17 October 2014

In Tampa, heavy rain and intense sun and heat were the two main weather patterns. Sometimes we sought shelter in the shade and sometimes in tents and under tarps. One night a dozen or more of the folk of Romneyville gave up on trying to sleep in a 6 hour car wash and shared a huge concrete bed with homeless folk under an overpass. We’re gone but most of them are probably still there.

The intense heat and sun was good for drying out our rain-soaked clothes as we wore them on our bodies, or after we’ve tied them to a rusting fence or scattered them on the ground.

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The rain took away my body and hair odor as I got drenched yelling at cops during a march : “the police are not the problem, per se; the problem is big money which is buying our government; this is a movement based on love.” At least two cops responded, “we know.”

The emphasis is on ‘per se.‘ A few weeks ago, two Tampa officers shot a black teenager in the back 14 times as he fled. But during the Republican National Convention the cops were extra nice. One morning, they brought us about 150 sandwiches and as many bottles of water. The sandwiches were leftovers from what police officers and members of the National Guard didn’t eat. Many of us applauded as cops in khaki shorts carried these gifts from the John Deer Gators they were riding around in day and night when not cycling. Those SPVs (special purpose vehicles) were like suped up golf carts.

“Weren’t the cops just super nice?” asked a member of Veterans For Peace as we left Tampa and headed to Charlotte on one of the Occupy Wall Street buses.

In a thick New Yorker accent, he hypothesized, “maybe the Republicans were trying to show they have a heart. And the Democrats, the Republicans are always saying they’re wimps. So, maybe we’re in for tough time as we protest and camp out in Charlotte, if the Democrats want to show they’re tough guys.” The cops also hovered a helicopter low each morning at 6 am for a wake up call. But the din was white noise that gave back a deeper sleep almost as soon as it took it away, drowning out voices, the heart-felt and astute and drunk down alike.

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Camping out is a way for folk to organize politically without spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on hotels and conference centers. At least two people told me they hitch-hiked to Romneyville-- Mike, from Main and Nic from Colorado to Tampa.

With encampments, we experiment with community, working with each other for sanitation, food, water, security, and conflict resolution. One person named Terri called it “tribal living.”

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To me, indeed, there does seem a degree of social connection at encampments seems lacking otherwise. One woman told me with tears in her eyes as people began to pack up to leave Romneyville,. “I’m sad. I love these people. ” I suggested, not entirely feebly, “make this happen in other places.”

For those of us who say we want to change or replace the existing social order, it might make sense to see how well we can work together in intentional communities.

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Here was the place for mobile kitchen utensil washing. Spent time here as a way to become more connected to life at the encampment.

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We sorted vegetables and fruit, the spoiled from what was still good.

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A variety of people helped with the mobile kitchen.

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They either volunteered unprompted or in response to calls for assistance such as “If you want dinner, we need help in the kitchen.”

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We got water from here, about a 150 feet away from the kitchen bus. Felipe Felipe Chavez, Diamond Dave Whittaker, and a few others in the camp talked with police, city workers who then contacted the person in charge of the privately-owned water main to keep it flowing. Police had intended to shut our water off, which would have affected our ability to cook, clean, wash our hands, and shower with used plastic 1 gal bottles. It took about 3 of them to have a thorough shower.

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Romneyville in Tampa, which is now Obamaville as the Democratic National Convention begins in Charlotte, was on private property, arranged by Rev Bruce Wright, and situated next to an Army-Navy surplus store.

A couple people from Occupy Wall Street who came to Tampa in two buses told me they were refused when they asked about buying brass knuckles and pepper spray. There was a highway above Romneyville. Several times as I climbed from my watery tent, I imagined myself in one or more of those cars or trucks zooming past overhead on my way to some job. Didn’t hear anyone shout the usual “get a job.” But someone yelled, “take a bath” a couple days before most of us left.

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‘Diamond Dave’ Whittaker was holding court on the grass in the shade of the bus for Rainbow Kid Village Kitchen.

“Back then, the American Communist Party sent their people down south. They were more bad-assed in those days. They went down and organized at the camps. These became the unemployed councils in the 1930s, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. All those could be connected historically to the Hoovervilles. Don’t forget the Bonus Army camps. They’d ride freight trains all the way to DC and they were burned out from their camps by Douglas MacArthur.”

