Cape Coral and Southwest Florida Feature Stories
Written by Eric Taubert Thursday, 09 October 2008 00:00
"Democracy is not something that you believe in, or something that you hang your hat on. It's something that you do, you participate. Without participation, democracy crumbles and fails. If you participate, you win, and the future is yours."
US Radical Activist (1936-1989)
No one ever said participating in democracy is easy. Television and newspaper coverage of political rallies make the experience look accessible, easier than it is. The cameras record when the crowd and the candidates are already in place. The candidate makes a statement. The crowd stands, cheers, chants, and applauds. The sound bites and images are digitally edited together into a polished and refined 45 second segment, and they play it on the nightly news to keep you entertained between the commercials.
But ask anyone who attended the Joe Biden Community Gathering at Alico Arena on Wednesday evening, and they'll tell you engaging in the political process is a labor of love. It takes time and effort. You need to stand in line for tickets to the rally. You have to plan who you're going with and how you'll get there. You're told there's no parking at Alico Arena, and you'll need to be bused in from the Germain Arena parking lot about a mile away.
You go early to avoid the long lines, and arrive to see they've already formed. You stand in the sun, braving heat exhaustion and cancer-causing sunrays, for what feels like hours as street entrepreneurs try to sell you buttons and shirts bearing the name of the candidate. You start getting thirsty and wish you brought some water.
The crowd is a mixture of ages and races. A silver-haired ex-hippie couple are smiling as they relive their sixties activism. The African-American family in front of me is thrilled to be on their way to the Biden rally. The mother speaks on her cell phone, telling her friends to come join the rally as well. They want to come, but don't have any tickets. The ex-hippies overhear the conversation and offer the two extra tickets they have to the unheard voices on the other end of the mother's cell phone. "Come on down," the hippie woman emphatically shouts towards the phone. "We knew someone would need the tickets."
The heat is unrelenting, but the spirits are high. Bumper stickers with messages of peace and tolerance fill the Germain Arena lot. The Obama/Biden candidacy draws positive-minded crowds of mixed ethnicity. Unlikely strangers become unlikely friends. People have set aside their differences. People engage in like-minded conversations with each other. The crowd in this line is a microcosm of what America should be...everyone created differently, everyone respected equally.
You're herded onto one of the buses. The jerky acceleration and breaking unsettles your stomach. The bus driver punches in a text message as he drives. You can imagine what the headline would be if he crashed.
You pass the official "free-speech zone" and the lone protester with her mean-spirited signs. OBAMA HANGS WITH TERRORISTS. The inciteful use of language evokes racially-insensitive, hate crime connotations.
They let you off the bus. That's when you see the much longer line to get into the arena, and it's not even moving. Eighty-seven degrees outside, and the arena doesn't open their doors for another 45 minutes. Ambulances are present and paramedics are helping those who have succumbed to the heat. Misting fans are put in place to provide a modicum of relief to the sweltering crowd.
This is where I cheat a little. I spy the press entrance door with no line at all. Here's my chance to escape the blistering sun. I tell the press registration lady I'm from the Cape Coral Barometer. She says I need credentials. I give her a business card. She says I need real credentials. She wants to know if anyone will vouch for me. I tell her she can call my cell phone, since I'm the main office, and I'll be happy to vouch for myself. She makes me wait while the higher-ups check my credentials.
A few minutes later, she apologizes for the confusion and hands me a press pass. A metal detector Gestapo gives me the twice-over. Then I'm in. Finally. Air conditioning. Ahhh.
So now I'm in the press area. It's actually more of a press cage. Metal gates separate the press from the general audience. In the front are the risers where the television crews are setting up. Stark tables are lined up in rows. The best seats are reserved for the Biden Press Corps. The second best seats are reserved for radio representatives. Only one showed up, WGCU. I settle in to the second to last row. A chair with no view of the podium at all.
Stern-faced secret service men are everywhere. These guys don't know how to smile.
The thirst issue has become dire. If I can't get something to drink, I'm going to have to leave. I spy a concession stand setting up on the upper levels of the bleachers. The problem is, there's no way to get there from here. The metal gates have no discernible opening. I ask one of the volunteers if it's permissible for me to jump the gate so I can get a drink from the concession stand. "You're not supposed to...the press isn't allowed out there." So much for freedom of the press.
I wait until it looks like all the volunteers and secret service men are occupied. I move a section of the metal gate, and escape into the general admission section. I make my way up the bleachers as the first spectators are allowed in. I pass by an Obama/Biden volunteer who mistakes my press pass for a volunteer pass. She's busy telling everyone who's coming in where they can and can't sit. "How did I get the worst job in here today?" she asks me.
The various sections are opened one at a time, and seated until they are full. Special guests are given yellow tickets, and they are the only people allowed in certain seating areas, primarily behind the podium, where they will be on display when the television cameras roll. Not everyone's happy with the seat they get. Some seats have restricted viewing. You really can't blame people who braved the long hard road to get into Alico Arena for wanting a good seat once they got there. But it's all governed by a simple supply and demand equation. When all the seats are spoken for, someone has to get stuck with the bad ones.
