From Voice of Freedom Park, Tampa, FL: Interview with Food Not Bombs activist Nathan Pim
Nathan Pim of Food Not Bombs (twitter) contacted Naked Capitalism because of the convention coverage we've been doing, and I thought that Naked Capitalism readers might be interested in hearing from somebody directly on the ground with Occupy about what's going on in Tampa, so I arranged to interview him. Once again, Stephen Malagodi agreed to handle it, and The Unknown Transcriptionist agreed to transcribe.
We edited the transcript very lightly for clarity. As I read along, and started tallying all the people Nathan's been connecting with, it struck me: He's a... He's a community organizer, isn't he? I mean, not a fake one. In so many ways the transcript is one answer to the question asked by several contributors yesterday on this thread: What actions can we take? Well, Nathan's answer is to feed people ("sharing"). And actions that flow from that.
The transcript isn't brief, but there's a lot of local color and great detail from the ground that I haven't read anywhere else.
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NATHAN PIM RNC INTERVIEW BY STEPHEN MALAGODI
AUGUST 22, 2012
STEPHEN MALAGODI: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself.
NATHAN PIM: Okay, well I'm 27 years old, I up until recently was living in Fort Lauderdale. Me and my wife have been doing Food Not Bombs related activism. Well, I've been doing it – I first started doing Food Not Bombs like probably eight years ago, but me and my wife have been doing sharings of Food Not Bombs in Fort Lauderdale at the very least for the last 2 or 2-1/2 years, and we're pretty dedicated to it. We usually think it's more important than having jobs or anything like that, so when we heard about the Food Not Bombs world gathering being planned ahead of the RNC in Tampa, combined with the fact that I went to college in Tampa and my wife's from Tampa, we decided to, you know, make sure we were going to be available to organize for all the people coming into town for it.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: What is the Food Not Bombs world gathering?
NATHAN PIM: Well, Food Not Bombs is a pretty decentralized organization that has chapters that, you know, people just decide to form a Food Not Bombs chapter wherever they want and they can do it, and there's no like central office you have to get permission from or anything like that. So periodically we try to have gatherings where all these different actions can at least get together and more of them can meet each other and talk to each other about what they do with their homeless advocacy and with outreaching of people about, you know, the political aspects of homelessness, and also to come up with new ideas to kind of innovate what Food Not Bombs is. So there's been a few, there's been a couple of world gatherings in the past. There was one in San Francisco and Keith was saying there was one in, I don't know, like Russia a few years ago. I didn’t really hear about that one. So we try to do one periodically to keep, keep it innovative.
Part of the reason it was also done in Florida in combination with the RNC is because Florida has been really on the cutting edge of coming up with discriminatory laws against the homeless, and I've been dealing with that in Fort Lauderdale a lot. There's been people in Orlando [here --lambert] and Tampa and St. Pete and Tallahassee. I mean, just like every area of Florida, the different cities are coming up with different ways to try to make the homeless feel as unwelcome as possible in their cities.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: So this particular world gathering, it was planned to be in conjunction with the RNC?
NATHAN PIM: Yeah. What happened was, last year when things were bad in Orlando, there were a bunch of people being arrested because they passed a sharing ban, and they got the lawsuits out of the way and were finally able to enforce it and a bunch of people got arrested, and at that time we were talking about how, you know, the RNC is going to be in the area and that would be a good opportunity to kind of deal with the homeless discrimination issues as well as use an opportunity to also help people in Florida with this large convergence. Because in many other places where these kind of conventions usually happen, there's a lot more community activists, community organizers that are used to doing these large events, and there's really not here at all, and so it's kicking; now we're having a lot of people come from out of town to try to help make sure we can feed hundreds and hundreds of people every day. It's not something a lot of people in Florida are that used to. Yeah.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: How is Food Not Bombs working with other organizations like Occupy Tampa and the broader coalition to march on the RNC? How are you coordinating that?
NATHAN PIM: Well, there's very little separation between Occupy Tampa and Food Not Bombs. I mean, there's different, there's Food Not Bombs and Occupy Tampa people, but our fates are pretty similarly aligned at this point. We're doing all of our events out of Occupy Tampa's park, which is called Voice of Freedom Park. We're planning on trying to get, if people want shelter or food or water or something – we're going to be helping to bring some food to protests, but we're also letting people know if they need other services and we're not doing a sharing at that time, that we're going to be trying to provide it back at Occupy Tampa's location, and I mean I've basically been at Occupy Tampa for the last month doing some organizing, trying to figure out what all the different needs are.
