March 24, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin

We were asked to come wearing a hoodie. We were looking for justice for Trayvon Martin. Occupy Sarasota had called for a march through downtown, to let residents have an opportunity to come together and vent about the injustices of this case. In Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman, had taken it upon himself to determine that Trayvon Martin, a young African American, was "suspicious." He then disregarded the instructions of a 911 dispatcher and shot Trayvon Martin in the chest. Shockingly, despite his own problematic past and witness accounts that dispute his version of events, Zimmerman has yet to be arrested or charged because he claimed that he shot this unarmed young man in self-defense.

We all bring our past experiences, our current level of knowledge, and our reasoning abilities to bear, when making judgements. I came to this march, because I thought it was a travesty that Zimmerman, who admitted to the shooting, had not been arrested. But others had a more personal response. Some were filled with outrage that ANY young black man in a hoodie could be the victim of such a killing. It could have been their son or their nephew. Evidence suggests a major reason Zimmerman thought he needed to use deadly force against the unarmed Martin is because the teen was black. And, regardless of race, most parents hold protective instincts toward their children and they can identify with the pain and suffering felt by Trayvon's parents. Others were incensed that the police chief put himself on temporary leave rather than being fired. Listen to Sarasota citizens as they speak up on these issues.

As the small group marched through crowded downtown Sarasota, they were treated to thumbs up, smiles, and even applause. The sea of white faces streaming out of the Farmers Market and attending the crafts fair were visibly appreciative of these marchers. The group grew, as onlookers were moved to join in the march. Upon returning to Five Points Park, the group had swelled in size by perhaps 50%. This was so very refreshing!

Some folks were incensed about Florida's stand-your-ground law, which they prefer to call Florida's shoot-first law. This law gives legal protection to anyone, anywhere, to use deadly force when one is attacked and fears for their life. Some feel that the law goes beyond self defense and encourages vigilante justice - the exact type of justice meted out by George Zimmerman. Florida was the first state to pass such a law in 2005, but now somewhere in the range of 16 to 23 states have passed similar laws (sources differ on the exact number). This smacks of legislation authored by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch,

Florida Senator Durell Peadon, an ALEC member, introduced the law in his state and it passed in early 2005; the NRA was behind the bill and its lobbyist Marion Hammer reportedly "stared down legislators as they voted." After Governor Jeb Bush signed it into law, Hammer presented the bill to ALEC's Criminal Justice Task Force (now known as the Public Safety and Elections Task Force) months later.
SourceWatch has a good description of the relationship between ALEC and the National Rifle Association (NRA). For example, an NRA representative was the co-chair of ALEC's Public Safety and Elections Task Force for a number of years.

Thousands of people attended a rally in Sanford, Florida last Thursday. Brando from Occupy Sarasota was able to attend and provided this report. Although George Zimmerman has yet to be arrested, there is some movement on the case. The Sanford, Florida police chief has temporarily stepped aside. Governor Rick Scott is convening a task force to study the matter. And, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into the case.

March 21, 2012

Go Forth And Occupy

by Kim Diaz, published with permission

What is the Occupy Movement planning for the Spring?

  • Fight BAC! Foreclose the Banks. Instead of letting the bank foreclose on us, we’re going to foreclose on the bank. The first nationwide actions were on March 15. Two subsequent actions are planned for April 15th and May 15th.
  • Southeast Regional Convergence (SERCO). Occupiers from the southeastern US and the Caribbean will be gathering March 23-March 25 in Gainesville, Florida. The goals include coordinating on campaigns and actions across region; supporting a culture of resistance, freedom, justice, and mutual aid; and begin scaling up our community efforts as preparation for national and global assemblies; and creating structures of direct democracy over geographic distance. Throughout the Spring, there are state-wide and regional events happening all over the country.
  • National Occupation of Washington, DC (NOW DC). People from across the country will gather for an American Spring in Washington, DC. Starting March 30, and continuing for a full month, NOW DC aims to unite occupations in a focused nonviolent campaign to demonstrate to elected officials in Washington, DC, and K Street and corporate interests that the people no longer trust or accept their rule, that a radical transformation to a participatory democracy operating under the rule of law is essential. Check out their calendar for updated schedules.
  • May Day General Strike.Occupy organizers across the country have been mobilizing for months toward a one-day general strike in May.
  • May Days 2012 in ChicagoOriginally, the G8 and NATO were going to hold simultaneous summits in Chicago this May. Occupy Chicago was ready and willing to host Occupiers from around the country to pull off the biggest occupation of a summit meeting ever. The White House ran for cover and announced their plan to move the G8 summit from Chicago to Camp David.

