The Republican National Convention’s first day was cancelled out of deference to tropical storm Isaac, but for most of Monday Tampa was rainless. At around 4 p.m. I was standing a block from the convention centre, next to Charles O. Perry’s 1985 sculpture Solstice, which looks a bit like a space age Christmas tree ornament, or a pair of Slinkys copulating, beneath the Bank of America Tower. On a Saturday in January 2002 a 15-year-old-boy called Charles Bishop crashed a stolen Cessna into the tower, killing himself and nobody else, because, as on Monday, there were few people downtown. ‘Osama bin Laden is absolutely justified in the terror he has caused on 9-11,’ Bishop wrote in his suicide note.
He has brought a mighty nation to its knees! God blesses him and the others who helped make September 11th happen. The US will have to face the consequences for its horrific actions against the Palestinian people and [illegible] by its allegiance with the monstrous Israelis who want nothing short of world domination! You will pay – God help you – and I will make you pay!
His parents at first blamed the incident on acne medicine-induced psychosis but before long dropped their $70 million lawsuit against its manufacturers.
On Monday the skies were protected by helicopters. ‘Here comes a mob,’ a pedestrian said. At the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa Street beige-clad policemen in riot gear formed a line to meet a protest march. The ‘mob’ turned out to be the Poor Man’s March, a permitless echo of a demonstration earlier in the day that had resulted in one protester being arrested after getting tackled by a cop for wearing a mask. Leading the crowd was a man on a bike pulling a trailer with an upside-down Stars and Stripes waving on a pole. Several marchers were carrying pizza boxes. ‘I don’t know about the pizza theme,’ one said. A man with a megaphone addressed the cops: ‘I’m an anarchist. I hope you’re not scared of me because I’m not scary. They’ve got you dressed up like turtles.’ He was wearing a black plastic boot on his head, had a rat-face toy gas mask dangling from his neck, and is apparently called Vermin Supreme. ‘Read my op-ed, it’s an open letter to the city to provide you with corn starch to prevent chafing in your riot gear.’
The signs – ‘Capitalism Is Cannibalism’, ‘Dump Both Parties of Wall Street’, ‘Food Not Bombs’ – were more standard-issue than the chants. ‘We are the proletariat, we are the pizza resistance!’ ‘The pizza ignited will never be reheated!’ ‘Fuck Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney is a fuckin’ asshole!’ ‘What does $50 billion look like? This is what $50 billion looks like’ – i.e., like a bunch of turtles in beige.
The pizza theme was lost on me too (it didn’t seem to have anything to do with Herman Cain), and by this point some men carrying Ron Paul signs had joined the crowd, diluting whatever ideological coherence it might have possessed. By the Salvation Army’s water jugs, I heard one of the Socialist Alternative guys talking to one of the Ron Paul guys.
SAG: The problem is capitalism.
RPG: The problem is that it isn’t even capitalism. It’s all government subsidies. It’s crony capitalism. What you need is real competition without government interference. The government should stop giving subsidies and stop taking sides. It favours corporations and hurts small businesses.
SAG: We think the people should own the businesses they work for.
RPG: Right, the people and not the government.
SAG: Well, we’re socialists. It didn’t work in the Soviet Union because they were poor. They were still a feudal society.
RPG: I just don’t think the government should interfere.
SAG: In our view ideally the government would wither away and leave things in the hands of the people, people’s factories and direct democracy.
RPG: If I had a business . . .
SAG: What sort of business?
RPG: Like, a pizza shop.
SAG: Like just one, or a national chain?
RPG: I’d start with one.
SAG: Well, would you have to own the oven or could everyone who worked there own it?
RPG: That’s interesting, man.
[A woman wearing a MY BODY MY CHOICE pin tugged at SAG’s elbow.]
SAG: My group’s leaving. I gotta go. What’s your email, bro?
