Published on Sunday, September 28, 2003 by the Florida Sun-Sentinel
Activists Build Giant Puppets in Lake Worth to Spread the Word of Free Trade's Foes
by Prashant Gopal
David Solnit, an Oakland, Calif., carpenter, will head cross-country to Lake Worth in November to help a team of artists create anti-globalization messages out of papier-mâché, glue and cardboard.
Solnit, 39, will join other activists from around the nation at a Lake Worth warehouse to build giant political puppets, oversized hula-hoops, costumes, masks and other props to protest November's Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. While Solnit won't arrive until November, the warehouse will be open starting next week.
Local organizers are calling the warehouse the Free Carnival Area of the Americas.
"We're trying to change the world with puppets," Solnit said. "To me, it's important enough to take three weeks off from work. If we don't put a stop to the FTAA, none of us will have work."
The loose network of puppeteers, who call themselves puppetistas, create 10- and 20-foot-tall papier-mâché effigies that have been popular since the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.
The puppet-makers say their eye-catching art is meant to question the global corporate marketplace and what they see as its threat to human rights and the environment. They favor what they call a more democratic system that would give a fair say to poor countries and fair pay to all workers.
"Puppets are fun," said Cara Jennings, 26, a member of the Lake Worth Global Justice Group, which is coordinating the puppet- and prop-making. "Everyone who is opposed to free trade can't necessarily debate economic strategy, but they can participate in creating artwork that conveys the message."
The Lake Worth Global Justice Group was formed by a small group of young residents in the aftermath of the 1999 "battle in Seattle." The group's dozen or so members screen films, maintain a "radical reading room and library," sponsor speakers, workshops and teach-ins, and participate in anti-war, pro-environment, anti-globalization demonstrations, often arriving on stilts or costumed as grim reapers or as a political pep-squad of radical cheerleaders.
The members want to take a prominent, and fun, role in preparations for the Miami protests, said Melodie Malfa, 26.
"We decided we wanted to do something in our town," Malfa said. "Since nobody else in Miami had taken it up, we decided to handle the puppet-making."
They sent word to the community of political puppet-makers, inviting them to build "props, puppets, bikes, things that flutter delicately in the wind, mobile stages and whatever else you can imagine."
Group members offered to open their homes to out-of-town artists. And they scraped together $1,000 to pay the first month's rent for the 18,000-square-foot warehouse near downtown Lake Worth. The warehouse will be stocked with salvaged and donated materials, including paint, tools, cardboard, bicycle parts and glue.
They've applied for grants to defray their costs, which they estimate at about $7,000.
"This is a call-out to socially conscious artists and art collectives to travel here and collaborate with us," the group wrote in a letter that was widely published on Internet sites promoting the March to Miami, which will consist of workshops and meetings across the country culminating in mass demonstrations at the Miami FTAA talks Nov. 17-21.
The group plans to open the warehouse Wednesday. The rest of its plans are sketchy. They had hoped to be farther along with the planning, but Miami officials produced an unexpected obstacle when they proposed an ordinance that would ban sticks thicker than one-fourth of an inch and place restrictions on the thickness of cloth, paper and cardboard signs.
Protest organizers say that amounts to a ban on oversized puppets. The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the cause.
Randall Marshall, the ACLU of Florida's legal director, said police consider the puppets to be potential Trojan horses that could hide violent people and weapons.
Jennings said puppets aren't dangerous. "It's shocking that police try to label them as weapons," she said. "It's like attacking Mr. Rogers or something."
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