A group of animal activists went on a protest through Pinellas County this week, causing a scene inside a local Chick-fil-A and later hurling a fisherman's catch back into the water.
The incidents have sparked anger online from viewers who think the displays went too far. Activists from the group, Direct Action Everywhere, said members had been threatened. Addresses and personal information had been posted on Facebook and other public forums.
The fracas started Tuesdaywhen seven animal activists and two children representing Direct Action Everywhere entered a Pinellas Park Chick-fil-A to spread the message that eating animals is "not food. It's violence." Two activists wore chicken and cow masks and laid on the floor, while another pretended to stab them with a knife.
Videos posted online by Chick-fil-A customers and the activists show the chaos. People shouting, children shrieking, a protester jumping over tables and a woman throwing a camera to the floor. A stressed-looking Chick-fil-A employee tried to calm things down.
Later, people from the same group confronted a family fishing in Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg and threw a tilapia they'd caught back into the lake.
Animal rights activist Kayla Leaming, 26, had traveled to Pinellas Park from Orlando with her husband Mike and their children, 9 and 5, to participate in the Chick-fil-A protest. The later protest in the park was spontaneous, she said.
They'd picked the restaurant because it was Cow Appreciation Day, she said, a tongue-in-cheek marketing event that "celebrates cows" by offering free chicken sandwiches.
"Using Cow Appreciation Day to give away chicken bodies is species-ist," Leaming said. "It's normalizing violence, and perpetuating the idea that one life is more valuable than another life just because of the body you're born into."
The group is dedicated to peaceful, non-violent organization and protests, Leaming said, and they were planning to calmly deliver a speech, but were interrupted when customers became aggressive with them. She claims activists were shoved and had phones and selfie sticks snatched from their hands.
Gisselle Labradorite, a 20-year-old student from St. Petersburg who was one of the masked protesters on the floor, said she was kicked multiple times.
As the wave of online outrage grew Wednesday, Facebook pages and groups for the Pinellas area chapter of Direct Action Everywhere disappeared. Labradorite said they were taken down temporarily as a security measure after group members started receiving threats and phone calls at work.
A video shot by a Chick-fil-A customer shows a woman pleading with the protesters to stop, saying they were scaring children. Leaming says her group's video offers a different perspective.
"In our video, you can see children playing and eating and laughing. They were not terrified at all," Leaming said. "The only thing that was scary was how the adults were acting. None of the kids in there were scared until their parents became aggressive and started cursing at us."
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But Tina Leacock, 32, who was there with friends and her own children, disagreed. Her group had finished eating when the protester holding the fake knife came in the door shouting, "Go! go!" she said.
"My first reaction was shock, like, 'Is this real?,' Leacock said. "The knife she was holding, it looked real."
Leacock held the door to the children's play area closed, to keep her own kids from coming back in. She said she did hear customers getting loud, but definitely heard children crying later on.
"Whatever it was exactly that upset those kids, it would never have happened unless those protesters were there," Leacock said. "The funny thing is, I still can't tell you 100 percent what they were protesting. I'm all for hearing other opinions, that's what makes this country great. But they didn't get their point across."
Sprinkled among Facebook and YouTube comments critical of the activists were a number of people showing support.
Some vegans posted, saying such extreme protests give their community a bad name. Elwood Bond, 27, of Tampa, has been vegan for six years, but said he came to it through vegan friends who answered questions and gave him books on the topic.
"When you're a person that believes in a counterculture belief, you're the ambassador of that movement," Bond said. "You're that person's one window into that world. Do you want that non-vegan to remember the interaction as an enlightening experience that allows them to rethink some things? Or one that leaves them remembering that traumatic time someone stormed into dinner wielding a knife and throwing fake blood around?"
Labradorite stands by the protest at Chick-fil-A, and believes the group will do more.
"If these people were shocked by fake animal masks and fake blood, imagine if they knew what they were actually paying for," she said. "Look up Chick-fil-A Farms. These animals are suffering."
At Crescent Lake Park, Bob Hope was fishing with his parents when his father caught a tilapia and set it on the concrete. Hope said his mother was preparing to put the fish on a stringer and put it back in the water until they brought it home to eat.
Video of the incident Leaming posted online shows her young son approaching the group.
"Did you know that fish feel pain?" the boy said.
Seconds later, the boy's father, Mike Leaming, confronted the fishermen over their catch, asking what if it was a dog, or a human child on the concrete. Eventually Leaming grabbed the fish and launched it back into the water, shouting, "Call the police! I just saved a fish's life, how about that? How about that?"
Hope, 35, did call St. Petersburg police, but the activists were already leaving the scene when an officer arrived, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said.
The department has been inundated with calls from people who want Mike Leaming arrested, but Fernandez said an officer can't make an arrest for something that would amount to a second degree misdemeanor without seeing it happen, even if there's video. There are exceptions when a video can be used to establish probable cause.
Snatching a single fish from the pavement doesn't rise to that level.
"I only shared it on social media because the police officers did nothing to protect my rights," Hope said. "If there were people fishing all over the lake, and these people showed up, that's a protest. We were fishing by ourselves when we were ambushed. That's not a protest, that's harassment."
Hope said his family left and went fishing elsewhere.
"By the way, that fish was an invasive tilapia," Hope said. "They're destroying the ecosystem and killing our bass population."
Direct Action Everywhere Pinellas, which formed about eight months ago, is the local chapter an international organization founded in 2013 near San Francisco. The group is in 172 cities and 34 countries, said Zach Groff, 25, a paid fellow with the organization based in Berkeley, Calif.
There are about 100 members of the Pinellas chapter's Facebook group. The group's previous actions include placing stickers reading "Warning: This package contains the body of someone who did not want to die," on meat at a Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater, and a protest in the food court at a Pinellas Park mall.
Activists perform what they call "open rescues," walking into farms and slaughterhouses to record conditions, but also removing animals they believe need veterinary care.
The organization recently appeared in the New York Times for its innovations in using virtual reality to immerse viewers in one of these slaughterhouse investigations.
The Pinellas chapter has not been involved in any open rescues yet, though Direct Action Everywhere Orlando recently posted video of an open rescue at a Musa's Slaughterhouse in Tampa. Activists left with chickens.
The chickens were given veterinary care, and will live out their days at a rescue where they won't be eaten or have their eggs taken, Leaming said. They have been renamed Nana and Nydia.
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.