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Counterdemonstrators' brave protest deserves protection

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001

I've only been a counterdemonstrator once and that was enough to know I don't have it in me.

Oh, I've been to plenty of rallies -- pro-choice marches, Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations. But the only time I've been the outsider, crashing someone else's party, was in demonstrating against capital punishment outside a state prison in Utah.

There, in 1987, a number of celebrators were whooping it up as convicted murderer Pierre Dale Selby was put to death. Standing a few yards away were a handful of protesters, myself included, there to remind the public not everyone agreed that killing in the name of the state was okay.

It takes a certain kind of mettle to be a counterdemonstrator, there to take the slings of a typically much larger crowd that has been whipped up by the emotion of the moment. I didn't like the feeling of being at potential physical risk for expressing my contrary views, so I haven't done it again. But I have the utmost respect for those who do.

This is what came to mind as I watched raw news footage of the arrest of gay rights activist Mauricio Rosas at President Bush's recent tax cut rally in Tampa. As Rosas, 37, and two fellow demonstrators, both older women, were handcuffed and pulled out of the stadium by uniformed Tampa police, they appeared as tragic heroes. A nearby crowd spat insults at the arrestees and cheered in celebration of the repression occuring before them.

After he had been charged with trespass and released from police custody, Rosas described his ordeal:

He had gotten a fistful of tickets to the June 4 Bush rally by simply requesting them at the Legends Field box office. The event at the publicly financed stadium had been publicized as open to any member of the public who wanted tickets, and Rosas said he was handed tickets with no questions asked about his political beliefs or affiliations.

On the day of the event, as he and his friends walked toward the stadium entrance with protest signs written on letter-size paper, a Tampa city police officer called out: "You can't go in there with those signs." But since he knew his First Amendment rights, Rosas said, he just kept on walking.

Inside, on the stadium field, his small sign reading "June is Gay Pride Month," was dwarfed by the sea of large pro-Bush signs. Still, he and his friends kept their signs raised.

This is where the news footage picks up: Rosas and his friends are nearly surrounded by pro-Bush ralliers with whom they are engaged in heated conversation -- something to be expected for counterprotesters. Then, a Tampa police officer arrives, and a man in a business suit with no discernable authority directs the officer to the three counterdemonstrators by pointing and saying, "This one, this one and this one." According to Rosas, the suited man told him, "Get rid of the gay sign, take a Bush sign and you can stay."

Also on the tape, which is full of jostling and was periodically interrupted by Bush supporters thrusting their signs directly in front of the camera lense, a Tampa police officer can be seen calling for backup and telling the counterdemonstrators if they get rid of the signs they can stay. No one with a pro-Bush sign is similarly confronted. As they are arrested, Rosas says the crowd taunts them by chanting, "We don't want queers here."

In the aftermath of this exceptionally poor and unconstitutional show, no one wanted to take responsibility: Tampa police first blamed the Secret Service and then Legends Field security for directing them to make the unjustified arrests. The Bush White House couldn't decide whether its open-to-the-public, taxpayer-supported rally at a publicly owned stadium was "public" and subject to the First Amendment or whether it was private, like a church wedding, where interlopers could be ejected. And the New York Yankees organization, which runs Legends Field, avoided answering any questions at all by aggressively cowering. It simply refused to respond to press queries. (Six calls from me alone.)

Despite all this finger-pointing and all these excuses, the fact remains that Mauricio Rosas' gay pride sign went unseen for much of the rally. He was silenced by police determined to remove anyone indicating dissent toward the president.

Rosas is considering bringing a civil rights action. He should. Counterdemonstrators are a brave lot, willing to be in a place full of opponents in order to offer an alternative viewpoint. Theirs is a valuable addition to our marketplace of ideas.

And in a free society, the police have a duty to protect them, not arrest them.

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