Back in those days, protesters set up camp on some friendly land right outside of town, Whittaker said.

“One by one, they’d get up on a box and make a speech. They’d read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They got arrested and they packed the jails. You asked me ‘why camp?’ But, why not camp?”

Whittaker said encampments are an important part of social movements.

“This part of what we do, sharing food and taking care of one another, instead of just having a demonstration that lasts a couple of hours, or meetings where you sit.”

Diamond Dave said sharing food and working together at Romneyville and other encampments and occupations is an organic part of realizing the vision we have for the world.

“The old Wobblies, the IWW, and the miners who camped, and the people up in the big trees who camped, the people in the 60s who formed communes---we lived together, we shared food together, we dumpstered together. We did more together than we could do on our own.”

He said encampments involve common ground, a liberated area.

“It’s TAZ, temporary autonomous zone, (from poet, anarcho-immediatist and Sufi scholar Hakim Bey). It’s where we declare our independence and acknowledge our interdependence with one another. Weave that together with the fact we’re here on the front lines of cultural, social, and political change.”

Sitting beside Dave and playing guitar in the Tampa shade of the kitchen bus was a young woman who gave her name as Audrey and didn‘t want to be photographed.

“ When we can create a community like this and hold each other accountable and demonstrate collective living in an autonomous space, it gives us a safe space for ideas and organizing.”

She agreed with Diamond Dave when it comes to learning our history.

“Tent cities have been a protest tactic forever. Activists need a safe to organize. These are global issues, so people come from all over. The name of this camp, Romneyville, is a protest of its own.”

She said the encampment is a demonstration of how bad poverty in the US has become.

Also, sitting with us on the grass in the shade was blue-eyed Matt, wearing a Grateful Dead shirt a woman gave him during his travels.

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“We’re camping here to protest the RNC. But Romneyville was here before that to house the homeless of Tampa. There are all sorts of camps that spring up across the country. It’s not only Occupy. There are many homeless camps which are protests in and of themselves.”

Matt said we live in a society which leaves unmet the basic needs of many people.

“The reason civilization first sprung up was to organize humans in a way so that everyone was taken care of.”

He said the governments in the US and other countries are not only failing to meet people’s needs and protect our rights, but are actively working in opposition to that.

“ A person in this country doesn’t even have the right to set up rudimentary shelter to protect themselves from the elements. The idea of camping and setting up our own community is a recognition of what Thomas Jefferson said. He said the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Matt said when government becomes destructive of those ends as it does now, then it’s our responsibility to the take the initiative to make sure those rights exist for people.

“The proof is in the camps. We take care of each other better than any government ever could. Organic, nonhierarchical communities can actually meet the needs of the people within them. They work. It’s the only thing that ever has worked thru out history. That’s why they’re not allowed. The government is afraid of us thinking we don’t need their power.”

Also on the grass with us was Nic, (for nicotine) from Occupy Denver. A few nights ago, he brewed and shared some relaxing and mildly psychoactive mint tea, before I crawled into my tent.

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As he and a friend hitch-hiked from Colorado to Tampa, he even got a ride toward his destination from a State Trooper in one of Carolinas.

Nic said he saw a lot of community at Romneyville.

“The bigger it gets, the harder it is to remember everyone. But there’s always a way as long as people are wiling to take a step in somebody else’s shoes.”

He said the encampments are indispensable.

“There’ve been days I didn’t go on marches, but just sat with the kitchen and did dishes and cleaned up and took care of whatever needed to be done. Without the kitchen, there wouldn’t be all these people here.”

Respect is also needed for maintaining the encampments, said Nic T.

“People have boundaries, so you don’t want to cross those. You don’t mess with people’s stuff. You don’t mess with people.”

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Tera Colon caught my attention when she and Green Party candidate Cheri Honkala addressed a crowd at Romneyville in English and Spanish. Colon said some people don’t choose to live in encampments because of activism, per se.

“If you don’t have a choice about where to stay, you might erect your own tent city. There are tent cities all over the country. I’ve lived in my own tent city. That’s why you see me out here helping out.”

Colon on more than one occasion made her rounds at Romneyville, warning people against drinking alcohol.

“I know what it takes to make tent cities safe. The reason we keep so much discipline on the camp is to keep children safe. Chaos does not create safety. Organization does.”

