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Peace group wants barriers out

St. Pete for Peace maintains the barricades outside BayWalk infringe on free speech rights.

Published August 10, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Marshaling forces in response to the arrest of six protesters, the antiwar group St. Pete for Peace on Tuesday demanded the removal of barricades at BayWalk and may sue the city or the entertainment hub's owner on free speech grounds.

"Who does the St. Petersburg Police Department work for, the Sembler Co. or the citizens of St. Petersburg?" local attorney Mark Kamleiter said as more than 40 demonstrators looked on Tuesday evening.

Standing at Second Ave N and Second Street, the group portrayed Saturday night's arrests as part of a broader effort to stifle dissent in favor of business interests and a squeaky clean downtown image.

"We will not give up the public sidewalks that are paid for by all of the citizens of St. Petersburg," Winnie Foster said, fanning herself with a copy of the Constitution.

A few motorists were not impressed. "Losers," one man called out. On the balcony of Dish, a BayWalk restaurant, several children stood with an adult and called out, "George Bush. George Bush."

"Right on people, yell out," responded St. Pete for Peace organizer Chris Ernesto. "Let your voices be heard." All free speech deserves support, he said, even if he disagrees.

The arrests came about 8:30 p.m. Saturday when police say a 13-year-old boy obstructed the sidewalk. Then a man was arrested. When police put the two in a van, demonstrators locked hands to prevent it from leaving. Four more people were arrested, including two 16-year-olds and Ernesto, 41.

St. Pete for Peace, which has come to BayWalk for more than two years, said the trouble began when the city put up barricades last month. Officials said they were for pedestrian safety and to accommodate the group. But protesters Tuesday challenged the city or Sembler Co. to come up with an example of someone who had been hurt.

Kamleiter, who is affiliated with the ACLU, called the police action intimidation and said he was researching legal action. "Our initial feelings were this was an effort by the St. Petersburg Police Department, the Sembler Co. in combination with the mayor's office to limit free speech," he said.

Sembler Co. president Craig Sher said he discussed the situation with city leaders, who recommended the barriers stay in place. "It's a good balance between free speech and letting our customers get in," Sher said Tuesday.

"We're just going to stay the course," he said.

St. Pete for Peace said it would do the same, pledging to return this Saturday and every Saturday until the war is over.

But some say the group, for all its talk about free speech, has been antagonistic toward those with other views.

Guy Cote, a middle school teacher in Tampa who was at BayWalk July 30 to watch Wedding Crashers, said a man asked him if he'd been to Iraq after noticing the Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirt he wore. Cote said no, but that his brother had just returned from a yearlong tour.

"He called my brother a terrorist ... and a Nazi," Cote said. "He said they're killing innocent people over there and he wished my brother came home in a body bag." Cote, 36, said he told an officer he wanted to press charges of harassment against the protester.

The officer, Cote said, replied that he should complain to the mayor's office. He did.

"I fully understand the freedom of speech and support the freedom of speech," he said Tuesday. "But that does not give people the right to harass others."

Ernesto said he hadn't heard of the incident, but added, "We don't want any Americans killed or any Iraqis killed."

[Last modified August 10, 2005, 00:36:13]

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