It's a party atmosphere: Protesters celebrate tea party anniversary

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— A year ago it was tea for 2,000.

And that was before a polarizing health care reform debate, Scott Brown’s Senate win and the ramping up of the mid-term elections.

So this year, organizers of the tea party tax day rally planned the party for a bigger crowd.

Naples tea party organizer Barry Willoughby said he expected a large turnout for the rally. A rough estimate from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office was “well over 1,000,” spokeswoman Kristi Lester said. Tea party officials could not be reached for comment on their crowd estimates.

Attendee Roger Hammer said he walked the crowd from one side to the other and believed there were between 8,000 and 10,000 people. Other attendees, who declined to go on record, agreed with Hammer.

Before the rally Willoughby said the numbers would be somewhat limited because the rally was held on a weekday.

“If this had been on a Saturday we would have even more,” he said. “It would have been two or three times this many.”

The crowd, which skewed mostly toward retirees stretched along the east side of U.S. 41 from Pine Ridge Road past Pelican Bay Boulevard and hundreds more crowded the sidewalk along the west side of the street. The atmosphere on Thursday was similar to a college football tailgate party, with the crowd rooting for the same team. They were greeted with appreciative honks from passing motorists.

There were booths set up for affiliated causes — the 9/12 group, Fair Tax and Get Out Of Our House — and political candidates with tea party leanings — Marco Rubio, Georgia Hiller and Joe Whitehead.

Anti-Obama posters were the norm. They called the president a socialist, Marxist and terrorist.

“I’m just tired of all the lies,” Kevin Gleason, 63, said as he was leaving the rally. “People are ticked off by the lies.”

Gleason said he felt like President Obama was playing a game of political theater. And although he said plenty of other politicians play the same game, he said Obama was playing it poorly.

“He’s just not credible,” he said.

The Naples rally wasn’t the only one in Southwest Florida. Tea party advocates in Bonita Springs planned for about 40 people to hold up signs at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Terry Street. A rally is planned in Fort Myers this weekend.

The rallies have become a source of continued media interest. Some have carried an unseemly air, leading to charges of racism.

But tea party leaders expressed concern that their groups are being infiltrated by those who wish to undermine their efforts by playing up the negative stereotypes.

Willoughby sent out an e-mail blast to supporters Tuesday, warning them to watch for people whose signs and words pushed the boundaries. But he warned his fellow tea partiers not to directly confront these people.

“We have talked to the Sheriff Department about this and these people will be removed,” Willoughby wrote in his e-mail.

Deputies didn’t have to remove anyone from the protest, but there was an anti-tea party element Thursday.

Standing between two protesters holding signs that said “Tea Party Infiltrator” was John Ure, 41, who was protesting for the administration. A middle-aged woman stepped in front of him as a reporter was trying to interview him to flash him an obscene hand gesture. Several protesters attempted to convince a Daily News reporter not to interview Ure, who was wearing headphones to drown out the rest of the crowd.

“Don’t listen to him,” one man shouted. “He’s not one of us.”

When asked why he was standing on the street corner enduring verbal abuse to hold up a protest sign, Ure responded: “Because somebody has to be here.”

“I like the federal government,” Ure said as tea party members shouted derogatory comments toward him. “I’m happy to pay my taxes. I like things like the Interstate highway system.”

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lester said deputies hadn’t reported any problems during the rally. She said it was policy not to disclose the number of deputies dispatched for events such as the tea party rally. Several deputies patrolled Trail Boulevard, a parallel street to U.S. 41. Most of the protesters set up in a wide grassy swath between the two roads. Other deputies were assigned to assist the flow of traffic at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Pine Ridge Road.

Health care was the biggest topic of discussion along the protest site. Signs depicting U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as a nurse were popular. As were references to Obamacare.

“Down with euthanasia,” seasonal resident Annette Burrier, 89, said when asked about the recent health care reform. “I didn’t want it.”

Burrier said she came to the rally because she’s always been politically active and had been waiting for the day when other people would be ready to join in.

“I’ll be 90 years old soon, and I didn’t think I’d live to see this,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for people to stand up for themselves and they finally are.”

Connect with Jonathan Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jonathan_foerster

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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