Pam Bondi confronted by protesters outside Mister Rogers movie

When asked whether Mister Rogers would have approached the situation the same way the activists did, one of the protesters said, "I'm not Mister Rogers."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi gives her endorsement for Donald Trump during a rally for Presidential Candidate Donald Trump at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday afternoon, March 14, 2016., ZACK WITTMAN | Times
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi gives her endorsement for Donald Trump during a rally for Presidential Candidate Donald Trump at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday afternoon, March 14, 2016., ZACK WITTMAN | Times
Published June 23, 2018|Updated June 25, 2018

A group of protesters accosted Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi outside the screening of the new documentary about Mister Rogers at the Tampa Theatre on Friday night, questioning her about her recent actions on health care policy and her stance on immigration.

A video of the confrontation, taken by progressive activist Timothy Heberlein of Organize Florida, shows several people shouting down Bondi as she leaves the theater escorted by law enforcement after seeing Won't You Be My Neighbor.

"What would Mister Rogers think about you and your legacy in Florida? Taking away health insurance from people with pre-existing conditions, Pam Bondi!" Maria José Chapa, a labor organizer, can be heard yelling to Bondi in the video. "Shame on you!"

"You're a horrible person!" another protester shouts.

Reached by phone on Saturday, Bondi said the sudden protest didn't square with the lessons imparted by Fred Rogers.

"We were in a movie about anti-bullying and practicing peace and love and tolerance and accepting of people for their differences," Bondi said. "That's what Mister Rogers is all about. We all believe in free speech, but there's a big difference there."

The organizers didn't plan to confront Florida's top law enforcement official Friday night, Heberlein told the Times in an interview. But when one of them spotted Bondi in the ticket line before the film, he said they knew they had to say something.

According to Chapa, one of the organizers confronted Bondi before the movie over her February decision to join in a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act — a move seen by many progressives as a threat to people with pre-existing conditions covered under the law.

Read more: Pre-existing conditions latest flashpoint in Nelson-Scott battle

"[Another protester] approached her first and she was trying to engage with her and ask her difficult questions, and she felt uncomfortable answering the questions,"  Chapa told the Times. "And I guess she felt threatened because she called the police."

Tampa Police Department public information officer Janelle McGregor confirmed the department got a call from Florida Highway Patrol asking for help escorting Bondi out of the Tampa Theatre.

"We responded at approximately 8:06 P.M. as the showing was ending and there were no further incidents," McGregor said.

Heberlein said that the movie's depiction of Rogers's work with children reminded him of what he sees as Bondi's support for conservative immigration and health care policies that hurt the most vulnerable Floridians. But he conceded that he and his friends likely would have confronted Bondi no matter what film they were seeing.

"I feel like even if we went to see The Incredibles we would have said something," Heberlein said.

Say something they did. Chapa said she tried to engage Bondi in a conversation about health care and immigration after the movie, but she was rebuffed. That's when the shouting started.

After this story was first published online Saturday afternoon, a Bondi spokesman recounted a much less pleasant story of the attorney general's interactions with the protesters.

"The video they are choosing to share is of the least aggressive portion of the attack that transpired after police arrived to control the scene. What they are not sharing publicly are several previous encounters involving large men getting in the Attorney General's face, spitting and blocking her exit," the spokesman, Whitney Ray, said in an emailed statement. "The Attorney General tried to have a conversation with these individuals, however, when it became abundantly clear that they were not interested in a constructive dialog but were only there to cause a scene, the attorney general tried to leave the volatile scene."

During an appearance on Fox News Monday, Bondi clarified that she didn't know if she was spit on intentionally or if spit came out while someone yelled at her.

A spokeswoman for the Tampa Theatre said there are no security cameras that could have captured the incident.

Chapa called Bondi's latest version of events a "lie," contending that there were no large men in her party. When asked whether Mister Rogers would have approached the situation the same way the activists did, Chapa said he might have handled it differently.

"I'm not Mister Rogers," Chapa said. "I don't have the poise or temperament of Mister Rogers."

It was the latest confrontation between a prominent conservative public official and liberal activists. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Neilsen was shouted out of a Mexican restaurant in Washington D.C. earlier this week.

Read more: Protesters interrupt homeland security secretary's dinner at Mexican restaurant

And President Trump's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Saturday morning that she was refused service by a restaurant in Virginia on moral grounds.

Read more: Sanders says she was told to leave Virginia restaurant

Heberlein, who accused Bondi of refusing to start a dialogue with groups that work with at-risk communities like his, said he has no regrets about how the protesters acted.

"If you refuse to meet with us, we're coming to where you're at. We're coming to where you're watching a movie or eating dinner," he said. "Sorry, not sorry."

This story has been updated with additional information about AG Bondi's version of events.