This amendment deceptively appears to be about religious freedom. It is, in fact, the polar opposite. As it stands now, the state funds many religious programs so long as they do not promote their religion. This amendment would open the door to funding religious activity. Rather than freeing taxpayers with regard to religion, it would force them to pay for religion.

#12 Placate FSU Amendment. The Florida Board of Governors (BOG) oversees the state's public universities. Did you know that students have a representative on the BOG? The chair of the Florida Student Association (FSA), which is comprised of university student body presidents, has a seat at the table. But one University, Florida State University (FSU), chooses not to pay for membership in the FSA. This amendment creates another student bureaucracy so that FSU would not have to participate in the FSA, according to a Miami Herald editorial. I couldn't find any analysis that claimed the current system has a problem. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" would seem to apply here.

Emotional Appeal to Increase Property Tax Loopholes, Amendments #2, #4, #9, #10, and #11. The problem with adding lots of exemptions to property taxes is that for every tax break one person gets, other taxpayers shoulder a heavier burden. These taxes pay for local government services such as police, schools, libraries, and parks. A reduction in these taxes would make it harder for local governments to provide these basic services. Dressing them up so that they help veterans and low-income seniors evokes a sympathetic, emotional response rather than solid analysis. I admit that I am attracted to some of these amendments, but I won't muddy the waters in this short overview.

For those that have waded through the deceptive wording, many have concluded that most of these amendments go against the public interest. For example, if you know someone who has had an insurance claim inappropriately denied, been denied health insurance due to pre-existing conditions, or had their premiums go through the roof, you know that health insurance needs regulation. Most folks want to make decisions about having children and not have it forced upon them through regulation. I think most U.S. citizens heartily support religious pluralism and would like to make sure that our government does not favor one religion over another. And yet our elected representatives in Tallahassee put forth ballot amendments that would do the opposite. So, if our representatives are not representing us, who are they representing? The beauty of ballot amendments is that voters can go to the voting booth and represent themselves.

October 10 Update: Progress Florida put together a chart of the ballot amendments showing how various groups recommend you vote. You can read a more detailed analysis of the ballot amendments from the Collins Center.

October 6, 2012

Occupy Sarasota, First Anniversary

Occupy Sarasota Targets Bank of America for "White Collar Crime" to Celebrate 1st Anniversary

October 4, 2012

My Ballot Has 12 Candidates For President

In honor of last night's presidential debate, I decided to have a look at the ballot on which I will cast my vote. I downloaded a shockingly long ballot. And the presidential race unmistakably contributes to its length. There are twelve parties contending! I had expected maybe five or six.

My eye immediately went to the PFP (Peace And Freedom) Party slate of Roseanne Barr and running mate, Cindy Sheehan. Roseanne Barr has a long list of accomplishments as an actress, comedian, TV producer, and more. And she is not afraid to speak her mind. The United States has a long history of electing former actors to high office, such as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more. So perhaps this is a good fit. Cindy Sheehan showed the perseverance of a bulldog in 2005, when she Occupied a piece of land outside then-President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. She garnered significant media attention protesting the continued U.S. war in Iraq. Based on her tireless activism for peace, Sheehan is a woman motivated by her strong principles.

The Barr/Sheehan ticket is a rich combination of personalities. Where do they stand on the issues? From the website, legalize marijuana; get Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other; forgive student loan debt; reign in the bankers; end the wars; fight for equal rights for all; preserve natural water sources; grow natural, organic food. I noticed that legalizing marijuana was at the top of the list. Medical marijuana laws have not yet reached Florida, so I am probably out of touch, but this seemed like a flakey #1 priority. So, while a good chunk of the electorate watched the end of the Obama and Romney debate on TV, I did some googling. Barr recently spoke at a town hall meeting at Oaksterdam University last week. Oaksterdam is our country's first cannabis college. It is dawning on me that I am more out of touch than I realized. Yes, we do have a trade school with classes in growing marijuana, running a dispensary, business practices, and the like. According to Barr, marijuana is a billion dollar industry in California, and legalization brings a tax windfall. So, when she talks about making marijuana legal and war illegal, she is also advancing economic responsibility and deficit reduction. She is advancing a reduction in regulation on small business. And an increase in personal freedom. Sounds almost mainstream.

But can the People and Freedom Party win? Or, could they influence the final outcome of the 2012 election? No and maybe. As far as I can tell, they are only on the ballot in Colorado, Florida, and California, so they can't win. But, Florida and Colorado are two of the largest swing states this year. So, any third-party candidate in those two states might affect the outcome. Last night's debate only included the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, unless you watched the Democracy Now! version. Amy Goodman expanded the debate to include Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party. Hats off to Amy Goodman for attempting to get us out of the self-perpetuating cycle of a paucity of candidates and limited debate options.