March 20, 2012

People's Budget, St. Petersburg, Florida

If a city can be said to have common values and a common vision, then such values and vision would play out in the city's laws and in how they spend their money. Although it is not uncommon for citizens to involve themselves in passing new legislation, it's not often that they get down into the nuts and bolts of a city budget, especially for a larger city. But now, in St. Petersburg, Florida, a city of about 245,000, a coalition of local groups have come together to give city residents a greater say in their budget.

The People's Budget Review kicked off their campaign with a press conference on the steps of City Hall. The assembled group included representatives from the Florida Public Service Union, Sierra Club, League of Women Voters, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Agenda 2010, Council of Neighborhood Associations, and Awake The State. Like the Occupy Movement, this campaign is a return to a more direct form of democracy. So, it was no surprise to see participants from Occupy St. Pete in the crowd. The People's Budget Review is making use of online technology to give thousands of regular folks the chance to tell their city government how they wish to spend their tax dollars. Their sense of historic purpose rings out in their words.

The goal is to gather 10,000 surveys from citizens of all stripes. So many times, citizens respond to their government when they are upset. They show up with complaints. Here is an opportunity to participate in government in a positive way. There will be on-the-street and door-to-door interactions to find 10,000 residents who want to share their opinions about the budget. After the press conference, I walked with a couple of folks canvassing on Central Avenue at lunchtime. They spoke with random people on the street, who were, by and large, all interested in the topic, with the exception of two tourists (beware of mega-street-noise) -

The survey itself is more nuanced than you might think. For example, in addition to raising taxes, there is consideration for tapping into reserves. If you are a St. Petersburg resident, you can fill out the survey here.

March 15, 2012

F(oreclose) The Banks, Sarasota

Occupy Sarasota was calling it a Mock Foreclosure. They would turn the tables on Bank of America.

I had envisioned another episode like the one back in June of last year, when a Florida couple sent the sheriff in to padlock a Bank of America branch and cart off the office furniture. Five months prior, Bank of America had filed for foreclosure against the couple, but the couple actually owned the house outright. They had paid cash for it. Unfortunately, that hadn't stopped the foreclosure process. Although they won in court and Bank of America was ordered to pay the couple's legal fees, Bank of America never did pay. So, the couple's lawyer went in to seize the Bank's assets in this amusing WFMY News report.

Back to the Mock Foreclosure. Occupy Sarasota pinned foreclosure notices on the Bank building, but these were immediately removed. Sign-waving, flyering, and engaging the citizenry were the follow-up act.

Paul T and Leslie T comment on F(oreclose) The Banks

Amazingly, this small protest attracted a couple of counter-protesters. One of them, Maryellin K, gave her analysis of the foreclosure crisis. I expected to disagree on most counts, but in fact I thought her initial analysis was spot on. I find it a bright point of hope that a thoughtful person who sees themselves as a polar opposite to me can find so much common ground.
Maryellin concludes that, ultimately, the voters should take the lions share of blame for the 2008 sub-prime disaster and the resulting financial meltdown. But, here I have to disagree. The idea that individually, we can use our vote to affect how our representatives vote is idealism, at best.

Beyond such idealism, what does the research show? In Economic Inequality and Political Representation, Larry Bartels, of Princeton University, looked at how U.S. senators responded to rich and poor constituents.

In every instance, senators appear to be much more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of constituents with modest incomes. On average, my estimates suggest that constituents at the 75th percentile of the income distribution have almost three times as much influence on senators’ general voting patterns as those at the 25th percentile, and several times as much influence on specific salient roll call votes. The preferences of constituents near the top of the income distribution are even more influential, while those in the bottom fifth receive little or no weight, especially from Republican senators.

The Occupy Movement has provided a forum for large swaths of the public to express their anger that our elected government representatives are not, in fact, representing us. I would add that our representatives are doing an admirable job representing corporate interests, such as those of Bank of America.

