Saturday, March 17, 2018

A GOP convention protester's playbook covers pepper spray to prison time

Maria Agosto ducked into the back of an Orthodox church in Childs Park, pulling her hand-knitted pink scarf tighter as she settled in for three hours of protester training camp. • It was early March in St. Petersburg, dark outside. A cold breeze rattled the blinds as nine people silently passed around a stack of coffee-stained booklets: Handbook for Nonviolent Action. • A slender man in his mid 30s introduced himself as Grommit. It was not his real name. • "Doing direct actions changes something in your soul," Grommit said. "It changes how you perceive yourself."

Once, he had been a radical activist, climbing trees and cranes to drop banners for organizations like Earth First and the Ruckus Society. Now he had a wife, a 2-year-old, a paycheck he didn't want to risk. Instead, he educated protesters.

"I try to prepare people for what they are getting into."

The Republican National Convention is the protesting big leagues. The police and Secret Service will aggressively keep order. Penalties will be more severe. Several antiwar protesters from the 2008 Republican National Convention were charged with terrorism.

"You must decide who is going to be arrestable," Grommit said.

Maria pondered his words. At 52, she wanted to take the next step.

She had protested in small, legal ways all her life. She'd traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., for a no-nukes rally in the 1970s; participated in a four-day hunger strike at college to create a U.S. Latino studies program; donned a black veil and banged a pot to decry voting fraud when Sen. John Kerry lost the presidential election in 2004.

But then in November, something changed. Maria watched the Occupy movement mushroom and realized that she was like them: fed up with the inequities between rich and poor and worried about the future of the planet. It emboldened her. So here she was sitting on a wooden bench in a bare room, learning how to be an activist.

The question was how far was she willing to go.

• • •

Even before the delegates get here in August, the protesters will start arriving, perhaps as many as 15,000 of them.

They'll be homeless, unemployed, immigrants, union members, college students, people with passion.

They'll come because they've lost a loved one to war or they want to make equal rights for women part of the U.S. Constitution or because they can't stand oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They'll come because they long to be a part of something and dread being a part of nothing.

Organizers expect two dozen groups at least, some of whom may be bent on vandalism or worse. But for people like Maria, there is a playbook of sorts that is available to them, an array of nonviolent tactics meant to draw maximum attention from the public and cause maximum frustration for the police.

Some protesters may carry giant handmade puppets, lock their forearms into PVC pipes to keep police from shackling their wrists, or climb tall wooden tripods above the fray. In the past, they've locked their necks to fences with bike locks and scaled buildings to drop banners.

The police have a playbook, too, and it doesn't involve puppets. Between 3,500 and 4,000 officers are expected to patrol the event. Clashes between protesters and police have erupted at these events in the past and have involved pepper spray, Tasers, batons, even rubber bullets.

Right now, thousands of activists like Maria are meeting in small groups around the country. They are not just talking about ideology, they're worrying over logistics — whom they trust to protest alongside, and how they'll do it.

Many are deciding now whether they feel so passionately about gender equality or income inequality that they're willing to risk a face full of choking pepper spray or time in federal prison.

• • •

One week after the training session, Maria sat in a booth at a St. Petersburg diner, pecking away at her laptop computer.

Across from her sat Bruce Wright, a minister and homeless man who camped out on friends' couches. He wore a tweed newsboy cap over his long gray ponytail and his black T-shirt read "Racism Sucks."

Wright was part of Maria's "affinity group." This was a group of a dozen or so people who would rely on each other at the protest, who trusted each other.

Each person in an affinity group would have a job. Someone might be a driver, another in charge of supplies, like water. Several needed to be willing to get arrested, if it came to that. Someone else needed to be willing to handle the affairs of those who were taken into custody, like walking the dog or arranging bail. Part of being in an affinity group was protecting it from infiltration by a police informant, which made them cagey about their plans.

Maria's group, which also included several unemployed people, a couple of students and a few homeless, was trying to lay the groundwork for a march in August by the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, a movement to abolish poverty. It was starting to look like a giant obstacle course.

Not only was Tampa trying to create a vast zone around downtown with special rules for protesters, there was also a federalized zone around the convention that was protected by the U.S. Secret Service. It would be difficult to get close to the delegates.

Wright said the Poor People's campaign wasn't going to bother getting a permit.

"We've already decided we're marching regardless," he said.

They planned to set up a camp with tents a month in advance of the convention, probably on private property.

"I'm scouting locations," he said.

Maria nodded. There was a host of details to be worked out. They were also trying to decide their roles.

Wright didn't hesitate. He was willing to be arrested.

• • •

Maria had other considerations: an 83-year-old mother in Tampa who looked forward to her visits, a mostly fixed income that left little room for legal fees and court costs, health problems that would make jail miserable.

She wasn't like many of the other people filling up tents at Occupy encampments around the country. She hadn't lost a job or a home or been unable to access health care. She rented a small concrete block house in Gulfport, drove a Volkswagen Jetta, and spent many nights home on her red couch knitting sweaters and scarfs and exploring the Internet on her Mac.

She had grown up the only child of Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx. Her mother stayed home and her father was a taxi driver, an elevator operator, a factory worker, an armed guard at Tiffany's.