Since there are ten third-party presidential candidates on my Floridian ballot, I do have quite a choice. Florida's laws promote a strong and diverse ballot. Evidently this came about through a constitutional ballot initiative in 1998, which barred the State from passing any rule against a third-party candidate that didn’t also apply to the two major party candidates. As a voter, I find this invigorating. I don't have to choose between the lesser of two evils. There is a higher likelihood of finding a candidate on the ballot with whom I agree. This is only one step in relieving the two party stranglehold on our electoral system. C.G.P. Grey provides a brilliant explanation of first-past-the-post-voting and some of the other problems inherent in our current system. Although I see my state's laws as providing strong ballot access, my legislators deemed them weak and passed more stringent laws. Let's recap. The people of Florida voted for better ballot access and the Florida legislature passed new rules to thwart their wishes. Representative democracy is brought to its knees. These new rules would have gone into effect this year, but they were blocked until 2016. Until then, I revel in my ballot's horn of plenty.

My research into the Barr/Sheehan ticket brought to light a couple of choice items. First, concerning her decision to get into the race, Barr explains that it was much the same thing that motivated her to produce a sitcom. She was sitting around watching TV and thought, "Hell, I could do better than that!" Second, Sheehan has suspended campaigning due to irreconcilable political differences and health issues. @TheRealRoseanne tweeted, "I'm asking the american ppl to step in for Cindy Sheehan, who's on the ballot, but withdrawn. I'm authorizing all roseannearchists 2bVP." Can you translate that?

Going Forward: Four Candidates Confirmed For The 2012 Presidential Debate Hosted by Free And Equal on October 23.

September 23, 2012

National Plug In Day, Sarasota

I landed at Five Points Park on my bicycle. Folks there were preparing to drive a parade of electric vehicles over to St. Armands Circle in celebration of National Plug In Day. I was the oddball without a power-assist. I left a few minutes before those gathered. As I passed onto the Ringling Bridge, police officers closed the road behind me and I led the silent posse of electric vehicles. For a fleeting five seconds. Then they zipped right past me. Just before they arrived at St. Armands, I caught up to the electric motorcycles that were bringing up the rear. As I passed, one of them good-naturedly yelled out that he gets almost as good mileage on his motorcycle as I get on my bicycle.

So what's the fuss about electric cars? They are more environmentally benign than internal combustion engine vehicles and they move us away from oil dependence. Evidently, running cars on gasoline pollutes more than producing the equivalent in electricity from coal power plants. If you use solar or wind energy to charge the battery, electric vehicles verge on environmentally friendly.

There is another, disturbing side to the electric car story. In the early 2000's, when corporate behemoths got their way, almost all electric vehicles were taken off the road and/or destroyed, even though they were in good working order. The same organizations prevented any improvements to fuel economy standards from 1985 until 2012! Corporate interests have diligently worked behind the scenes to spread misinformation, start bogus grassroots lobbying campaigns, redirect government funding to alternatives that don't stand a chance, and deregulate any regulations that manage to see the light of day. Check out the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car for details. Thankfully, we have recently approved rules that practically double mileage standards by 2025. Even with these new rules, there are a few loopholes that may result in an increase to total greenhouse emissions from 2017 to 2025. Reminder: we need to get big money out of politics.

Out of protests over the destruction of perfectly good electric vehicles in the early 2000's, arose a phoenix called Plug In America. Along with the Sierra Club, the City of Sarasota, and the Electric Vehicle Association, they organized today's well-attended event at St. Armands Circle. Upon my arrival, I felt like I was at an outdoor auto showroom. But, in addition to cars, one could learn about photovoltaics and solar power, charging stations, shade structures, electric-assisted bicycles, and more. Since I am not in the market for a new car or bicycle, I did not test drive any of the available models. Rather, I was on the hunt for someone who wasn't trying to sell me something. I found my man in Forrest Shaw, who had decided to convert a 1969 VW into an electric vehicle, without much of the know-how needed to accomplish the task. Along the way, he brought many community members into the process, who are now converting their own cars. Listen to his story.

How is it that Sarasota is involved with electric cars? For one thing, they've installed nine car-charging stations around the City. I think that puts Sarasota in the vanguard. On the other hand, the City recently voted to dissolve its Renewable Energy Fund. As for me, I'm sticking with my bicycle. At least when it's not raining and I don't have to transport others and I'm not in a wild game reserve and ...

September 21, 2012

Dispirited Impressions from Romney Rally, Sarasota

I return from Romney's Sarasota presidential campaign stop with my spirit temporarily flagging. One Romney protester held a sign that read "Nobody Likes Mitt", but I think she is wrong. By my estimates, four or five thousand people showed up to display their enthusiasm for the candidate, standing for several hours in the sweltering midday sun. A few picked fights - physically pushing and shoving - and a majority of them shamelessly slung insults at protesters. The police did their job well, keeping the two opposing groups separated and the road clear for traffic. Because of Electoral College math, Romney must win Florida to have a shot at the presidency. This means campaigning here during the summer heat. Later in the afternoon, the heat was severe enough that I saw two folks escorted away for treatment by medics standing by.

