ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A diverse coalition of senior citizens, religious leaders, community organizers, and activists in faded Occupy T-shirts joined up here Sunday for the first major march of the Republican National Convention. Under overcast skies and persistent drizzle, the demonstration clanged through this sleepy Florida city, passing by closed storefronts, as well as RNC event staff snapping pictures from behind tall gates.
The protest aimed to mock the RNC’s welcome event at nearby Tropicana Field, which had been billed as a large cocktail party. The activists hoped their snare drums and chants would at least spoil the mood for RNC attendees.
They encouraged the rubberneckers on the sidelines, most of whom were service industry workers on smoke breaks, to join the demonstration. “We are the 99 percent,” the protesters screamed, “and so are you!”
The chant earned an appreciative nod from some observers, but others, mostly men in golf shirts, snickered as they took pictures from behind a barricade.
“Isaac is on our side it seems,” joked one activist, referring to the tropical storm headed for Florida, but the weather also severely limited the march’s numbers. With some 200 demonstrators chanting in front of a fenced-off section of the stadium, it felt as crowded as a small elementary school assembly. In the quieter sections of the march, the only sound was the rustling of thin plastic ponchos.
One attendee, who would only give her name as Susan, 62, said she was bused down from New York City. She was laid off from her job in a hospital last fall and has been receiving unemployment benefits. Working in the hospital, Susan said she had seen the Great Recession’s effects up close.
“Medicaid is being cut,” she said. “Charity care is being cut. So the hospital is really struggling.” She said she felt compelled to march against Mitt Romney and the RNC. There had been plans for five buses to come down to Florida from New York, but the storm kept a lot of people at home, she said. Only two buses ended up making the 22-hour trip.
Judy Sellers, 66, a retired school teacher who lives in St. Petersburg, hadn’t attended a protest since the Vietnam War. But she said she had to come out on this wet and windy evening. “This is just as important to me,” she said.Despite the small numbers, the demonstration looked and sounded a lot like the Occupy protests did in their prime. Only this time, the hair dye wasn’t part of any progressive fashion statement. In this crowd, its purposes were more prosaic: to fend off the ravages of old age. At one point, a woman’s motorized wheelchair got stuck on the way to the opening rally. She said she thought some of its engine’s parts got jostled when she went over a bump in the sidewalk.
Sellers said that she’s been middle-class all her life. She’s concerned that kids won’t be able to afford college and she’s disturbed by the way she thinks Republicans have maligned teachers. “We work our butts off,” she said. “It’s not right.”
The police showed up in force, blocking streets and clustering at prominent intersections. At one point, a mounted unit showed up behind a tall fence. The horses wore protective face shields.
But this was no Chicago in 1968 scene. The older women carried umbrellas and fanny packs. Older men carefully wrapped their posters in plastic to protect them from the rain. At one point, a young man wearing a bandana across his face began chanting “Fuck the police” at a row of officers standing behind a fence at Tropicana Field. A group of older women shouted the man down. This wasn’t that kind of protest, they said. The man quickly shut up.
Kathy Lefebvre, 62, joined in silencing the younger man. With help from donations, she had come all the way from Wisconsin to protest the Republican convention.
Lefebvre said she had seen her extended family suffer job setbacks during the recession, but she refused to blame the current administration. “A lot of that is not Obama’s fault. I think the problem is we didn’t help him,” she said. “We let things get bad. We didn’t stand up and tell Obama, ‘We got your back.'”