TAMPA—The sun starts to rise over the skyscrapers of downtown Tampa, revealing bundles of blankets and pillows on the sidewalk outside Curtis Hixon Park. As the sun ascends, the bundles take form, revealing people sleeping on the pavement.
The sidewalk slumberers look like more like a camp of homeless people than the local version of a global protest movement which hopes to improve human society.
One by one the shapes stir as sleeping figures awaken, gazing around bleary-eyed in the chilly morning air. They gather up their bedding before six each morning, to avoid arrest by local police.
The sleepers stand stiffly as they pack belongings into plastic bags, piled neatly on the sidewalk. After a few minutes, someone arrives with cartons of coffee and donuts, bringing exclamations of joy and appreciation.
It is still only half light, but the day has begun for members of Occupy Tampa, a local representation of the “Occupy” movement that has spread around the world.
Despite recent media focus on New York, Oakland and Portland, Occupy Tampa is perhaps representative of the hundreds of smaller gatherings conducted across the country. Among the crowd are lawyers and housewives, college students and military veterans, employed and unemployed people. Most of the participants seem to be mid-20s and older.
“I am really optimistic for the Occupy movement—it really does bring people together in that sense of community that we’ve been lacking,” said University of Southern Florida (USF) political science major Trey Dahl.
The Tampa group organized on Oct. 1, with a rally downtown in Lykes Gaslight Square Park. A second rally a week later drew over a thousand participants, and since then, a group of protesters have slept at the park every night. The number grows larger during the day, and on weekends anywhere from a dozen to several hundred stage marches through downtown.
Occupy Tampa shares some of the same characteristics of other Occupy protests. Participants camp in a public park to draw attention to a wide range of social, political, and economic problems they see as weakening American society. Primary targets of the protesters’ ire seem to be the Federal Reserve, Wall Street investors, “corrupt” politicians, and income and opportunity inequality.
Wide Range of Complaints
Like the broader movement itself, the Occupy Tampa protestors lack a plan for solutions, and are unable or unwilling to
say exactly why they are there, or what they hope to achieve, but are drawn there because they recognize something isn’t right.
Janet Rectinwald, a middle-aged resident of Sun City Center, is concerned about social justice. “I am here because I think there is a lot of greed in this world and it is affecting a lot of people who are getting poorer and poorer—affecting a lot of seniors, children. I’m here because I think we need justice. This is not the country that I have grown up to know and love. And things have to change.”
For Shannon Jenkins, it is corporate power and influence. “We absolutely must get corporate money out of our government, if it is ever going to be able to speak for its people,” said Jenkins, a mid-20s USF graduate who once worked for Citibank. “We are saying that we are fed up, and we are not going away until something is taken in the right direction.”
Dahl was inspired by the idea of coming together. “Whenever you bring people together, even if they have a wide array of different beliefs and different methodologies to change things, the facilitation of those ideas and the exchange—just talking about them and trying to formulate solutions-is really the first crucial step to actually solving these problems.”
Dahl, a senior with plans to attend law school, is concerned that mankind is draining the planet to feed an unsustainable lifestyle. “We eliminate up to 200 species a day to continue to increase our population. Right now we are at seven billion people; by the end of the century we will be at ten billion people.
“The model that we are employing right now from every facet of culture and society is unsustainable,” Dahl added. “I think that more than anything is what Americans and people of this world, especially people in power right now, need to wake up and realize.”
Mark Stewart, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, wants financial reform. “It’s not fair that one percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth in this country. It’s not, because those who have, have, and eventually it eliminates the middle class.
“You’ve got soldiers who weren’t getting paid for three months, and the government is actually foreclosing on their homes.”
Some participants were of the opinion that eventually the Occupy movements would need to abandon the unfocused, unspecific “Something’s wrong and we don’t like it” approach. Expounding further, the movements would eventually need to make demands, propose specific actions, or engage in the political system.
Jeremy West, a writer for Libertarian and economic newsletters, came to Occupy Tampa after a stint with Occupy Wall Street. He felt that no change could come without a focused message and an organized agenda.
“To give the 99 percent of the population the power back, it is going to have to go mainstream,” he explained.
“Having no official message, no five bullet points, creates a mystique, a curiosity,” West explained. “This movement is going to gain so much ground that while apolitical now, I don’t think it is going to stay that way. What think will come of this is a third and eventually a splinter from that, a fourth party.”
Others say the unfocused approach is the movement’s greatest strength—because the movement is non-specific, no one is excluded, and by capturing the broader sentiment felt by many Americans-that something is very wrong with the direction America is heading, eventually those people who can effect change, will.
Without a simple media-friendly message, without talking points, without a unified or central idea beyond just being there, the test is whether “Occupy” can effect real change.