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Tea Party protesters gather at union's offices in the West End

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 8, 2009 - Emotions and enthusiasm climbed in tandem with the temperature midday Saturday as a group of about 300 came together on Pershing Avenue in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood of St. Louis to confront what protesters consider abridgments of freedom of speech by President Obama and the White House.

Simultaneously, rhetorical volleys were aimed at Obama administration health care proposals being considered by Congress.

The protest was mounted in front of a building in the 5500 block of Pershing. It houses offices of the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) local organization, which has found itself the object of the protesters’ special attention.

St. Louis businessman and conservative Bill Hennessy set the tone of  Saturday’s program, when he asked for an apology from the SEIU and the White House.

Hennessy is co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party. It opposes many of Obama’s economic and social policies. Hennessy said the apology is required because thugs have been sent into the streets by the White House to attack opponents of health care legislation, and to abridge freedoms of speech and assembly.

A town hall meeting Thursday was disrupted by opponents of Obama's policies. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, had called the meeting to discuss problems of aging. Raucous and sometimes violent protests have also erupted elsewhere as members of Congress meet with constituents. (See the New York Times story.)

After Thursday’s meeting in Mehlville, Kenneth Gladney, 38, was involved in a scuffle and went to an emergency room with injuries. He had been hired, he said, to hand out Gadsden Flags. Such flags, which are bright yellow and have an eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the center of them, have origins in pre-Revolutionary America. They’ve been embraced as the banner of the Tea Party organization and those opposed to Obama and his supporters. The flags were conspicuous at the rally, as was Old Glory -- and an assortment of handwritten protest signs.

Hennessy and Gladney, who came to the rally in a wheel chair, blamed the White House for the violence, as well as labor union members, who some members of the audience on Pershing characterized as thugs.

Gladney said he suffered a sprained shoulder, a bruised knee and had been kicked in the head in the melee following the meeting. St. Louis County Police arrested six people, including Jake Wagman, a Post-Dispatch political reporter who was covering the event.

>Gladney is African American; so was the person who allegedly assaulted him after the meeting at the Bernard Middle School.

>“Ken Gladney had to pay the price” of the White House’s calling for supporters of administration policies to confront protesters, Hennessy said.

He admonished the White House to “save the threats against the lives and safety” of anti-administration partisans. Hennessy said if the president wants to shut him (Hennessy) up, he should come and do it himself.

That challenge was cheered, and punctuated by shouts of “coward.” Hennessy said that the protest was not against health care coverage but for freedom of speech.

David Brown, a lawyer for Gladney, read a statement written by Gladney. Gladney complained of being drowsy from the effects of pain medication.

The statement focused on the word and the concept of liberty – freedom to assemble, to speak out, to be free of the fear of retaliation. “Liberty is for us all… given by the Creator," the statement said.

There was scant opposition to the protest. Three men carrying signs in support of government-sponsored health care stood across the street from the rally. Some members of the anti-administration rally confronted them, and tossed questions at them.

One of the trio, Tim Ryan, 22, said that he felt intimidated by those confronting him. A member of the crowd mocked his disquiet with a female anatomical slang term that can be translated into more polite English as “coward.”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.