Hand in Hand

Never mind lethal injection, there's lots of Olympic spirit here

A song has been written as part of the massive marketing effort under way to lure the 2012 summer Olympics to Dallas. It's called "Our Time to Shine," and the title suggests that the city, along with North Texas, is ready to bask in the international glow the games bring. But if the public "rally" that took place at Fair Park on June 20 is any indication, the spirit of the Olympics isn't exactly burning in the breasts of Dallas residents.

The bid committee's promotional material made the event sound fun, in a Fourth of July-picnic kind of way. Residents were encouraged to don red, white and blue and come to the fairgrounds where, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., they could demonstrate their support for the games to the visiting delegation of the U.S. Olympic Committee. There would be live music, food, Olympic sports demonstrations and celebrity athletes about. Admission was free and open to all.

At kickoff, booths were manned by smiling representatives of neighboring cities, on hand to market their communities to the delegation. Members of the musical group The Roof Raisers tuned their instruments on a temporary stage as concession workers busily wrapped hotdogs and barbecue sandwiches. Along the grounds, school-aged gymnasts flipped on balance beams while fencers knelt and thrust. The flags of the world snapped outside the Hall of State.

But there was one thing missing: the people. Instead of hosting a party to celebrate the end of a long day of presentations, the event's sponsors found themselves taking an unexpected pop quiz in civics.

That's not to say there weren't bodies at the fairgrounds. A sea of people, dressed in red "staff" polo shirts and gray "volunteer" T-shirts strolled about. That's also not to say the event didn't generate any general interest. About 15 protesters, members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, came to make a simple point: They don't believe that Texas should be selected to host the Olympics, an event that symbolizes international brotherhood, because Texas is the nation's death penalty capital.

They carried signs with messages such as: "Making the way to 2012? Over how many dead bodies?" and "No Olympics on Texas killing fields." The protesters gathered peacefully to make their points, but when they began to hold up their signs, two mounted Dallas police officers moseyed over on horseback. The protesters were told to move along.

"I don't understand," protester Rick Lannoye calmly told the officers. "Is this event not open to the public?"

One of the officers moved forward, using his horse's head to nudge Lannoye in the chest. Lannoye continued arguing as he tried to step away from the towering animal. "This is a public property. We have a right to be here. We have a constitutional right to express our views," he said. "Officers shouldn't be allowed to trample us down with horses."

Soon the red shirts began to gather around. There was talk of a "designated area," somewhere off to the side of the event. A protester, coalition board member Peggy Connally, says her group sent out news releases announcing the protest. "I got a call from the police this morning asking how many people would be here," Connally says, but no one told her that the group would be confined to designated areas. "We are being discriminated against if we are being moved."

Additional police officers arrived on foot, along with more red shirts. A mounted officer spoke into a radio attached to his chest. A few minutes later, a squad car arrived, followed by a second. Two photographers, one from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and one from The Dallas Morning News, readied themselves in anticipation of arrests. Tension thickened the late-afternoon air.

"The Olympics are a symbol of human rights," Connally says. "The world needs to know this is the capital of the death penalty."

At this point the USOC delegation had not yet arrived. The officials were in a pickle. If the protesters are allowed to remain, the delegation could get the idea that Dallas might have some drawbacks as a host city. But if the protesters are arrested, their right to free speech will be trampled, perhaps literally. Hence, the pop quiz: Is the U.S. Constitution more or less important than the Olympics' public-relations campaign?

A volunteer turned his back to the protesters in disgust. "They don't believe in the Bible," he says. "The Bible says eye for an eye." Meanwhile, several gymnasts interrupted their tumbling to observe the commotion. A little boy, his hands dusted in white rosin, struggled to understand the scene. "What they're saying," he said slowly, "is they kill people." A skinny girl, her hair pulled into a ponytail, had evidently heard about the death penalty before. "Hey, they killed people," she said. "They deserve it." Her girlfriend agreed. "If you don't like this state," she said, "then get out."

Connally says she learned about the Olympics rally in a Morning Newseditorial that ran on the previous Sunday--the same day Governor Rick Perry made international news when he vetoed a bill that would have banned the execution of mentally retarded convicts. Perry's controversial veto came on the heels of President George W. Bush's first trip to Europe, where the former Texas governor was greeted by anti-death penalty protesters. To Connally, the rally represented an opportunity to continue the debate.

Michael Sorrell, a spokesman for the city's bid committee, which calls itself Dallas 2012, appeared at the scene. When asked if there was a problem with the protesters' presence, he said there was not. "The death penalty is something Dallas 2012 is concerned about," he said. "We welcome their opportunity to speak."

Sorrell, along with other red shirts, briefly chatted with the police officers. Soon, the squad cars drove off and the mounted officers trotted away to a shaded spot beneath a tree. The protesters were allowed to stay. And then the delegation arrived. The visitors, escorted by Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, stood and smiled outside Hall of State while a choir welcomed them by singing "Our Time to Shine."

Behind the choir, the red shirts gathered along with the protesters, who hoisted their signs for the delegation. The eye-for-an-eye volunteer offered a suggestion. "They need to move up front and keep those protesters in the back," he said. The idea caught on, and the staffers stepped forward, erecting a red wall between the delegation and the choir. None of this interrupted the choir, which sang, "Hand in hand. Hand in hand. We will make it happen."

Days later, Dallas 2012 President Richard Greene says he doesn't know who made the decision to call off the police at the event, but it wasn't his organization. Greene also downplays the lack of public turnout, claiming the event was not a public rally at all but a chance for other cities to show themselves off to the delegation. As far as the protesters go, he doesn't see how local and international opposition to the death penalty is relevant to the effort to attract the games. He does, however, understand that the Olympics is an event that attracts protesters, and, if Dallas is named host city, Dallas will be ready for them.

"That's one of the reasons," Greene says, "why there's such a great deal of emphasis on security when it comes to hosting the games."

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