It wasn't just Obama and Romney who had something to say last night in Boca Raton. Hundreds of citizens (and some non-citizens) showed up to speak their minds on the election and the issues of the day. Fifteen of those who spoke out went to jail for their troubles.
It was all fun and games for the first part of the evening, a First Amendment festival with a range of opinions and concerns. The heavy action came later, when most of the crowd had left and as the debate ended and the last cavalcade of politicos and their police escorts got ready to split.
The debate site itself, Lynn University, was under heavy lockdown, cordoned off by a multi-agency police task force and ticketed admission only. Even the media were roped off like cattle, penned in on a side road as they arrived, then bussed in. It was not the kind of show where Juan and Jane Q Public could stroll on it at their leisure. As ever, they had to take it to the street.
The early evening demonstrators were spread out over the four corners of the intersection of Yamato Road and Military Trail. In traditionally Democratic-leaning Palm Beach County, it was a surprisingly, overwhelmingly GOP crowd, and a youthful one at that--neither characteristic typical of Boca Raton. ("No event in the history of Boca Raton has started later than this debate," tweeted Atlantic magazine pundit Jeffrey Goldberg.)
The Romneyites were fervent, with an undercurrent of anger, their most prevalent sign reading "Keep America Free. Fire Obama." Like four more years and we'll all be in the gulag. A close second read: "Fire the Socialist." That would be the "socialist" who bailed out Wall St. Clearly, language has lost all meaning.
The "socialist" signs came courtesy of David Faustin, of Delray Beach, a 50-year-old, self-described libertarian. He'd like to tell the two candidates two things: "Stick with the principles of the free market. The second thing is 'liberty.' Liberty."
Ram (no second name given), a 37-year-old Boca resident and, according to his sign, an "[Israeli] Immigrant for Romney," works in real estate. "Business is picking up," he said. "But the policies Obama put in place, it takes longer for the economy to recover."
Ram might have gotten more space here were it not for a bristlingly paranoid Romneyite beside him who hassled the shit out of Fire Ant for "biased reporting." Read it and weep, lady.
Laurie Lipman and her two huge St. Bernards were posted on the northeast corner of the protest quadrant. "I bring them to all the Romney rallies," the 56-year-old Delray Beach resident said. "They're an icon of freedom," her companion Andrew Stein, 24, also of Delray, chimed in. "They're the GOP on four legs."
Asked about her candidate's notorious family vacation with the family dog strapped to the roof of the family car (is there a theme here?), Lipman replied, "They probably didn't have room in the car. I didn't think it was inhumane. The cage was secure. The dog got some air."
Jim Wilson of Virginia, a 70-year old retired insurance salesman and ex-military, was tending to the six American flags affixed to the bed of his pick-up. The lean and fit, white-haired, all-American, one-time Iowa farm boy, with a ruddy, weather-beaten face and a pipe clenched in his square-jawed mouth says he's driven it 148,000 miles through 43 states over 14 months, all to drive Obama from office.
The urgency? Jim says, in so many words, that while Obama may not be a conscious agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, his policies have aided and abetted their aims. Asked what he'd tell tonight's debaters, Jim says "There's no message appropriate to both candidates. I'd ask Obama to fall in love with America."
At the other end of the spectrum are two representatives of powervote.org, an environmental group. "We need to address climate change now," says Jackie (no last name given), 24, of Miami. "We need to move to a green economy." What would they tell the candidates? "They've both talked about 'clean coal'," her colleague Ralph, 27, of Tallahassee says. "That's a lie."
Marijuana activist David Kowalsky, 38, has driven down from Tampa. Beefy and bald, with the beard of a Confucian sage, he's the founder of weednotgreed.com. Anyone want to guess what he'd tell the candidates? That's right: "Legalize. It'll fix the economy. Bring jobs. Hemp by itself will bring us out of the recession." Pass the dutchie, bra.
Totally off the charts were the Neturei Karta International (Jews United Against Zionism), a gaggle of ultra-orthodox Brooklynites in traditional garb--full beards, sidelocks, long black coats, wide-brimmed black hats--affilated with the Satmar Hasidic community.
"We don't campaign for one camp or the other," their spokesman, 41-year-old Rabbi David Feldman says. "We say they should not incorporate the interests of the State of Israel into the politics of the U.S." Well, at least they won't be accused of anti-Semitism. Maybe.
It was only after the motorcades had passed and the debate was well under way and the early crowd had drifted off that the real shit went down.
A short distance from the protest intersection, in a nearby shopping plaza, the Dream Defenders had assembled and were gathering strength. A Florida-wide organization of young people--people of color, mostly--largely college students, formed in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, they were there to advocate for immigrant rights and civil rights in general.
Dream Defender Saul Aleman, in his early twenties, of Homestead, brought to this country by his parents at age two, says he's there chiefly for their sake, to see they have a path to citizenship. "My parents go to work every day and I wonder if I'm going to see them back again when I get home at night." He's also concerned about LGBQT issues and "the system of prisons for profit."
Militancy was in the air. About 120-strong when all had arrived (a Dream Defender bus from Tallahassee arrived late, for which the authorities should be grateful) chants of "Black Power!" and "Brown Power!" rang out. (Maybe the first time in recorded history those phrases have been heard in Boca Raton outside an FAU history class.)
The march began, down Yamato to Military, "until we can't march any further" a group leader said. That would be the heavily-policed intersection, blocking the road south to Lynn, where the march came to a halt, surrounded by additional squadrons of police reinforcements, blue lights flashing. At which point the main body of marchers took to the northwest corner and fifteen of the group sat down in the roadway, locking themselves together and blocking westbound passage on Yamato.
Stalemate, for about half an hour, as more cops arrived, and the paddy wagon. Time passed, the sitters singing "We who believe in freedom cannot rest/We who believe in freedom cannot rest/Until it's won."
Then the announcement: "This is your last final chance. At this time you are all under arrest. If you release yourselves you will not be charged with resisting arrest." Not a protestor stirred, and the lockup began. Within the hour the young folks would be in the welcoming arms of Gun Club Road and the county facility, going through booking.
Okay, it was quiet, as mass arrests go. Traffic was light at that hour, and no clusterfuck back-up occurred. The cops' main concern at that point was to keep things under control so the VIPoliticos could exit Lynn unmolested following the debate. And they managed that.
And because the Dream Defenders' Tally bus was delayed, the road blockade went down when whatever media that had cased the protests--besides yours truly--was long gone.
Was it an exercise in futility? Limited uproar, limited press, the hassle of incarceration?
"I'm so proud of these kids," said Dream Defender attorney Ahmad Abuznaid. "So many things going wrong in this world and they're so committed to making it better."
Just minutes ago, Ahmad wrote us: "They are still in holding, waiting on bond hearing. Hopefully released by the afternoon."
Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Write firstname.lastname@example.org
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