The presence of Isaac wasn’t the only thing dampening the moods of those who made it to Tampa on Sunday to attend or cover the Republican National Convention: the sheer size and visibility of the police and military presence was enough to give even some conservatives pause. Though patches identified which of the surrounding counties the individual officers normally serve, the fact that the police officers’ khaki outfits and the military’s standard camouflage matched had the effect of making the large and very visibly-armed force of men and women seem more like one cohesive force than several individual ones. The contrast of some officers’ black leg holsters made them seem somehow even more ominous and intimidating, especially when officers stood guard at seemingly random spots blocks from the convention zone. The officers at times seemed to outnumber the March on the RNC protesters with their vagina costumes, hand-made signs, snare drums and vuvuzelas, trying to make their voices heard at a convention that decidedly isn’t interested.
“I couldn’t believe it,” I heard one woman say as we walked past the main protest-gathering site in Lykes Gaslight Square Park (conveniently located by the police station). “I heard one of them walk up to one of the National Guardsmen and say, ‘We’re doing this for you.’ What does that even mean? What are they doing, walking around? What’s that compared to what a National Guardsman does. Some people, they just don’t get it.”
I looked at her, a slender woman about my mother’s age, and thought for a second about explaining that the Guardsman she so venerated might well have been sent on multiple tours to Iraq on a war started by her party’s last president on false pretenses and faced a higher rate of PTSD because of financial stresses related to those tours, and that occupiers often say they are speaking out for the middle- and lower-middle-class men and women who serve the public but face the same financial hardships because of the economic collapse as anyone else. I thought about saying how many veterans I know are tired of being thanked for their service with schmaltzy songs and pats on the back while they wait months (or sometimes years) for disability determinations and appeals, to get appointments once they qualify for medical care or even just to access the benefits they’re supposed to receive — and then often face discrimination in the civilian job market that causes the veterans unemployment rate to consistently be higher than that in the civilian population.
I kept walking.
I went back to the Lykes Park later in the afternoon and spoke to Marshall Reese, one of the artists behind the public art project Morning In America, in which they install an ice sculpture of the words “Middle Class” intended to melt away. They’d set up a tent to protect their equipment from the inclement weather and moved the installation up by a day and to Lykes to avoid the Monday hurricane. He told me that they’d be setting it up again in Charlotte next week and then answered questions from a woman who walked up, who said she’d watched them install it as she was making sandwiches at the start of her shift this morning, and wanted to know more about it.
Reese’s partner, Nora Ligorano, was holding a Great Dane’s leash, as one of the participants in the upcoming “Dogs Against Romney” rally had her “Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro!” sign adjusted. Reese and Ligorano’s tent — probably since they were a permitted exhibit — was the only structure visible in the park, so reporters and protestors gravitated there, expecting it to be the meeting point for any given event. Two reporters, a videographer and a photographer outnumbered the three human participants who had brought four dogs by the official start time, at which point the skies opened up and everyone tried to get under the tent.
I pulled out my umbrella — the reason I couldn’t get into the secure convention zone, as only RNC-provided umbrellas are allowed despite the fact that there is a tropical storm going on — and watched for a while as the dog folks tried to maneuver a large piece of protest art under the tent with the computer equipment intended to document “Morning In America,” and eventually left. I walked past a small business selling anti-Obama swag in every color and variety imaginable. It seemed to be empty, like the pizza place next door that a camera crew was inexplicably filming.
The Tampa Bay Times this morning wrote about the lack of media notables at last night’s RNC “Welcome Party” at Tropicana Field– the covered stadium at which the Devil Rays play — noting that camera crews were kept off the field itself but without noting that few other reporters I spoke with even knew it was going on — or that we were invited. The fact that it was held in St. Petersburg (across a 7-mile-long bridge with tropical storm warnings blaring) likely didn’t help either.
The delegates and mostly-incognito reporters clustered around the various buffets, featuring everything from lobster macaroni and cheese (which one delegate told me wasn’t very good) and shrimp ceviche to pulled pork for nachos and cuban sandwiches. Bacardi was the sponsor, showcasing its brands (including Grey Goose vodkas), while the wine served was Chateau St. Michelle, which was owned by US Tobacco until it was sold to Altria in 2009. Though music played throughout the evening, including live performances local former American Idol contestant Shannon Magrane and country music singer Rodney Atkins, it wasn’t until a male quartet performed a wonderfully harmonized but treacly ode to the Pledge of Allegiance that any one performance stopped the majority of the audience from networking, snacking and posing with the folks dressed as pirates and pirate wenches provided by the venue. One woman, as a man I was standing with pointed out to his companion, was even crying.
I left the arena to take a bus back to my car, waiting in line in the rain because the organizers hadn’t thought to make provisions for disabled delegates and a wheelchair-bound man needed to return to his hotel. Two strangers picked him up and carried him on the bus, then collapsed his wheelchair. As we pulled out from the venue, flashing lights marked the spot where police had kept peaceful protestors from getting anywhere near the field to get their message out. “Look at that,” someone around me said, “More protestors. I guess I’m glad the police are here.”