The Promise Keepers’ Storm the Gates conference at the Sun Dome got off to a tempestuous start Friday evening.
The group, which caters to men-only audiences and says it teaches its followers how to be better Christians, husbands and fathers, began its meeting of 8,000 in the dome with a rousing speech by founder Bill McCartney.
But just as McCartney’s speech reached its climax, mother nature spoke in an eerie way.
“It’s a spiritual storm we want,” McCartney shouted as he was interrupted by dome-shaking thunder.
“That was not a coincidence, men,” he continued. “The Lord is ready to move.”
While Friday’s thunderstorm may or may not have been the result of a supernatural force, the storm that brewed under clear skies Saturday morning in front of dome Entry 4 was fueled by passionate opinions.
Members of the National Organization of Women, which has long claimed Promise Keepers encourages female subservience in the household, protested the event. They stood behind police barriers, holding pro-choice signs and signs that said, among other things, “Women are not born to be cooks, cleaners or incubators.”
While they protested, a heavy security force made up of Sun Dome security, Temple Terrace police, USF police and Promise Keepers security looked on.
According to Sgt. Mike Klingebiel of the University Police, the trouble began at 9 a.m. when some of the protesters left the designated protest area and engaged individual patrons. They were told by police to return to the protest area, and when three did not, they were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
Klingebiel said one of the three resisted and was also charged with misdemeanor resist without violence. Those arrested were Eleanor Cecil, Anthony Mazzo and Toni Van Pelt, though Klingebiel did not specify who had been charged with resisting arrest. All three were released with court appearance dates.
Sharon Simonetti, who joined NOW protesters and filmed the protest for a show on Pinellas-based TV 96, said she saw six police cars and as many as eight officers on the scene during the arrest.
“They asked them to move; (one of the arrestees) was trying to do that. She was concerned about her purse because she had a lot of money in it,” Simonetti said. “Somehow a discussion ensued and they felt like she wasn’t moving quickly enough, so they arrested her.”
Simonetti said there was a further confrontation when the police asked one of the arrested protesters to sign a paper for release.
“They told them in order to be released, she had to sign paperwork. When she attempted to read it, they became angry and told her to sign it right then,” she said. “A female officer intervened and allowed that to happen.”
Cecil, who said she was arrested while trying to help Van Pelt, said she wasn’t sure what she did to be arrested.
“There’s probably nobody that seemed more shocked about this than me,” Cecil said. “If you see me, I’m a 60-year-old grandmother-type person.”
Cecil said she was told that her group could protest outside of Gate 4. When she was told she had to move behind a barricade, she questioned Sun Dome officials. But, she said, she stopped questioning the officials when she learned the Sun Dome was not owned by the university.
“Being an extremely nonviolent type of person, I then proceeded directly to the area we were asked to go,” she said.
Cecil said the trouble began moments later, when she was surprised to see Van Pelt escorted to a waiting police cruiser. She said she saw Van Pelt’s purse sitting unattended along with NOW flyers and walked over to pick them up.
“It was just such a natural instinct, it never occurred to me there would be anything wrong with going and picking up something out of the street,” she said.
Cecil said an officer Bennett (the University Police has two by that name), approached her when she went for the purse and papers.
“He said to me, ‘Get back behind the barricade, or I will arrest you.’ I said, ‘I’m going to pick the papers up,'” Cecil said. “With that, he grabbed me by the arm and pushed me fairly roughly, I felt, up onto the hood of the car.”
Cecil said the experience was a bit of a blur. She said she could not believe what happened.
“I mean it was terrifying for me,” Cecil said. “I’m just really baffled and upset. I’m traumatized. I don’t like to admit that, but I truly am traumatized.”
Cecil said she is slated to appear in court July 1.
Simonetti said the arrests were made, in part, because Promise Keepers officials wanted the protesters removed.
“(They wanted the police) to get them out of the area because they didn’t want the press,” she said.
Promise Keepers security officers did not comment except to say that they did nothing to encourage the police. Klingebiel said his officers acted on their own without influence from Promise Keepers.
“We would not act upon the instruction of security,” he said.
McCartney, who coached football before founding Promise Keepers, attended the entire event. He refused, however, to comment to the media. Simonetti said that his refusal is probably because he has something to hide.
“If you’re interviewed by the press you have two choices: you answer honestly or you lie,” she said. “He’s between a rock and a hard place.”
Ray Vialpando, a U.S. director for Promise Keepers, said McCartney, who NOW accuses of having ties to militant anti-abortion groups, usually does not grant media requests.
“During this event, he’s committed to the event itself,” Vialpando said. “He just wants to be able to speak to the men here without distractions. It has nothing to do with him being afraid to talk to media or trying to hide anything.”
Vialpando said he was not surprised at the NOW protest and eventual arrest.
“I expected it obviously,” he said. “I read in the paper they were coming.”
Vialpando said he had no hard feelings toward NOW. He said while it was an unfortunate incident, it did not put a damper on the weekend.
“Personally, I went out and offered them something to drink,” he said. “Of course, they refused it, but at least we offered.”
As for Simonetti’s assertion that Promise Keepers had a hand in the arrest, Vialpando said that was not possible.
“It has nothing to do with us,” he said. “The security guard actually went out with me to offer them something to drink.”
As things quieted down in the protest area, protester Doris Kovalick was still angry at the four Promise Keepers security guards standing nearby.
“(This) after paying a $5 parking fee. I want my $5 back,” Kovalick said. “Congratulations, machos. You have not disappointed us again.”
Kovalick said, like Cecil, she was shocked that the arrests had happened.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here we are a bunch of really nice turn-the-other-cheek people, and they’re dragging this little 110-pound woman around,” she said.
Kovalick said the arrests and treatment by security are examples of why she dislikes Promise Keepers. She said she feels vindicated.
“As usual we go home saying, ‘Hey, see, we were right about Promise Keepers,'” she said. “All they want is dominance, macho dominance.”
Brent Whitt, who traveled from Sarasota and paid the $69 fee to attend the Promise Keepers event, watched the protesters. He said NOW members have the right to express their opinion, though he wonders about their background.
“Our God gives them every right to do that. (But) if you were to ask each one about their upbringing, you might find a common thread. There was a poor father or poor example of a husband in their lives,” Whitt said. “Some women have been put down in society. They believe their God-given right is to find themselves in another role outside household, childbearing and raising kids. That’s their prerogative.”
Bob Hedges, who came from Deerfield Beach to attend Promise Keepers, said he was impressed by the protesters.
“I’d really like to hear what they have to say,” Hedges said. “I admire their guts to come out here just like I admire the people who put (Promise Keepers) together.”
Hedges said he did not see the arrest but was surprised by the passion shown by the protesters.
“You have to sort of wonder where their heads are at,” he said. “But they’ve got in their heart a certain passion. Even though I don’t agree with them, they’re demonstrating passion I wish more (Promise Keepers) had.”