by Jeff Gore
Orlando’s third Awake the State rally was held this evening at Senator Beth Johnson Park, which has been more or less constantly occupied by activists from the Occupy Orlando movement since Oct. 15. Since the occupation began, 21 activists have been arrested for trespassing in the park after hours; during the day, it has become a launching pad for almost-daily protests downtown.
With that in mind, it was hard not to be unimpressed by Awake the State’s usage of the same park this evening. The bulk of the gathering- – by our guess, around 150 people were present – consisted of an “open forum” in which locals took the microphone and spoke against conservative political, economic and social policies. The goal of the event was to not to get liberal-minded citizens out into the streets, but to the voter registration booths – and, a year from now, to the polls. “When the middle class votes, we win,” said Susannah Randolph, executive director of Florida Watch Action, one of the groups behind the event as well as the “Pink Slip Rick” campaign. “People didn’t turn out in 2010,” she adds. “And that’s what happens when you don’t turn out – you get [Florida Gov.] Rick Scott.” (She did point out, however, that “there is no more unifying force in the progressive community than Rick Scott.”)
Registering voters in the service of political activism is not a novel goal by any means, but in Florida, but House Bill 1355, passed earlier this year by Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature, has made it far more difficult for third-party organizations – like the League of Women Voters – to register Floridians to vote. It’s for that reason that Samir Gupta, president of the Central Florida chapter of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, was present to give an informal talk after the rally’s open forum. “One of the reasons we attended tonight was just to remind people to make sure they were individually registered,” he said, adding that the state’s voter turnout rate in 2010 was around 44 percent. “Less than a quarter of the voting age population in Florida put into power the group that’s currently making all these changes to the way we live. That’s sad.”
Ironically, Gupta’s small breakout discussion group was the least popular of the four such post-main-event groups – with roughly nine people listening, it garnered even less attention than a group on the other side of the park talking about Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. In addition, some attendees were distracted by some verbal scuffling between Occupy Orlando activists and Ray Junior, a St. Augustine-based conservative radio host who showed up to videotape those who took to the stage. (He said he would only grant an interview with the Weekly on the condition that we publish every word of it.)