By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- They sit in a ragged circle, on chairs and sofas retrieved from trash bins. A single bare bulb lights the room. A red-and-black Che Guevara poster looks down from the wall.
They're mostly under 30 and all are intense, these radicals who call themselves "the collective." Elaborate tattoos encircle ankles. Braided cotton bracelets decorate wrists. One young woman has a silver hoop in the center of her bottom lip.
Tonight's meeting has a Facilitator, a Taskmaster, a Timekeeper and several Decisionmakers, but no single leader, no authority. They move through the agenda in a calm, orderly way. Everyone raises his or her hand before speaking. Each time they're ready to decide an issue, a man wearing a baseball cap and holding a notebook on his lap looks around.
This time, the discussion is about an upcoming record swap, and whether dealers will be allowed to sell their goods or only barter with each other. The group agrees to "see what happens."
"Any stand-asides?" the man in the cap asks. "Any blocks?"
No one says a word.
"Okay, then, do we have consensus?"
The young people slouching on the couch raise their right hands, cupped like C's.
Motion passed. The collective has spoken.
The Center of Radical Empowerment, open one month, is a narrow storefront in St. Petersburg's 16th Street S business district, just down from Red's Snak Shak and the Prayer Tower Thrift Shop. It has bars on the window and a sign on the front door: "No Drugs or Alcohol in This Building."
The center, or CORE as its members call it, is the brainchild of nine friends who started talking last summer about a place where they could hang out and discuss things they care about: animal rights, justice, globalization, women's issues, oppression of Native Americans.
Oh, and punk rock.
"We're trying to build a community, and also a culture," said Anthony Ateek, 24, of St. Petersburg. "Hopefully, we can empower people to talk about problems and solutions. Because City Hall doesn't always listen. They have their own agenda."
Ateek, a senior education major at the University of South Florida, said CORE is one of several "info-shops" around the state, mostly in college towns. Others include the Civic Media Center in Gainesville and the Stone Soup Collective in Orlando. Most are bare-bones storefronts, like CORE, where left-wingers can pick up literature, check out books and listen to live bands.
"To me, it's a place to bring activists together, regardless of what particular issue they are involved in," said Ronnie Wright of Gulfport.
At 45, with a chin of silver-gray stubble, Wright is the senior member of the CORE collective. A retired U.S. Army drill sergeant, he now lives on a military pension and attends St. Petersburg Junior College, where he is studying to become a social worker. He spent years campaigning in the animal rights movement, leading demonstrations outside the Derby Lane greyhound racing track and at local performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In 1996 he and a companion were arrested at the Times Bayfront Arena when they stood up during a circus performance, shouted slogans and unfurled a banner that read, "Abolish Animal Slavery." (A judge dismissed the charges.)
Lately, Wright has become interested in activism that combines animal rights with human concerns and the environment. He feels at home at CORE. "It's like my dream come true, to bring all the issues together," he said.
The center consists of two rooms. Up front, plywood-and-block bookshelves house a lending library of used books donated by collective members. Neatly typed labels denote categories: Anarchism. Labor. Alternative Health Care. Fascism, Conspiracy and the Far Right. Peace & Nonviolence.
A bulletin board offers petitions to sign protesting police "repression" of homeless people in downtown St. Petersburg. A handwritten note on a scrap of paper advertises for a reggae drummer.
Fliers are stacked on a table: How a Rape-Free World Could Benefit Men. Protect Our Public Lands. The Bank of New York Kills Puppies.
One wall holds new books for sale. They range from vegan cookbooks to civil disobedience tracts to sex manuals for gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.
"This is stuff you can't find at Barnes & Noble," said Ateek, grinning.
The back room of the CORE center functions as a meeting and seminar space and makeshift concert hall. Strips of pink eggshell foam are tacked to the masonry walls to absorb sound. Two microphones stand on a homemade stage covered in recycled carpet.
In its first month, the center has hosted four concerts, said Ateek. "Three punk rock and one jazz."
Coming up are bands called the Skabs ("on tour from NYC"), the Backstabbers and Civil Dissidence ("anarcho-crust from Fort Myers"). Ateek said the concerts usually draw about 50 people, many of them teens who are too young to get into bars where other bands play.
The center is also open afternoons for those who want to browse in the library and talk activism. So far, traffic has been slow.
"The days are kind of dead," Ateek said.
Still, 41 people paid dues (sliding scale, $10 to $100) to join CORE. Members can check out books and receive discounted admission to concerts and other events.
The collective's decisionmakers decided CORE would offer a diversity of events, to make it an everyman-and-everywoman kind of place. The Radical Men's Group meets the last Thursday of the month. There's a knitting workshop and a sign-language class. Guest speakers talk about animal rights and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. The center gives anti-oppression training and classes in consensus, the cooperative decisionmaking process used by Quakers and other groups that promote peace.
"We're kind of trying to be open to everyone," said Jenny Becker, 19, of St. Petersburg. She is one of four female members of the original CORE group. She has been an activist since earlier in her teens, working with a grass-roots food distribution group called Food Not Bombs.
Women's issues are important to CORE, according to Becker. But she acknowledged that the collective is all "young, white, privileged kids" so far. They would like that to change. The outreach-diversity committee has been distributing CORE fliers in coffeehouses, record shops and health food stores. They also get the word out on an Internet listserv. They were pleased that
several seniors showed up at the CORE grand opening in early May.
"What I really want to do is empower people, so there's no hierarchy and no oppression," said Grommit, who has a first name but prefers not to use it. Another of the original CORE members, Grommit, 24, lives in a mobile home park in central Pinellas County and works on a cooperative organic farm in Tampa. He has mutton-chop sideburns and a burning passion for social change.
He said he has campaigned against North Carolina chip mills, which process clear-cut trees into wood chips that are shipped overseas to make pressed wood products. He worked for the radical environmental groups Earth First! and Ruckus Society. He did "tree-sittings" and civil obedience demonstrations. During the 1999 riots outside the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, he was tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and hit by rubber bullets, alongside thousands of other protesters.
He's proud to call himself an anarchist.
"If people have a sense of autonomy, if they are self-reliant, then we won't have to oppress each other," Grommit said. "We'll be able to solve our problems without violence."
There's no violence at the monthly meetings of the CORE collective. Fueled by pizza (Becker brings it from her job at Lenny & Vinny's), the group spends hours patiently resolving issues without oppressing each other.
First, a member of the "A-hole committee" reports on what bands it has booked for upcoming shows.
Next, one of the Decisionmakers gives a financial report: $2,000 in the checking account; $104.91 in petty cash. (CORE has applied for non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.)
The group discusses who's staffing the center for the next week. The members decide to spend $50 to get T-shirts made. Then they wrestle with an ethical problem: Should CORE carry publications that advocate violence as a vehicle for social change? The group can't come to a consensus. They table the discussion until their next meeting.
Finally, there's the problem of housekeeping.
"We've got to clean up around here," someone says. "It's getting unruly."
"Yeah, and we need to keep the cleaning supplies out of the bathroom," someone else says. "At that jazz thing we had, somebody was in there huffing the bleach."
The Center of Radical Empowerment is at 1615 16th St. S, St. Petersburg. Hours are noon to 9 p.m. daily. For a schedule of upcoming events call (727) 821-2673 or visit www.core-info.org.