Waiting for the gates to open, thousands of Romney supporters settled on their favorite line of protester-directed hubris - "Get a Job!" Frankly, this was just bizarre beyond comprehension. These folks, who were standing in line and obviously NOT working, are yelling at a hundred people across the street. They are yelling at people they have never met, people they know nothing about. And they are telling them to get a job, at a moment when they, themselves, are obviously not working. Is this some sort of mass projection bias? Perhaps it's a media-induced stereotyping hysteria? It is tempting to blame it all on the media. It certainly made me feel worse about the human race. There's a young boy, perhaps six years old, chanting "Get a Job" over and over, even after the adults have abandoned the activity. Why isn't this child in school at 1:30 in the afternoon? Perhaps he is being home-schooled. Today's lesson is to make assumptions about people he has never met and demand that they do something that he, himself, is not prepared to do. How depressing. I actually know something of the protesters. One is a server at a local restaurant. Another is a substitute teacher. Another is an artist. Several are full-time college students, who fit this protest in around their class schedules. Yes, some are retired, but why demand that a retiree go get a job?

Despite my agitation and incredulity, I decide to go inside the grounds to get a more in-depth look. For this, I must stand in line for about an hour as the thousands of people before me go through security. I am surrounded by folks who watch Fox News. They seem nice enough, until they start yelling at the protesters to "Take a Bath." They call them "Scum of the Nation" and "Losers". They assure themselves that every last protester has been paid to come out and protest. Where do they get this nonsense? Oh yeah, Fox News. And every tenth sentence, I hear someone complaining about socialism. I am surrounded by retirees on Medicare, who by definition are benefitting from our country's socialized payment for medical services for the elderly. When I finally arrive at the rally area, there is an enormous sign saying "Protect and Strengthen Medicare." So, evidently some forms of socialism are okay. I, myself, am against socializing corporate losses when we privatize corporate gains. That's how many describe the 2009 bank bailouts. Especially the protesters across the street. I'm thinking this is something we could all agree on. But nobody here is looking for agreement. They want to paint the world in black and white. And it's contagious. We are all left ripe for misunderstanding. And hurt. And my spirit is flagging.

Prior to joining this public rally at the Ringling Museum, a few folks had paid $2500 and more to have lunch with Romney at the Ritz Carlton. A plane flies overhead dragging a banner that reads, "Romney: See any 47% victims at the Ritz?" A flyover form of protest. It refers to a recently released video taken at a Boca Raton fundraiser where, in the words of Stephen Colbert, Romney calls 47% of all Americans mindless moochers. Part of me was hoping that Romney would apologize for his seeming indifference to so many citizens of this fair country. But, alas, that did not come to pass. As to dining at the Ritz, evidently many people are aggrieved by the wealth of the participants and the elitism inherent in such a private lunch. I find it far more alarming that a political campaign needs to raise such large sums just to get by. Public Citizen is foretelling that $8 billion will be spent on local and national elections this fall. And a good chunk of those funds will be dark money from anonymous corporations and super-rich citizens not concerned one iota with the public interest. Now that sets me off the deep end. To add insult to injury, it also pays for a lot of deceptive television ads that will continue to set me off the deep end, if I find the courage to turn on the television.

Perhaps there are a few thoughtful members of Romney's audience with whom I can dialog. I find a woman who came down from Clearwater. She was contemplating leaving early, in part, because Romney was already half an hour late and, in part, due to the unrelenting sweatiness of the afternoon. Instead, she struck up a conversation about all the hate coming out of the Middle East. How the Muslims were out to destroy our freedom of speech. She was referring to recent actions of Libyan protesters, who were so angered over a film that ridiculed Muhammad that they burned down the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed the U.S. Ambassador. To be honest, I found the motivation for this story hard to believe from day one, but I had to agree that there is hate coming out of the Middle East. After all, the United States has set up tyrannical dictatorships in the area. And our planes have dropped bombs for years on countries in the region. There's a lot to hate. I made no mention of this, but we continued to talk. We talked about how the media is drawn to portray the point of view of extremists. That's all we hear about them and, most probably, that's all they hear about us. And she spoke of how fearful this has made her. As the discussion wound down, she told me how happy she was that Glenn Beck was back on the air without the constraints of Fox News. Even with the limited exposure I have had to Glenn Beck, I never got the impression that Fox News constrained him much; he seemed to glory in distorting the news. Later that evening, when I opened Facebook, there was a Glenn Beck clip in my newsfeed. So, I clicked on it. Coincidentally, he was ranting about how unlikely it was that an amateur youtube video, which had attracted a relatively small viewership could have generated such a successful and well-planned response in Libya, months after its release. I had to agree.

Mitt Romney finally graced us with his presence. Within five minutes, I could just barely listen to the manipulative statements and sloganeering bombarding us. He spent his speaking time talking about all the things he would NOT do, if elected President. I will sum it up in a one sentence exaggeration. Whatever President Obama has done, Mitt Romney was not going to do that. That seemed to fire up the crowd. I left early.

I emerged to a new group of protesters. They were New College students, some of whom had infiltrated the event. After Romney started speaking, they started chanting "People over Profits" and unfurled a Palestinian flag. How had I missed this? They were quickly shooed out by security. And they were thoroughly energized by their actions. A Romney supporter walking out of the event, came toward the group and said that he was willing to talk to them, but only if they believed in God. Negative and inaccurate stereotypes of atheists must be alive and well. I was sinking into despondency. Time to go home.

September 17, 2012

September 9, 2012

Common Wealth Time Bank Has Arrived!