She loved to read books that dealt with racism and women's rights, such as The Man by Irving Wallace and The Women's Room by Marilyn French. One of her earliest memories was of her best friend telling her she couldn't come over because Maria lived in the projects.

"That was my first wake-up call," she said, "that I was poor and I was different and somehow that made me less worthy."

After high school, she lived a year with the Hare Krishnas. She worked as a counselor at a fat farm for kids, as a bartender in the Bowery, as a clerk at a women's clothing store that sold lingerie and Burberry. She got married and divorced. She took computer courses and worked eight years as a computer operator at a real estate company.

In 1991, she got a scholarship to Williams, an elite liberal arts college in Massachusetts. But the year before she graduated with the highest honors she came down with an autoimmune disease that confined her to a wheelchair. She received disability and moved near her parents in Florida, hoping the warm weather would help.

She taught English as a second language and slowly regained the use of her limbs. The past decade she'd mostly kept to herself.

Then came Occupy. One night in December, she did something she'd never done before: She got arrested.

• • •

Maria sat in the front row of a Hillsborough County courtroom, waiting for her name to be called. She clenched her hands nervously.

A dozen Occupy protesters, all charged with trespass, sat on the wooden benches around her. Many, including Maria, also were charged with resisting arrest without violence. The charges carried a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The arrests stemmed from Dec. 1, when the Occupy protesters ventured over to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park to protest. They'd gathered on top of a grassy hill and locked arms. When the park closed at 11 p.m., the police closed in.

According to police reports and Maria's version of events, she was standing on the edge of the park with a handful of other protesters. When a police officer arrested a man, Maria asked the officer why he'd singled out the only black person in the group.

She says one of the police officers told her to leave. She refused and she was arrested.

Maria's lawyer, Michael P. Maddux, argued before the judges that there was nowhere in the city for the demonstrators to gather past a certain hour.

"I'd like to put out there that a peaceful demonstration is definitely a fundamental right of freedom," Maddux said.

Maria looked around at the other protesters.

"God, I'm excited," she said. "If we get this, it's huge."

• • •

Maria's shoulder-length curly dark hair was still wet as she raced over the Howard Frankland Bridge to a Tampa City Council meeting in early April.

She pulled into a Walgreens near WestShore Plaza and picked out a pair of red framed Foster Grant reading glasses, plus 2s, then headed to the children's toy aisle. She grabbed an orange plastic pistol and a black Sharpie.

In downtown Tampa, she entered City Hall wearing a pointy bamboo hat and black leather gloves. She carried an umbrella and some string. She'd wedged the plastic pistol, now colored Sharpie black, in her pants.

She got in line to enter the council chamber to speak about its proposed "clean zone" ordinance. As she got to the door, the bailiff stopped her and removed the umbrella and the plastic pistol.

"It all has to stay outside for you to go inside," the bailiff said.

Maria complied but with a little lip.

"What about my constitutional rights?" she barked. "I guess they don't count in Tampa."

The bailiff said nothing.

Inside the green foam walls of the packed council chambers, Maria came to the podium, her red reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose.

"This is not a clean zone. This is a dead zone," she said firmly. "What it's killing is our free speech rights, our freedom of assembly. Our constitutional rights."

When her three minutes were up the audience clapped and whistled.

Outside on the sidewalk, a young man with long red hair approached her. "You were awesome," he said.

"Yeah, when you're old," she said, "you have time to think about things."

• • •

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a line of homeless people stretched down the sidewalk in front of Mirror Lake. Food Not Bombs was serving vegetable soup, salad, rice and beans, brownies and bread pudding.

A crisp wind whipped Maria's curls around her head as she spooned the food onto paper plates.

A woman with a blond ponytail and weatherworn skin smiled at her. "Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," Maria replied.

Maria sat down next to Bruce Wright, the activist, on a green bench overlooking the lake. She was somber. She hadn't been feeling well. She had very little feeling in her left hand and sometimes she felt stabbing pains in her feet. Her friends were questioning her deepening activism. They worried she was putting herself in danger. Her mother was telling her to stay away from the RNC.

She wanted to be part of something bigger, to change the way she perceived herself, as Grommit had put it. But maybe her activism was limited to this — standing on the banks of a lake, feeding the homeless.

The judges hadn't ruled yet on her protest arrest. But she had made up her mind.

"At this point," she said, "I'm not arrestable."

• • •

Back in court, this past week, Maria looked more polished. Dark liner rimmed her large hazel eyes. She wore brand-new high-heeled boots with pointy toes that she said she'd gotten at a thrift store for $1.

One of the lawyers, Jennifer M. Szymczak, called her and another Occupy protester outside the courtroom. The judge would not dismiss the charges.

Szymczak said another judge handling Occupy cases had talked about an intervention program that would keep the arrest off their record as long as they did community service and wrote an essay on the Constitution.

"He doesn't care if you write it on how what they're doing is unconstitutional," she said.

"The RNC is coming down the pike," Maria said. "I want to be able to speak. Can I?"

That could be a problem, Szymczak said. If she started the program and got arrested at the RNC, she would face the consequences of both arrests simultaneously. Think about it, she told Maria.

Maria got in her car.

"I can agree to be silenced," she said, "or I can agree to have a record."

She sighed and headed off to visit her mother.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.

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