March 10, 2012

Free Speech Zone, Sarasota

Two weeks ago, Chris Young was arrested after drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. The ACLU held a rally at the site of the arrest to highlight our rights to free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Consitution. During that rally, I met a man who called himself the four-year-mayor of Five Points Park. He explained that the police regularly give out trespass warnings to people who hang around the Park and the sidewalks in the vicinity. Specifically, people are trespassed from the steps leading down from the library, Five Points Park, and the sidewalk leading from Starbucks to Whole Foods. Once trespassed, they may not return to that area for a year or risk arrest!

This sounded like it might be a bit of an exageration to me. But, then I thought about how folks participating in Occupy Sarasota had been treated. They make use of the same space. Three Occupiers had been trespassed for holding signs and peacefully protesting on the sidewalk. And Chris Young had been trespassed after writing chalk slogans in a public park.

During last week's Occupy Sarasota rally, the police were called to Five Points Park, not once, but twice. The first call was a complaint about a group performing Capoiera, a Brazilian martial art mixed with music. The second complaint was about a couple of people from the National Eating Disorder Association who were handing out leaflets on the topic from a couple of tables they had set up. As a disinterested observer, my take was that this was truly an optimal use of public space in a downtown area. They brought culture and knowledge to those who were interested, and otherwise did not get in anyone's way.

I spoke at length with one police officer who responded to these calls. He echoed my thoughts, and went further to disparage the complainant. Evidently, the complainer was the same person who also regularly calls in complaints about Occupy Sarasota. I believe that this man complains regularly about anyone whom he does not wish to see using Five Points Park or the sidewalks in the vicinity. Interestingly, he does not call the police department to make these complaints, but rather he calls a particular Lieutenant, who then has Dispatch send officers out to the scene. The more I inquired, the fishier it got. What I would like to know, is how much this man has cost the City of Sarasota in bogus complaints. Is it possible that we staff extra police officers just to satisfy the whims of this one man? Somebody please investigate!

As it turns out, the Sarasota ACLU was already on one piece of the puzzle. They sent a letter to City Manager Terry Lewis. The ACLU was concerned that "police are reportedly issuing trespass warnings to vagrants who loiter too long on the sidewalk." Several days later, City Attorney Robert Fournier said the "Police should not 'trespass' anyone on the highly contentious sidewalks located around the downtown Whole Foods store." The ACLU scores a victory.

Occupy Sarasota held it's rally today and decided to celebrate the City's reversal with an impromptu protest march down the sidewalk in question. It was a small group, but what they lacked in size, they made up for in enthusiasm. They look at this piece of the sidewalk as a newly declared Free Speech Zone -

In the ultimate irony, as Occupy Sarasota marched through downtown, they stumbled upon two sets of chalk slogans on Main Street, both welcoming customers into their business.

Evidently chalk writing is okay with the police, if Toy Lab or Yume Sushi creates it in front of their storefront, but not okay if it is in Five Points Park. Or, maybe it is okay if it encourages consumerism, but not okay if it encourages dissent. Or, maybe it's just not okay if that one guy in the condo complains to that one police lieutenant and a particular officer is dispatched. I think all of it should be okay. Continue the investigations.

Occupy Sarasota's First Arrest, ACLU Chalk Rally, Police target homeless based on looks, ACLU says, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 7, 2012, City attorney to police: Stop issuing 'trespass' notices, Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 9, 2012

March 2, 2012

Sarasota ACLU Chalk Rally

On February 25, Christopher Young was targeted by police for writing chalk messages on a sidewalk in a public park in downtown Sarasota, Florida. The Sarasota American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped secure legal representation for Chris. Attorney Derek Byrd is taking the case pro bono. The ACLU went a step further and put together a rally in support of our freedom of speech, including chalk protesting. Thursday afternoon, a crowd of ACLU members, Occupy Sarasota supporters, and those generally offended by the arrest of a peaceful protester gathered at Five Points Park. Artist, Truman Adams, created a 3D chalk scroll displaying the text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The energized crowd recited the First Amendment and individually crafted their own unique chalk messages. Nobody was arrested.
Kudos to the ACLU!