Sarasota/Manatee now has an alternative currency, administered by the Common Wealth Time Bank. Thanks to Don Hall of Transition Sarasota and Steve McAllister, we can share time, talent, skills, hobbies, activism, music, and community without any cash changing hands. A time bank brings a breath of fresh air when contrasted with the banking and Wall Street debacles of the last few years. In this era of scarce jobs, underemployed and unemployed people can offer skills and get the things they need. But it has the potential to be so much more.

A time bank rests on several principles. First, everyone is an asset. We all have something to offer. This sounds trite, but it's quite revolutionary. Second, some work does not have a monetary value, but should be rewarded anyway. Consider raising children, cleaning up our environment, and promoting social justice, amongst others. Third, helping works better as a two-way street. Charity is nice, but isn't it even nicer for all concerned to let the recipient give back in some form? Consider some of the anger inherent in the phrase "nanny-state" that small-government advocates throw around. In fact, most adults don't want to be treated and taken care of like children. They want to provide for themselves and others. Throw in respect for all individuals and a desire for community and it becomes apparent that there is more at play than just an alternative currency. Rather, time banks seek to strengthen community and make us all healthier. No wonder there are 275 working time banks in the United States.

It's all rather lofty, but boils down to this: each hour of work is equal to every other hour of work, regardless of the activity. Members earn credits by performing a service for another member. Driving someone to the doctor has the same time bank value as providing violin lessons. One service I offer on the Common Wealth Time Bank is a guided kayak tour near my home during sunset or the full moon. Thus far I have received an acupuncture treatment offered by another member. At the Common Wealth Time Bank launch last Monday, I spoke with one very happy member who had taken advantage of four hours of yard work offered by another member.

Time will tell what downsides there are to time banking. But, as we head out of the launch phase, here's what some local folks are saying.

More Info:
Sign up for the Sarasota/Manatee Common Wealth Time Bank,
Wikipedia description of Time Banking,
Transition Sarasota,

September 2, 2012

Voter Suppression at the RNC

I have very little interest in the political swaggering and enthusiastic parroting of emotion-laden slogans that I had thought formed the backbone of national political conventions. But since I've never really watched one or even watched part of one, I decided the time was ripe to find out if my uninformed views held water. The Republican National Convention came to Tampa and I was going to pay attention or nod off trying. On opening day, I got side-swiped by the story about the bus driver(s) who couldn't find the Convention Center, effectively hijacking the bus taking the delegate-riders on an unscheduled tour around Tampa. Meanwhile back at the Convention, the Rules Committee voted to let the (100) RNC committee men/women change the rules on the fly between conventions. There was an attempt to radically change the delegate selection process, but some sort of compromise passed. I should say that it sort-of passed. The no-votes sounded louder than the aye-votes, but no roll-call was taken. No matter. Now that the RNC can change the rules between conventions, they will have plenty of time to rewrite the rules to their liking. I don't know how to verify the juiciest part of this story, which is that the buses carrying the Florida and Virginia delegations, including Morton Blackwell, the most ardent foe of the Rules Committee change who had organized in opposition, was on one of the "lost" buses circling the Convention Center, being held "against his will", during the Rules Committee vote.

It is an improbable world we inhabit, that at times, seems more like spoof fiction than reality. Shortly after the rules-change power-play played out, a Rally Against Voter Suppression was scheduled at nearby Centennial Park. The Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN) and Rainbow Push Coalition put together a march to push back against Republican efforts to disenfranchise communities of color. Delegate voter suppression was going on inside the RNC. But outside the RNC, folks were coming together to protest voter suppression. The contrast between what the people want and what our major political parties deliver was juxtaposed quite starkly.

Rachel Maddow put together a great chart showing how Florida's version of voter suppression laws had all but quashed new voter registrations for Democrats.

Thankfully, the courts are rolling back the more egregious voter suppression laws. But I'm especially appreciative of those who continue to speak out on this issue. Here's Reverend Charles McKenzie giving a rousing speech.

Quite frankly, the kinds of rule changes embraced during this RNC are what dissuade me from participating more in politics. RNC rules changes and delegate shifting continued after the "lost" bus incident. Ron Paul delegates from several states were unseated in favor of Romney delegates, despite objections from the floor. Ron Paul won the plurality of delegates in six states. By the incoming rules, he should have earned a spot on the nominating ballot, but the RNC decided to change the rules at the last minute to require an eight state plurality in order to be added to the ballot. These Ron Paul delegates were victims of voter suppression within their own party. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me. I continue to prefer an unsolvable issue to chew on or a boring policy wonk to political shenanigans. Unfortunately, my idealistic take on this does nothing to deter the undermining of democracy that is underway. So, in the name of pragmatism, I will go a little deeper. The larger and more powerful an organization, the more likely that survival instincts and power grabs will rule the day. The powerful RNC is a poster child for this tendency.

August 28, 2012

Send In The Clowns, RNC, Tampa, Florida

Clownbloq. Jubilant clown protesters bent on de-escalation. Their attire tends toward the militaristic, emulating the militarization of our police forces. But both militaristic and non-violent at the same time. Their armaments might have included feather dusters, but due to new, RNC-related regulations, they were not able to carry water pistols. In Tampa, in honor of the Republican National Convention (RNC), we were treated to the Clandestine Clown Counterterrorism Unit, the CCCU.

