Every week, you spot them on the side of the road, holding signs or chanting angry slogans. Grandmothers and grandchildren; mothers and fathers; students and aging hippies.
They're protesters, railing against the Iraq War and probably throwing in a jab at George W. Bush in the process. And as the war nears its fifth year, the number of peace vigils in Tampa Bay has exploded. A "surge," if you will.
Over the course of a month, I attended every regularly scheduled protest from Hillsborough to Pinellas County. I even talked to the flag-waving Lutz Patriots for a little balance. While every protest has a different vibe, I found they all have one similarity: hope. These concerned citizens hope the work they do on the streets will have an effect, if not on U.S. foreign policy then on the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens.
Tampa Vigil for Peace
When and where: Second Saturday of every month at Gandy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway.
Number of Protesters: 12
Signage: In addition to hand-written placards blasting Bush and the war, organizers have a huge banner announcing the number of U.S. killed in Iraq and eight flags representing Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the U.S.
Counter-Protesters: Unless you count passing motorists giving the finger, none.
Synopsis: It takes some real cojones to protest the Iraq war just a few miles north of the MacDill Air Force Base, but then again, many of these folks already have ties to the military. The majority of demonstrators at this Tampa gathering are veterans who have seen combat. Vietnam. Grenada. Even World War II.
"I figure if anybody can do it, I can," says WWII vet Bud Holly. "What else am I going to do? Go to the old man's home and get a room?"
As Holly quietly holds his "Honor the warrior, not the war" sign toward passing motorists, Vietnam vet John Kieffer shouts through a megaphone. "Bush is a puke," he yells. "Bush is a coward."
Jay Alexander, a prominent anti-war activist and Veterans for Peace member, organized this demonstration two years ago to keep the war fresh in people's minds. It's not been without conflict.
"People were throwing eggs at us," says Alexander, 50. "We had people try and run us over."
With the afternoon sun high in the air, the protest drags on. Alexander and the others sweat profusely. Just when I think of leaving, 42-year-old John Palm comes on the scene with a "Honk 4 Peace" sign and a djembe drum. Within minutes, a cacophony of beeps fills the intersection. Even a city bus driver and Tampa police officer honk.
Alexander smiles for the first time in two hours.
"Now I'm feeling a lot better," he says.
Clearwater Peace Cornering
When and Where: Every Tuesday at the corner of Nursery and Belcher roads.
Number of Protesters: 9
Signage: Dull. Someone get these peaceniks some different-colored markers!
Synopsis: Organized by the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, this peace cornering has the feel of a church event (which, I guess, it is). The small group has stood solemnly outside this Walgreen's every week for the last three months. A few of them, like Marilyn Toman and Barbara Olsen, both 80, had never attended a demonstration before joining this one. The women giggle when people give them the finger. Others, like Marlene Calderone, 65, marched in the streets against Vietnam.
"Unless we stand on this street corner and question the legitimacy of the government, then those people out there will say, 'See, nobody cares,'" says Fred Seidl. "Somebody has got to say, 'This is bullshit.'"
St. Pete for Peace at Baywalk
When and Where: First and last Saturdays of every month at Second Avenue and Second Street North in downtown St. Pete.
Number of Protesters: 18
Signage: Excellent homemade signs like "Fry the War Pig" and "Part of the Anti-War majority." One man even dressed up as George W. Bush.
Counter-Protesters: There is no organized counter-protest, but there are enough drunken frat boys leaving Baywalk bars to make up a sizable contingent.
Synopsis: If you're searching for the youngest, most radical group of protesters, look no further than St. Pete for Peace. This truly diverse crowd of Democrats, anarchists and tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorists has lined downtown's most consumerist corner for nearly five years. And though the protesters haven't succeeded in ending the war, the trials faced by St. Pete for Peace — including arrests and violence — have paved the way for free speech rights in the Sunshine City.
Of course, some of the protesters like to push those rights to the limit, like one fellow with a sign declaring, "The troops are murderers." The sentiment inspires numerous polo-shirt-wearing passersby to threaten the group with violence.
"I've served this country and you're not Americans," one man slurs as his girlfriend tries to hold him back. "I have served this country! What have you done?!"
He ends up pushing one of the protesters into the street before leaving.
"We may not get the numbers that we want," says Chris Ernesto, 44, "but if rhetoric against Iran escalates, people will know where to come."
Dunedin Peace Cornering
When and Where: Every Wednesday at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in downtown Dunedin.
Number of Protesters: 8
Signage: The standard stuff like "Honk 4 Peace" and the number of soldiers killed in Iraq.
Counter-Protesters: A man dressed in a Captain America suit and six of his friends (see below).
Synopsis: The vibe of the Dunedin Peace Cornering is much like Dunedin itself: small, crunchy and a little quirky.
"You can watch America's attitude toward the war change as their attitudes toward us change," says organizer Melissa Baird.
This two-year-old protest is pretty basic, much like the Clearwater vigil, except for one element: "Captain Underpants" (as the anti-war demonstrators call him), a former marine who dresses up in a Captain America costume and stands on a ladder holding an American flag in one hand and a sign ("I support the troops and the war") in the other.
"I just figured someone else ought to come out and present the other side," explains Derrick Haefs, 38, as his group nods in affirmation. "We came to poop in their punchbowl."
Back at the anti-war demonstration, protester Jackie Hayes points out some of the lessons learned from "peace cornering." She can spot certain adversaries by the type of vehicle they drive. "Hummers hate us," she notes.
Lutz Patriots' Flag Waving
When and Where: Every Friday in front of the Old Lutz Schoolhouse on U.S. 41.
Number of Protesters: 7
Signage: American flags. Lots of 'em.
Synopsis: Honestly, I was a bit nervous about attending this weekly vigil. Public displays of nationalism can be truly frightening. But the Lutz Patriots were a welcoming bunch. (Except for Bruce from North Tampa, who wouldn't give me his last name because I work for a "liberal left-wing newspaper.")
Since April 2003, the Lutz Patriots have stood on U.S. 41 and waved American flags to show their support for the troops.
"We're not making a political statement," insists Barbara Mueller, who organized this with her sister when the Iraq War began. "We're not pro-war or against war. We're just telling the guys over there that we care about them."
It's true. In the hour I spend with the group, they never make a snide comment about Hillary Clinton or the media. And the response from the passing motorists is very positive. From semi-trucks to police, nearly every vehicle honks at the group. When a school bus cruises by, a dozen kids stick their heads out of the window and sing the "Star-Spangled Banner."
To top it all off, one Lutz Patriot hands out homemade fudge. Now that's a good way to win hearts and minds.