Sneak attacks deliver punchier message, RNC protesters say

Published Aug. 31, 2012

TAMPA — The two women in Section 128 dressed as if they belonged in the audience for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican National Convention. Jackets and skirts.

When Ryan started to knock President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, the pair stood and unfurled a pink banner they had somehow snuck into the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"Vagina. Can't say it? Don't legislate it," the banner said. It referred to an abortion debate in Michigan in which a female lawmaker was prevented from speaking after talking about a woman's genitals. The women, who supposedly got their tickets from a disenchanted Ron Paul supporter, were quickly escorted out. But they had succeeded in briefly halting Ryan's speech.

"Direct actions have a disruptive quality," said David Snow, a professor of sociology at the University of California in Irvine, who has studied protests. "And in that disruption, the probability of getting media attention increases."

The media focused in large part this week on protesters in the street, waiting to see whether the much-dreaded anarchists would create havoc. It seemed though that more attention was paid to the tactics of the protesters and police than to slogans the marchers might have chanted.

But experts and protesters alike say some of the most successful demonstrations this week were the smaller ones that caught people by surprise, or delivered a specific message.

"We were grateful to be part of the large marches, especially the March on the RNC," said CodePink co-director Rae Abileah. "But I think it's effective to be in the face of power."

Sunday, some 1,000 people came to hear Attorney General Pam Bondi, Newt Gingrich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speak during the Faith & Family Coalition rally at the Tampa Theater. A number of protesters acquired tickets, too. Some of them, wearing black bandanas acted as decoys, sitting close to the stage. The rest of the protesters dressed in business suits and wore Romney stickers and buttons. They headed to the balcony.

When Walker began to speak, the ones up front began yelling: "Walker hates workers."

As police and security guards escorted them out, the nicely dressed protesters in the balcony unfurled banners, one of which said, "Walker hates working families." The crowd screamed "USA, USA, USA," over and over to drown them out. The protesters were eventually escorted out and issued trespass warnings.

Danielle Villarreal of Occupy Chicago said when she and others dropped a 49-foot banner that said "Mitt Ain't S---" from a condominium near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, television cameras focused on the message.

"Those things that are very surprising and very sneaky, they get a lot of attention," said Villarreal, 29, who had served as one of the nicely dressed protesters at the Tampa Theater. "Sometimes there are so many messages happening, it's kind of hard to say what the message is. I prefer smaller direct actions."

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But some measure effectiveness by how much aggravation it causes police. Mark Apollo, 50, an Occupy protester from New York City, pointed to a late-night march Wednesday that briefly snarled traffic in part of downtown. "It caught the Tampa police off guard," he said, "and it was unexpected."

Time staff writer Elizabeth Behrman and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.