I arrived early to watch the clownbloq army assemble. First came the medics. There were four of them. Four of them! Did they expect so many casualties? Two of the medics were from the Boston area and two had catapulted across the country from Portland, Oregon. One was a real nurse, when she wasn't attending to the wounded during the RNC. The rest would not let on as to their medical credentials. They chatted about the dry-sock-dispersal campaign. Evidently, as a result of recent rains here, the biggest medical problem facing out-of-town protesters was trench foot. As if to give a stomp of approval to trench foot, the skies opened up and rained for about five minutes as we waited for the rest of the clowns to arrive. Once trench foot is treated, the prudent thing to do is to don a pair of clean, dry, new socks. Thus the dry-sock-dispersal campaign.

I was already reaping the health benefits of better medical knowledge, as the clowns dribbled in. Other than the two clown trainers, not one participant had any prior clowning or theatrical experience. But, I was soon chuckling right and left as the group warmed up. Laughter is powerful medicine. And the clowns-to-be were aiming to use laughter as a powerful tactical weapon. Nathan Pim, of the Autonomous Playhouse, showed everyone how to protect the police from the many non-violent protesters who would be rallying and marching against voter suppression later in the afternoon. They carefully picked out entertaining outfits so that everyone would be in awe of their exquisite clown fashion sense. During these short training exercises, a real police unit entered the park. Evidently, it takes eight officers to subdue one young man who was about to pull a bandana up over his face. Yes, indeed, this went against the fancy, new, RNC-related regulations. Call me paranoid, but how did they even know? When I entered the park, I had noticed a helicopter overhead, which I dutifully videotaped. I'm fairly sure that helicopter surveillance technology has not reached the point of clairvoyance, but who am I to say? Thankfully there were no clown arrests and the group continued with warm-ups, which were quickly followed by lunch - another healthy aspect of this clownbloq.

Many of these clowns were members of Food Not Bombs, a group with many chapters around the world devoted to recovering and sharing free vegan or vegetarian food with the public. We were meeting in Herman Massey Park, a park originally used by Tampa Food Not Bombs to feed folks. In order to curtail such activities, the City of Tampa closed down the park, cleaned it up, and erected a lock-able fence around the park. In the tradition of Food Not Bombs, a hearty and well-spiced meal was served.

After lunch, and a long walk in the general direction of the Rally Against Voter Suppression, we arrived at Centennial Park. Even without signs or a map, we knew we had arrived at the right spot, when we spotted the platoon of bicycle-wielding officers lining the edge of the park. I was pleased to see that the protesters outnumbered the police. Given the possibility of a hurricane, many protesters may have prematurely decided to stay home. This might have left the thousands of out-of-town police with nothing to do, but severely outnumber the protesters. Thankfully, my fears were not born out. A larger-than-life Romney puppet toured the grounds. Following some good speakers and performers, Charles McKenzie gave a rousing speech and we once again found ourselves on the march. It was great fun following the clowns' antics as they mixed with the crowd and protected the police through the neighborhood of Ybor City.

August 4, 2012

Hands Across The Sand, Lido Beach

Men, women, and children raised their voices in concern over offshore drilling at area beaches at noon today. Two years ago following the BP Gulf oil spill, Siesta Key beach was flooded with protesters.

Concerns ranged from the health of the general ecosystem, to a reduction in tourism at Gulf beaches, to our societal dependence on oil, to the health of Gulf residents and fishers (somebody tell me if that's a word). Today, two years later, a few folks continued to speak out about why they were joining "Hands Across the Sand" at Lido Beach and embracing clean energy. Several were so dedicated that they interrupted their 40th Sarasota High School reunion to participate.

I was curious about the scientific assessment of the effects of the 2010 Gulf oil spill. We have a Mote Marine Laboratory intern staying with us who is part of a team that provides care for one Mote dolphin. In June, she let us know about Edna, who had stranded on Longboat Key, just north of us. Another team at Mote is treating Edna and nursing her back to health. As it turns out, since 2010, dolphins have been dying and/or stranding in record numbers in the Gulf of Mexico. A year ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tested 32 living dolphins in Barataria Bay, where the oil spill had a big impact. The dolphins were underweight, anemic, had low blood sugar, low levels of hormones that help with stress response - all symptoms that would be expected of dolphins exposed to an oil spill. However, the data is not as clear-cut as it first appears. The dolphin deaths started increasing about two months BEFORE the Gulf spill. A recent study published in PLoS One points to the combined traumas of a very cold winter in 2010, followed by massive amounts of oil and chemical dispersants due to the BP oil spill, followed by a large 2011 snowmelt which injected a huge volume of cold freshwater into the northern Gulf.

It may be difficult to pinpoint the cause of the dolphin die-off, but it seems that it is just as difficult to evaluate the decline in fish, shellfish, and coral. I was hoping it might be easier to identify the human cost and suffering resulting from the spill. People don't usually stay quiet about such things. Some experienced short term chemically induced illnesses, some of which were severe enough to land folks in the hospital. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is studying the long-term effects such as cancer and birth defects. I hope they will be looking at the effects of eating seafood tainted by components from chemical dispersants and/or crude oil. We already know that eating some crude oil components causes cancer and developmental problems. We don't know much about the chemical dispersants. They have been shown to bioaccumulate. Might they move up the food chain from water to fish to people? Unfortunately, the study's late start and lack of baseline information may limit its ability to draw strong conclusions.

