ORLANDO – Dennis MacLaren was at the Amway Center this morning, but he wasn’t standing in line to buy tickets for an upcoming game or concert.
He was there for Mayor Buddy Dyer’s State of Downtown address, although not because he expected to get into the massive new arena and hear the mayor deliver it. Since tickets to the mayor’s speech started at $45, MacLaren said his mission was one of protest, not support, for what the mayor had to say.
“We’re protesting a closed door meeting that should be open to the public,” he said. “Hopefully it is to recoup the tax dollars spent on this Scamway Arena.”
MacLaren joined a small but vocal group of protesters outside the arena this morning, as people in business suites lined up to get inside to hear the mayor. The protesters, though, said they were looking to put a spotlight on what they view as corporate greed that rewards big businesses as the expense of common workers.
“Let’s be clear of the real message here,” said Timothy Murray of Orlando. “Our mayor is charging the people to listen to his speech.”
The mayor’s speech was held at a special luncheon meeting that started at 11:15 a.m., and his office charged $45 for members of the Downtown Orlando Partnership, $55 for non-members, $550 for DOP members who want a corporate table of eight, and $650 for non-members looking for the same.
This was, Murray said, no attempt on the part of the mayor to update residents about how Orlando is doing.
“It’s a fund-raising event,” Murray said. “If you want to have a fund-raising event, call it one. It is very unfair to invite your friends in suit and ties, and have lunch in a taxpayer-funded arena.”
By charging to get in, the mayor is “siding with the 1 percent, and not the people,” he added.
The money charged for this event could have been used to feed the homeless in Greater Orlando, Murray said, rather than for a lavish lunch set to the mayor’s speech.
“All we’re asking is the ability to sit down,” he said. “There is no dialogue between the people and our mayor.”
Several of the protesters said they’re struggling financially, and deeply outraged that the mayor would charge a fee for the privilege of hearing him speak.
“I make $690 a month,” said Kirk Root of Orlando. “That’s just enough to pay my rent. After that, I get food stamps. I’m barely getting by, but I am a contributing member of this city.”
Root, who has a disability that requires him to use a wheelchair, said he’s unable to work full time because of his condition. He called it’s appalling that the mayor wouldn’t allow someone like himself to hear his speech.
“Because I can’t afford $45 to get into this big behemoth,” Root said as he pointed to the Amway Center, “if I could pay taxes, I would be in there.”
It all goes to show, he said, that citizens living on the edge are not a priority for Orlando’s government.
“I live on disability,” he said. “Forty-five dollars to get inside – that is robbery of any citizen in the city. I’m tired of living on the bottom. We need to stop doing these closed door deals.”
MacLaren said he’s already lost his home to foreclosure, and has been coping with a dismal job market.
“I’ve been out of work for three years,” he said. “I’ve exhausted my unemployment insurance. My wife is the only one working.”
So he became active with Occupy Orlando, a group that is riding the wave of protests now seen in New York City against Wall Street — protests that have since spread worldwide. In most instances, the message of these grass roots activists has been that big business rules the political and economic world, to the detriment of average workers.
“This is what the Occupy movements are all about – this unfair advantage,” MacLaren said. “I’m here with Occupy Orlando. We are here to stay, and we’re here for the long haul.”
Their protests, he said, were aimed at the fact that “corporate greed is hijacking our political system,” and squeezing out the people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
“What does Orlando have that’s iconic to Orlando?” he asked. “We have corporations, that’s all. Everybody knows this.”
As long as politicians remain more responsive to big business contributors and ignore the economic plight of working class people, MacLaren said, Occupy Orlando would remain active and vocal.
“We will do many occupations all over the city and county, whatever it takes,” he said.
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