The South takes on the RNC

September 4, 2012

Hundreds of protesters braved Hurricane Isaac and an overwhelming display of state repression to take a stand against the Republican convention, reports Lauren Byers.

HUNDREDS OF people mobilized from across the country in late August to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, Fla.

The Coalition to March on the RNC, a Tampa-based group created earlier this summer, is made up of a variety organizations, including the National Organization for Women, Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights, Food Not Bombs, Dream Defenders, Committee to Stop FBI Repression, Community-Labor United for Postal Jobs and Services, CodePink, International Socialist Organization and Students for a Democratic Society.

The coalition organized for months in order to obtain permits that allowed protesters to march within close range of the convention. Still, authorities enforced a prohibition on bringing backpacks and refillable water bottles into the protest area.

The main protest kicked off with speakers at a nearby park, followed by a march to a designated area near the convention, where more speakers took the stage to voice their opposition. But the target of the protest went beyond the Republican Party, incorporating the two-party system and the 1 percent more generally.

The authorities did all they could to intimidate those who wanted to exercise the right to protest. There was an overwhelming police presence throughout the city. SWAT teams, military personnel and tanks on every corner constantly reinforced the message--your protest is not welcome here.

The city of Tampa purchased more than 2,000 bikes for police, and the battalion of bike cops surrounded the march on all sides at all times. Despite the peaceful nature of the protest, police still arrested four protesters for refusing to remove a mask or similar acts of civil disobedience.

At the end of the march, a group of black-clad protesters yelling, "Police are caging us in!" attempted to block the crowd from passing through a relatively small corridor into the area designated for protesters, but the march marshals and other protesters guided the rest of the crowd around the disruption to the designated end point. This contingent left shortly after.

THE COALITION to March on the RNC faced many obstacles to mobilize more than the several hundred who attended. The biggest factor was the one no one could have prepared for--Hurricane Isaac's deluge of rain and wind. But the start of the convention also coincided with the first full week of classes for students at many colleges and universities across the South.

The size of the protest also reflected the larger social, economic and political climate in the South. With a weak left and a political climate still marked by the legacy of slavery, the task of organizing an opposition to the Republican Party's convention of bigotry and reaction still presents a challenge.

This does not mean that the South is doomed to remain in the grip of retrograde political ideas. On the contrary, there are plenty of people searching for a way to raise their voices in a region that was home to the worst manifestation of apartheid in the United States.

This process could have been advanced if organizers had implemented a different approach to building the protest. For example, the endorsement of the many organizations that signed on to the coalition was welcome, but the coalition failed to reach many beyond this base. Rather than simply making a call for the protest and asking organizations to bring out their members, there was an opportunity to build the left and reach out to new people who are looking for a political alternative to voting once every four years.

But those who did come to the protest were able to connect with others throughout the region committed to expressing their dissent no matter the circumstances.

"If you're not profit-making, no matter your race, creed, religion, where you stand, you're thrown aside," said Tampa resident Bonnie O'Brien. Wellington Eschegaray, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, traveled all the way from New York to join the protest. The importance of protesting the RNC is first "to show the world that we are against the Republicans," he explained, and second to demonstrate that "we are for an independent party."

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