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Protest outside Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's office ends on civil note

BROOKSVILLE — They threatened civil disobedience.

But when high noon came hot and humidly over U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's district office on Wednesday, the demonstrators obeyed the law.

And it all went down civilly.

Ten members of the Nature Coast Coalition for Peace and Justice decided not to protest to the point of arrest when sheriff's deputies showed up at the Brooksville Republican's office and asked them to leave.

"We appreciate the cooperation," Sgt. Michael Burzumato told the demonstrators as they moved away from Brown-Waite's front door.

The demonstrators were there to push for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and to show support for a national health care plan.

The coalition has already protested at Brown-Waite's new office location once, back in April not long after she moved. They'd been warned then that, while Brown-Waite is a representative of the public, the new strip mall that sprouted on the south side of Spring Hill Drive near the National Guard Armory is private property.

That means demonstrators don't have the luxury of setting up right outside the Brown-Waite's window, as they did when she occupied a first floor office in the historic courthouse in downtown Brooksville.

Activist Brian Moore's group argues that barring protests from the property violates the constitutional right to be heard by their elected representative.

Moore, who ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in November, sent out an e-mail last week with the heading, "Controversy Over Location to Demonstrate May Come to a Head as Some Demonstrators Plan to March in the Parking Lot Directly in Front of Her New Business Mall Location."

But would they go so far as to get arrested to make their point?

A few minutes after the coalition set up in the parking lot toting signs with slogans like "Health Care, Not Warfare," a representative from Regent Properties of Clearwater appeared.

"You're on private property," Robert Berg, Regent's marketing coordinator warned. "Please leave."

Berg said the Sheriff's Office had already been called. The demonstrators stayed put, though, until a cruiser pulled up and Burzumato emerged.

Hands on his belt, Burzumato politely told Moore that they were in fact on private property. They would have to leave and move their cars from the parking lot.

The group set up 50 feet away in a ditch between Spring Hill Drive and the mall property.

That stretch of land is too close to the road and unsafe, and isn't close enough to Brown-Waite's office to have an impact, Moore has said.

But as he stood a few feet from the roaring traffic, sign in hand, Moore conceded that coalition members never planned to get arrested.

He'd been in touch with the ACLU, who said that wouldn't help the group's case and might even hurt it.

"Like one of my colleagues said, you have to be like a fox," Moore said. "They want you to get arrested so your credibility is destroyed."

Among the demonstrators was BetteJo Indelicato, a 48-year-old Hudson resident who's been handcuffed trying to make a point. Indelicato has been arrested twice in Washington, D.C. while protesting the war in Iraq.

"What is she afraid of?" Indelicato said of Brown-Waite. "We're not out to harm. We're becoming paranoid of our own citizens, which is a very bad thing."

That's not the case, the congresswoman's staffers said.

As first reported by the St. Petersburg Times in May, Brown-Waite said she moved to consolidate her Brooksville and Dade City offices into one location with more space, guaranteed parking, better handicapped accessibility, and a private meeting room.

"The whole point of the move was to have a better place for constituents," said Cassie Smedile, Brown-Waite's spokeswoman. "It's just a much more accommodating space for constituents, and that really is the top priority."

The strip mall actually sits on county property, but Regent has a 30-year lease that gives the company property control, said Mike McHugh, the county's director of business development. Regent officials have said that they put a clause in tenant leases forbidding demonstrations because of problems at other properties.

But Berg tried to be accommodating Wednesday, telling the group that they were welcome to stand a few feet onto Regent's property to stay out of the ditch and away from the road.

"That way it's safer," he said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Protest outside Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's office ends on civil note 06/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 8:57pm]

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