Saturday, June 23, 2018
Human Interest

Occupy St. Pete 'elders' want to shake things up, even if bedtime is sundown


One weekday afternoon, Abhi Hudson, 84, rested in bed. She had left open the door of her subsidized one-bedroom apartment.

Her guests began to arrive and take seats in the circle of chairs she had set up in her tiny living room. She got up and bustled around them.

"How about a pillow behind you?" she asked Aurora Kellman, 91, who arrived with the assistance of a cane.

A knock on the door. Dorothy Byrne, 83, parked her scooter in the hallway, past the picture of the Obama family Abhi had taped below her door knocker.

Soon the chairs were filled.

Abhi, who is tall and thin with deep wrinkles on her tanned face, called the meeting to order.

Members of the Occupy St. Petersburg elder working group like to get things done early. Abhi's bedtime is around sundown.

• • •

The St. Petersburg "elders" have met 17 times. The youngest is 51. The oldest is 91. They arrange meetings by phone and email, not Facebook or Twitter.

They are not radical. But they are not entirely sleepy.

Twice they protested with "Move Your Money" signs in front of Bank of America this past spring. They participated in a Tax Day protest in front of the post office. They invited Occupy Bradenton to perform The Trial of Goldman Sachs at the [email protected] in St. Petersburg, drawing 100 people.

Occupy elder groups have popped up here and there around the country. Lakeland has one. Last December, a group of retirees occupied a median strip in front of an aluminum plant in Ravenswood, W.Va., for weeks after the company canceled their health insurance. One man even suffered a stroke.

In October, Occupy St. Petersburg had its first meeting in Straub Park. Several hundred showed up, most of them younger people, but retirees also.

Abhi loved the enthusiasm. She had moved to St. Petersburg the year before with her companion, Robert Johnson, 88.

As a young woman, she had been married to a lawyer in Maine and driven five kids around in a Volvo station wagon. But once she divorced, she quit her job as a nurse and flocked to meditators and peaceniks.

She liked Occupy's people mike, in which people — in lieu of a microphone — repeated what others said so that everyone could hear. She liked the twinkle hands that signaled crowd approval.

But as the Occupy meetings continued into November and December, she noticed they always started late and endured well past her bedtime. And some of the Occupiers argued a lot.

"I began to feel heaviness and discomfort," she said.

She gravitated toward others with gray hair and realized that they, too, were frustrated. The young people were sharp, but they communicated differently and changed plans often. When Abhi asked what she could do, someone suggested she start her own working group.

So she did, in January.

Some Occupiers questioned their decision to call themselves an "elder" group. Yet their efforts have been among the most visible of Occupy St. Petersburg.

"It's been kind of dicey for us," Abhi said. "But we're still here."

• • •

Abhi looked around at the group in her apartment at Presbyterian Towers, a lima bean green high-rise just off Beach Drive: a 51-year old man in a tie-dyed shirt wearing friendship bracelets, another wearing an Occupy St. Pete shirt and a silver peace necklace, and a woman wearing an Obama button. Some were Quakers; others, members of the Green Party.

"Anyone want to be facilitator?" Abhi asked.

They shook their heads. They liked Abhi in charge. The Occupy movement is supposed to be devoid of hierarchy, but sometimes it takes leaders to get things done.

The group's latest effort involved rubber stamps and dollar bills.

The plan was to stamp all the money they could get their hands on with sayings like "THE SYSTEM IS NOT BROKEN. IT'S FIXED." And "NOT FOR USE IN BRIBING A POLITICIAN."

They wanted people to know about an effort to amend the Constitution and prevent corporate money from being used to influence elections.

Abhi and the other elders cashed their Social Security checks, broke them down into dollar bills and stamped them.

"I went to the bank yesterday and got 25 $1 bills," said Byrne, who plays the piano at retirement centers.

They all agreed they loved the project and wanted to continue it. It was time to move beyond their own money, though. The group would gather outside the St. Petersburg farmers market to stamp dollar bills.

"People who've got walkers and scooters to sit on are lucky," Abhi said.

Abhi reminded everyone that they would meet again in two weeks.

Few of them planned to attend the Republican National Convention protests. They didn't have the energy.

"Most people have been through that era," said Wendell Wilson, 54, a computer technologist. "They just still want to be useful, but not that way."

Members of the group began to depart.

Byrne went out to get her scooter. Kellman stood up with the help of her cane. Abhi's companion, Robert, went into the bedroom to lie down.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.

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