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Despite arrests, protests to go on

Anti-war protesters say they are planning to return to BayWalk again next Saturday night.

By MEGAN SCOTT, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Despite the arrests of six anti-war protesters outside BayWalk, members of the group vowed Sunday to return next weekend.

"We've been doing this for 21/2 years," said Marianne Huber, whose husband, Chris Ernesto, was one of those arrested. "We're not going to let this stop us.

"We will be back every Saturday as a peaceful anti-war protest group."

The St. Pete for Peace demonstration on Saturday came to a climax about 8:30 p.m., when a 14-year-old was arrested for obstructing a city sidewalk.

Then Michael O'Neil, 33, was arrested after police said he trespassed on BayWalk property.

Police said the two were put in the back of a prisoner transport van. A group of protesters then linked arms and stood in front of the van to keep it from leaving.

That led to the arrest of four others, including Ernesto, 41, a group organizer; James Dunson, 20, of Lakeland; and two 16-year-old boys. They were arrested on charges of failure to obey a lawful command and obstructing traffic.

Dunson also faces a charge of resisting arrest without violence.

Peter Likins, one of the 16-year-olds, said Sunday he had been joining the group for about a month. He said he opposed the war in Iraq, and wanted to exercise his right of free speech.

"The only time I really felt scared was when they took out the pepper spray," said Likins, of St. Petersburg. "I didn't really feel empowered. I thought it was something I needed to do."

He said he would return with the protesters, but would not do anything to get arrested.

The arrests on Saturday come as BayWalk addresses concerns from merchants that loitering teenagers and war protesters are hurting their businesses.

Every Saturday night, about 20 members of St. Pete for Peace hold banners and pass out fliers opposing the Iraq war.

"The implication is we're some vigilante group," Huber said. "We were not attacking the van. We're a peaceful anti-war group. There is some civil disobedience going on."

Demonstrator Amanda Koutsourais scoffed at the idea that the group's protests hurt the businesses.

"Show me their books proving they are making less money, and prove that it's us and not the economy doing that to them," she said.

Koutsourais said organizers had decided to stop the protests every Saturday night. But they were angered when the police put up metal barricades on the north side of Second Avenue N.

They started to feel pushed out, even though they were assured it was only for safety reasons.

"I was assured that the protesters' right to continue protesting was not being prevented by the barricades," Council member Richard Kriseman said. "Now do they have as much freedom as they did before those went up? Probably not."

The barricades actually hinder pedestrian movement, Koutsourais said. It is almost impossible to walk from one end to the other without venturing onto BayWalk property or into the street, she said.

Council member James Bennett said a better solution would be to close one lane on Second Avenue N Friday and Saturday nights. That would create more room for the protesters and patrons to move around.

"People have the right to assemble and speak their minds," he said. "But also people have (the) right to come down and go to dinner.

"Let there be room to protest and let there be room to have commerce, go to the movies and go to dinner. They can all coexist."

--Megan Scott can be reached at 727 445-4167 or mscott@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 8, 2005, 02:45:22]


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