In coordination with a national effort related to immigration, two Gulfport residents organized their first public rally on Saturday, June 30 at the Historic Gulfport Casino.
It rained intermittently and the weather forecasts predicted thunderstorms but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the nearly 600 people who showed up, many with umbrellas, rain jackets and custom rally signs.
Markers and cardboard were provided on tables for those who wanted to make statements like, “This is the United States of America! Families Belong Together,” “Immigrant Separation is Child Abuse” and “Vote.”
The purpose of the Gulfport rally was to draw attention to the issue that a recent presidential “executive order says nothing about the reunification of 2,000 children who have already been separated from their parents,” said Patty Stubkjaer, a local community activist who co-organized and emceed the event. Stubkjaer is also a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) People Power of Gulfport.
“We’re trying to motivate people to exercise their voice in the best manner they can, which is at the ballot box,” said Wendy Snyder of Gulfport who co-chaired the event. Snyder is also a board member of the non-partisan Pinellas County chapter of the ACLU.
According to Time magazine, Families Belong Together events were planned in most major cities across the country “before President Donald Trump ended his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexican border but organizers say the protests scheduled on June 30 are still just as important.”
National-level advocacy group organizers included the ACLU, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, The Leadership Conference, MoveOn.org Political Action and MoveOn.org Civic Action. They encouraged participants to wear white representing peace and unity. They also encouraged participants to register to vote. Over 700 locations were officially registered at act.moveon.org/event/families-belong-together including Gulfport’s.
Stubkjaer and Snyder at first provided one big tent outside the Gulfport Casino and it was originally intended to shield attendees from the sun. At the last minute, before the event that was scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m., the inclement weather inspired them to coordinate with April Thanos, president of the Gulfport Democratic Club, to rent the inside space from the city for two hours.
Event organizers and Thanos worked with city staff and received a discounted rental rate meant for residents and non-profit organizations, said Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly. Snyder co-signed the rental agreement with Thanos, who wrote a check for the rental.
“We estimated 400 to 450 people were inside, which is well within our capacity,” said O’Reilly. “Outside, I saw the crowd at different times and I would estimate there were a couple hundred people there.”
Volunteer donations in a jar at the entrance door totaled $2,200 and more than covered the rental expenses, which were less than $1,000, said Snyder. The remaining money will be split between the four local co-sponsoring groups that are the ACLU, Indivisible FL-13, the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area and People Power.
Volunteer performing musician, Steve Borst of St. Petersburg, provided the sound system.
About the crowd, Gulfport City Councilmember Paul Ray said, “It was amazing that we had that many people there. I was hoping to see more people from Gulfport. I applaud everybody who showed up.”
Pia Goff of Gulfport, owner of Pia’s Trattoria, said, “Being there was amazing. Everyone was very peaceful and loving. Kids were there; older people; all genders; and, people of all colors. I was very impressed. It was a good turnout considering the weather.
“I went because I am a legal immigrant and I have four children. And, just the thought of somebody taking my children? No way! It’s just heartbreaking. They are not criminals; they are refugees looking for political asylum. For me, it’s pure kidnapping especially when there is no plan to reunite these families.”
Gulfport Councilmember Michael Fridovich welcomed the large crowd during his speech and emphasized, “If you want to make change, you need to register and vote.”
Ray, who also spoke to the crowd said, “Children of immigrants who are being denied access to their families is the theme. It shouldn’t be a partisan thing at all. It’s disgusting. We need to band together and make a change.”
Other speakers included Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard and Pinellas County School Board Chairperson Rene Flowers, who gave a speech that was described by several people as “passionate.”
“I was blown away,” said Snyder. “People were so pumped up. There was cheering. There were exclamations. The crowd was electric with its combined spirit and unanimity of mind regarding the callousness of the current administration’s immigration policies. There were standing ovations certainly for Rene Flowers. She was on fire.”
Though experienced activists, before June 30, Stubkjaer and Snyder were both neophytes in event organizing. Both are considering organizing their second event in the fall, the theme of which will be “Go to the polls!” said Snyder.