Other groups – Coalition March on the RNC, I'm not sure we've talked too much. We do plan on going with them to do the share at their event, and I think they know that. It's just not -- we haven't been in touch with every single group. Everybody knows we're going to be there, but we've mostly been involved with groups like Occupy movement, IWW, and a few other like local groups that are kind of more aligned with that.
You know, one thing we've been trying to help is that at big events like this the message of regular people really gets drowned out and of problems that are happening outside of partisan political debates, so we're really trying to help with that, and we haven’t been as involved with groups who just want to make this big statement about "I hate Republicans.” [cf. “strategic hate management”] Because really, as far as the issues going in Tampa right now, just like everywhere else in the country, it's not the Republicans that are to blame for all the world – for all of Tampa's problems. There's a lot of things wrong, and even though there's a lot of added media stimulation, we’re not even hearing that much of it actually.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Well, I mean this is an event at the Republican National Convention, so it's probably going to be seen as a statement about Republican Party politics, no?
NATHAN PIM: Right. Well, I mean we're certainly speaking about some of those issues when we can, but there's a lot of different things we're doing that, you know – I guess the difference is between being purely political organizing and actually really getting involved in community organizing, and that's something that we've been involved with a lot, especially because of where Occupy Tampa is. It's in an area called historic West Tampa that's right off downtown and it's mostly a black community, poor, and they have a lot of – they have a public housing unit that the city wants to knock down to gentrify right now, and they have a lot of discriminatory police stuff going on right now, and we're going to be trying to bring that message forward as much as we can as well.
Part of the reason we're actually looking for more people to talk about issues here is because there was actually a big police action right around Occupy Tampa last Friday that mostly had to do with – it's actually a regular summer occurrence for there to be a Friday block party in West Tampa, and that's been going on for years, but then all of a sudden last week they shut down the whole neighborhood [see here; and here] , shut down the streets and started pulling absolutely everyone in sight out and were trying to prevent everyone from assembling, and it really seemed to be timed to coincide with the RNC and to sort of like – the community issues we're talking about, you know. There's a giant political argument going on, but there's also things that the RNC is actually doing to individuals in the community and stuff like that, and that's like a big concern for us right now.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Tell us a little bit about how you wound up in this park. There's some odd things about the park itself. Tell me about that whole process.
NATHAN PIM: Okay. Historically activist groups are not very welcome in downtown Tampa. Food Not Bombs Tampa at one point broke up because they had so much harassment downtown that the city actually walled off an entire park we were sharing in and locked the gates. So Tampa's always pretty heavy-handed trying to keep people from like doing things like camping or stuff like that downtown. So they were getting arrested a lot. They had this one incident in December where just about everyone that showed up for protests got arrested at a park.
And so there's a local millionaire who is a I guess a strip club and like sex toy mogul [Joe Redner]. He's very well known for being a political firebrand in the area, and he just actually kind of approached people in Occupy Tampa and said, "You know, I want you guys to keep doing what you're doing but you know I don't want you guys to get beat up anymore, so I own a private park in this West Tampa neighborhood and I want you to stay there with my permission." It's privately owned but it's open to the public, and he said that people could stay there and continue doing what we're doing, and that's been what's happening the last few months. And I think he really – I haven't – I saw him recently at a city council. I haven't talked to him too much, but he had seemed to have expressed a lot interest in specifically having this park available during the RNC. I think that's kind of something he maybe had in mind all along with this.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: How have people who live in that area reacted to Occupy Tampa being in that park?
NATHAN PIM: I think it's been pretty positive. There's definitely people – it's a pretty, like, down-to-earth neighborhood. You see like the same people every single day. They come by and talk. There's people that come by to show support. There's been business owners who have come forward who are like offering specials for us for the time being there and Ed has often talked to them. They kind of want to – they're – I think we're doing a cookoff with the West Tampa community on Saturday, but it's just something some business owners actually came by yesterday and were asking us about the idea. I don't know if it's moved forward since then, but, yeah, it's really been pretty positive. There's always people just coming through and like talking to us. Sometimes I think there's been people starting rumors about it being like not so great, but – and it is weird, you know, honestly, obviously, mostly younger white Occupiers in like an almost totally black neighborhood, but I think it's actually been, in the month I've been here I've had pretty much nothing but good experiences with all the people of West Tampa.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: So tell me about the environment, you know, as it is right now as you're gearing up for the RNC. What's the environment like? Are people mainly encamped in tents in the park, or – tell me about that.
