Dove World's presence brings counter protest and business concerns
Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
It's Friday night in downtown Gainesville and the intersection of Southeast Second Avenue and Southeast First Street is a hub of activity.
Pedestrians stream along crosswalks on their to way to have dinner, get a cocktail or see a play. At restaurants and bars along the street, customers take to patio seating to enjoy the evening.
And, on the southwest corner of the intersection, members of the Dove World Outreach Center take turns at a bullhorn, bellowing diatribes against homosexuals, the religion of Islam, President Barack Obama and Christian churches that preach tolerance.
Over the last few years, members of the controversial Dove World, 5805 NW 37th St., have gained infamy, at one point on an international scale. They have sent their children to school with shirts bearing the message “Islam is of the devil,” burned the Quran and sparked furor in the Middle East, and, most recently, hanged an effigy of Obama.
For the last several months, they have targeted downtown Gainesville when it is at its busiest. They have called themselves the Warriors of Christ and claimed, at first, to have no connection to Dove World.
Some local restaurant and store owners say the vocal and hateful protests are putting a significant dent in business.
“It clears out my outside patio. Nobody wants to sit out there and listen to this,” said Shawn Shepherd, the owner of Vellos Brickstreet Grill and the president of the Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants Association.
“I believe in First Amendment rights, but to just badger people and scream at them, it doesn't make much sense.”
Dove World members' aggressive tactics have included sometimes condemning to hell specific passersby who dismiss them.
At one point, members carried a baby doll with scissors driven into its head, a grisly image that served as a Dove World statement on abortion.
For the last two months, a contingent of counter protesters has had a growing presence to fight against what they say is nothing more than hate speech masquerading as Christianity.
It started when Gainesville resident Blake Briand dressed as Jesus in a fake beard and a robe made from fabric bought at Wal-Mart and staked out a spot on the more well-traveled northeast corner of the intersection that Dove World once occupied.
Briand had encountered the group on a previous Friday and decided he had to counteract them. “I just happened to come by when they were yelling about gay people and how they're going to burn in hell,” he said. “Basically, I decided I'm not going to give them a free pass to stand out here and yell hate speech at people.”
On any given Friday, the number of counter protesters reaches a dozen or more.
Now, when a Dove World member takes to the megaphone, a dueling call and response from the two corners ensues.
When Dove World leader Terry Jones took the bullhorn last Friday — the first week he had shown up downtown — he was drowned out for several minutes by a repetitive chant of “bigot!”
Every Friday, several Gainesville police officers keep a watchful eye and that includes making a video recording of the Dove World demonstration. The police make sure there are no physical confrontations when Dove World members begin to march from corner to corner around the intersection chanting “Gainesville repent.”
The police also see to it that pedestrians have a clear path on the sidewalks.
As Dove World members hold signs that read “Sin Kills” and “Sin” printed against the rainbow pattern that symbolizes gay pride, Gainesville's Larry Condra stands across the street with a sign reading, “Jesus is cool but some of his followers give me the creeps.”
Condra said he sees his own past in the group. Thirty years ago, he said, he was a “right wing” street preacher who ranted about damnation.
“That's what I was,” Condra said. “I loved everyone, but they were going to hell.”
Then there is Nick Krueger, a street musician in a cowboy hat who has been playing for tips downtown for some two years. The Dove World members have taken over the corner where Krueger used to perform.
Skilled at the banjo and the fiddle, Krueger has now put on display a powerful voice. As a Dove World member takes the megaphone, Krueger, stationed about 30 feet up the sidewalk, drowns him out with no amplification at all.
“Hey, boy!” he shouts in his southern drawl. “Speak up, boy! Hey, son! You've got a bullhorn! Why can't we hear you? You're going raspy, boy! You're going raspy, son!”
University of Florida journalism professor Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, said the sidewalk and public street corner are likely the most protected areas there are for free speech. The appropriate response to the Dove World message, he said, is an exercise of the First Amendment right to counter it. “In the United States, the remedy for speech we do not like is to engage in counter-speech, to engage in more speech, not censorship,” Calvert said.
As for passersby who may be confronted on their way to or from a nearby business, Calvert noted that, “because you are in a public place you have to tolerate more speech than in a private space.”
Often, a crowd of spectators stops to watch the interaction between Dove World and the counter protesters. When a Dove World member approaches Gainesville's Allyson Hall to hand out literature, Hall says she wants nothing to do with a group that hung the president in effigy and tells the woman to get away from her.
At times, Dove World assistant pastor Wayne Sapp directs his comments directly at specific members of the counter group or, more broadly, at anyone who feels Dove World is a hate group.
“You're right, we are haters ... but you are haters, too,” Sapp yelled through a megaphone last Friday. “The thing is, we hate what is evil. You hate righteousness.”
Jones, whose son Luke often leads the Friday night street corner preaching sessions, says they purposely target downtown when it is bustling. The intent, he said, is not to kill business but to bring their message to the largest possible crowd. Terry Jones contended their message is not hate speech but preaching against sin.
When Dove World members left the street corner at 9 p.m. on a recent Friday, the counter group began singing “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey-ey, goodbye,” the chorus of the more than 40-year-old hit by the pop group Steam.
Both sides would return the next Friday.
Meanwhile, local business owners are looking to the city and the police department to put a stop to Dove World's demonstrations, said Andrew Schaer, owner of Hear Again Music and movies in downtown's Union Station.
Schaer said he circulated a petition among area business owners who opposed the demonstrations and presented it to Police Chief Tony Jones.
While it remains to be seen what, if any, legal recourse there is to the Dove World street preaching, one city official says the negative impact downtown is an obvious cause for concern.
“We want downtown to be a place people can go and enjoy and not be harassed,” said Mayor Craig Lowe, himself a target of Dove World anti-gay slurs.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we have to allow for people to exercise their First Amendment rights and prevail upon the sense of decency of those who do exercise their First Amendment rights to respect the rights of others to go downtown and enjoy an establishment and the amenities.”
Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org