I know Republicans are notorious for calling the Democrats the party of liberal elitists. But, I assure you, there was nothing liberal or elite about the hot dog concession stand at this Democratic rally. Hot dogs. A couple candy bars. Coke. Sprite. Tap water. That's it.
Another Abbie Hoffman quote: "All I care about is who's bringing the ice cream to the demonstration."
Hoffman was on to something. Make politics fun and more people will get involved. Bring on the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Bring the ice cream. Bring the artists.
Hoffman would have been more than a little disappointed with this particular demonstration. No ice cream. No signs or banners allowed. When did we allow politics to become such a spectator sport?
Two dollar coke in hand, I make my way back down to the media area. I have to flash my press pass to several volunteers and secret service men in order to get back down to press central. When I get back to the metal gate, I see it's been put back in place and now has a secret service man guarding it. I flash the press pass to the emotionless man, and he allows me re-entrance.
Now it's time to wait. It's 3:30 and the show doesn't start until 5:30. I put my camera on the table in front of me. I sit back. I watch. I listen.
I watch the old-school press men, with their suits and ties, putting in another day on the job. Reading books. Waiting for the show to begin. I watch the young newspaper writers and photographers tapping away blog updates on their Macbooks. I watch the primped television personalities, suave men and mixed-race girls, write notes and practice their lines. They all look shorter and younger in real life. I watch the scruffy cameramen futz around with their wires and muted lighting.
I watch the volunteers scurry about. For many of them, it's their first time working an event like this. They're excited. They're nervous. It shows.
I watch the crowd arrive. Busload by busload. It's an agonizingly slow process. The first people in the door are a large group of young FGCU students. Later on, the Democratic Club of Shell Point showed up. Black families. White families. Senior citizens. Thirty-somethings. Single mothers. Single fathers. Teenagers. Rednecks. Thugs. Nerds. Balding men. Long-haired men. Latin Americans. People in wheelchairs. Home-owners. People in foreclosure. Successful businessmen. Uninsured married couples. New England transplants and native Floridians. People of all races, ages, ethnicities and creeds were represented. And it wasn't long before all of them were engaging in intelligent discourse with each other. Commingling. Expressing hopes and fears for the future, intimate thoughts, with people they just met.
Every mouth in the arena spoke of real issues facing America. Health insurance. Home foreclosures. Lost jobs. The cost of gas. Foreign affairs. The war in Iraq. Osama Bin Ladin. The cost of milk. The banking crisis. The federal bailout. The environment. Conservation. Global warming. The cost of higher education. Taxes.
The more I saw people talk, the more I saw people agreeing with each other. I saw people who looked and dressed and acted different, people who came from different kinds of families and different cultures, people with different blessings and problems...and I saw all of them having the same basic issues in common. I saw all of them wanting for a fixed America. And I wanted to be part of the conversation.
I looked around at my fellow press associates, all quietly keeping to themselves, respectful of the unbiased nature of the media forums they were representing. The media area is a place of detachment, a place of objectivity. Outside the steel gates, there were throngs of people. Passionate. Driven. Engaged. Hungry. Emotional. That's what I want. I want to be down among the people, in the midst of the frenetic zeal. I want to be swayed. I want to be opinionated. I want to talk. I want to be heard. I want to take part in history. I want to feel.
"Screw this." I gathered my belongings and headed for the place where I could push through the gate towards my freedom.
As I went to open the gate, a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.
"What are you doing?" the Secret Service man asked.
"I'm going out into the crowd." I replied.
By this time there were two other Security Personnel with the Secret Service man.
"You're not allowed on that side of the gate." he admonished.
I sulked back to my seat and thought about what had just happened.
It was about 5:15 by now, and the crowd began to amuse themselves by participating in the ultimate exercise of their right to peaceful assembly...the wave. Soon thereafter, the crowd was one cohesive unit, a single political animal, stomping on the bleachers, chanting in unison, "Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we Can!"
I was back at my wooden table. Alone. Defeated. Not allowed to participate in the passionate festivities, not allowed on the other side of the gate.
Senator Biden finally got to the podium about 45 minutes later. He delivered a fervent speech, his third of the day. The crowd hung on his every word. But everyone was just going through the motions by this point, playing their expected roles.
It must be tough preaching the same message of change over and over and over and over again, at cities all across the country. But Senator Biden was in stellar form, with conviction in his voice, and not a single shred of campaign fatigue apparent. The crowd came to believe. Senator Biden made them believe.
I won't get in to what Senator Biden spoke about, because you can hear that on CNN at any given moment. Today's story isn't about what Senator Biden said; it's about the people who came to hear it. The people who came to see the change they so desperately want to believe in. The people who came to play a role in making that change happen. The people who are becoming the change they want to see in this world. If what I saw today is any indication, change is gonna come.
The rumor mill outside the arena was full of speculation as to whether Senator Obama will be coming to Fort Myers later this month. If he does, I promise I'll be braving the full discomfort of the heat just to participate in the crowd with the rest of you.
All I want to know is: Who's bringing the ice cream?
--writing and photography by Eric Taubert
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