An unlikely ally

For G-8 protesters, Southern hospitality comes from a surprising source

Bill Jones' offer last week to open up nine acres of his company's land so activists can have a place to peacefully protest is an indication of just how strange things have become in coastal Georgia as the G-8 Summit draws near.

Jones is a millionaire, a developer, a deep-pocketed Republican — essentially, the last person you'd expect would give a damn about a few hundred (or thousand) protesters looking to demonstrate against G-8. That he's also the CEO of Sea Island Co., the company hosting the summit, makes his offer all the more odd.

For months, protest organizers have been clamoring for a place in or around Brunswick where they can host a "fair trade fair" — basically, an educational counterpoint to the globalization policies espoused by the eight world leaders who will be meeting on Sea Island June 8-10.

But officials throughout Glynn County, including the city of Brunswick, have been less than receptive to opening up any public land to protesters. In fact, lawmakers in both Glynn County and Brunswick have passed strict ordinances timed to G-8 that not only require permits for any "public assembly, parade, [or] demonstration" of more than five people on public property, but that also demand that demonstrators fork over security deposits and indemnification agreements before they can get a permit. What's more, the ordinances allow the local police chief to deny a permit for any number of absurd reasons, including if demonstrators plan to use signs that exceed 2 feet by 3 feet, or if they're attached to "any wooden, plastic, metal, or other type of support."

Still, organizers have gone ahead and applied for permits to gather in several municipal parks. If their applications are rejected, the ACLU is poised to file a lawsuit asking a judge to overturn the ordinances. For protesters, there's a sign of hope that those lawsuits will be successful — the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled unconstitutional an Augusta ordinance passed last year that was designed to forestall any protests at the Masters golf tournament. But Glynn County Attorney Gary Moore says his county's ordinance is different enough from the Augusta one to pass judicial muster.

The roadblocks have frustrated organizers such as Robert Randall, who lives in Glynn County. "We felt the big advantage of having the G-8 come to Georgia is to have a teachable moment where our citizens could step up their knowledge of and concern for global issues. That's why the scenario we planned for the G-8 protest wasn't a typical protest scenario. We wanted to maximize the education."

But each day and hour spent trying to nail down a location has come at the cost of organizing those educational events. The uncertainties have caused some organizations to bail out. What's more, the absence of a venue is keeping organizers from issuing a call to protesters to come to Brunswick.

"We have no assurances that this will not be a dangerous place for people to come to express their opinions," Randall said early last week. "That's a condemnation of our country. If we're in such a police state that people are afraid to come and make their views known because they're gonna be clubbed in the head and shot with rubber bullets and pepper spray, then in my opinion, the terrorists have already won."

It was in the midst of such rhetoric that Jones made his offer. Not only would he grant the use of nine acres along Route 17 — less than a mile from the causeway that leads to Sea Island — but he was also prepared to pay for resodding the field at the local high school football stadium, another possible protest site. That, of course, was assuming the local school board was willing to reconsider its earlier decision not to make its stadium available during G-8.

"The inspiration for Bill was that no one else was stepping up," says Kyle Tibbs Jones, media director for Sea Island Co. "He thinks it's the right thing to do to welcome peaceful protesters."

Randall, who fielded the offer from Jones' company last week, was quick to accept. Atlanta-based organizer Carol Bass, however, was a bit more ambivalent.

"I was less than thrilled," she says. "They [Jones and Sea Island Co.] are the G-8 in Brunswick. They are the local example of G-8. It's like Daddy Warbucks handing you a 'No War' sign and saying you can stick it in his back yard."