The warehouse belonging to Not Just Hype sits at the edge of Little Haiti on NE 59th Street. Leo Beletsky, who helped found the hip-hop political group, noted that they only procured the warehouse a few weeks ago, thanks to his own money and some key donations. Now, this modest building with a bright yellow exterior serves as a temporary home for several young activists working overtime to get out the vote as the clock runs down to November 2. During the day, they strategize, do yoga, and hang out with the punk rockers who often come around; at night they answer e-mail, strategize, and eventually crash out in sleeping bags.
A few of them are roving activists who've come to Miami specifically to influence the upcoming election. Beletsky, for example, is a recent graduate of Brown University who initially came to the city under the auspices of the Hip-Hop Civic Engagement Project. "It's a great name, but there was no hip-hop, and no civic engagement," he said.
So Beletsky formed his own group with Rodrigo Garcia, a student at Miami-Dade College, and Amanda Brovold, an organizer with the League of Pissed-Off Voters. In addition to doing get-out-the-vote canvassing in the surrounding Haitian community, they throw several hip-hop-themed events and have started an innovative "Vote for Me" program that uses people from disenfranchised groups (immigrants, underage youth, ex-felons, and the mentally disabled) to encourage citizens to exercise their vote.
Not Just Hype is only one of several progressive groups (and one of dozens of political organizations) that have recently touched down in South Florida. There's ACT (America Coming Together), ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the '86 Project, and many, many others. It's a complicated network of activists that often makes little sense to an outsider not directly involved with one of them.
But, like any "scene," from the politicos who hover around city hall in Miami to the twenty-somethings who coagulate at I/O on the weekends, the progressive activist movement (temporarily?) flowering here is full of familiar names. The League of Pissed-Off Voters were the principal architects of Slam Bush, the national MC "battle" that culminated in a Roots concert at Mansion on September 29 ("Bush Bash," September 23). William "Upski" Wimsatt, one of the directors of the League, was also heavily involved in organizing the National Hip-Hop Political Convention in New Jersey this past June ("First Edition," July 1).
Some things, however, are noticeably different. At that latter event, dead prez memorably shouted, "Fuck Bush and fuck Kerry!" from the stage. But at the League's Slammin' Benefit Show, a fundraiser held at the Wallflower Gallery on October 21, there was actually a Kerry/Edwards sign in the corner of one of the rooms. This was the first unabashed display of support I have seen for Senator John Kerry, as well as an impassioned dislike of President George W. Bush, at the many progressive events I have attended over the past several months.
But that support for Kerry, to use a political term, is soft. During the fundraiser, Valerie Benavidez, a Latina from Austin, Texas, who came to Florida to coordinate the League's projects here, noted that neither Kerry nor Bush discussed issues central to people of color until the third Presidential debate on October 14. Kerry even indulged in a little xenophobia during that final contest, ominously charging that because of Bush's immigration efforts "we now have people from the Middle East, allegedly, coming across the border."
"They didn't even talk about race," said Benavidez, adding that, during the vice-presidential debate on October 5, neither Senator John Edwards nor Vice President Dick Cheney could answer a question about AIDS in the African-American community. "When you don't talk about race in one of the most diverse and racially polarized countries in the world, then you're doing people a disservice," she continued.
So why is the League backing Kerry? His platform seems to echo many of its core issues (articulated on its Website, www.indyvoter.org), including being "a respected and respectful citizen of the world," "our freedom of choice" in reproductive decisions, and "create social support to strengthen families" by shoring up government-financed health care programs. But League members, like many voters, are afraid that if Kerry is elected, he may spend more time acquiescing to a Republican Congress and a decidedly centrist Democratic Party than carrying out his lofty campaign promises.
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"The issue for liberals is that we don't have any illusions that Kerry will go into power and solve our problems," said Benavidez. "What we think is that, if Kerry is elected, we will have more leverage."
Benavidez said that the League's ultimate plan is to build a national voting bloc that can push its political agenda. It's a lofty goal considering that activist groups tend to dissolve into a self-satisfied malaise after getting their Democratic candidates elected (President Clinton's bubble-economy Nineties being a prime example). But she vowed that wouldn't happen this time.
"In ten years, we want to see these people who are running voter blocs running for office," she said. That's far into the future; for now, the League has an election to win.