The Rose Parade has long been a magnet for protesters looking for global attention for their causes and grievances.
Native Americans once threw a balloon filled with red paint onto the parade route to represent the spilling of Indian blood. AIDS activists interrupted the parade by staging a sit-in. One year, a Pasadena mayor wore a “Tournament of Racists” t-shirt to protest what he saw as the parade’s lack of ethnic diversity.
But this year, Tournament of Roses organizers and Pasadena police are gearing up for something different as Occupy protesters, fresh from their encampments across the country, plan to converge on Pasadena. Like activists in the past, they are hoping to widen their impact with an estimated domestic TV audience of 50 million people and about 700,000 people along the route.
Occupy activists have been looking for a high-profile venue since their camps in Manhattan, Los Angeles and elsewhere were removed. Some see the Rose Parade as a logical next step. On Jan. 1, they will meet in Pasadena to prepare for the following day’s parade, which is being held a day later because Jan. 1 falls on a Sunday.
“It’s Occupy 2.0 and why not start on New Year’s Day in Pasadena?” said Daniel Niwander, an activist with Occupy Pasadena.
Pasadena police and Tournament of Roses officials have been negotiating with Occupy forces for several weeks on a plan that they hope will prevent any disruptions to the parade. Pasadena officials are allowing the Occupy group to march the route at the end of the parade, after all the floats have passed.
And Occupy is planning quite a show.
Protesters intend to march with large banners that decry wealth inequality in the United States and to unveil a few colorful “floats” of their own, including a giant people-powered octopus, said Pete Thottam, an Occupy spokesman. The octopus will be made out of recycled bags, stretching 40 feet from tentacle to tentacle, and is designed to represent the stranglehold that Wall Street has on the political process, he said.
Others will carry large blow-ups of the Constitution, one with the words “We the People” and the other “We the Corporations,” he said. Planned speakers include Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist who lost her son in the Iraq war, local Occupy activists and possibly leftist documentarian Michael Moore.
Because the Occupy movement is loosely organized, it is unclear how many will show up and whether all concerned will agree not to protest during the parade itself.
“We have people coming from Seattle, Portland, Oakland and New York,” said Thottam, adding that sign-in sheets suggest that the protesters could number in the thousands.
That would be significantly larger than past Rose Parade protests.
But Pasadena Police Lt. Phlunte’ Riddle said law enforcement believes that officials have the situation under control. In the past, officials have allowed groups to march peacefully after the parade, including animal rights protesters and fringe sects predicting the end of the world. The Occupy marchers will hit the parade route after a phalanx of police cars moves through but while the crowd is still in place.
“We’ve enjoyed 122 uninterrupted parades and the 123rd won’t be any different,” Riddle said. “We have seen protests before, be it PETA, impeach George Bush or protests over Christopher Columbus. We have dealt with fears over Y2K and we are prepared for the Occupy movement.”
Police got good news this week when a Pasadena-based “tea party” group dropped its plans to launch a counter-demonstration against the Occupy forces.
Michael Alexander, president and founder of TEAPAC, a Pasadena-based tea party group, said his members were outraged that Occupy would try to “politicize” the Rose Parade and began formulating a counter-protest. But after talking to police, his group decided to stand down.
“We have decided to not be part of this piece of drama and exercise in street theater,” he said. “Pasadena is entitled to one day without politics.”
Occupy activists said they were disappointed that the tea party won’t be on hand.
“We consider them our brothers and sisters in arms in our fight to take back control of our country,” Thottam said.
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said his one worry is that one or more fringe characters could ignore the intentions of Occupy and cause trouble. To deal with that potential, Occupy activists are training at least 40 volunteers, outfitted in brightly colored vests, to talk to marchers and urge them to remain calm.
Protest is nothing new to the Rose Parade. Early demonstrators protested the selection of a descendant of Christopher Columbus as grand marshal, unfurling a sign with a slash through a ship that read: “500 years of genocide.” As the crowd shouted anti-Columbus chants, a woman ran into the street and threw balloons that broke and spattered fake blood.
Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators turned up along the parade route during the 1970s, causing a skirmish when police confiscated their posters and leaflets.
In early 1990s, civil rights activists targeted a lack of minorities on the parade’s governing board. Then-Mayor Rick Cole briefly displayed a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Tournament of Racists” as he rode in the parade. He later apologized but said at the time that he saw lack of women and minorities as a problem.
“Oftentimes at the end of the parade there are people who come into the street who have a lot of different message points and they share their message points,” said Bill Flinn, executive director of the Tournament of Roses. “The Rose Parade is about bringing people together with all of the hope a new year brings.”