Yesterday I decided to take a step away from the Beltway mentality that has consumed the convention center to see how people on the other side of the river were living.
Stepping foot on the other side of the river is just like crossing the county line from Montgomery County into PG County back in my state of Maryland. Montgomery County is one of the most affluent counties in America thanks to the jobs that D.C. industries and politics bring to the area. Prince George's County is one of the most affluent black communities in the United States, but it pales in comparison to Montgomery County and Fairfax County in Virginia.
I got the same contrast traveling less than five miles from the Tampa Bay Times Forum and the convention center. On one side of the river you have at least 50,000 members of the media, delegates and visitors from around the country -- most of them not actual natives of Tampa. But outside of that bubble, you have the people who pay their taxes, work their jobs and live modest lives.
Spending time in West Tampa, you get the sense that few people were interested in what was happening downtown. They know what's going on, but they would rather stay away from it and let the chaos subside. And that's a perspective you won't see or hear on TV: the chaos. The helicopters, the fences, the National Guard, the policemen and policewomen, the county prison buses, the road blocks, the traffic, the checkpoints, the delayed and altered bus schedules, the heat and the rain. To the Tampa citizens not closely affiliated with the RNC, this convention is more of a hassle than a cerebration. Each day the RNC continues is another day from normal for Tampa residents.
You can't really be mad at them though, I mean, these people use public transportation on an underachieving transit system. It takes over an hour just to get to the other side of the river. With a car, you could make it to West Tampa from downtown in approximately 15 minutes. The residents use the bus system to obtain an education and a better shot at life, they work long shifts, own many of the local businesses, have families to take care of, but also have to live near abandoned homes, the homeless, the unemployed and on streets in real need of maintenance.
These residents live a simple lifestyle while the people on the other side of the river are experiencing the time of their lives. The West Tampa residents see tourists and a community that is already doing better than the West side and they are receiving additional government and private subsidies. Just the security cost the city of Tampa over $50 million of tax payers' money. From the perspective of the West Tampa natives who could use some economic stimulation, it's easy to see how disheartening the RNC may be and it should come as no surprise to see them so unenthusiastic about the convention.
Don't get me wrong though. There is a different feeling among the residents here and there's much for them to be proud of. They support their communities despite the difficulties. They're warm-hearted and helpful towards each other despite their rough and rugged exterior. I saw the helpful and courteous nature of these residents while at Occupy Tampa. Locals brought the camp food while children and the less affluent swung by to grab some food usually asking if it was OK and if the fruit was "good." One gentleman took two nectarines, one for himself and another for his elderly family member. Something as simple as an extra fruit made that much of a difference for this man's family. Meanwhile at the convention...
As I walked West along Main Street, I was confronted by smirks and glares from a group of about 15 blacks who were enjoying the humidity outside. They were playing chess, chatting, eating and hanging out. They knew I wasn't from the area and they made sure to let me know. They made their remarks toward me, but kept to themselves as did I.
I then stopped to cool off in a Latino-owned restaurant. The RNC was not playing on the television in the restaurant, nor was anything remotely political. They were watching daytime television despite one of the biggest events to hit Tampa in many years. What does this say about the sentiment of the locals -- people who are less than five miles from the RNC?
It shows that these people feel disenfranchised from the political activities downtown. It shows that the people are apathetic towards politics and possibly the Republican Party. I sometimes wonder how things would be if DNC was held in Tampa. Would there be as much security? Would the citizens of West Tampa feel more inclusive? Would they gravitate towards Obama or San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro?
A young black barber told me he would never be caught downtown during this convention. When asked why he just shook his head and said "no." He said he pays his taxes, he has an education and he has his own job working alongside his mother at the barbershop. He had no desire to visit the RNC.
Overheard in that same barbershop was a conversation involving a boy turning in his report card. The video game Madden '13 recently came out and one of the barbers was playing a game as he awaited patrons to come in. The younger kid came in and hopped on the sticks.
The barber asked him had he attended school and done his homework to which the kid replied "yeah" sarcastically. Then the older female, the barber's mother, who was washing her customer's hair emphatically told the boy to turn in his report card to her as soon as he got it from school. He asked what he would get in return and the woman didn't respond. There's a sort of responsibility and community outlook here that you don't see all the time; It's an old school kind of feeling where -- a glimpse back to the era of my parents. I was reminded of a time when neighborhood mothers looked after the neighborhood kids, especially if they weren't their kids. Why do these people need politicians and government involved in their lives when they are already invested in their own future?
Later in the day, the RNC had two eloquent and passionate black speakers, Senate hopeful Mia Love and Rep. Artur Davis (R-Ala.), during the first official day of the convention. This was an attempt to reach out to the black base who overwhelmingly supports President Obama. This was also a reflection of the diversity within the black community even though the Republican Party struggles with the overall population. If elected, Mia Love would become the first black Republican woman in Congress.
Davis, a great orator like Obama, gave a rousing speech and maybe the most moving one of the day. As a former Democrat who worked closely with the president, he has a different perspective of the Democrats than most Republicans. He is also able to tug on powerful emotions within a party that has been accused of subtle racism and discrimination toward blacks. With Davis being a black male and a persuasive speaker, his support among Republican delegates at the RNC should cause liberals to take a step back and question some of their accusations of racism within the Republican Party.
"But in all seriousness, do you know why so many of us believed? We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than American had ever been. And no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully. But dreams meet daybreak [...] So many of those high-flown words have faded."
"There are Americans watching right now who voted for the president, but they're searching right now because they know that their votes didn't build the country they wanted [...] Bill Clinton took on his base and made welfare a thing you had to work for. This current crowd guts the welfare work requirement in the dead of night and won't tell the truth about it."
Hm. More talk of welfare, despite evidence that shows his plan received support form Republican governors including Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney Some are turned off by this talk because they feel like it's throwing red meat to the bulldogs. Bill Maher calls rhetoric like Davis' subtle racism. Maher said,
"I find that to be a subtle racist message [...] I never heard this in an ad: 'You tried, he tried. You know, the black people are lovely. But this presidenting thing really isn't for them. [...] It lets people off the hook for saying 'You know what, I tried the black thing, it just didn't work out."
Beyond the speculations of racism, I'm left wondering who people like Love and Davis are really talking to. Are they reaching out to a predominately white base to help alleviate allegations of racism or are they following through on policies and talking points they actually believe in? Well, one thing is for sure: they weren't talking to the people of West Tampa and it they were, West Tampa wasn't interested in listening.