TAMPA — The puppet-makers gathered in the shade of a crape myrtle on the sidewalk of Occupy Tampa one recent afternoon to brainstorm.
They discussed making a food army — including a carrot-shaped helicopter the size of a loveseat — to represent the group Food Not Bombs. There was talk of a Mitt Romney puppet and puppets in the shape of snakes.
"What about an elephant?" asked a young woman with a dark French braid, which inspired a young man to sketch an elephant holding a police baton.
Nathan Pim, 27, nodded approvingly. Pim has been leading a series of puppet-making workshops in recent weeks for those who plan to protest at the Republican National Convention in late August.
Puppets have been a feature of the political landscape at conventions and large-scale demonstrations for decades. In recent years, political puppets have gotten people in trouble.
At the Republican National Convention in 2000, police raided an old trolley barn in Philadelphia and arrested 75 puppet-makers.
As a car passed blaring rap music, Pim shaped chicken wire into what would eventually be a papier-mache wolf head for a predatory banker in a business suit.
The best puppets tell a story, Pim said.
"It's so much better than holding a sign."
• • •
For centuries, puppets have bucked conformity. In 17th-century England, Punch, with his squeaky voice and hooked nose, poked fun at the law, at kings, at God. Later, he beat up anyone with power, as well as his wife, Judy.
In more recent times, protesters have paraded towering puppets symbolizing the devil, the faceless bureaucrat and working class people. Puppets have been used to represent peace, income inequality and corporate greed.
The Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vt., was among the first groups in the United States to practice puppet advocacy. During the Vietnam War, they debuted "Uncle Fatso," who smoked a cigar and tossed dollar bills around and a mother with a dead baby to represent the tyranny of war.
"We rarely make puppets representing actual human beings," said Linda Elbow, business and touring manager for the theater. "They are always bad guys or good guys or the common man."
Without explicitly banning puppets, the city of Tampa has essentially declared them illegal in the RNC event zone, which covers most of the downtown area.
"Their components are not allowed inside the event zone," said Andrea Davis of the Tampa Police Department.
No sticks, strings or masks allowed.
So, no puppets.
"Also their heads have been used to hide weapons and other matter, fecal matter," she said.
Tracy Broyles, executive director of Spiral Q Puppet Theater in Philadelphia, was upset to hear of the ban on puppets.
"That's a suppression of civil liberties," she said. "I understand that the people proposing limitations may mean well and their genuine concern may be safety. But if we try to limit our civil liberties and freedom of expression because of the acts of a few, then we're really not free."
During the 2000 raid on the puppet operation in Philadelphia, police said they found wire, pipe and components for lock boxes, which are used to connect protesters during street blockades.
Susan Ciccantelli, whose husband, Michael Graves, rented his warehouse to the puppet-makers, said the items belonged to her husband's flooring business.
The activists were charged with conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest, among other charges. The puppets were confiscated and destroyed. Then the district attorney dropped most of the charges.
Graves, the warehouse owner who was among those arrested, eventually settled a lawsuit he filed against the city of Philadelphia.
"You can be doing nothing wrong," Ciccantelli said, "and your life gets turned upside down."
• • •
Pim grew up in Cape Coral in a family that wasn't very political, only to go to the University of South Florida and make friends with people who were very political.
He worked at a law firm for a time and then as a freelance graphic designer. But he became more interested in three-dimensional art.
Today he is married and works with other puppet-makers at the Autonomous Playhouse in South Florida.
He's a member of Food Not Bombs and is helping organize the group's plan to feed homeless people around Tampa Bay during the week before the convention.
For now, he is concentrating on puppets.
During one of his first training sessions, half a dozen people gathered at an art studio in St. Petersburg. They set up pads on easels so they could draw their ideas. But the man who is leasing the art studio shooed away a Times reporter. He didn't want his studio's role in the puppet-making publicized.
Pim knows police are wary of what he does, but he says he's not doing anything wrong.
To avoid controversy, he said he and the other puppet-makers will likely take their message outside the RNC event zones in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
"A lot of people said the event zone is a big nuisance and they don't want to go in there," he said. "A lot of people doing puppet stuff plan to do it somewhere away from where the rules apply, where they can just do it without them being taken away."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.