By Sommer Brokaw, Florida Courier – The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of St. Petersburg’s NAACP, was among the speakers at a Republican National Convention protest on Sunday, held near a welcoming party for 20,000 Republicans at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
The Republican National Convention was canceled Monday and shortened to three days – Tuesday through Thursday – due to Tropical Storm Isaac, but that didn’t stop Sunday’s kickoff party or the protestors.
The NAACP is a nonpartisan civil rights group, but like several people in the crowd of hundreds of protesters, Sykes spoke out against an agenda of corporate greed.
“There has been a time in our history where corporations and the super wealthy have sponsored, have campaigned for, and have helped to elect their leadership,” Sykes said. “The paradigm has shifted. Now, they’re coming out from behind the big paydays. They’re coming out from behind the golf courses and the fishing trips. They’re coming out now to run this country themselves.”
He added: “The education, health, and the welfare of the United States is sponsored by and paid for by our tax dollars, and we ought to fight anyone who wants to take our tax dollars and divvy it up among Robin Hood and his band of thieves. And so today, I’m here to say stop the United States from becoming America Inc.”
Sykes was one of the faith leaders that television crews captured speaking at the protest. Another faith leader, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, also addressed the crowd. “We are spiritually depressed my friends,” he said. “We’re spiritually depressed because we have been put in that place, and we continue to fight against a system that is stacked against us.”
Janamanchi asked the crowd: “Does that mean we lose hope?” Crowd members screamed back: No! Then, he asked: “Does that mean we give up?” The response again was: “No!”
These faith leaders were among hundred of protestors that convened in front of Mirror Lake for a community vigil at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and marched from there to the Tropicana Field stadium shouting: “We are the 99 percent!”
Earlier that day, protestors marched in Tampa, and a 31-year-old man from Tallahassee, Jason Wilson, was arrested while at the protest carrying a machete strapped to his leg. At the vigil later that evening, a dispute was settled when police decided protestors could use the sticks to carry a puppet of Romney’s likeness.
According to organizers, the community vigil Sunday night mourned democracy killed by corporate greed. Some protesters even carried a casket to symbolize this death. “We’re here for a reason and that is to tell the 1 percent that the 99 percent are not sleeping, we’re awake, and we’re standing up for our rights,” said Chardonnay Singleton of the Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN), which has an office in St. Petersburg.
Along with faith leaders, event organizers included FCAN; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Awake the State, a grassroots group of Floridians; Occupy Wall Street; the Sierra Club, an environmental group; and some teachers from Pinellas County Schools.
“We’re here because we’re looking for the change, but we have endorsed Obama because we truly feel that he’s meeting the needs of the people,” said Isaline Boyd, a grandmother who came to the event wearing a purple SEIU T-shirt to represent the workers.
Many workers have kids in college that now qualify for health insurance under President Barack Obama’s health care reform. “These are things we need in our society and our environment, and we are now the working poor, there is no middle class,” Boyd said. “Two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars a year – that’s the new middle class.”
Protesters on the front line toted a symbolic check for $250,000 and an effigy of presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The eclectic crowd of protestors ranged from faith leaders to an anarchist to a 9-year-old girl, Tykira Davis. Sherrona Steward came to the event with her boyfriend, Rory Flaherty, who is an anarchist. “I don’t like the domination of society by the wealthy,” her boyfriend said. The 9-year-old girl held up a sign that read: “We are the 99 percent.”
Similar to Occupy Wall Street, protesters said they were against the one percent – those are people who earn more than $250,000 a year – siphoning the U.S. economic resources. They represent the 99 percent – everyone else.
Jason Woody said that he came down from New York in one of the busloads with Occupy that will be there all week. He also represents a group called: “Money Out, Voters In” that aims to get corporate money out of elections. The group will also be protesting for the same cause at the Democratic National Convention the following week.
“Ladies and gentleman what’s going on inside that [Tropicana Field] stadium emphasizes everything that’s wrong with this economy, what’s wrong this country,” said Kelly Benjamin, one of the protestors on the front line and one of the speakers at the vigil prior to the march.
“They’re pushing an economy, an agenda there that works for people at the top, works for the 1 percent of people in this country, at the expense of everybody else.”
He added: “They have a fortified police state surrounding that Tropicana Field. It takes razor wire and 10-foot fences to separate the 99 percent from the 1 percent.” Then, he asked the crowd: “Is that alright?’’
And members of the crowd screamed: “No!”
The Florida Courier also attended the Coalition to March on the RNC on Monday. Rain from Tropical Storm Isaac kept the protest in downtown Tampa smaller than expected. Predicted to draw about 5,000, only a few hundred protesters showed up.
John, a protester from Tampa who refused to give his last name, said many of those who marched in downtown Tampa, were non-partisan citizens who just want to be heard.
“There needs to be a change. People are mad. …Blacks are oppressed. Women are oppressed, the poor are oppressed. They should all be here with us… to be represented,” he told the Courier.
Primarily young and White, the protesters were from all over the country. A group from Atlanta said they also plan to demonstrate next month at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Said one agitated protester said while being interviewed by a throng of reporters: “We’re against the system, not parties. … We’ve had enough.’’
Hundreds of police officers patrolled the streets of downtown, many wearing tan shirts and shorts, some on foot, others on bikes.
One protester was arrested on Monday when he refused to remove his bandanna.
Michael Gentry, a Black homeless man who was not part of the rally, was on his usual corner of Jefferson and Scott streets, expressed his protest of the current administration with his “No More Obama’’ sign.
“I’ve never been keen on Obama and was for (former presidential candidate John) McCain” because of his military background, he told the Courier.
Gentry, who said he a former business owner who made some “bad decisions,’’ says he’s not rooting for Romney either.
“This man wants to run the U.S. like the CEO of a businesss,” which he considers the wrong approach.
Florida Courier Senior Editor Jenise Griffin Morgan contributed to this report.