A Monday morning protest by gay rights activists began long before they reached City Hall, and it nearly brought rush hour traffic to a stop on the Howard Frankland Bridge.
The eastbound lanes were at a standstill at 7:30 a.m. as 10 to 15 cars carrying the activists crossed the bridge at 30 mph, said Capt. Earl Woody of the Florida Highway Patrol. Three of the drivers were pulled over at a Dale Mabry Highway exit and charged with obstructing traffic.
The activists got out of their cars and held up signs, then continued to City Hall. Approximately 75 people rallied there in support of Darlena DeBerry, whose mobile home was burned April 24 while she was at a gay rights march in Washington, D.C.
The protesters called for a meeting with Mayor Sandy Freedman, pounding on painted trash can lids and chanting, "Sandy Freedman come outside. Your silence equals genocide."
Freedman responded, meeting the protesters outside City Hall and assuring them everything possible was being done to find out who set the fire that destroyed DeBerry's home. The activists wanted the fire designated a hate crime.
"It's morally a hate crime whether it legally is or not," Freedman said.
DeBerry said she was pleased Freedman spoke, but insisted that the fire be classified officially as a hate crime.
"What really bothers me about it, I had a local reporter and also a local law enforcement officer that said, "Hey Dee, it's 30 years for first-degree arson. The penalty would be no stiffer if it was classified as a hate crime, so why push the issue?' " DeBerry said. "For the principle of the thing, I want it documented."
DeBerry, who is 28 and says she is HIV-positive, said she is concerned that investigators might try to blame her for the fire. In 1984, she was convicted of arson and served three years in prison. DeBerry and two of her friends set fire to an abandoned warehouse in Tattnall County, Ga.
"They (Tampa fire investigators) need to get a life, and they need to get the investigation in the right direction," DeBerry said.
After the fire at her South Tampa home, DeBerry asked for help from activists she met at the Washington march. Members of ACT-UP, the Lesbian Avengers and the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project came to march in Tampa on Monday.
Also among the protesters was Rosemary Dempsey, national vice president of the National Organization for Women. Dempsey said she knew about the telephone threats DeBerry received before the Washington march and came to Tampa to show support for her.
"These kinds of hate crimes have got to be taken very seriously," Dempsey said. "They are trying to keep certain people in line. We're not going back to the 1950s. The days of white sheets and fascism are over. We won't have it."