In the best spirit of healthy public dissent, Occupy Tampa was once a daily irritant, a force of devoted protesters waving signs and Fighting The Man on a busy downtown street.
Given the polarized state of our nation, we needed a good protest, even one derided as unfocused, ineffective and unwashed. They were willing to brave police, hard sidewalks and cold rain to say things aren't right.
Seven months later on the eve of the Republican National Convention — their biggest reason to protest yet — Occupy occupies an out-of-sight, out-of-mind patch of hardscrabble West Tampa. Only 2 miles from former center stage, it might as well be Montana. You can almost hear the collective fist-bumping of those who prefer downtown to stay just so with important company coming.
But even in new digs, there is trouble. Neighbors worried about cleanliness and safety signed a petition saying it had devolved into a homeless camp. Among the comments: "Dirty bums." "Eye sore." "Smells."
A clerk at a nearby store told the Times' Justin George: "They're not real active, so I don't know why they call themselves activists." Slack‑you‑py Tampa, someone joked the other day.
The question, then: Can the spirit of Occupy survive?
It seems fitting that, weary of clashes with police downtown, occupiers found shelter in Voice of Freedom Park, which is owned by strip club king Joe Redner — a one-time major migraine for city officials, who was once arrested after he declined to go to an official "protest zone" at a political event himself.
(Disappointing RNC program note: Redner won't be here for the biggest chance yet to thumb his nose at the powers that be. He's scheduled to speak at a gentlemen's club expo in Vegas. Hey, do you hear that fist-bumping again?)
This week at the park I found a rag-tag cluster of six tents flanked by an old school bus and a small garden, occupied only by a nice couple planning on moving soon, plus a cat and her kittens. The brutal heat, I'm told, has driven people to libraries and friends' homes.
The matter of the unhappy neighbors goes to the City Council July 19. But here is evidence of the spirit of Occupy: The group cleaned up and pushed tents back so half the park is not occupied. They reached out to the neighborhood to ask how to make things better.
Inroads are acknowledged, though residents still worry about an influx of occupiers for the RNC, and what happens after. They do not want a permanent tent city in their midst.
"I don't care what all their political stuff is," Mike Vannetta, president of the Old West Tampa Neighborhood Association and crime watch told me. "We've just been trying to clean up the neighborhood."
Once more: Can the spirit of Occupy survive?
Activist Tristan Lear acknowledges criticism about a lack of focus but also says it's a fledgling movement. And here's something: They've been talking about focusing on Tampa housing problems, foreclosures in particular. Sounds like a promising purpose.
For now, Occupy Tampa perseveres like a weed stubbornly poking through a crack in a city sidewalk. But without real change, a movement against what's wrong in the world looks to have about as much chance for survival as that citified weed.