Tampa puppet protesters pulling no punches

Story highlights

  • Tampa banned the use of puppets in protests at the GOP convention.
  • But that hasn't stopped some protesters from donning masks and puppet heads.
  • "Look! It's an elephant in chains. Are they protesting us?" asks one conventioneer.
  • A puppet troupe takes its activism inside a bar in Ybor City.
It's after midnight, and 100 or so skinny young people in jeans and jackets and wearing anarchy slogans walk down the cobblestone streets of Tampa's historic district, dancing and chanting: "1,2,3,4 -- I declare a class war."
Dozens of buff sheriff's officers trail behind the demonstrators in Ybor City. But they are dressed more for war than protest in their combat boots and tan cargo pants, guns strapped to their thighs. They overlook the comments from the kids at the back who ask each other, "When are we going to smash some sh--?" The officers' eyes are on the menacing-looking muscular men with shaved heads, their fists balled up by their sides, walking quietly alongside the chanters.
Peering down from the wrought-iron balconies of nearby restaurants and bars are some of the day's conventioneers, suited men whose first-day passes to the Republican National Convention dangle from red-white-and-blue lanyards.
The men snap photos with cell phones, and their faces grow more serious as the last of the protesters come into view, carrying something high about the crowd's heads.
It look likes a scene from the Old Testament: A golden animal is hoisted in the air. It catches the street light as it moves through the crowd. A conventioneer leans over and loudly says to his buddy, "Look! It's an elephant in chains. Are they protesting us?"
In a word: yes. And they're clearly glad someone's finally noticed.
It's a peaceful protest on the first day of the Republican National Convention. It is also illegal.
The city has passed an ordinance that forbids protesters from wearing masks and carrying puppets -- unless they are inspected by authorities in advance. Police say they are a security risk.
On this night, a bearded man is taking his chances: He balances a papier-mâché hammerhead shark face on his head. A shark fin pokes out from his back. He says he's portraying a predatory banker.
A 19-year-old wearing a bandana on his face is the single protester arrested on Monday. His friends say they don't think he heard the police order him to take it off.
"There is a lot of chaos and confusion in these kinds of protests. What we are trying to do is create more inventive ways to express our issues and to stand out from the crowd," says Nathan Pim, the 27-year-old founder of the Florida Autonomous Playhouse puppet troupe. He is a man who believes firmly in the effectiveness of protest puppets -- and doesn't want the city pulling protesters' strings.
"I can lecture about helping end discrimination against the homeless all the time and no one will listen. If I do it dressed as a panda, for some reason people listen."
When Pim and his wife Jillian, also a puppeteer, heard the GOP convention was coming to Florida, they quit their paying jobs in Fort Lauderdale and moved to Tampa to protest full time.
Pim's pet issue is helping the homeless and fighting Florida's foreclosure crisis. He is a regular volunteer for Food Not Bombs, which feeds the homeless and the people who come out for protests.
Unsure of the risk, the Autonomous Playhouse puppet troupe held off on bringing their creations to the Monday protests.
"We didn't know if they were really enforcing the ban or not so we were going to wait and see," Pim said. "Plus we had rehearsals for our show" at the New World Brewery in Ybor City.
The ordinance didn't stop Kelly Benjamin, who abided by the letter of the law, got approval and marched wearing a giant Mitt Romney effigy -- "Ritt Momney" -- bearing a sign that says "King of the 1%."
"It's really ridiculous how much opposition we have had," he says. He had his puppet approved by the authorities, he says, but it doesn't seem to matter. "They keep trying to confiscate him and it's gotten so bad I now carry the ordinance with me that shows I'm within the law."
Benjamin says he knows the police are just doing their job -- and that maybe they have a particular paranoia about what might be hiding inside the puppet. He calls it a "scatological fetish."
"They think all the anarchists will be throwing poop at them."
Safe within the boundaries of the brewery, Pim and his fellow performers wait at a back table for the evening's performances to start. The opening act is by the activist group Women from Code Pink. They wear bright pink boas and strap on large pink vagina puppets that have bags of fake money on them. They carry signs that say "read my lips end the war on women."
After the dancing vaginas exit the performance area, Autonomous Playhouse sets up its hand-painted stage. Ukulele music begins, and up pops a puppet named Momma Nature. She is a tree with a bushy Afro of leaves and a Southern accent. The puppet's creator, Haylee Becker, 20, dropped out of college to work full time with her fellow puppet troupe members. She met them while volunteering for Food Not Bombs back when she was in high school.
"As just one person I lose my voice too quickly," she says, "but together we sure as hell can make change."
Becker says she got involved in feeding the homeless early in life when her parents would write on the invitation to her kiddie parties to bring canned goods rather than gifts.
"Personally, I wanted the gifts, but as I got older I saw how many people needed help."
The tree puppet in this performance, entitled "Momma Nature vs. the Foreclosure Crisis," tells the audience she's never missed a mortgage payment. The bank threatens her with foreclosure because of a bad treehouse mortgage. Pim and fellow troop member Nikki Wright introduce the tree to several menacing puppets. A wolf government agent sings "You've got no value when you've got no worth." A tick banker calls Momma Nature a deadbeat and hands her over to an unfeeling panda judge. A puppet cop throws Momma Nature in the slammer.
After her performance, Becker reflects quietly on her mission.
"I feel obligated to be here and be a part of this protest," she says. This is the role she wants to play in the national conversation about politics. She doesn't plan to vote in November.
"Sure, there are things like abortion and health care that could go wrong if the wrong guy gets in office," she says. "But for personal reasons I don't think my voice will make that big of a difference.
"I'll vote in other ways: There are other ways to have your voice heard than pushing a button every four years."
For now, that voice will be heard through puppets.