NATHAN PIM: I think possibly there are maybe six tents there. A lot of people are kind of cramming into people's apartments just to get out of the rain, just because like the last – it's been a shifting situation, so like the last few nights for some reason it has been raining relatively late. A lot of people have ducked out and crammed into people's apartments to get out of it, but I hear it's going to rain earlier today and it may rain less during the week, so there'll probably be a lot more people staying at the camp. And then at Romneyville, which is like the other camp, there's probably 15 or 20 –
STEPHEN MALAGODI: I'm sorry, what's the name of it?
NATHAN PIM: Romneyville. It's a camp created by the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign specifically for the RNC. Yeah, it's only been around for like a month or two. It's not like Occupiers are involved with it. It's like this nonprofit homeless advocacy group I guess. They have maybe 15 or 20 tents. They're not in West Tampa. They're actually in downtown. They talked an Army-Navy store into leasing its back yard out to them. That's in the zone downtown, so they got very lucky with that, but it's definitely attracted a lot of attention.
Like, right now, like yesterday I was at Occupy Tampa all day and not a single – like cop cars drive by because that's what cop cars do, but there was no trouble. Cops didn't even like get near to even talk to us, let alone tell us we were going to get in trouble for something. But I was in Romneyville for five minutes and there were four cop cars parked outside it and there was definitely a lot of attention there. It's because of any event, but, from what I understand, it's in the area that the Secret Service is supposed to have, you know, full rein over.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Right. So Occupy Tampa has been dealing with the city and the police department in preparation for this. How has that gone?
NATHAN PIM: It's been pretty good. I was at the last city council. I spoke on the fact that they shouldn't try and, you know, do anything to make it any harder for us to do what we're doing because it's actually something that – you know, the protesters are coming, whether they like it or not. They need to like make sure that people have somewhere to go, or you know that it's going to be sleeping like on the streets all over the place basically. And the city – like all the male city councilors at the Tampa City Council disagreed, and all the female city councilors actually agreed with us and me and saying that you know they had actually been – the one commissioner in particular, or councilperson, said that, you know, they had been toying around with the idea of designating a place for protesters to stay and that they totally, you know, stopped worrying about it like a couple of months ago and didn't do anything about it, so we're taking care of something that they kind of forgot about.
So, you know, basically, the last city council, the people that wanted to get rid of us said that they had no legal grounds to do so, and the people that didn't want to get rid of us basically told the other councilmen to stop wasting everybody's time with it, because they waived like half that city council agenda just so they could talk for probably an hour and 20 minutes about the Voice of Freedom Park, even though after the first 10 or 15 minutes it was pretty clear that they had no legal grounds to get rid of anybody because it's a privately owned park. It's a zone violation to have tents in the park, but all they can do is fine the owner, and like I said he wants this to happen, so I think even if he got fined it sounded like he was probably just going to pay them and keep it going.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: So how would you describe the overall relationship with the police department?
NATHAN PIM: Well, I've seen the police chief and she always appears like with the mayor and they always seem like they work very closely together on this whole RNC thing. And I actually got an e-mail from her the other day, because at the city council they were talking about maybe supplying more water and sanitation equipment to the area in West Tampa because so many of the protesters may be headed back to where we are in between events, and the police chief responded to my e-mail and said basically it wasn't going to happen. But, so, yeah, they're pretty – you know, they're trying to put on a very good face for what's happening.
You know, there's not much of a really bad stigma. There's been some experiences of course with like unnecessary arrests and people kind of getting mistreated in Occupy things in Florida, but it's really not been anything like what people have seen in like New York or California or anything like that. For the most part you don't see cops in riot gear. You don't see people getting gassed or getting like you know led into a big crazy trap where they all get arrested. A lot of people think that has something to do with the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas, 2003] and how you know like the city of Miami got sued for tens of millions of dollars [the “Miami model”], and I don't think they wanted that, and –
STEPHEN MALAGODI: I was looking at the city of Tampa's map, the street map for the convention, and most of the streets around the convention center, according to the map, it says they will be closed. Does that mean they're closed to vehicular traffic, or are they going to try and keep the protesters off of those streets also? It's a pretty wide area that says closed.