Abe Mortillaro traveled to Romneyville with a group of Occupy Wall Street activists.

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“If we’re out here, people can see us and find out what we’re about. One person sleeping outside is not going to do anything (to raise awareness) . People will say, ‘oh, it’s just another bum.’ But if they see a group of people camping outside and building a community, they’ll start to notice more.”

Dixie Mize described herself as an Occupy Pensacola camp nurse when we spoke at the encampment.

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“One of the reasons I opted to camp out was to let the city, the people, see us for a reason. Unfortunately, homeless people are drawn to Occupy. We feed them and try to care for them. But isn’t this a sad statement on the condition of our country? I’ll go home to my house, but these people will still be sleeping outside, begging for tents. By being out here, we’re keeping it in the face of society.”

Mize said she has an income with which she can sustain herself.

“But many of my brothers and sisters don’t. Somebody’s got to do something and that’s why I’m out here. What little I can do, I’m going to do.”

John Bailey is at Romneyville out of necessity, though he’s taking an interest in meetings there and the protests. He said a sticker on the guitar case of someone at Romneyville read, ‘why is it easier to believe that 150,000,000 Americans are being lazy rather than 400 Americans are being greedy?’

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Bailey said he had a job but lost it because business was slow.

“ My biggest issue with being on the streets is being harassed by the cops. I’m not causing any problems. I’m just trying to find a job so I can eat and take care of my kids. But until then, I’m on the street.”

Bailey said this is his first experience with activism.

“Being an ex-felon, they make it hard to vote here in Florida. I had to go way out of state to Georgia, just to register to vote. In order to vote this year, I have to send for an absentee ballot. Here in Florida, I’ve been waiting for two years just for my voting rights. That’s a big issue. They’re protesting stuff like that.”

But Bailey didn‘t think of himself as part of the groups of activists at the encampment. He referred to ‘they’ not ‘we’.

“In my opinion, they’re camping out because they’re trying to make a point. A selective few have all the money in America and these guys are saying, ‘everybody needs something. We don’t have anything and so let’s try to take a stand for it.’”

Bailey said the protesters are not lazy and not drug abusers.

“They’re just trying to make a point. ‘We need jobs. We don’t want to dance to somebody else’s drum. I’m an individual. Let me be me. You be you.’ These guys’ll work but there aren’t any jobs out there.”

Filipe Chavez has been feeding activists encampments for more than 30 years. For several days, he and a couple of fellow workers in the Rainbow Kid‘s Village Kitchen have been feeding Romneyville with propane stoves and a nearby water main, and the help of volunteers among us Romneyville folk. That kitchen seemed greater than the sum of its parts. Words can’t do justice to it--- all from under a tarp suspended between the bus of Mobile Broadcast News and the kitchen bus.

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“I have four stints in my heart. But what keeps me alive is that I have a goal in life. I was taught by my grandmother to never sell the food, but to share it and serve it. That’s what I’ve been doing for more than 30 years.”

Chavez said a challenge is not having enough food to prepare for everybody.

“But it gradually, somehow manifests. There are churches and other groups coming forward with donations.”

Chavez said people have the right to gather and to “walk the Earth in a good way.” He said the US is becoming a police state.

“This is happening by the laws that are passed by the people who are wealthy. The people who control the system are not those who are the most qualified, but those who have the most money. There are a lot of people who are qualified but haven’t got the resources for advertising and those other things they do with political parties. My children always call me up and say, ’dad we’re pride of you.’”

Leon Soroka

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“I was here in Tampa sleeping in various parts of the city. I had to get up at the crack of dawn and carried my backpack with me all day. I heard about this tent city where you can sleep in if you desired and where you could keep the heaviest of your possessions in your tent.”

Soroka smiled and squinted in the late morning sun, saying, “those things were very appealing to me.”

But he said those conveniences are not the only reason for being part of the Romneyville community.

“Within the first 2 weeks I was here I learned this is not just a goodwill camp run by pastors, but that this is an activist camp. They have different things to participate in that I was kind of leery about, but I feel I’m warming up a little more to their causes.”

Activists with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign started Romneyville in May, say some activists here. Soroka said the group has clearly defined demands.

“I also realize we as Americans have a right to assemble. That first march we did on Monday was a great experience.