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Protesters in the Commons
( Photo / Eddie Medina)
A group of protesters holds up a mock stage and large puppets near the UMass-Boston entrance before the debate.

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Thousands stage rowdy protest outside UMass-Boston entrance

By Staff, 10/03/00

BOSTON - Well over 10,000 protesters waved placards along the road leading to the University of Massachusetts' Boston campus this evening as journalists from all over the world gathered to cover the first presidential debate between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.

Even as the debate ended, dozens of protesters knocked over police barricades and sat down -- arms linked -- in a road leading to the debate hall at the University of Massachusetts. They chanted "Open the debate."

Boston Globe photographer Dominic Chavez was in a crowd of protesters when he was picked up and thrown to the ground by a man who then slammed the photographer's camera into his back, according to Catie Aldrich, director of photograpy for the Globe. He was taken to a hospital to be checked out, but did not appear to be seriously injured, Aldrich said.

Officers dragged away a number of protesters while other officers on horseback tried to dispel the crowd.

The incident followed a brief tug-of-war over the metal barriers between police and protesters, who shouted to officers, "We are nonviolent, how about you?"

Police on horseback and Secret Service agents in dark suits and shiny Regis Philbin ties ordered protesters on Morrissey Boulevard to back up behind metal barriers alongside the entrance road to the debate hall.

The protesters welcomed long lines of buses, vans, cars and stretch limousines with chants like "Let Ralph debate!" and "Bush and Gore, corporate whores!"

There were at least a half dozen arrested and another person was taken into custody for drunkenness, police said. Morrissey Boulevard remained shut down as the crowd dispersed.

Around the time the debate started, a small group of protesters knocked over metal barricades in an attempt to get closer to the building where the debate was held. Some protesters said police in riot gear used pepper spray on them.

Demonstrators later tried to move the barricades forward, and police pushed them back. In response to the tug-of-war, protesters shouted, "We are nonviolent, how about you?"

Labor unions supporting Gore and others loyal to Bush demonstrated alongside supporters of Ralph Nader and a myriad other groups vying for the national spotlight focused squarely on the university.

About an hour before the start of the debate, Gore supporters and Nader loyalists were arguing in the crowd of demonstrators gathered a few hundred yards from the debate hall.

Witnesses said a man wearing a Gore T-shirt turned from the argument, grabbed a 3-foot wooden cross from a man holding it, and broke it over the man's head. Demonstrators who saw the incident screamed for police.

"He grabbed it right out of my hand and cracked it right over my head. I was in shock," said Scott Langley, 23, of Cambridge, who said he was holding the cross in memory of prisoners executed under Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "And I took his picture, which made him madder."

The assailant fled into the crowd.

"There's a lot of hostility between the Gore people and the Nader people," said Lila Brown, 19, a Nader supporter holding a sign saying "Vote Hemp."

"Holding a sign promoting Ralph Nader's candidacy," Jonathan Allen of Brookline said he still hoped the Green Party candidate would win the race. "I'd really like him to get 34 percent of the vote, but that's not to realistic," Allen said.

The demonstrators mostly remained behind the fence that bordered the route through which Gore and Bush arrived, until the demonstrators' ranks swelled and they began spilling onto Morrissey Boulevard itself.

A contingent of state troopers and Secret Service agents stopped the crowd from blocking the entry road, as helicopters circled overhead, shining their spotlights down on the masses waving large puppets and dressed in colorful costumes.

About 900 members of Iron Workers Local 7 gathered along the route to UMass to express their support for Al Gore. "He's for the working man," said Rosie Piniery, a member of the union. "He'll keep prosperity here. He won't pass a phony tax break for the wealthy."

Boston firefighters appeared in force, most wearing Gore T-shirts, protesting their lack of a contract with the city. Among the throngs of people, Suzie Chong meditated on the grass, amid her cohorts who were protesting the Chinese government's persecution of members of Falun Gong.

Inside the debate media center, hundreds of journalists from 300 media organizations gathered in front of their phones and television sets to cover the debate.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is organizing the debate, has two others planned later this month in Winston-Salem, N.C., and St. Louis.

Earlier today, hundreds of the protesters gathered on the Boston Common. David Solnit wielded a 15-foot-high puppet that had cardboard heads of Gore and Bush. He said the debate was a "corporate puppet show."

"I'm trying to put a little truth into the campaign," said Solnit, 36. "I'm trying to tell voters they can be assured of polluted air and water, lousy jobs and gentrified neighborhoods no matter who they vote for."

Protesters who gathered on the Common set out on a "Freedom for Sale Trail" march to the city's financial district, visiting the headquarters of Fleet Bank, Fidelity Investments and Verizon Communications.

Police blocked protesters trying to enter the offices of Fidelity and Verizon, but there were no incidents.

Bush and Gore planned to address supporters immediately after the debate. Bush was scheduled to visit supporters gathered at an ice skating rink in South Boston. Gore was expected to stop in at a debate party at the Park Plaza hotel in downtown Boston.

- staff reporter Eddie Medina and the Associated Press contributed to this story.