Tuesday, August 24, 2004

NEW YORK — First there is the name-calling. The conservative, sign-waving Protest Warriors are “fascists,” “reactionaries,” “saboteurs” and “Nazis,” according to their left-wing foes who have encountered them at demonstrations.

Then there are the self-proclaimed “anarchists,” whose computer hacking resulted this week in the dissemination of the names, addresses and phone numbers of two Protest Warrior leaders as well as the e-mail addresses of many of the group’s 8,000 members.

And, of course, there are the infiltrators, who obtained inside information and posted online the address of the Protest Warriors’ temporary headquarters four blocks from Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention begins Monday.

“The leftists have this idea that now, with us around, there is another underdog,” said Kfir Alfia, the 30-year-old co-founder of the Protest Warriors, which got its start last year as a response to liberal protest groups. “So they try to portray us as threatening them, they put out all sorts of crazy things about us. But they are deluding themselves and their members.”

The Protest Warriors will have its headquarters for convention week in a spacious loft donated by a fellow member. The conservative group has lawyers on retainer in case its members are arrested during demonstrations — a contrast to left-wing groups’ reliance on the gratis assistance of a legal collective.

“We must project an image that we are heavily funded,” said Mr. Alfia. “But it is totally grass roots.”

This week, members of Protest Warriors’ New York chapter picked up 3-by-4-foot protest signs from a copy shop — huge, laminated posters that have become the group’s signature, complete with the wry wisecracks that give them away as counterdemonstrators among the horde of rabble-rousers descending on the city for the Republican convention.

Only the best wisecracking slogans make the cut. One member turned in 52, to have four accepted.

Among the latest batch of signs is one with an Orwellian allusion: “Four legs good, two legs bad, brought to you by the Earth Liberation Front.” Another includes a photo of a black man at a Jim Crow-era drinking fountain and mocks liberal opposition to school choice: “Black children belong in black schools, say no to vouchers.”

Each of the signs, 300 in all, features the group’s Internet address (www.protestwarrior.com) at the bottom, lest onlookers get confused as to the source of the message.

“We have to make these signs instantly recognizable because there are so many more of them than us,” said Tom Paladino, 27, an advertising professional who heads the New York chapter of the Protest Warriors.

“We do have a sense of humor about what we do, and we’re not going to change the world,” Mr. Paladino said. “But if we can change some minds and get someone to see that there are two sides to these issues, great.”

The Warriors will join the marches and walk side by side with their ideological opposites, and will record videos of the responses — which in the past have ranged from rage to hilarity.

“I’ve been looking for a group like this my whole life,” said Michael Austin, a cigar-chomping 41-year-old actor who joined the group after seeing some of the members in action at a March 20 peace rally in New York. “I’ve marched in pro-choice rallies and gay pride parades, but this is truly the anti-establishment. We get called names. They really dislike us [and] have no room for dissent.”

The protest underground is buzzing with suggestions of how leftists can deal with the Protest Warriors.

“Yeah, they are really afraid of us,” said Bryan McCarthy, 30, an Irish immigrant who joined Protest Warriors earlier this year. “But, I mean, these groups like United for Peace and Justice have become the Starbucks of the protesting world, these huge conglomerates. The people fold up their laptops, grab their lattes and get out on the street.”

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