Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Cash for protesters, but no free breakfast

The protesters hit their cues. They shouted. They shook their fists. They held signs demanding: “Stop the Land Grab.” Someone waved an American flag.

But as theater goes, I’d give it no more than two stars.

Not that these thespians didn’t bring fervor to their roles, feigning outrage over a proposed deal to buy 46,800 acres of land below Lake Okeechobee as part of the Everglades restoration project. They just didn’t look the part.

The troupe, about 50 members of the Broward Acting Group, were hired for a faux demonstration last week outside the South Florida Water Management District headquarters in West Palm Beach, according to the Palm Beach Post. They were recruited through the networking group’s Facebook page: “Background talent. Political rally protesters needed!! We could use up to 12+ people for rally protesters this Thursday, April 2nd at 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. We will pay CASH of $75 per person at the end of shoot. NO BREAKFAST.”

Perhaps “no breakfast” explained why Florida Citizens Against Waste, a tea party-aligned bunch hot to kill the Everglades land deal, weren’t able to lure actual true believers to a morning gathering in West Palm Beach.

Instead, actors were recruited “basically to stand behind fence, holding banners or signs that will be provided. Clothing is almost anything!! Use common sense and don’t wear ‘club’ outfits or gym clothes. Just a wardrobe for a Political Rally. This couldn’t be any easier . . . the only downside is an early start for West Palm Beach location. That is why we’re paying so well!!”

This was to be a kind of counter-demonstration after about 100 environmental activists showed up at the water district meeting last month to speak in favor of the $500 million deal to provide land for reservoirs designed to capture agricultural runoff before it pollutes the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie Estuary.

The staging was fine. The problem was in the casting. The Broward actors were way too attractive to pass for a gaggle of tea party demonstrators who in real life tend to be old, wrinkly and frothing-at-the-mouth angry. Compared to actual tea party warriors, the actors in West Palm Beach might as well have been cast as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, getting ready to bust out with “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”

Tea Party Miami, however, was downright indignant that the liberal media in general and the Palm Beach Post in particular, had written about their paid protesters but failed to call out the tree huggers for offering a free bus trip and hotel accommodations for college students willing to attend the Third Annual Everglades Day and Action Rally in Tallahassee on Tuesday. A Tea Party Miami Facebook post wondered: “Why the super rich elitist snobs at the Everglades Trust continue to lie and why their lap dogs at the Palm Beach Post continue to lap it up?”

The environmental crowd countered that these student demonstrators, as opposed to the tea party hirelings, would have an actual interest in the issue. The Broward Acting Group does seem to be an apolitical outfit, except for one particular issue — persuading the Legislature to fund film industry incentives. Perhaps the actors were unaware that their tea party benefactors are working hard to kill that legislation, too.

But it does seem that political operatives, four centuries later, have finally embraced Shakespeare’s notion that “all the world’s a stage.”

Hired actors would have made for more convincing protesters than the tattered pretenders the United Brotherhood of Carpenters used for a 2007 low-wage protest in Washington, D.C. A Washington Post reporter, who noticed that protesters had lugged along plastic bags and suitcases, discovered that they had been recruited, at the rather low wage of $8 an hour, from nearby homeless shelters.

Last year, after fast-food workers around the country walked off the job in protest of low pay, McDonald’s issued a statement claiming similar fakery. “We reiterate that these are not ‘strikes’ but are staged demonstrations in which people are being transported to fast-food restaurants. And we have received reports that some participants are being paid up to $500 to protest and get arrested.” (Organizers denied the allegations.)

Last year, it was the soft drink industry caught organizing a faux grassroots protest in San Francisco with demonstrators paid to wave around signs denouncing a proposed city tax on sugary drinks. Reporters had no trouble figuring out that the demonstrators’ only interest in the issue was the promise of $13 an hour. (Like everything else in San Francisco, pretend demonstrations become pricy endeavors.)

But hiring professional actors is surely a positive step. They’ll certainly offer TV cameras a more aesthetically pleasing image than homeless street people or tea party cranks. And they’ll be a hell of lot more convincing than the amateurs who staged South Florida’s most famous fake grassroots uprising — the Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000.

The Republican Party operatives organized the rent-a-riot to disrupt the counting of the last 10,000 ballots in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was staged as a “spontaneous” eruption by Miami-Dade voters, except the rioters were dressed in the prim, button-down attire of the Washington, D.C., political class. Not a guayabera in the bunch. It was about as convincing Vin Diesel doing Hamlet.

Hiring real, local actors would have at least given a boost to a chronically unemployed subset. The sneaky operatives behind Stop the Land Grab may not care about saving the Everglades, but they’re supporting the local arts community.

As one of the actresses posted on her Facebook page after last week’s fake demonstration: “It was the easiest $$ ever, right?”