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By Deirdra Funcheon
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Jeannine Ross felt a familiar rage roil through her when she picked up the newspaper on Sunday a few weeks ago. The 36-year-old artist and filmmaker read an account of a Democratic fundraiser in Broward County that was attended by bigwigs the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Mario Cuomo. An unseemly feud, however, had erupted between Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fort Lauderdale) and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, both of whom are vying for Bob Graham's U.S. Senate seat. Deutsch boycotted the event because Penelas was to receive an award, and that didn't sit well with the congressman, who, like many Democrats, believes that Penelas didn't help Al Gore get all the votes he had coming during the recount of the contested 2000 election.
In a war of words that appeared in the Miami Herald on June 29, Deutsch told a reporter, "This is a guy who helped elect George W. Bush, who is trying to destroy Medicare and everything the Democratic Party stands for."
Deutsch had no claim to such high ground, Ross seethed to herself, thinking back to an April 2001 town meeting in Davie at which she had asked Deutsch a few questions about that very same election.
"We're asking for a federal investigation of voting fraud in the state, and I want to know why the Democrats are doing nothing about it," she had demanded, seated in the front row of the auditorium. "George Bush is president," Deutsch replied gingerly. "I acknowledge him as president. On a personal basis, I consider him a legitimate president. I could have cosponsored legislation to create national standards in the election process. I hope that happens."
Ross interrupted him: "I'm talking about the election that already happened."
"I think at this point, from a legal standpoint, the election's over," Deutsch summed up, though later that evening, while casually chatting with two attendees, he declared that "it isn't even debatable that more people in Florida intended to vote for Al Gore when they went to the voting booth than intended to vote for George Bush."
The exchange between Ross and Deutsch became one of the many compelling scenes in Florida Fights Back, an hourlong documentary she and Bruce Yarock have just released and are selling on their website, www.floridafightsback.com. They began filming when the U.S. Supreme Court handed Bush the presidency over Gore on December 12, 2000, by overturning the Florida high court's decision for a complete recount. Angry voters rallied defiantly against the decision. Although the protests were largely ignored by the mainstream media, the filmmakers captured dozens of those demonstrations on film. The protest footage is a backdrop for the film's Michael Moore-like quest to find a politician -- any politician -- to spearhead an official investigation into the 2000 election. Ross and Yarock found no takers among elected officials, all of whom just wanted to "move on."
But Ross and Yarock have found acceptance elsewhere: The documentary has been selected for the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival this fall.
As demonstrators took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands this spring to protest President Bush's intent to invade Iraq, some media accounts compared the rallies to those against the Vietnam War. Ross, however, sees a much more recent antecedent.
"I don't think the people have moved on one bit from the election," she declares during an interview at the Pembroke Pines home she shares with Yarock. "And that's part of the reason there were so many people out there protesting the war. People are still angry about Bush stealing the election. They've taken it personally. They feel powerless because the politicians who are supposed to be representing them are not helping them at all."
Ross possesses long black hair and a wide smile -- an expression she most definitely did not display during the Deutsch confrontation. Yarock is a trim, soft-spoken 55-year-old with gray-tinged hair and mustache. They've only recently moved into this house, and they're still painting and refurbishing some rooms. The garage, however, has already been converted into a sound studio, where Yarock records, among other things, satirical political CDs that he self-markets.
The pair consider themselves more artistic than political. Ross is originally from Chicago, moving to South Florida in 1979. She received a master's degree in political philosophy in 1988 from the London School of Economics, though she has never been a political activist or been involved in a campaign. Besides filmmaking, she's into computer animation and drawing portraits. While Yarock had protested the Vietnam War while attending Hunter College in Manhattan, where he majored in music, he was, by the new millennium, light-years away from such activism. After a go at the export business in the Northeast, Yarock moved to Florida in 1978 and operated a motorcycle sales and repair shop in Fort Lauderdale.
"Over the years, I considered myself a liberal Democrat, but I wasn't really politically active until the 2000 election," Yarock admits. "That really got me pissed off. I just saw what a vicious machine that whole Bush crew was in trying to stop the recount."
