By Jerry Waxman
One of the more noticeable successes of the Occupy movement is how the direct action teams are getting more people involved in the process. Since the election of 2010 more civic action groups are arising and making their impact felt. The overwhelmingly Republican legislatures in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Florida have all been following the same path laid out by the Koch Brothers funded organization ALEC and other similar groups to not only weaken unions and organizations that traditionally support the Democratic Party, but also take the social safety net away from the most vulnerable people in our society. The recent revelations about the deliberate decision by Susan G. Komen for the Cure not to fund Planned Parenthood show just how widespread this infiltration is while good people have been asleep at the wheel. How did such a radical as Karen Handel gain such a powerful position without being called out by anyone in the liberal media? Well, it wasn’t by accident. The backlash caused by that decision will impact Komen for years and rightfully so. Direct action is about the only way average people have to combat the onslaught coming at them by insensitive, uncaring public officials who were put into office by insensitive uncaring voters. The Occupy movement, in conjunction with many grass roots groups is starting to have its impact.
The word came late to the Progressive Center in Orlando from the Mortgage Justice Group that there would be an action in Tallahassee on Thursday, Feb. 16 to protest HB 213 the “Fair Foreclosure” bill. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kathleen C. Passidomo (R. 76) and attempts to change the rules of foreclosure by putting the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff and attempting to circumvent a hearing to determine the merits. Opponents of the bill say clearly that it is unconstitutional and they are going to fight it tooth and nail. One of the big problems with these mortgages is that they were improperly handled from the beginning and that many of the actions are clearly illegal. Since the lawmakers are in the hands of the banks they are attempting to shut down any means of legal defense. With lightning speed the trips were arranged from Miami Orlando and Tampa. The word really got out because the committee chairman pulled the bill from Thursday’s hearing Wednesday afternoon. That didn’t stop the intrepid protesters. It was a perfect opportunity to expose the bill to the press and a perfect opportunity to confront their legislators.
The bus pulled into Orlando at 2:00 AM where it picked up its complement of riders from all around Central Florida including people from Organize Now, Unite Here and a dozen members from Occupy Orlando. This was a pretty diverse group that included people from the Tea Party and several Ron Paul supporters who were there in solidarity. The trip sponsors, Mortgage Justice, FOCUS, Foreclosure Hamlet, Foreclosure Fraud and Organize Now had the agenda all lined up. There was to be a press conference and demonstration on the Capitol steps at 9:30 followed closely by another press conference inside the Capitol prior to attending various committee hearings.
Organizer Maya Schaeffer hosted the meeting on the steps. The first speaker, State Rep. Darren Soto (D. 49) has been fighting for foreclosure reform for several years. Soto warmly welcomed everyone and thanked them for their activism, which resulted in HB 213 being pulled from the committee agenda. The second speaker was an attorney and activist Matt Widener. Widener urged people to continue fighting. The third speaker, Susan De Paul, spoke about the continuing struggle to keep her house, even though she did nothing wrong and continued to make her mortgage payments on time. Lisa Epstein, a civic activist, spoke passionately about fraudulent mortgage foreclosures, the legislators who look the other way and the rigged courts that deny justice to struggling homeowners. Schaeffer then closed the conference with instructions on how to proceed to the next activity. Soto then held another conference for the press to ask questions on the fourth floor rotunda of the Capitol rotunda, along with support from State Rep. Franklin Sands (D. 98) and others who testified about their struggles and the unfairness of HB213.
The committee room was fully occupied and an overflow crowd of only 18 were allowed to stand in the rear of the room. Even though HB 213 was not on the agenda this was a show of strength to impress the committee. The first hour was strictly routine stuff, which passed unopposed. As the lobbyists and witnesses for the passed bills left the room and as some of the group went to see other legislators, things rapidly changed. A proposed immunity bill was presented that would in effect indemnify legislators and staff members (present and former) from ever having to testify about their actions and votes if called to be defendants or witnesses in lawsuits against them. This went on for an hour and a half before a final committee vote of 12-6 in favor. The Democrats on the committee were outraged calling this a bald faced attempt to avoid having to testify about the gerrymandered redistricting that is facing court challenges. The Republicans denied that it was their intention; they offered no credible explanation why this action is necessary. One Democrat on the committee who requested anonymity said “They have a stranglehold on their members who MUST follow leadership blindly” inferring that certain Republican legislators do not necessarily agree with leadership, but are not strong enough, brave enough or willing enough to buck them for fear of retribution. Another observer remarked “they certainly know how to dance around an issue.”
The planned action was a success and as everyone boarded the buses to return home there was a more keen awareness that something must be done about Tallahassee and the way it works. During a week where the Senate actually defeated the prison privatization bill the Governor announced that he was going to find a way to make it happen anyway. The Senate also voted out of committee a controversial minimum wage bill for tipped employees, which was urged by the Florida Lodging and Restaurant Association. The bill actually defies the 2005 constitutional amendment which set rates higher. There was also the realization that HB 213 was only postponed; it could reappear at any time. The battle of the day was won-the war will take a little longer, but these are seasoned battle veterans with a taste of victory and they know what they’re fighting for and how to fight for it.