by Mitch Perry
The activist group become a part of the neighborhood last December, when Occupy moved from their nearly three-month old presence downtown at Curtis Hixon Park to Voice of Freedom of Park on Main Street. Members of the group had conducted an internal debate for weeks on whether to accept the invitation from adult entrepreneur/activist Joe Redner, who has owned the park for several years. Although its location was away from downtown, the fact that it was private meant that sleeping overnight would not become an issue, as it had been at Curtis Hixon, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the Tampa Police Department allowed the activists to sleep on the sidewalk in front of the park, but not inside the park itself.
For most of 2012 things had been relatively low-key, but in recent weeks complaints from local business and neighborhood association groups about the park looking unseemly began to grow, to the point where a petition complaining about Occupy began circulating and will be presented at the Tampa City Council this coming Thursday. That led to reports on this site and others, leading to a 90-minute meeting held at the West Tampa Library on Saturday afternoon with about 20 participants, most from Occupy Tampa.
The upshot is that there was some harmony achieved. The fact that the two sides had not been speaking with each other, but more at each other thru the media, became apparent shortly into the discussion.
The meeting was anchored by Mike Randolph, the head of the West Tampa Community Development Corporation, who said that that some of the neighborhood association members felt disrespected because nobody from Occupy had reached out to them, an allegation refuted by Occupy member Susie Shannon.
The breakdown in communications between the two groups was reflected in that exchange.
Randolph: How can you come to a community and not have a conversation with the community leaders?
Shannon: How do we know who they are unless they speak with us?
Saying very little were the the heads of three different neighborhood association groups who sat at a table in the front of the room, including Mike Vannetta, the president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association, who recently visited the park to speak with Occupy activists as well as communicate his concerns with Joe Redner.
Instead it was Randolph and Joe Robinson, vice president of the West Tampa CDC, who dominated the neighborhood leaders perspective in the meeting. The fissure between long time black residents of the community arguing with mostly white activists from outside West Tampa at times became evident, particularly when Occupy members said one of their issues was their concerns about a plan by Mayor Buckhorn to revitalize the area by razing the Tampa Housing Authority’s North Boulevard Homes public housing complex.
Occupy Tampa, in conjunction with the Reverend Charles McKenzie, held a rally back in March on Main Street in the area when news of that plan first surfaced. Tampa Housing Authority officials have discussed for year tearing down that venerable public housing complex built 72 years ago. They say they would offer Section 8 vouchers to the 1,700-plus residents to ensure they wouldn't be left on the street to fend for themselves.
The threat that local public housing residents could become displaced then dominated the meeting for awhile, with Robinson saying he was fully aware of a much discussed report issued by USF professors Susan Greenbaum and Cheryl Rodriguez over a decade ago about what happened to people relocated from public housing at Ponce De Leon Courts and College Hill Home in Tampa when it was decided to tear down those aging public housing complexes. Robinson and Randolph disputed the notion that the folks in North Boulevard Homes would be left homeless.
Previous to the meeting some Occupy members have argued that the unsightliness of Voice of Freedom Park weren't created by their own members, but from homeless people who migrated to the area.
Although at times he appeared to exasperate some of the Occupy members with his frequent comments (and boasting of his importance in the community), Robinson, a candidate for HIllsborough County School Board next month, did seem to accurately summarize the evolution of Occupy in West Tampa when he went on one of his soliloquies.
"What happened was, it started out okay, everybody was into the the 99 percenters. That's great. They did walk around the community. They did do a little of that. But then it became more of a cluster, and then everybody said it was a camp. Then all of a sudden, the leadership - there' s no leadership, I know there' s no leadership (in Occupy). ...Then people I talked to moved on (from the park). New people came in, and then the police started to have to come in, 19 calls from what I found. There was good things that you guys did, and then there was a bad element. Whether they were with you or not, everybody considered them to be with the Occupy, some of them were just people coming in there. Why? Because you were giving them free food, you were providing services, they were notifying them where to go to get a dentist. It was all great. Then all of a sudden, something happened. Things changed. Faces changed. Okay? And then we started having the neighborhood saying 'this is a nuisance.' Okay? ... saying that the community and Occupy need to work together to handle business."
Robinson said it was important that the camp not look like a "Tent City," leading to a discussion about whether the tents in the area could be taken down during the day and resurrected at night for those who will spend the night in the camp.
And he said one way that Occupy could help the neighborhood would be by helping to clean up planters along Armenia and Howard avenues. An Occupy member said it would be better if the two groups worked together on that.
The irony of the meeting happening now is that Occupy members say that there are less than a handful of people right now who are sleeping in the park most nights. There was a discussion about maybe taking the tents down during the day, though that was not fully resolved.
As the meeting concluded Priem and Vannetta were to meet later on to go to the park and inspect it, to see if they could come to an agreement about what other changes might be necessary going forward.