2/24/08

Anarchist city official has collectivist roots

If anarchists were organized, Cara Jennings would be president of the club. Instead, she's a Lake Worth (FL) city commissioner. Except when she's out protesting free trade, the Scripps Research Institute location, low farmworker wages and lack of women's rights, for starters. Add gas-burning power plants to the list.

When 27 environmentalists were arrested Monday for blocking the entrance to the site of a Florida Power & Light plant being built in western Palm Beach County, Jennings negotiated terms with deputies and acted as spokeswoman for the group. She was not arrested.

Tuesday she was busy trying to make sure the 27 got bail. Tuesday night she was attending a commission meeting, voting on whether to make urinating in public illegal.

Jennings, 31, still calls herself an anarchist, just not shut-the-government-down type of anarchist.

"I don't think it's inconsistent to serve in a community government and simultaneously be an anarchist," she said.

She believes in decision-making by equals, not from "top-down authoritative government," she said.

"She proudly claims the title 'anarchist,'" said longtime friend Dan Liftman, an aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "I cringe because there are a lot of crusty old retired folks in Lake Worth, and that could hurt her."

Liftman was nearby at the FPL blockade on Southern Boulevard while Jennings was seeking reassurance from Palm Beach County sheriff's Lt. William Bruckner that protesters would be given a warning before being arrested and that little force would be used.

"We want to make sure this is as peaceful as possible," Bruckner told her as they stood at the barricades. "We don't want anybody hurt. We will not use anything against you. ... We don't want to do that."

"We don't want it either," Jennings said.

"But what we want to do is make sure that there's a free flow of traffic here, that nobody gets hurt and that business returns to as normal as possible while you still can get your point across," Bruckner said.

But hours after the arrests, Jennings was critical of deputies for neck-pinching and arm-twisting protesters during the arrests and claimed they were not treated well at the jail. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw rejected the criticisms.

"I was a little bit concerned about some comments she made about the sheriff's office," Liftman said, fearing it would hurt her credibility with voters. "She can do so much good. I don't want to her endanger her relationship with the voters."

Jennings said she's received only positive feedback. "I was a little nervous that people would be upset about the actions taken. I've gotten compliments for standing up for my beliefs despite the impact it might have on my political career."

It's likely voters are already polarized.

Tom Ramiccio, chief executive of the Greater Lake Worth Chamber of Commerce, blames Jennings and her housemate, Panagioti Tsolkas, for earning the city a spot on the FBI's watch list for eco-terrorism in 2004 for showing a video in solidarity with jailed environmentalist and arsonist Jeff Luers.

"She's an obstructionist to progress, and you can quote me," the former mayor said. "She's just too negative."

Others are unbothered by her activities. Lynn Anderson, a member of two political action committees in the city, admires her determination, "and I'm old enough to be her grandmother."

Jennings grew up with four sisters in Cutler Ridge. Her family moved to Lantana, where she graduated from Santaluces High School. She attended Florida State University before leaving to embark upon her activist career.

For a while in the early years of this decade, she and other radical women lived in a house on North B Street. Now she owns a home on North C Street and supports herself with her $14,000 salary as a commissioner.

Jennings' activist reputation is well-earned. Some highlights of her résumé:

1994: Took 22 pounds of soap on a trip to Cuba with a Florida peace group to deliver toiletries, medical supplies and toys to a rural hospital and a school. She was 17 and raised the $1,000 for the trip herself.

Late 1990s: Created the Radical Cheerleader tactic with her older sister, Aimee, replacing typical protest chants with choreographed - sometimes profane - cheers to get their point across. "PIGS" begins with "Gimme a P." The concept spread globally.

2001: Dressed as a giant red tomato outside a Taco Bell on Okeechobee Boulevard to protest low farmworker wages. Her companions were a 92-year-old woman, an American Indian and a guy on stilts wearing an Uncle Sam suit.

2005: Organized a sit-in against The Scripps Research Institute locating at the Mecca Farms site. Rotten fruit was dumped in offices, and protesters chained themselves to stairway railings.

2006: Won an improbable race for the Lake Worth City Commission. "I never saw so many hippies running around Lake Worth in my life," one resident said.

She finished second in a four-way race in the general election by 374 votes, but revelations that her opponent, businessman Jorge Goyanes, once owned an escort service helped turn the runoff around. Jennings won by more than 600 votes.

"I begged her for years to run," said Sarah "echo" Steiner, an environmentalist who lives in the city. "She has put in years of sweat equity and is very loved by the people. I feel like finally there's somebody out there in touch with what the citizens want."

Even her opponents credit her for doing her homework and being prepared at commission meetings.

"She's one of our better commissioners. She actually goes and researches the material and doesn't rubber stamp anything," said Anderson, a supporter.

"I shouldn't be given credit for that," Jennings said. "I'm a paid employee of the residents. That's my job."

She rejected the idea that she has mellowed.

"I'm more willing to experiment in different ways to reach my goals, but I'm as passionate about social change as I was in the beginning," said Jennings, who persuaded the commission to take a symbolic vote opposing President Bush's surge in Iraq last year.

Although she's criticized the beach redevelopment plan with Greater Bay Group, she and Mayor Jeff Clemens - often at odds - joined in approving a day labor center.

"To elect an anarchist, someone who's anti-government to be in government ... it's a fluke," said Ramiccio, the chamber of commerce leader. "She'll never get reelected."

(palmbeachpost.com)

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