Witnessing what looked to be Occupy Tampa's last stand this week was like saying goodbye to a sweet but unfocused young nephew who has been staying with you awhile. (Oh, you still here?)
Maybe like me, you had hopes for this pie-in-the-sky idea that people joined together to protest America's engorged and entitled 1 percent could make us pay attention to them. And maybe we did, for a minute.
Formed in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Tampa's early version had malcontents of all stripes. I met former hippies with good jobs, angry college students, and kids with nowhere to go but something to say. Their persistent presence by Curtis Hixon Park on one of downtown's busiest streets could have had people thinking: There really is a lot of discontent out there, and it doesn't seem to be going away.
But then it did go away.
Worn down by dozens of trespassing arrests, Occupiers made their worst move, literally: They hauled camp off to a tiny neighborhood park called Voice of Freedom in West Tampa. It was generously offered by the property owner, well-known strip club businessman Joe Redner. But there they had zero visibility. And this vague idea that they would trek downtown every day never quite happened. Their numbers seemed to dwindle, as did their voice,
Still, there were moments.
At a swanky Mitt Romney fundraiser at the Tampa Museum of Art, infiltrating protesters dressed in pearls and suits registered their objections to what they called Wall Street bankrolling his campaign. Occupiers threw a glitter bomb — harmless handfuls of glitter — at Rick Santorum at a speech in Lake County to protest his stance on gay rights. They made their presence known when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attended an event at the Tampa Theatre.
It was all supposed to come together when 15,000 protesters filled the streets and joined voices for the big Republican National Convention. Blame a passing hurricane, or just the mind-numbing heat, but those numbers never materialized.
This week at a sad, sparsely attended Occupy Tampa anniversary "event" downtown, an affable guy named John Thomas agreed somewhat about a lack of focus. But he insisted Occupy lives on.
"The conversation's still going," he said. There is talk of the effort pushing on online and of helping the homeless. And like when that nephew talks of plans for a grand future, you can only hope some of it actually happens.
Because I like the idea of dissent, and that we still can, I regularly went by Voice of Freedom Park, or as I thought of it, Occupy Phase II. When it rained, you'd find them diehard, determined and hunkered down by the dozens in makeshift tents on hard concrete. In the sun they planted potatoes or scrawled signs demanding justice for Trayvon or speaking up against hate. More and more homeless people seemed to be there. Neighbors were not pleased. Police watched. City Council member Frank Reddick observed that on a hot day, "it smells like a skunk out there."
No doubt, Occupiers were gritty. No doubt they were without clear, articulated purpose, not to mention solution. But for a while, you could not deny this place was alive with … something.
This week, the small city park was empty, with no sign of protest, or of hope. It was like they were never here at all.