When I arrived in Florida and started working out how I was going to get around I realised the trip from Lake Worth to Sarasota which had looked like it should be simple was going to prove difficult. There was no Greyhound stop in Lake Worth so to get to the 'All Power to the Imagination' conference in Sarasota it looked like I'd have to catch a very early morning Tri-Rail to Fort Lauerdale and walk a couple of km there to the Greyhound station to catch what would be a day long bus sequence to Sarasota. So in both Miami and Lake Worth I'd been trying to find anyone else heading for the conference.
This seemed unlikely as my Lake Worth meeting was late enough in the evening to mean that driving from the time it was liable to end at would only get me into Sarasota in the early morning, missing the conference opening and the party that was due to take place after it. It didn't seem like anyone who wasn't already doing an evening meeting in Lake Worth would hang around so late. But in the afternoon before the meeting in Lake Worth I got a call from someone involved in Food not Bombs who was heading over late and could pick me along with another FnBer up.
This worked out well. She arrived just a few minutes before the meeting ended so I grabbed my bag and we headed out the door. The third person turned out to be a teenager who lived in a fancy gated community and I had the amusing experience of his concerned father coming out to ask me to look after his son. I just kept my mouth shut.
The problem that emerged as we set off was that none of the three of us had any idea of quite how to get to Sarasota beyond following the road signs and none of us knew how far away it was either. It tuned out the driver had just moved to Florida and the teenager had either never travelled that way or never paid attention to the route. We also had no idea where the New University campus was in Sarasota or how to find the conference when we got there.
Sarasota of course was the other side of Florida and too small to appear on the sign posts but we did have a scribbled set of instructions telling us which roads to follow so off we set. These we discovered took us through 'Alligator Alley', a cross road running through the swamps of central Florida to hook up with the coast road on the other side. As it was dark I didn't get to see any alligators, apparently they do come up onto the road. The driver was a bit worried by this, I remember we had a long running joke around the various ways alligators could ambush passing motorists. In the event we passed time by talking about Food not Bombs and watching the periodic clouds of insects impacting the wind screen.
After a couple of hours we were off the cross road and back on the main coastal highway heading north. Worringly Sarasota was not yet appearing on any road signs, a warning that it was probably further away than we had imagined. We were also running low on gas without a petrol station in sight. Eventually we did spot one on the other side of the road so we swung off to come back down the other side to it. Unfortunately when we got going again we realised after a while that we were heading south rather than north and it turned out to be around 15 miles before we hit the next exit and the ability to come off and rejoin the northerly heading side.
Eventually we started to see Sarasota included on the signs but still quite some distance away. We worked out to was going to be 2.30 am by the time we arrived. Now my experience of North Americans was that they were not that inclined to stay up late and this coupled with my assumption that this would be another vast campus had me worrying that we were not going to be able to locate the conference (or that everyone would be in bed) and we'd be sleeping in the car that night.
Eventually we hit the Sarasota turnoff but couldn't spot any signs for the college. So we took a guess and set off in what we hoped was the direction of the coast as I'd seen from google maps that it was on the coast. We drove for a worringly long time but then started to see signs for the airport and I thought I remembered it being near the airport on the maps. Once near the airport we saw signs for the campus and realised it was split on both sides of the highway, so again we took a guess and opted for the side further from the sea. We came across a car park that included an obvious overload of cars and guessed that this was probably the conference attendees.
At this point I was still worried that we'd be wandering around a vast campus but in fact it turns out the New School in Florida is really small, with only around 750 students. The car park we had pulled into was that for the students building and the residences. The union building itself was shut but we followed the sound of music to find an outdoor party in full swing in a small court yard surrounded by palm trees and three story concrete buildings. There turned out to be the student residences which surrounded 'Palm Court', the centre of campus night life. In one of the ground floor residences we discovered a break away party with more of the Food not Bombs people and some students.
At this point I was still unaware of the small scale of the campus and so was expecting a formal arrangement of registration for the allocation of sleeping places etc. Being 2.30am I was resigned to not being able to do this until the next morning and looking around for a clear patch of floor I could try and put a sleeping bag into. But it turned out things were not that formal and we were told that there might be some room in the apartment of a student upstairs. We went up and knocked and found her on her way to bed.
It turned out she was pretty unaware of the conference but seemed quite relaxed at the though of a couple of complete strangers turning up at 2.30 am to crash in her place. I later realised this was typical of the New School but at the time was fearful of her changing her mind and locking us out so I decided the safest thing to do was not to return to the party downstairs but to try and get some sleep despite the noise. For most of the trip I was fearful of losing out on a nights sleep as I knew I couldn't be sure of a chance to catch up the next day and so might end up spending days in a state of near exhaustion. Actually this never happened and I regret not being a bit more adventurous at times like these. On the other hand I've a bad habit of enjoying parties too much and staying up as long as the drink lasts, even if that takes till 10am so perhaps getting to bed was the smarter move.
Next morning I awoke early and got out to leave space for our kind host. This was the first year of the conference which had been organised by students at the college so some of the organisational end was a bit hit and miss. Overall though most things worked out well enough. I don't remember all the sessions that I attended but they include one on Anarchists and the Academy that I found heavy going at the time but sparked off a set of thoughts on the subject that I've pursued on and off for months. This has however included the tendency to lecture PhD students when I'm drunk about their responsibility to make sure there research is available to our side as well as the other side.
At 'The Infoshop is not the Revolution' I met my hosts in the next city I'd be heading for, Gainesville. They were involved in the Civic Media Center, a long running (15 years) infoshop in Gainesville. One of them had been at the college as a student years before and filled me in on its history when a few of us took a walk down to the shore and visited the rather odd stately home that had been built there, complete with Roman statues by a family that had made it rich through running a circus. College life had always been pretty wild and apparently there was a major drive by the management to try and calm things down which included moving trustees into the dorms to keep an eye on the students at night.
The former Black Panther and BLA member Ashanti Alston was speaking at the conference, his session was very interesting as he had none of the dogma that tends to infect older activists (includng me!) and was quite sensibly critical of the Panther experience and the left of that period. I reckoned he would make a good speaker for the Dublin anarchist bookfair and when I asked him after the meeting if he'd be interested in trip to Ireland he replied that 'that would be like a dream come true'. So about 8 months later I met him again in Dublin where the WSM had brought him over as a keynote speaker for the anarchist bookfair. I recorded his talk in Sarasota, you can listen to it at http://www.indymedia.ie/attachments/apr2008/ashanti.mp3
I'd guess the total attendance at the conference was in the region of 60, or 70 people and 26 of these attended my own talk at Sunday lunchtime. Pretty soon after that we left for what (to me) was quite a long drive on a hot day to Gainesville. The All Power to the Imagination conference continued the following year and at the point I'm finally finishing off this longer blog entry the third one is being advertised for March 2010.
You'll find blog enteries for all 44 stops of my North American speaking tour on the site, I'm slowly returning to them and fleshing these out, you'll find the ones I have done this with at the Extending the accounts of my North American speaking tour page.