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Lone war protester ends 'patriotic duty' near MacDill Air Force Base, changes goals

Jay Alexander sits in front of a protest sign outside his Pinellas County home. Though often subjected to taunts, Alexander says there was also plenty of positive reaction as he protested in Tampa.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Jay Alexander sits in front of a protest sign outside his Pinellas County home. Though often subjected to taunts, Alexander says there was also plenty of positive reaction as he protested in Tampa.

TAMPA — Jay Alexander felt it all protesting America's wars at an intersection near MacDill Air Force Base since 2006.

But the eggs, spit and middle fingers aimed at him couldn't dent his resolve. Every month, he'd load a cooler of water, a chair, an American flag and antiwar signs into his car and drive from home in St. Petersburg to a spot on Dale Mabry Highway and Gandy Boulevard.

He was one man with a Veterans for Peace cap on his head, fighting to end wars in plain view of military members on their way to work at MacDill, where U.S. Central Command directs the battles Alexander protested.

After six years, Alexander finally laid down his signs this week.

But it wasn't because President Barack Obama had ordered the troops home or because the hoots and curses had finally affected him. He quit because he was tired of protesting alone, and frustrated he didn't have support from other peace organizations that he says were too cliquish and political in deciding what causes and events to support.

His decision to quit was, in a way, in protest of the protesters.

"It shouldn't be competition," he said. "It should be cooperation."

Alexander, 54, served in the Army one year before he was honorably discharged. He was in Panama during the 1989 U.S. invasion that ousted Manuel Noriega and saw enough body bags to know he had enough.

Since moving to St. Petersburg in the early 2000s, he began protesting with various groups and causes such as the Uhuru Movement and Cities for Peace until he helped open a St. Petersburg chapter of Veterans for Peace in 2003. He began to make incursions into Tampa in 2005, leading demonstrations against the Bayshore Patriots, a pro-military group supporting the troops.

In 2006, when President George W. Bush visited Hillsborough County, Alexander was at Dale Mabry Highway and Gandy Boulevard with signs. He returned again and again until it became his thing.

Alexander heard the calls to "get a job." Unemployed and on disability with diabetes, edema and a liver disease that required a transplant, he felt protesting gave him a purpose.

"I'm using my time doing this: My patriotic duty to show what is right, what is wrong," he said.

Over the years, he watched sentiment about the wars shift among military members driving by. He remembers a Marine in uniform who flipped him off while his girlfriend or wife in the passenger seat smiled and put up a peace sign. He can't forget the wife of a service member deployed for the seventh time who spent a day with him, or the uniformed solider who told him that he, too, wanted the troops home after losing a best friend.

"At first it was hostile," he said, "then it got to the point when they began honking and giving us the peace sign or a salute."

But one place he couldn't find support was among his own kind: fellow protesters. While several joined him at first, he said, he mostly demonstrated alone since about 2007. The last straw came recently when he asked a good friend why he didn't come out with him.

He said he was told there just weren't enough protesters at the intersection to make a difference.

So Alexander figured if he couldn't persuade his peers, maybe he would join them. He showed up Saturday at a Tampa demonstration against possible U.S. involvement in Iran organized by the World Can't Wait group. He saw friends in his political circle there, but said no one talked to him.

"I was tired of it," he said. "I was tired of being alone."

So he grabbed his protest signs, the 58 fake tombstones representing fallen soldiers in every state and territory and other props and dropped them off outside a hall where the St. Petersburg Veterans for Peace meets.

"Let them have it," he said.

Group members were surprised.

"He has acted a little more independently in the last three or four years," said Dwight Lawton, who serves as secretary. "He said that's what he wanted to do because he couldn't get more people to support what he was doing. He deserves a lot of kudos because he was out there when no one else was out there. I'm disappointed to hear that."

Alexander said he now plans to focus on trying to re-establish a Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work program of the 1930s that created government jobs in environmental conservation and parks development. He'd like soldiers to be given such jobs, and it's a mission he can work on from home, writing letters and lobbying legislators.

Alone.

Reach Justin George at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@tampabay.com.

Lone war protester ends 'patriotic duty' near MacDill Air Force Base, changes goals 02/06/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 6, 2012 11:12pm]
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