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Free to disagree

Americans appreciate their freedoms more than before - including the right to protest.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002

Americans appreciate their freedoms more than before -- including the right to protest.

It was Sunday, May 26, more than eight months after Sept. 11. The patriotic fever that swept the country had faded, but most people were still solidly behind the war in Afghanistan. That night, as they often do, people gathered along Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa to wave American flags and acknowledge the cheers from motorists.

A few hours earlier and a few miles away, outside the entrance to MacDill Air Force Base, several hundred other people lined a different road and carried different banners. W is for War, Stop War-Cry Peace and Impeachment Now. Their cause -- a peace rally -- was far less popular. Passing motorists either stared or glared.

The Bayshore Patriots say they'll wave their flags until the war ends. Some would say it's a heroic effort.

The other group, a coalition ranging from the American Indian Movement to the Florida Alliance for Peace and Social Justice, risked ridicule and arrest to make their statement that Sunday.

They would say their efforts were just as heroic.

Dwight Lawton doesn't look the part of a radical. He's 71, a retired commercial truck-leasing manager. He should be holding a 9-iron, not a protest sign and a bullhorn.

But because of his beliefs, Lawton has spent time in jail. He has been arrested six or seven times for demonstrating against the government, big business and the military. He's a union organizer, a Green Party member and a Christian who lives alone in a Pinellas Point condo.

When the organizers of the May 26 peace rally looked for someone to lead an act of civil disobedience, to be a calming, steady force during what could be a tense situation, Lawton was the logical choice.

He decided early on that the protest in front of MacDill would not be a surprise event. Several weeks before the rally, Lawton spoke with the Tampa Police Department to let them know what was planned and to emphasize that it would be peaceful. Demonstrators would probably block an access road to the base, he said, but they were not going into the base.

Still, he was worried.

"We really didn't know if we'd have enough people," Lawton said recently at his home. "If you're going to do civil disobedience, I believe you've got to sit down and talk about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Jesus and what it means. We did not do that because we didn't have a commitment from people ahead of time."

But they secured a permit to hold a rally in the park across the street, and as May 26 approached, Lawton grew hopeful.

"There's another aspect to being a good citizen," he said. "Dissent. The people who do this generally feel the political process has left them behind. They don't have a voice. And they have an opposition to war in varying degrees. They are good people."

Several hundred demonstrators showed up at the park that day. A like number of police stood off to the side, waiting and watching in helicopters, in patrol cars and on horseback. "I've often wondered," Lawton said, chuckling, "how many police it takes to protect the military."

After a few speeches, Lawton raised a bullhorn and asked if anyone wanted to take part in another form of protest. He explained that they would simply walk into the road in front of the gates and sit down.

Nine people threaded through the crowd and joined Lawton at the curb. He was the first to step out into the street. One by one, the tiny group sat in the road.

"I was just concerned that . . . I wouldn't get run over," Lawton said. "That's how courageous I am."

As dozens of peace activists cheered from the side of the road, the demonstrators were handcuffed and shackled around their waists and ankles. There were no fights, no struggles. Everyone went peacefully to the windowless Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office van.

To help take their mind off the 90-degree heat, the people in the van made small talk, told jokes and tried to get know each other.

"I was sitting next to a woman who turned out to be underage," Lawton remembered. "She was 16 or 17. We never would've let her come with us if we had known.

"But she was fine. Kind of a blithe spirit.

"We needed that."

It took seven hours to process the protesters at the Orient Road jail. They were originally charged with unlawful assembly, but that was changed to resisting arrest without violence. Each person's bail was set at $50.

Lawton was asked recently whether he thinks the U.S. troops in Afghanistan were heroes.

"The troops were," he answered. "The grunts. But the leaders weren't. They knew this was about oil. That this was just an opportunity to expand our influence and set up a friendly government over there.

"And they're killing civilians."

That night, there was scant mention of the protest at MacDill on the local TV news, and in the papers the next morning, only a few short items.

Julie Sargent is a stay-at-home mom and one of the founding members of the Bayshore Patriots.

"We do have freedom of speech in this country," she said, referring to the protesters. "And they are free to express what they believe. But it's really because the military has protected our freedom that gives us that freedom.

"And they were sitting down, blocking the road. I bet they wouldn't have been arrested if they had not been in the road. Carrying signs is fine. But when they sat down and blocked the entrance, that crossed the line."

Lawton and other protesters knew blocking the road was illegal. They knew they would be arrested. But that was the price they were willing to pay to symbolically close down MacDill Air Force Base.

"What does dissent mean?" Lawton asked. "It means maybe getting ridiculed and arrested, and maybe losing your friends or the respect of your children. Maybe losing your job. Those are very real fears for a lot of people.

"Is what we did heroic?

"I spent a few hours in jail. There are people around the world who have been jail for years, many who've given their lives, to stop war and end injustice.

"They're the heroes."

- Tom Zucco is a Times staff writer.

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