I tried to rationalize not going. I deeply dislike these people, and their fans sometimes seem even worse. After all, they could choose leaders from among the great teeming possibilities of humanity in this country, and they instead chose Newt, Mittens, the Butt-Lube Guy and the Paranoid Race Goblin with a publishing problem. It's like the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, only the thing that crumbles is America, and choosing poorly doesn't have any direct punishment for them.
I broke down and went. After all, if I was willing to drive to see Rays games back when their starters were so bad that they posted 14.00 ERAs, I am already accustomed to commuting for failure. Besides, maybe something fun would come of it. When GQ said they were interested in some local color, that sealed the deal.
It went a bit long, and their blog format accommodates only one graphic per article. What that means, of course, is deleted scenes—and many pictures! My friend and local director Jonathan Wolding was nice enough to come with me at the last minute and take pictures of the spectacle. (You may remember him from the photos for the "Awake the State" anti-Rick Scott rally.) As always, click to embiggen.
Jon and I got there early, but we couldn't bring ourselves to fight traffic and get there insanely early. As such, we missed the Zionist anti-Obama protest at 5:00 p.m., conducted by Bob Kunst's Shalom International. Kunst considers squeamishly doing nothing about settlements and airily supporting a two-state solution to be a dire existential threat to Israel when compared to triumphantly doing nothing about settlements and rejecting all non-unilateral options. It wouldn't be funny if he didn't also clamor for two-state solutions for protest groups. Kunst's schtick is that he offers a ballsier, uncompromising version of AIPAC, which is, I guess, like putting two or three extra turrets on the tank that's already driving over a Palestinian school.
The first signs visible on the right, on the way to the main debate area, belonged to this man and woman, who cheerfully chatted with each other and had made friends that afternoon. She refused to give her name and said that she wasn't supporting any candidate: she just thinks Callista Gingrich is immoral and a hypocrite. She said that she hadn't been harassed or threatened, but that her "son called at least once every ten minutes to make sure [I] didn't get beat up." I asked if he knew much about the sign. "He helped me make it," she said. "I had him stand across the street so we could figure out if people could read it."
This man alone constitutes probably 1/12th of Mitt Romney's army in attendance. I desperately wanted to ask him if he was related to both Bono and Joe Paterno, but I figured the latter question would be really inappropriate if his answer was "yes." Also, he was angry about everything.
Ron Paul fans dominated the event, since Paul has abandoned campaigning anywhere else in the state and has put all his organizational efforts on the two debates or at the discretion of volunteers. Paul fans raised arms at roadside and shouted across to each other, "RON!" "PAUL!" "RON!" "PAUL!" in sharp and impressive cadence. Chants changed by the minute, segueing into, "END THE FED!" and "PRESIDENT... PAUL! PRESIDENT... PAUL!"
I received a lot of angry replies from Paulbots manning the front lines of the Twitter Wars for mentioning that some of the Paul fans gave off a strong personal atmosphere of "LEGALIZE IT" and "my life is shower-optional." They dismissed this as making fun of hippies, which it wasn't, since hippies have almost nothing in common with angry isolationist minarchists who view government as a murderous parasite. I made a crack about parasitism when I lit a cigarette and immediately had Paul fans asking me to give them one. I told the guy wearing the "RAND WAS RIGHT" shirt to go take a hike. (My friend Jon, later: "I AM HOLDING FIRE! I AM PROMETHEUS!") As for the other guy, I busted his chops about his learning the value of possessions by earning them himself.
This is the second guy, Steve Graffam. Like a lot of young people who believe in Paul, his sympathies had come to him in a roundabout way. When he told us he was a Paul volunteer in Charlotte County, Florida, Jon asked him how he'd fared in Hurricane Charley. Jon filmed a documentary on residents who were evicted from FEMA housing a year after the storm devastated the Punta Gorda area, but Steve remained positive about the federal government's role in helping the 10 friends he knew who'd relied on FEMA's mini-city of trailers. His quibble came less with how the government intervened on behalf of citizens and more with how it funded that intervention. Like a lot of Paul supporters, his big picture was inflationary policy, and everything extenuating from that was mostly noise. "When my dollar purchased less," he said, "I had to work twice as hard to get the same amount of food on my table."
When debate time rolled around, our leader was Bullhorn Guy. He got us safely up the road, over the hill, around the building and to the tent area. There something went wrong with his bullhorn, and it started giving off static bursts and strange noises, which sounded like he was unsuccessfully trying to tune in a Morning Crew on a station playing lots of Richard Marx. I lost track of him.
Pastor Terry Jones didn't say a word during the numerous circuits his group took around the grounds in front of the debate viewing tent, instead looking like the last person in America to go raiding a stash of quaaludes. His supporters were only too happy to yell, "Islam is not a race," when they were accused of racism, and tell critics that "they should finish high school." To be fair to them, they didn't talk about "othering" in my high school either.
I felt sorriest for Jones' Underage Hate Girl (left), who wasn't capable of engaging anything said to her. She just got louder and more emphatic about the same fundamentalist boilerplate, her voice getting shriller and piercing the noise around it in that way that only young girls' voices seem to. She was in favor of "criminalizing illegal immigrants," a point that Ron Paul supporters were quick to note was a redundancy. Despite being opposed to Arab Muslims and immigrants, she also insisted she didn't have a racist bone in her body, although our science is probably so imprecise that it can't even detect racism bones.
Since Terry Jones' people insisted on walking in a great Schlieffen-esque arc around the grounds, members of Occupy Tampa were able to cut across the lawn, lock arms and block their path. Their goal seemed to be to irritate the hell out of the Jones people or at least goad them into confrontation, so they could be arrested by the police keeping watch. They were well aware of the Tampa police's tolerance and their boundaries. Though local media stopped covering Occupy Tampa in virtually the same week that they started, most of these people are still out there every day.
Having been arrested by the Tampa PD for "trespassing" during Occupy Tampa, "Felix," left, wasn't interested in giving any more personal details. Cade Kelly, right, talked about keeping civil for the TPD, even though, "They bought a tank for [The Republican National Convention]. They made sure to drive it by us, so that we knew what we were going to be seeing at RNC. I've been woken up multiple times with jokes about tear gas and pepper spray." Felix, for his part, was happy to relate that they'd "glitterbombed Rick Santorum" earlier that day, but happier still to note that everyone in attendance had been fed by a Food Not Bombs dumpster dive that yielded, "Vegan lasagna with rice and beans and banana trifle."
Everyone in the debate tent was very polite, despite the fact that clapping for certain candidates or zingers could have created a lot of opportunities for glowering and resentment among the audience. People kept civil even during the commercial breaks, during which the debate organizers kept playing Duke Ellington and John Coltrane's "In a Sentimental Mood," for reasons nobody could determine.
With the tent filled to capacity and campus security controlling the number of people who could enter, people had to improvise to get their debate information. Those who didn't want to sit on the ground or who wanted to carry on conversations milled around the grass, listening to the loud PA system. Scores of people gathered at the back and peered at the screen, some standing on benches or on tiptoe. At the sides of the tent, adults and kids sat on the ground outside in a narrow but deep arc, peering through the tent entrances at parts of the screen. Everyone was very considerate, and in a sense it was like a family of hundreds gathering around the radio or television: all the adults got the chairs, while the children sat on the floor, everyone quiet, save at commercial.