CLEARWATER – There’s no question the city’s movers and shakers want to bring more people to their struggling downtown core.
But masked protesters carrying signs and clogging sidewalks, possibly disrupting commerce and keeping some visitors away?
“I don’t think it helps, but obviously people have the right to protest as long as it’s peaceful and they’re not infringing on someone else’s rights,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “We won’t allow that to happen, either.”
Anonymous is holding its second protest in as many months in downtown Clearwater, site of the church’s spiritual headquarters. The demonstration is timed to coincide with the church’s observance this weekend of the birthday of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, which was Thursday.
Most of the protesters are in their late teens and early 20s. They wear wigs, sunglasses, bandannas and hats to disguise their identities, saying they fear retribution from Scientologists.
Church spokeswoman Pat Harney has compared Anonymous to the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan.
The last protest, on Feb. 10, drew about 180 demonstrators. Similar protests were held worldwide to mark the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist from Clearwater who died in 1995 while under the care of the organization. Clearwater police said there were no major incidents or arrests.
“We will have a police presence,” said Elizabeth Daly-Watts, Clearwater’s public safety spokeswoman. “As far as details, I can’t get into it because of security purposes.”
Hibbard said he hopes such demonstrations do not become a regular occurrence downtown, which political and business leaders are working to revitalize after years of dormancy.
Then again, the influx of protesters could be a good thing, said Dwight Matheny, executive board chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, which promotes downtown and events that bring in people.
“The hope is that anybody who comes downtown, whether it’s a festival or a protest or whatever, … they’ll find out that downtown is a pretty nice place and they’ll want to come back,” he said. “Certainly notoriety, good or bad, does help in many ways.”
Matheny said there likely will be some disruption to regular business activity, but he hopes it will be minimal.
“We’re in the middle of a 20-year plan to revitalize downtown,” he said. “So a blip here and there isn’t a big deal.”
Reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.
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