"When I heard about the Supreme Court decision, I thought I just had to do something," Ross says. "I felt so powerless." She heard on the radio that a protest was planned at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale. She told Yarock that this was the kind of lengthy film project he'd been looking for. "Here was history in the making," she says. "Plus, with all the events I started going to, there was no media there, for the most part."
Florida Fights Back suffers from some of the technical shortcomings you'd expect from neophyte filmmakers -- uneven audio and some jolting edits -- but it captures much of the outrage and absurdity of the times. It shows, among other things:
A group of protesters brandishing a petition with more than 1,000 signatures in the office of Rep. Robert Wexler in early January 2001 asking the congressman to formally protest the Florida electoral count during the upcoming certification by Congress. A clearly unnerved Wexler spokeswoman tells them that "he knows you're here" and that he'll be discussing the matter with Rep. Alcee Hastings "to see exactly what his position is."
A Republican in a dark-blue suit standing nose to nose with a demonstrator on a Fort Lauderdale street. The former shouts repeatedly, "We won!" The latter yells back, "You're a thief!"
Demonstrators trying to confront Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a May 2001 meeting of Catholic lawyers in Fort Lauderdale. Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, discreetly banishes some protesters from his group's side of the street because of the signs they carry calling Scalia a thief and traitor. "We would welcome anybody," he explains, "but not people with signs that are very inflammatory."
The filmmakers early on found protagonists for their narrative. Greg Palast, a BBC investigative reporter, discovered that Florida officials had erroneously purged thousands of registered voters from the rolls, almost all Democrats. "You have to understand that the investigation of the election in Florida was not conducted by the American press," Palast asserts from his Long Island office, where the filmmakers interviewed him for several hours.
Vincent Bugliosi, a former Los Angeles district attorney and author, decried the Supreme Court decision as criminal because it wasn't based on law. "If in fact the court's ruling was politically motivated -- which it unquestionably was -- this means that by definition it was not based on law," Bugliosi declares in the film. "And if it was not based on the law, that means that these five justices willingly and knowingly nullified the votes of 50 million Americans who voted for Al Gore and stole the election for George Bush."
The filmmakers also found a relentless gadfly in Bob Kunst, a Miami Beach activist who heads the Oral Majority, a Miami-based gay rights organization. The film follows Kunst and his 2002 Florida gubernatorial run, largely ignored by the media, whose primary platform was the initiation of a thorough investigation of the 2000 election.
Both filmmakers laugh when asked if Florida Fights Back has a hero. "Yeah, the people are the heroes in it," Ross says. "There are no political heroes. It really makes all politicians look bad. It's a nonpartisan film."
Gore was the biggest disappointment for them. Yarock says: "I was waiting for Gore to get up during his concession speech and say, 'Listen, I got to tell you people, it's not about me; it's about you. Your vote was stolen. Yes, Bush is going to be sitting in the White House, but he's a fraud, and I wouldn't stand for it.' That's what I would have liked to have seen instead of this weepy, phony, magnanimous thing."
"Through that whole year of protesting," Ross recalls, "everyone was trying to get Gore to speak up, to do something, to say something. He wouldn't talk to anyone, not even the press."
Florida Fights Back would have been done sooner were it not for the September 11 attacks. "We were in a state of shock," Yarock says. "My attitude changed somewhat too in terms of protecting our country. It didn't seem the right time to be attacking anybody in the government. That went on for quite a while." They also burned up months winnowing down 30-odd hours of digital footage for transfer to their computer and learning how to use editing software.
Given last month's rift between Deutsch and Penelas, however, Election 2000 seems far from dead -- at least as a political weapon. Ross and Yarock, in fact, believe that a Democratic hopeful can defeat Bush only if he makes the 2000 election a campaign issue. "That's the only way to beat him with his millions and millions of dollars," Ross says. "I'm still pushing for that. I'm hoping that [the film] will reach enough people to wake them up."