NATHAN PIM: If you're talking about the area immediately around the convention center, there is like a whole network of streets and sidewalks and different parts of buildings there that are kind of walled off. It's kind of like a whole compound where this convention is happening because they have like parks nearby that they're going to, and it's all kind of in this exclusionary zone that is definitely not a public area. There's other streets in the downtown area that are going to be blocked off, some to foot traffic, some are blocked off to cars, but for the most part the majority of downtown Tampa is available for people to use.
They're trying to make it kind of – they're trying to pretend some of it is going to be normal, but there's a pretty sizable area around the convention center itself where nobody can go. It's kind of like this big compound where they can have a whole bunch of events without worrying about, you know, any unexpected people f*cking it up.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Right. And so Occupy Tampa has been dealing with the police and the local government, but I was looking at the list of endorsers for the Coalition to March on the RNC and it's a pretty diverse group. There's two Florida Central Labor Councils from North Florida, there's AFSCME Council 79 from Region 3, that's also North Florida; seven chapters of SDS, five from Midwestern states, two from Florida; there's five Florida Occupy organizations, Veterans for Peace, Code Pink, one antiwar group from Minnesota I think. Once those people arrive, and I assume they're all providing their own transportation, how is Occupy Tampa going to be able to keep things sort of together if you haven't been working with them very closely?
NATHAN PIM: Well, you know the funny thing is that they kind of have their own meetings where, you know, many of them have been basically been talking about where they're putting their money and stuff like that, so I guess what I'm trying to say is there's kind of a delineation between groups that are like nonprofits and have funding that are coming and talking about these issues but have money for hotels and food, and what's going on with the people that are coming that are more like Occupiers that kind of need support to be able to travel all this way.
Really we are hoping to look out for the people that aren't really as much of a part of that. Like Code Pink. Well, first of all they're staying at Romneyville, they kind of are having a lot of events there, but they also have, they also kind of, okay, I can definitely tell you a lot of their people are staying in hotel rooms and stuff like that.
So I, I personally know piles of people all across the state that are coming that aren't part of any of those groups listed and are all people that work full-time or work when they can and can't really, you know, pay these jacked-up hotel rates, so we're going to be looking out for a lot of people that don't get to be professional activists. They're the ones that are trying to save what they can so that they can try to still take part in these things without like losing their jobs and losing their apartments and stuff like that.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Has there been any kind of training for civil disobedience or any plans for civil disobedience?
NATHAN PIM: Well, there's trainings for that, certainly, but I don't really know of any in particular. I mean, I certainly know there's groups that are coming that have a history of it. Jill Stein, I mean, she just got arrested like a month ago doing, I guess what she does campaigning [here], so she may have something like that planned. Code Pink does a lot of stuff like that. And you know there's a lot of people that I think want to make strong statements about, you know, who want reproductive rights, and on the different Republican agendas, so you know I'm sure there'll be people that are willing to, but, you know, I don't think anybody is really announcing that sort of thing for this.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Right. Well, I know you need to go, so just one more thing. There's the possibility of very bad weather for this event. Have you been discussing that? Or what would happen if the police decide that for reasons of public safety that it's unsafe for the Occupiers to stay in the park during what may be Hurricane Isaac?
NATHAN PIM: Well, I'm aware of the possibility of the storm, but you’re the first person to have thought of connecting that with them creating some kind of excuse like that. I mean we're definitely prepared to be there along with anyone else who's willing to tough out the weather. It's already not great, to be honest, but honestly if there was some strong winds or something, it'd definitely make it a little bit less easier to get things done.
Yeah, I think that that'd be kind of – just like anything else, any other excuse that they want to try to come up with to try to stop protesters from coming is not – you know, there's going to be a lot of people that are not going to be deterred by that, so hopefully they don't try to do that. Really, yeah, I mean, it's just like anything else. There's going to be a lot of people coming here who are very determined to speak the voice of dissent, I guess, and yeah the storm's not going to slow that down too much.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: All right, Nathan, thanks a lot. I know you want to go and have your breakfast. You've got a lot of work to do in the preparation for the RNC, so I want to thank you a lot for taking a half an hour with us this morning.
NATHAN PIM: Thanks. Thanks for listening.
STEPHEN MALAGODI: Sure, Nathan. Thank you.
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Indeed, thank you.