Why are we in such a state of ignorance? Based on the behavior of BP in trying to hide the extent of the spill and keep reporters away from the spill area, I am willing to hazard a guess. If there is a shocking lack of research into the long-term effects of an oil spill, that is, undoubtedly, just the way the oil industry wants it. Existing research results probably fall prey to legal settlements and non-disclosure agreements. This is all pure speculation on my part.

I am inspired that folks around the country have been protesting dirty power, including oil. Thousands marched in Washington D.C. against fracking. In West Virgina, a small group shut down a mountaintop coal removal operation. And a week ago, hundreds of people created a "human oil spill" in Burlington, Vermont. In Sarasota, across Florida, and around the globe, we held hands across the sand.

More Info:
America's Green Summer: From Vermont to Appalachia to Texas, Citizens Say No to Dirty Power, July 31, 2012,
Hands Across The Sand website,
Study Points to Causes of Dolphin Deaths in Gulf of Mexico, July 18, 2012,
'Frothy Gunk' From Deepwater Horizon Spill Harming Corals, March 26, 2012,
BP Oil Dispersant May Facilitate Skin Absorption Of Crude Oil,
"Making It Right" After BP Oil Disaster Is Up to Us - Not BP, April 20, 2012,
The Complexity of Human Health Impacts of the BP/Gulf Oil Spill, HJNO March/April 2012,

July 22, 2012

Manatee County Commission Approved Phosphate Mining Expansion

Back in March, the Manatee County Commission decided to vote on a proposed expansion of Wingate Creek phosphate mine. The final permit was approved in June, even as a draft of a regional environmental study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was still receiving feedback. The draft looks at the impact of all the proposed phosphate mining in Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee, Hillsborough, Polk, and Desoto counties. Public comment is open until the end of July. But, Manatee County Commission has already approved the Wingate Creek expansion. Some say this is due to past threats from Mosaic that they will sue for lost revenue if they don't get their permit.
Occupy Bradenton took up the cause against the expansion back in February. There were no shortage of reasons to vote against the permit and folks were happy to talk about it.

The ever-vigilant Sierra Club has started up a Water Sentinels Program, nationwide. This program seeks to defend our country's waterways from misuse and pollution by training citizens in water quality monitoring techniques and education. Armed with such resources, citizens can hold public agencies accountable for Clean Water laws and regulations. Several dozen volunteers have already enlisted and will be trained to accurately test water around the region. At Wingate Creek, the water will be monitored monthly during the first year of active mining.
If you want to let the Army Corps know your thoughts on this, you can comment here. By way of example, here is my feedback. And here is a wonderful guest column that is just as relevant today as when it was written in February.
More Info:

July 20, 2012

Phosphate Strip-Mining in Central Florida

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is inviting you to let them know what you think about the environmental impact of extending phosphate mining in Central Florida. The Sierra Club already let them know by filing suit in federal court and winning one battle with a nice settlement back in February. I started to read the draft document that the Army Corps had put together, and it just smacked of a whitewash. I stopped reading, probed my memory for phosphate mining disasters, did some research, and prepared the following comment.


The environmental downsides of the phosphate industry have been well-enumerated over the years. The horrendous pollution, the intense water usage, groundwater contamination, radioactive discharge, and the inability to restore the land are all well-documented. No amount of whitewashing by the phosphate mining industry can cover this up. If you think they make a strong case and that miracle-solutions are available, then you have not reviewed the history of phosphate mining in Florida nor the more recent finding, this past spring, of two-headed fish in Idaho streams contaminated by selenium runoff from phosphate operations.

The Army Corps of Engineers has produced an environmental report – its “Draft Areawide Environmental Impact Statement on Phosphate Mining in the Central Florida Phosphate District.” It is over 1,000 pages in length. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports that "parts of the document even suggest that mining, which leaves behind waste-holding ponds, improves the environment by providing more forage areas for birds." Several years ago, the EPA said that what was needed was an analysis of the cumulative impact of current and future mines for the entire watershed, including downstream counties. Several years and over 1,000 pages later, the Army Corps did not examine the cumulative impacts within the region as suggested by the EPA, but rather promoted some environmental benefits of mining activities.

When a government agency that has regulatory or review oversight over an industry comes to be dominated by that industry, rather than pursuing the overall public interest, that agency is said to be "captured". For example, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was thoroughly captured by the oil industry that it was supposed to regulate, and thus did not perform proper due diligence to prevent the catastrophic 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The obvious question is - how was the Army Corps captured by the phosphate industry? According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the environmental report was developed by CH2M Hill and funded by Mosaic and CF Industries — the same mining companies seeking permits from the Army Corps. The Army Corps may have put their name on the final document, but the financial trail points to a tainted document.

