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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Advocate Francis Fitzpatrick causes stir at City Commission meeting

Francis “Pat” Fitzpatrick has been kicked out of more than two dozen Gainesville City Commission meetings.

He has run unsuccessfully for a seat on the commission three times.

He said he’s been arrested six times, once for refusing to leave a downtown restroom so the homeless could use it.

Some say the 61-year-old is annoying — a limelight-loving man who doesn’t know when to stop. Others say he’s passionate — an activist who lives for the cause.

Despite what anyone thinks, Fitzpatrick says he isn’t going anywhere.

“I think he’s a great guy,” said Joe Jackson, a UF law professor who represented Fitzpatrick in 2005. “He’s passionate and compassionate. He cares very deeply about the outcasts and rejects of society.”

Most recently, Fitzpatrick was escorted out of a City Commission morning meeting after he called commissioners “fascist a**holes.”

At the night meeting the same day, he crumbled up the paper he was reading and threw it onto the table in front of him while commissioners watched.

“Death to the fascist insects that prey upon the people!” he shouted.

He started to leave, paused and turned around.

“You lied to me! You lied to me!” he yelled, louder and angrier this time, at the commissioners.

“I want to get arrested.”

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He held out his wrists to an officer, who took his arm and walked him toward the door.

“Bastards,” he murmured under his breath.

Later that night, he said he knew he’d gone too far.

“I’m not doing that again,” he said. “That was 40 years of frustration.”

Nicholas Corrao, a former UF documentary student who made a film about Fitzpatrick, said Fitzpatrick’s enthusiasm can get out of hand.

“He’s just a genuine personality,” he said. “But he does have this explosive side.”

Fitzpatrick, who usually wears worn sneakers, a UF windbreaker over a basketball-sized belly and a baseball cap that hides his receding, wiry gray hair, calls himself an activist.

But he isn’t quite like the others.

He has a job. A few days of the week, he’s a special education substitute teacher. He runs a radio show, Protest Inc., where he plays music by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger on Grow Radio once a month. He plays the tambourine in an “acoustic peace punk” band, the Gainesville Liberation Orchestra.

He has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Central Florida, a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from UF and a master’s in social work from Florida State University.

He helped farmers in Immokalee, a Fla. town as famous for its laborers’ rights issues as UF is for its football players. He said he hid workers who were so mistreated by their bosses that they seemed to be in slavery, running them from house to house.

He said he fought the Hendry County School Board because it was suspending mentally challenged students.

He became an alcoholic and stopped drinking.

He was an addiction counselor who helped women inmates overcome methamphetamine and heroin addictions.

Now, he makes several calls each day to media and commissioners. Usually, when Fitzpatrick calls, he has news about his coalition’s next big move against the government. Other times, it’s just to talk.

His children, Daniel, 26, and Katie, 21, are grown, and his ex-wife, Karen, is still a close friend. They were married for 10 years and divorced in 1994.

He wakes up, not to the voice of a lover, but to a homeless male roommate. He drinks a Slim-Fast and a Pepsi for breakfast and is out the door.

If it’s the first or third Thursday of the month, he’ll drive his 1994 Ford to City Hall and wait. Sometimes he brings his “Feed Everyone” and “Fifth Meanest City to the Homeless” signs.

Now, he’s fighting a city permit that limits Gainesville soup kitchens to 130 meals a day.

It just so happens there’s only one soup kitchen in Gainesville the permit applies to, so the movement against the limit has evolved into a fight for the St. Francis House.

“The whole thing boils down to some mean-spirited people,” he said. “They’re trying to criminalize everyday needs.”

Kent Vann, executive director of St. Francis, said that he, not an activist, will speak for the St. Francis House.

He said he knows people are passionate about homeless issues, but cursing at commission meetings doesn’t help.

“I can’t contain other people’s emotions,” Vann said.

Three days before Thanksgiving, he held a one-man hunger strike on the steps of City Hall, armed with a full regalia of signs and attracting local media bit by bit.

“If Jesus was here, he’d be against the 130,” he said.

When the mayor gave his State of the City speech at a downtown theater in January, Fitzpatrick and about 20 other members of the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW gathered outside.

They picketed, they chanted and they smiled for TV and newspaper cameras. Fitzpatrick sat on a bench and watched. He said he knew the protest wouldn’t change the commissioners’ minds, but at least the media exposure would inform people about the issue.

During the protest, members of the coalition served homemade vegan chili and cornbread to the homeless. Technically, he said, distributing meals outside the theater is illegal, but Gainesville police at the protest didn’t stop them. Officers’ jobs were to keep the sidewalks clear and to make sure nothing got out of hand, Gainesville police Lt. Tim Hayes said.

“As long as everyone’s peacefully protesting, we’re not getting involved,” he said.

Fitzpatrick had been planning the protest for about two weeks. He called the media, the police and his lawyer.

“Let ‘em arrest me,” he said.

Fitzpatrick is the son of a former teachers union president and grew up in a Catholic, middle-class Orlando family. He’s still Catholic, a Secular Franciscan who goes to mass almost every day, but he’s taken a quasi-vow of poverty. He said he likes to live with little, but he’ll still splurge on a piece of cheesecake for lunch.

He said he’s been an activist since he returned from the Air Force; a 23-year-old ready to change the world. He was in the military during the Vietnam War but was stationed in San Francisco and Ft. Yukon, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle.

His current objective is to kill the meal limit.

Commissioners know he’s passionate, and some say he’s a nice guy outside of City Hall, but they think he needs a timeout.

After Fitzpatrick’s “fascist a**hole” outburst, Commissioner Lauren Poe suggested a three-month ban for citizens who get out of hand.

Fitzpatrick said being kicked out of meetings doesn’t faze him. He’ll leave the auditorium and go into a backroom press box where he’ll laugh with a reporter. He knows the commissioners can see him standing behind the tinted glass. But he doesn’t like the idea of a ban.

Get him started on the First Amendment, and you better be ready for a speech. But more than anything, if he feels a rule is immoral, nothing, not even a ban, will stop him from fighting it.

“Tell an American you can’t feed someone, and see what happens,” he said.

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