Group Therapy

Comfort in numbers é however small é on the streets of St. Pete.

As the inaugural parade began its slow trot through Washington on Thursday afternoon, a small group with more than a big chip on its shoulder marched up Central Avenue. "Bush needs an education," said Tracy Brooks, a member of St. Pete for Peace, the group that organized the event. "He needs to realize the difference between oppression and freedom." Standing outside the corporate headquarters of developer Mel Sembler, a leading Republican fundraiser and the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Brooks admitted that the march probably wasn't going to teach Bush much; the protest site was, after all, 960 miles from the White House. But telling the president off wasn't the only reason to be on the street. "This is to bring people together and let them know they're not alone," she said. It was also a way to avoid spending the afternoon in front of the TV with a box of Kleenex. "I didn't want to watch it," said Barbara Giorgio, 60, as she pushed her 2-year-old grandson Jonathan in a stroller during the march. "You don't realize there are so many people like you until you come to something like this." In all, 48 people paraded up Central, holding signs that read "NOT MY PRESIDENT," "IMPEACH THE BASTARD" and "TORTURE IS NOT A MORAL VALUE." The group was small compared to the demonstrations in Washington, New Orleans and other cities around the country Thursday afternoon. But it was important to be there, they said. It was important to make their dissent heard. A student from Miami named Poncho Popcorn (this may be an alias, the Planet believes) said she came to St. Petersburg because Miami activism has faded in the wake of brutal police reaction to trade-talk protests in 2003. Still, she had to do something, she said. "You can't just sit on your ass and complain. That's agreeing." Like the rallies in the weeks leading up to last November's election, Thursday's march was a chance for the footsoldiers on the right and the left to have it out. Along the route, demonstrators were cheered on - and flicked off - by passing cars. "Four more years! Four more years!" chanted one man who drove by. "Get over it." For some on the left, the guy may have a point. Even though a few of Thursday's protesters believed the election was rigged, most conceded that Bush had won. That meant their guy (or at least their default guy) had lost. The fight, one could assume, was over for now. Yet many of the folks marching Thursday, including 16-year-old Paige Salter, remained optimistic. "If we can change one person's mind here today, then it's worth it," said the Port Charlotte High junior, who refuses to stand for the pledge of allegiance. "It may be just 50 here, 25 there," said Jack Crocetto, 44. "But that's how all good things start. There are people that we can reach — and we will." As the march wound down, many of the demonstrators retired to a nearby park to munch on oranges and rest. They sat around laughing, trading stories and talking on cell phones to friends who had made it to D.C. Mauricio Vasquez, another organizer for St. Pete for Peace, said he was happy with the turnout. "It gives me hope," he said. "Not to change the system, but to change the agenda." With a Republican majority in the House and Senate and a president whose new favorite word is mandate, it'll be a challenge to change the agenda anytime soon. But at least for an afternoon, these folks could blow off some steam —- and remind themselves they weren't alone.

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