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RNC Demonstration Attracts Determined Activists

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Protestors at Monday's demonstration against the RNC in Tampa, Fla.
Protestors at Monday's demonstration against the RNC in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA, Fla. -- "I'm tired of the war on women," Ilene Goldstein, 56, explained from the back of the small crowd at the Coalition to March on the RNC's morning rally. "I've been fighting the same battle since the '70s. I can't believe like hello we're still fighting over our bodies and reproductive rights, birth control, shitty pay, etc., etc."

Goldstein's voice trailed off. The list of grievances was long and old. Finally she added one that was new. "I'm tired," she said, "of there being so many people unemployed -- I'm one of them."

Goldstein looked tired. Deep worry lines creased her face -- you noticed them first before you took in her head-shop piercings and magenta hair. She'd been a waitress for nearly 30 years and you could tell she'd been a good one. She had a warm smile and tough-gal wit. "I miss the paying job," she said. "And yeah, I do like it. ... I just liked meeting different people. Mostly, I liked leaving with cash in my hand at the end of the night. Even if I had to deal with assholes, it was very easy to let it go. It wasn't like on my mind when I got home. It was like. 'Oh well, tomorrow's another day.'"

Since her unemployment ran out, she's been living on credit cards. She's managed to keep her house. But last week, Goldstein had to give up her car -- a brown 1989 Ford Thunderbird. The transmission failed and she couldn't replace it. A salvage yard bought it for $400. "It was colorful with the bumper stickers," she said. "Before the salvage yard, I took pictures of my bumper stickers."

But with or without wheels, Goldstein had to be here. On Friday, her friends in Occupy Gainesville held a fundraising benefit so she and others could make the two-hour trip. Bands played for gas money and a legal fund in case they get arrested.

You had to be as determined as Goldstein to ignore threats of hurricane and arrest to join Monday's rally and a subsequent march through downtown Tampa. The organizers had passed out a press release promising a "massive" turnout of the usual members of the progressive left from student groups and labor unions to Occupy chapters and community organizations. Hardly 250 people turned out for the demonstrations. When I asked a cop about the turnout, he just smirked.

At one point, a reporter yelled to his cameraman: "Frame up the shot!" There was a lot that -- tight crowd shots and close-ups of screaming faces behind bullhorns. And a lot of bogus quotes given to the press about all the positive energy.

You don't march through an empty Tampa on positive energy. You march out of anger at the world and the state of the economy and the political system. David Williams, 50, drove down from Nashville. A co-owner of a construction business, he said he had been a Republican until recently. He was struck by how much the Republicans despised Obama, and couldn't seem to find any common ground on something as important as health care.

A decade earlier, Williams had fallen off a ladder and injured his back. He had decent insurance, but it still didn't cover all his doctor visits or surgeries. He said his medical debt hit $150,000. "I have a great appreciation for the working poor," he said. He doesn't know how a family of three can survive on $40,000. If their children get sick, how can they make it, he wondered.

These weren't just true believers. These were true believers with a history. Injustices, small and large, hit personally. A mother told of her son having to move home after getting into debt. Her husband talked about being laid off from his job at a Chrysler plant. A government worker from Minnesota had been forced to take the summer off. If you weren't already angry, the rain, the police, and Code Pink could turn your mood cold real quick.

When the march finally began, it resembled a segmented worm: the media hordes lugging cameras with long lenses in the front, rows of police in breathable khaki in the back and along the sides, and a very loud, very determined throng in the middle. Everyone looking for a little menace.

At one point, a media scrum surrounded an angry kid wearing a bandanna -- protest catnip for the mainstream press. Once the kid pulled down his black hankie and began talking about one progressive cause after another, excitement faded as reporters peeled away one-by-one. An activist was later arrested supposedly for refusing to remove a bandanna.

Most of the grievances have been the same for at least a decade, at least since Bush v. Gore or 9/11. There were signs against any invasion of Iran. Another middle-aged man screamed against the Patriot Act. Hardly anyone was listening.

A helicopter whirred overhead. The chants bounced off vacant storefronts and empty-seeming skyscrapers. The route had been cleared and fortified in spots with Jersey barriers, large metal fencing and rows of cops. A mounted police unit stood watch near an overpass. The horses wore face shields. More cops watched from the overpass.

Small squads of cops rode in what looked like souped-up golf carts. You hardly saw a passing car with a citizen in it.

A man wearing a Department of Justice lanyard warned a few kids that their stick holding up a flag violated the width ordinance inside the convention's security zone. Charlie, 21, who didn't want to give his last name, was among those warned. "If flags aren't free expression what is?" he said. Charlie said he came from New York City, where he supports himself playing jazz and classical cello in the subway.

Another Justice Department guy was talking on his cell phone. "There's some folks who are live-streaming," he said. "I don't know if you can pick it up." Big Brother was at least trying to watch.

The marchers shuffled by a closed organic dry cleaners, and a quiet sports bar. One guy, a contractor working at the convention, silently gave the crowd the finger as it passed.

When the march finally hit the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the demonstrators' view was partially obstructed by a public works dump truck. Finally, the activists gathered in a field. There were no Republicans in sight.

Everyone started to walk back along the route, wearily stepping over horse manure from the mounted units. Nearby, someone was testing a sound system for a large tent.

Within a few blocks, the activists found two pristine rows of shiny blue portable toilets being guarded by a row of Tampa's finest. Demonstrators immediately began chanting for their right to pee. A few argued internally that this does not make for a worthy stand-off. This, as someone mentioned, was a pick-your-battles moment. But they needed a win.

The police, finally, after a tense moment, stood down. And the activists cheered as they rushed to the toilets en mass. "Seriously," one demonstrator joked, "everyone has to pee?"

Indirectly at least, the march had been a success for one business owner near the rally spot. Angela Thomas, 58, turned the parking lot of her restaurant, a joint called Mama D's, into a pay lot for the media and activists. Five dollars got you a spot. It was a good deal all around -- especially for Williams. She may have made more on Monday than she has in a month. Since the recession, she said she sometimes brings in as little as $3 a day.

Outside, two men played cards. The restaurant was empty inside except for Williams' son. Williams came out from the kitchen to talk. She said she's not into politics. Unlike the activists, she said she had lost her belief that things could change. "Things out here -- man can't fix no way," she explained. "They can't stop the crime. Prices going up higher. Man can't fix anything."

Does she feel ignored or left behind? "I know I am," she said.

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