TAMPA — There are 15,000 credentialed journalists here covering a meticulously choreographed Republican National Convention. So what’s a reporter looking for a new angle to do?
Not to worry. These events are magnets for swarms of activists, advocates, and hawkers of every stripe. Trying to piggyback on a quadrennial political pageant, they create a grand bazaar of American sideshows, subplots, and causes.
All of this political agitation and entrepreneurship is in stark contrast to the well-heeled financiers and elite of the party, who are attending invitation-only or unpublicized soirees in and around Tampa.
You won’t find publicists promoting the whereabouts of casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who seems on course to reach or exceed the $100 million he said he might give this year to groups advancing conservative candidates and causes.
The same goes for his fellow billionaires, Koch brothers Charles and David, who are also helping to bankroll groups targeting congressional Democrats or President Obama, primarily with donations that do not have to be disclosed.
On the other side is “Romneyville,” the ragged tent encampment of dozens of protesters who were trying to disrupt the anointment of Mitt Romney as the Republican presidential nominee by drawing attention to the plight of the “99 percent” who they say are struggling in this economy. Amid a massive and well-coordinated police presence, the demonstrations have been tame and not as well attended as at recent conventions.
Then there are the squadrons of Ron Paul disciples, patrolling downtown street corners or marching around the convention center’s security perimeter in a futile effort to gin up support for their failed presidential candidate to speak at the convention or to have more Paul delegates seated. Their hopes were snuffed out quickly by party officials on Tuesday, the first day of the convention.
Advocacy groups such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Generation Opportunity, both nonprofits, have been given access by convention officials to the vast media work space on several acres of floor in the Tampa Convention Center. Representatives prowl the aisles and drop in and out of the curtained work stations trying to interest reporters in the employment and medical problems of returning vets or efforts to mobilize underemployed “millennials,” those ages 18 to 29, in the political process.
Hawkers abound, such as the one handing out free desktop cellphone holders (“patent pending”) and promoting a free phone application offered by PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking arm of the Tampa Bay Times.
Street protests have been frequent but restrained. As of Tuesday there had been three arrests, compared to hundreds four years ago at the GOP convention in St. Paul and in 2004 in New York City.
“This is a nonevent for all intents and purposes,” said Al Crespo, a Miami-based photojournalist and blogger who has covered every convention and the accompanying protests since 2000. Instead of demonstrations with 1,000 or more participants, often led by militant anarchists, the marches and rallies in Tampa have attracted anywhere from a half-dozen to several hundred activists.
“The government crackdown on dissent is working,” said Amos Miers, a Tampa resident active in the coordinating committee resistRNC at “Romneyville,” an echo of the Hooverville shantytowns of the Great Depression. The activists remain committed, he said, even if their numbers are down.
A loose federation of activists is engaging in a series of demonstrations and marches with daily themes of economic rights, human rights, the environment, and antiwar/peace. One of the largest gatherings drew about 400 on Tuesday to Centennial Park in historic Ybor City for a rally against what participants called Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout among the poor and minorities. A protester wore a papier-mache puppet likeness of Mitt Romney, dubbing him “King of the 1%.”
As at every such event, scores of police and deputy sheriffs surrounded the proceedings.
The official area designated for demonstrations and parades is a forlorn patch surrounded by Jersey barriers and chain-link fence several hundred yards from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the convention proceedings. The City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Department provided a portable “showmobile” with a stage for speakers who reserve time. Squads of up to 10 police officers on bicycles pass by every 15 minutes or so, and at one point about 30 sheriff’s deputies from Broward County in South Florida marched by.
Doctors for America, a group of more than 50 physicians in Tampa, is scheduled to march to the portable stage Thursday, part of a bus tour that will next visit three other cities en route to Charlotte, N.C., site of next week’s Democratic National Convention.
“We’re working to educate people about the Affordable Care Act, to let them know it’s the law of the land and what benefits folks can get now,” said Samantha Galing, who booked the stage for the group. “We’re not endorsing any particular candidate, but we want politicians to put patients ahead of politics and stop making it a partisan issue.”
Not all the activists are leftists or good-government types at this bazaar of free expression.
On Tuesday, six activists from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., known for their incendiary antigay protests and signs like “God Hates Fags,” were among those with an appointment for the stage.
“The main message is that your destruction is imminent,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, attorney and leader of the group, said in a telephone interview earlier in the day. “We’re so thrilled that the God of Isaac has sent [the storm] Isaac to turn attention away from Romney and onto what God is doing to this country, this border of wickedness.”