Save The Children

A hate-crimes bill keeps getting shelved, and some protesters are willing to "die" for its passage

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click to enlarge DEATH WATCH: Protesters demonstrated last week at St. Pete's Straub Park to support legislation protecting students from violence and harassment. - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
DEATH WATCH: Protesters demonstrated last week at St. Pete's Straub Park to support legislation protecting students from violence and harassment.

The corpses must be hot. They're lying on the bricks, out in the sun, and most of them are wearing black. It's a bit breezy out, but it's also one hell of a beatific mid-April weekday afternoon, and the scattered groups of trees around this part of St. Pete's waterfront Straub Park act as natural windbreaks. Our famous Florida sunlight beats down unimpeded on the seven young bodies splayed in front of the pavilion, soaking into the dark, absorbent hues of their clothing and making further mess of the wet redness smeared across faces and inner forearms.

No, that can't be comfortable.

Still, they're doing very well.

They're hardly moving at all.

On the ground next to each body is a cardboard square with candles and a note attached. Most are suicide notes, but all of them make clear that these kids, whether they "died" by their own hand or at the hands of others, are all victims of schoolyard hate crimes - crimes sanctioned by the inability or refusal of state lawmakers to label them as such.

Behind the prone models stand 10 other protesters. Most are obviously in high school or perhaps their first year of college, though they're joined by a trio of gray-haired ladies. Some of the participants are dressed to indicate ethnicity or alternative lifestyle - a young man wears a yarmulke, a young woman is more blatantly Goth-ed out than the rest, and one of the male corpses sports a stylish, shimmering mid-length skirt - and, black shirts, black makeup and black clunky boots or no, all of them (save the matrons) radiate the unmistakable aura of Good Kid.

They've all got posterboard signs declaring "Florida's Teachers and Students Deserve Safe Schools," and mourning the death of the Student Safety and Campus Violence Prevention Act. A few mention South Florida Representative Rafael "Ralph" Arza by name; the protester in the center, a tall guy in a blazer named Rick Robertson, wears a copy of Rep. Arza's face over his own.

(At least, I assume it's Rep. Arza's likeness. The black-and-white photocopy also resembles an actor I can't name but remember from reruns of various TV westerns like Gunsmoke, but that wouldn't make any sense, would it?)

The Student Safety and Campus Violence Prevention Act is designed to make the state's schools safer by specifically outlawing all prejudicial and bias-based harassment, and outlining protocols and educational programs for defining, recognizing and avoiding such harassment. It's been introduced into the state legislature five times, though according to the guy who answered the phone at Arza's Tallahassee office, this past March was the first time the bill actually made it into committee. Its progress was once again halted on March 29, allegedly when Rep. Arza forced a vote on the bill while one of its supporters was absent.

(At press time, Rep. Arza had not responded to requests for comment on his opposition to the bill, and the circumstances of its being voted down.)

And so this group of kids - many of whom traveled to Tallahassee to lobby for the bill's passage - has come to a particularly lovely little piece of Pinellas County to stage a particularly ugly scene, a scene that could be avoided, they believe, with passage of the Student Safety and Campus Prevention Act. Because they think it could help keep other kids from getting killed.

Just after 3:30, a young man who identifies himself only as Anulak reads from a prepared Statement of Protest. It sounds like one of the suicide notes.

"Dear Diary," he begins. "I've been so miserable for the longest time. I'm bullied every day at school and no one seems to care…"

Melodramatic, but effective.

Aside from the small pod of police officers gathered a hundred yards away in the shade of a massive tree, a handful of spectators gather. Most of them are either with the students, or walking their dogs around Straub Park and attracted by the singular creepiness of the tableau. One of the cops rides his bike over to the scene. An older guy who's obviously here with the protesters explains, a bit unnecessarily, that the corpses aren't really dead; the cop explains that he knows that, and heads off.

Another man wanders close to read the suicide notes.

"Those are the kids who bring more guns to school than anyone else," he mutters as he walks away, hitting on the point while simultaneously missing it by roughly one million light years.

The protesters stand, and lie, for another half hour. A list of goals - all of which would pretty much be accomplished by the passage of the failed bill - is read. Several young people circle the periphery, handing out media kits, taking pictures and videotaping the event. Then the corpses rise like smiling, makeup-encrusted prankster zombies. They congratulate each other, review their performances, and take questions from the two or three reporters still around.

The way these kids understand it, it's the specific wording of the bill that has some conservative legislators so concerned about its passing: specifically, the part about including particular "lifestyle choices" along with all that other stuff about race, and creed, and color.

"[Arza] has a problem with bills that provide for sexual orientation and gender identity," says Rick Robertson, the Arza impersonator who helped organize the protest. "He has ties to the Christian Coalition, and was quoted somewhere as saying he was worried that including that kind of language might act as a back door for more gay rights legislation."

Those present take pains to make it clear that they don't recognize any kind of political organization, that they're not affiliated with any larger liberal movement - they're just students who want to know why something they see as so obviously plain and crucial isn't being given the attention it deserves. And even though the lack of attention given today's demonstration might cause an observer to consider it a failure, the group is uniformly galvanized. They're simply all smiles, because they've done something: they've made their dissatisfaction known.

"This legislation has been up for review five times," says Robertson. "We'll definitely have a sixth. And next time, it better pass."

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