Protesters occupy Hemming Plaza in Downtown Jacksonville

Joseph Basco

On a dark, rainy day in downtown Jacksonville’s Hemming Plaza Oct. 8, hundreds of protesters gathered in support of Occupy Wall Street and its underlying mantra demanding that corporate involvement within government cease.

Jacksonville is one of the latest cities to join Occupy Together, a grassroots solidarity movement in support of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

The protest began with a general assembly in Hemming Plaza around noon. The attendees packed the central area of the plaza. Although there was no official headcount, attendance appeared to be in the hundreds.

People of different ages, backgrounds and viewpoints came equipped with various signs. One sign read, “We are the 99 percent.” Another read, “College is a scam.” One sign that went against the majority’s viewpoint read: “Driving up prices. Sending jobs overseas. Unions suck. In bed with industrial war, economy and Obama.”

Some wore Guy Fawkes’ masks, a nod to the anti-totalitarian film “V for Vendetta” and to hacktivist group Anonymous.

One such Guy Fawkes masker, Dylan Lennon, 25, said that although he is proud to be an American, he is not proud of where government is taking the country — citing that unemployment continues to increase while the net wealth of the middle class decreases.

“There’s not enough jobs even for people who did what their parents told them to do,” Lennon said, toting an upside down American flag over his shoulder.

Lennon and his wife, Evey, 27, helped organize the protest, but deny the label, “leaders,” of the event. The couple helped spread awareness via Facebook and Twitter.

Evey said the goal of the event was to gather like-minded individuals to voice their concerns and see if a common goal would present itself. As more people gathered throughout the afternoon, more ideas and goals entered the discussion.

Teresa Rorstrom, 32, is a UNF English graduate student who attended the event with her camera to possibly make it into a documentary.

“I wanted to document history in the making,” Rorstrom said. “Right now, I’m unhappy with the economy but I’m also unhappy with corporations.”

Similarly, Lauren McDaniel, 23, a UNF English junior, said the U.S. is under a “corporatocracy,” a government controlled by corporate interests. McDaniel said this protest shows political party opposition is irrelevant.

“It’s not one party or the other that’s being affected,” McDaniel said. “It’s everyone.”

Sandra Rogers, 69, is a retired widow that is living in HUD housing. She said the government is taking care of her until she can support herself again. She is unsure of her grandchildren’s future or her own.

Rogers said socioeconomic inequality has been going on for a long time and she is tired of it.

Not everyone at the protest was in agreement with its overall liberal tone. Right across the street from the plaza, a man held a sign in support of the Tea Party movement, protesting against the protest.

Mark Strahar, 58, is a part time custodian. He said he chose to keep a distance because he did not want to cause trouble. Strahar said the Occupy Jacksonville movement has no single objective and its thinking is reversed.

“It’s not corporations infiltrating government that’s the problem,” Strahar said. “It’s government infiltrating corporations.”

Tyanna T., 22, a homeless African American woman, whose name she would not provide in full, watched the protest from a distance with fellow Hemming Plaza regulars. She said the issues regarding the protest are nothing new to her.

“Us black people have been going through this forever,” Tyanna said. “It’s just now that Caucasians are starting to understand where black people are coming from.”

Jenny Stuber, 40, a UNF sociology professor, was also in attendance. She said one of the interesting dynamics of the protest was the involvement of the homeless people on the fringes of the plaza.

“If you break down the unemployment rate by racial groups, African Americans have an incredibly high rate of unemployment,” Stuber said. “Especially when you look at young African Americans in the urban core.”

Others attended simply to enforce laws.

Corey C. Wilborn, regional organizer of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he was there to make sure the protesters had a right to gather and march as long as they obeyed the rules. JSO officer B.D. Purcell said he expected no problems unless the protesters blocked roads or became violent.

As the crowd gained prominence, Don Redman, Jacksonville City councilman, attempted to disperse the crowd due to the lack of a permit. However, JSO allowed the protest to continue as long as it remained peaceful. Redman said downtown businesses requested him to ensure the protest did not get out of line.

Since megaphones were not allowed, the crowd repeated speaker’s words so everybody could hear. People read prepared speeches to the crowd.

The gathering culminated with a march through downtown right as heavy rain began. JSO stopped traffic for the protesters. The crowd eventually died down after everyone came back to the plaza.

Lennon said the law prohibits anyone from staying in the park after 6 p.m. Instead of camping in the plaza like some protesters at Wall Street, the organizers plan for another general assembly Oct. 15, according to their Facebook page.

“I hope it does rain again next week to show that we mean business,” Lennon said.

Although it is unclear whether or not Occupy Together will cause immediate change to the issues at hand, protesters are willing to continue voicing their demands around the U.S. Chesterfield Polkey, 15, is a Paxon High School sophomore that said Occupy Together protests are happening because the unequal distribution of wealth is increasing.

“We have to do something or it will continue to be worse,” Polkey said.