That means that it is up to outside reviewers to determine whether the suggested environmental mitigation is up to snuff. I believe that a look at the financial incentives and the business model of the phosphate industry is required in order to perform effective environmental analysis. And for that, I start with a look back at history. Phosphate companies want us to trust them and claim that they have the technology needed for proper mitigation and that they have learned from their mistakes. So, what were their mistakes?

In 2001, I read with dismay about the Piney Point phosphate operations in Manatee County. Due to financial problems, they could not pay their electric bill to keep pumps running, let regulators take over the plant, and then declared bankruptcy. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had paid over $200 million in clean-up costs for the treatment of acidic wastewater at this plant. The environmental costs were also high. The DEP dumped millions of gallons of waste into Bishop Harbor in late 2001. And after a subsequent failed clean-up attempt, the DEP started dumping in the Gulf of Mexico in 2003. At one point, the Florida Wildlife Federation suggested that the DEP get federal Superfund designation.

Then there's CF Industries (CFI). Between December 2004 and January 2005, inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the DEP discovered that CFI was treating, storing and disposing of hazardous wastes in the stack and associated ponds at its Plant City facility without a permit and failing to meet land disposal restrictions required by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In addition, they had not provided sufficient financial assurance for closure, long-term care, and liability for this facility. Their civil penalties for violating RCRA were $701,500 and they were required to put up $163.5 million in financial assurances toward the proper closure and long term care of the facility. Additionally, they were required to spend $12 million to reduce and properly manage hazardous waste at their facility.

And how about Mosaic. Prior to Hurricane Frances in 2004, both DEP and Hillsborough County directed Mosaic (then Cargill) to address problems with wastewater storage capacty and the stability of the stack at their Riverview fertilizer plant. Warning letters were issued after heavy rains lowered the wastewater storage capacity. Then came the winds and rains of Hurricane Frances, resulting in a breach, resulting in a 65 million gallon wastewater spill into Tampa Bay, resulting in a massive local fish kill. A settlement with the EPA and the DEP resulted in a $270,000 penalty for water quality violations. Subsequent investments of $30 million were required to reduce on-site wastewater. And more was required to improve the wastewater treatment itself.

Based on these case histories, the business model seems to be to take the minimum measures required by law to protect the environment. When possible, wait until enforcement commences to take these measures. Extract the phosphate and bring in profits, before reclamation begins. If possible, avoid reclamation activities by selling the operation, declaring bankruptcy, or some other legal avenue. I do not know whether these are representative of all the companies involved. Regardless, they are totally rational from a financial perspective. The less the environmental oversight and regulation, the greater the financial bonanza. And what a financial bonanza it must be. Here is some general data from Mosaic.

Mosaic Net Profit

  • 2011: $2.51 billion
  • 2010: $ .83 billion
  • 2009: $2.35 billion

Who Owns The Environmental Risk?

To minimize the environmental impact and avoid potential ecological disasters associated with phosphate mining, the phosphate companies must own the environmental risk. If a company can go bankrupt and avoid reclamation efforts, they do not own the risk. If a company can hire subsidiaries to do their dirty work (such as BP did at the time of the Gulf oil spill in 2010), then the parent company does not own the environmental risk. When it costs millions to prevent a wastewater breach, but a wastewater breach only results in a $270,000 penalty, the company does not own the environmental risk. If all of the stakeholders of Mosaic lived within five miles of one of their mines, especially those who profit handsomely, they might own the environmental risk. But this is not the case. Mosaic's CEO brought home $7.7 million in pay in 2011 and he lives in Minnesota, no where near these Florida facilities. Requiring financial assurance is a big step in the right direction. But consider agency capture. If the Army Corps of Engineers signs off saying that the environmental impact is not so bad, then they will not require much in the way of assurance. In order for a company to own the environmental risk, the incentives must be very large and very real.

Consider the difference in a company's financial calculations, if a permit to mine a new area were based on the environmental reclamation of the area currently being mined. If there were insufficient reclamation, no new mining would be permitted. Or, what if all profit had to be reinvested in a mining facility, until the facility had been returned to an appropriate environmental state. Only after reclamation would a company be allowed to realize a net profit. I don't know the best, most-enforceable approach. But, I don't see much hope in the environmental impact review process, unless mining companies own the final results. And in the current environment, they do not.

From the Sarasota Herald Tribune, "The study managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concludes that the environmental damage from strip mining more than 55,000 additional acres, including 12,000 acres of wetlands and 86 miles of streams, will be insignificant." Let's go with that. If a year from the onset of mining (or perhaps a month), the damage is insignificant, let the phosphate companies keep on mining and keep their profits. If not, they should be required to fix the damage, until it really is insignificant. Only then would they be allowed to continue mining and profit from their enterprise. Here's the bottom line. If a company wants to mine for phosphate, they must own the environmental review and its consequences or lose their permit to mine. Reassess frequently. In such a context, it would behoove a company to eschew the fantasy of insignificant phosphate mining damage in favor of a realistic impact assessment and mitigation plan.

What is missing from this report is a mechanism for tying the proposed impacts to the actual impacts in order to hold the mining companies accountable. Please include such a mechanism.