The departure of the socialists left a rump of libertarians, Vermin Supreme and a woman banging on a pan with a steel kitchen hook. There were Christians too. ‘It’s not a protest if the Christians don’t show up.’ Then it started to rain. I ran for shelter with most of the crowd, while one group of stalwarts danced away, north up Tampa Street. A few moments later, the turtles marched away. The confrontation had apparently left them jolly: they were singing the Exciters oldie ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’. Once the turtles were gone, somebody ran out in the street and performed a back flip.
I wandered around downtown Tampa. Police were circling in packs of ten, on mountain bikes and on horses. They seemed to be under strict orders not to say much. One told me that he and his group were deputies but said I shouldn’t be curious when I asked what the makeup of the security force was. Another literally did not give me the time of day. I decided I wanted to see some more of Tampa. Seeing more of Tampa would in any case be necessary because my RNC-assigned hotel was across the bay in Clearwater, and there was no other way to get there but on foot, since the coincidence of my own poor planning and the bank holiday in the UK had by Monday afternoon rendered my bank card temporarily kaput.
On Kennedy Boulevard heading west from the copulating Slinkys you pass through a brief zone of domed quaintness marked by the old Tampa Bay Hotel, now the campus of the University of Tampa. Soon this gives way to sprawl: storefront cheque-cashing services, law firms specialising in personal bankruptcy, fast-food chains, pawn shops, hair-loss clinics, bridal shops, a seemingly disproportionate number of luxury bathroom tile outlets, a 24-hour-fitness centre, a gentleman’s club called Envy (cash only), and a couple of the sort of hotels you see in movies when somebody goes on the lam. Life here was getting married, renovating your bathroom, going broke, declaring bankruptcy and trying to save what you could of your hair.
I checked to see if the first failure of my card was fluke, and managed to purchase a Cherry Coke, a cheeseburger and a bottle of whiskey, but when I tried to pay in advance for a cab, it failed again. I took a wrong turn north on Westshore Boulevard and walked past a couple more high-end strip clubs, including the one featuring a Sarah Palin impersonator all week, then mistakenly took the service road to the airport. Put straight by a security guard, I was heading south on Westshore, and the place began to look like a prosperous suburb, with palm trees, multiple cars in most driveways and the occasional cute pond.
I was looking forward to the cool air of the bay, but when I started to cross the Gandy Bridge, two police cars with their sirens on pulled up behind me, soon joined by a third. Was I doing something wrong? The first officer, with a fastidiously shaved head, said: ‘No, we’re just checking you out. Not safe crossing the bridge in the dark. Where’s your vehicle?’ Everyone had a vehicle here but me. ‘Could we see some ID?’ I gave them a passport. ‘You’re American, don’t you have a driver’s licence?’ I used to. ‘Florida?’ Massachusetts. ‘Do you have a weapon in your bag?’ No, just a bottle of whiskey. ‘That’s not a weapon.’ He made a joke! Then he took my passport to punch me into his computer.
The second cop, with a brown moustache and a bit of a paunch, said: ‘You know, you’re walking a long way.’ I was aware. ‘We can’t take you back to your hotel, but we’ll ride you the four miles over the bridge, to the RaceTrac, that’s a convenience store. What are you down here for?’ I told him. ‘I’d be protesting. I’d be raising hell.’ Had I missed any big protests today? ‘Piddly stuff.’ Would it get bigger over the course of the week? ‘I doubt it.’ He was on the verge of being wistful. In the back of the patrol car I learned that the doors can’t be opened from the inside even when they’re unlocked.
The first cop drove me to St Petersburg and I walked towards Clearwater. Beneath the overpass for I-275 I saw the corpse and cracked shell of an unlucky turtle. I didn’t see any ‘Beware of Alligator’ signs until just before I got home. That taught me to rely on government-assigned accommodation when the free market could have put me in a motel on Kennedy Boulevard for a third of the price, free wifi too. On CNN Piers Morgan was interviewing the five sons of Mitt Romney, who all have that strange quality of laughing at things that lack even the categorical potential to be funny because otherwise they’d never laugh at all.