Cafe Hey becomes command center for activists during RNC

TAMPA

There are a handful of protester hubs scattered along the gritty fringes of downtown this week during the Republican National Convention.

Only one sells quiche.

Which may explain why Cafe Hey, the independent coffee and sandwich shop on Franklin Street has become Command Central for activist leaders.

It was a natural progression for the spot already known for its independent vibe. Open mic nights leave only floor-sitting space, and walls are a gallery of local art now featuring RNC-themed posters such as one of Mitt Romney as a zombie.

Then, the Romneyville camp opened just blocks away.

Business hasn't stopped.

Protesters go for the air conditioning, the free Wi-Fi and the menu of local and organic ingredients, with cheap options such as old, cold $2 "vintage soup."

They stay for the connections.

On Wednesday, just before the lunch rush, two men at separate tables tapped on laptops, sipping iced coffee. One wore a ponytail; the other, a skipper hat.

John Penley and the Rev. Bruce Wright are organizers, respectively, in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. Their life, this convention season, is a swirl of email blasts and media interviews.

"I do want to talk to you about Charlotte (site of next week's Democratic convention in North Carolina)," Penley called from across the cafe. "We're going to try to occupy Frazier Park."

"Find out who I can talk to," Wright responded.

"Things are happening here," said co-owner Anne Vela, 35, who spent the afternoon toiling behind the counter.

"Coffee shops are for people to meet, historically, in places ideas are formed," she said. "It has benefitted us, and we're happy to take the benefit. And I'm happy to take my Xanax."

This week has been hectic — extended hours, daily food runs, telling those who want to bathe in the sink that the restroom is for customers only. When someone ripped the bathroom door off its hinges, "street medics," with red tape crosses on their arms came to the rescue with tools.

They were grateful to have somewhere to go. Cafe Hey is allowing them to store their equipment in a "practice space" where local bands usually warm up. This week, it has served as a makeshift conference room, where groups are holding teach-ins and art shows.

Rachel Wohlander, 29, of New York said she wishes there were places like Cafe Hey back home.

"There are so many places in New York," she said. "But this is one place where you can see everybody."

Wohlander is part of a group putting on roving performances of a musical titled Mr. Satan Goes to Wall Street. They are couch-surfing this week, half in Brandon, half in Seminole Heights. They met at Cafe Hey to plan their afternoon. "So, there's a Planned Parenthood march at 2," Wohlander told the group.

A woman in a pink shirt heard them and turned around, gave them a flier and asked, "So, you know where it is?"

Over Cuban bread and coffee, the performers discussed where they might get the best audience and news coverage without crashing other people's spotlights. They would flash-mob different spots with songs to promote their big show at Romneyville that night.

The key all day, they decided, would be to spread the word.

Just then, a woman in a long, flowing sundress and straw hat walked in, with a sign that said, Women are pro-choice, and we choose Obama.

She asked the thespians, "Anything happening today?"

To which they responded:

"Yeah!"

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com.

Cafe Hey becomes command center for activists during RNC 08/29/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 11:33pm]

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