Some Background:

July 8, 2012

Transit to Green Space (to Save Our Seabirds), Sarasota

The Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club hosted an outing today, but we didn't climb around mangroves, paddle down a spring-fed river, or hike underneath lush tree canopy. Instead, we hopped on a bus and traveled from downtown Sarasota to the Save Our Seabirds Sanctuary. Public buses pose a less polluting way of reaching natural areas than driving alone. And this holds true in Sarasota.

Before touring Save Our Seabirds, we heard more about public transit initiatives at the local level. Britten Cleveland opened the discussion with the disturbing news that opponents of mass transit have really started to dictate the debate with an organized campaign, both nationally and locally. As counterpoint, Timothy Martin, from St. Petersburg, shared great news of grassroots organizing by Awake Pinellas to get folks to attend meetings in support of light rail, rapid bus transit, better bus options, and more bike lanes. They mobilized 100 people to ride the bus over to one such meeting. Ann Mesnikoff joined us from Washington D.C. to share her perspectives on the it-could-have-been-worse Transportation Bill that recently passed Congress. She also let us know about the Washington D.C. bike-share and car-share programs. Johannes Werner from the Sarasota-Manatee Transit Group spoke about small changes that could dramatically improve the bus-riding experience, such as increasing frequency and decreasing transfer times along key routes. For some, this was their first time on a Sarasota bus. SCAT (Sarasota County Area Transit) received a thumbs up for this ride.

Without so much as a prompt from me, Ann Mesnikoff pointed out that money-in-politics was a contributing factor to the disappointment of the 2012 Transportation Bill. Will turning out large crowds supportive of mass transit at local meetings help matters? These folks think so!

More Info:
Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club,
Sarasota Manatee Transit Group,
Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT),
Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO),
Sierra Club Beyond Oil Campaign,
Awake Pinellas,
Well-Attended Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) meeting,
Save Our Seabirds

July 2, 2012

Bicycling on Minimum Wage

Last October, I found out just how much the CEOs of large corporations make. The ratio of CEO pay to worker pay was 42 to 1 in 1980, with the average CEO making $1.6 million. Quite a disparity! According to the Institute for Policy Studies, in 2010, the ratio had skyrocketed to 325 to 1, with the average CEO making $10.8 million. I thought "Let's fix that!" But as it turns out, as economic inequality increases, the wealthy use their wealth to corrupt our politicians and government institutions. In other words, it is less and less likely that everyday citizens will be able to bring down CEO pay legislatively.

At the macro level, Richard Wilkinson presents a wonderful TED talk that shows how economic inequality harms societies. At the micro level, in the U.S., full-time minimum-wage workers cannot support a family. The value of the minimum wage has fallen sharply over the past forty years. In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60 per hour. Using the government's CPI inflation calculator, this translates to $10.57 in 2012 dollars. Yet the current federal minimum wage is only $7.25 per hour. I can spend a lot of time canoodling statistics about purchasing power, productivity and the like, but the bottom line is that the minimum wage is just too low!

Back in March, a friend of mine from high school days, Brad, suggested that implementing a living wage might be a practical way to address economic inquality. He gave me the heads up about Ben & Jerry's. They make ice cream and they are in the vanguard regarding economic justice. From their website

Every year, we recalculate the livable wage to make sure it’s keeping up with the actual cost of living in Vermont. In recent years, Ben & Jerry’s livable wage has been nearly twice the national minimum wage, landing at $15.97 in 2012.
Impressive. Ralph Nader was on board with Brad, suggesting much the same thing. In February, Nader said there would be no better time to enact a higher minimum wage than during an election year. On June 6, following up on Ralph Nader's idea, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) introduced the Catching Up To 1968 Act of 2012. It calls for a raise in the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour, and then indexing it to the Consumer Price Index in subsequent years.

Where do Occupy participants stand on this? At a recent Tampa Bay Regional Gathering, I noticed a woman walking around with her bicycle helmet on. She was hovering near her bicycle. As an avid cyclist myself, I stopped and asked if she rode her bicycle all the time or just on that day. As it turned out, she rides everywhere, but not for the same reasons I do. I ride to reduce environmental strains on the planet and to stay in better shape. But Kimberly Cooper's original motivation was that her minimum-wage earnings were not keeping up with her cost of living. She took notice of this back in 1980, and has been riding ever since.

After hearing her out, I researched her facts. John Schmitt and Janelle Jones agree with her; wage inequality began to rise sharply in the United States in 1979. It's not just Kimberly, but the education level of minimum wage workers has risen dramatically since 1979. Kimberly spearheads the Moxxie Bike Club, a bike club for moxie women in St. Petersburg.

The voters of Florida have already spoken out on this issue. In 2004, they voted overwhelmingly (71%) to raise the state minimum wage above the federal minimum and to automatically index it to inflation. This, despite the fact that the opposition outspent supporters 2-to-1. The most recent economic research confirms the benefits of raising the minimum wage. Although it may not reach 99 percent, an increase in the minimum wage enjoys strong support across all demographic groups.

July 4 Update: Congressman Bill Young (R-Pinellas County,FL) tells constituent to "Get a Job" in response to question about House Bill to raise federal minimum wage.

July 24 Update: Pinellas County constituents fire back at Congressman Bill Young to Raise The Minimum Wage.

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