Street theater crashes GOP event: Tactics called into question
By Jane Smith, The Meadville Tribune
Political street theater has made what is likely its first appearance on Crawford County's political stage, and while it has some people riled up, it remains to be seen if its message will have much of an impact here.
The event unfolded late last week as five people representing a local chapter of the nationwide Billion-aires for Bush group dressed in costumes ranging from tuxedos to fur stoles and appeared at a county Republican Party voter registration drive in Diamond Park.
When approached by the media at the event, the group gave "stage" names like Phil T. Rich and Milli O. Nair, but they were later identified as Meadville Planning and Zoning Commission member Brad Wilson, Marc Gorman, Marcia Metcalfe, Bronwell Bond and Don Goldstein. Although she didn't participate directly in the event, Wilson's wife, Meadville City Councilwoman Jean Jones, was there to take pictures.
The four approached eventgoers and attempted to engage them in discussion about Bush administration policies. They also chanted slogans and circulated a petition asking the government to stop auditing contractor Halliburton's work and refund the millions in fees it assessed after conducting previous audits.
"This harassment is outrageous," read one portion of the petition. "While America continues to make sacrifices to bring freedom to Iraqi oil, it will not stand to see the freedoms stripped from its own corporate citizens."
According to its Web site, Billionaires for Bush is a media and street theater campaign dating to the 2000 election whose mix of humor, messages, grassroots participation and Internet organizing "will flush out the truth about the Bush administration's disastrous economic policies and help turn the fatcats out of power in November."
The Web site claims "economic justice arguments tend to get dismissed as 'class warfare,' but the Billionaires - by impersonating the super-wealthy in a boosterish, over-the-top manner, and cheering on George Bush and his economic policies - are able to paint the president as a friend of the wealthy with surprising effectiveness. It's a back door that allows class issues to be aired in surprisingly sharp terms."
But, according to the organizer of the Republican voter registration drive, the only thing aired was what he called offensive slander.
"I think it was surreptitious," said Crawford County Coroner Patrick McHenry, who organized the event and serves as the county's Bush-Cheney re-election committee chairman.
He wasn't offended the group was there. He was offended that they appeared in costumes, used false names and chanted slogans that appeared to oppose John Kerry.
"People going by would have thought it was the Republicans chanting against Kerry. That is not true," McHenry said.
"I didn't care for it," he said. "It's something if you want to protest, but be up front. Don't hide."
Metcalfe defended the group, saying it was "not deceptive. You know people sometimes dress up and act as characters.
"The people who are involved in the group are interested in basically using street theater and humor to make political points. I think we are acting parts," she said.
"It's satire and it's making a political point about economic justice."
McHenry thinks the Billionaires' effort will backfire.
"That's not us," he said of Crawford County political parties, agreeing with many longtime area political figures who said such tactics may have never been used before locally.
"Those people think it's cute and fun," McHenry said. "We believe in standing up and saying what we believe in, not hiding behind false IDs."
"We were in the park for a rally and to register voters," he said. "I don't appreciate people pretending to be Republicans. We didn't appreciate the slander and tactics."
The Billionaires' appearance wasn't sanctioned by the Crawford County Democratic Party, according to Chairman Joe Galbo.
"I have no problems with demonstrations at voter registration rallies as long as they are done with respect of the other group," he said. "We both (county Democrats and county Republican committees) have tried to be respectful. When people are acting as individuals, they can do what they want. It (the demonstration) did not reflect the organization (Democratic Party)."
No matter their initial reception, the Billionaires intend to continue their efforts.
"You can expect to see us demonstrating at Democrat and Republican events," Metcalfe said.
"I think I have a right to do this. I would not restrict their (others) rights to do it whatsoever. We have freedom of speech," she said.
Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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