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Olympic protesters may pipe down

Public tolerance may be scant for protests at Games

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With America's patriotism at an all-time high and many calling the 2002 Winter Games a chance for the United States to prove its resolve in defying terrorism, Olympic protesters may be rethinking their plans to organize massive demonstrations in February.

General support for tighter police controls during the Games might be an indication that public tolerance for massive protests that turn violent, like those in Seattle and Genoa, Italy, has eroded since Sept. 11.

"I think that people who would want to do those kind of demonstrations today would find a lot less sympathy," Salt Lake Police Chief Rick Dinse said. "I would hope it brings a measure of civility into their actions."

"We still think they might be here," said Utah National Guard Adj. Gen. Brian L. Tarbet, "but we think they might be muted by the events of Sept. 11."

Indeed, the specter of thousands of people protesting during the Games seems less and less likely.

Salt Lake City has received only three requests for protest applications and one of those groups, Utah Jobs with Justice, now says it won't, and never planned to, protest.

"I don't think that would be a good strategy for us," George Neckel, program coordinator for Utah JwJ, said.

That leaves two local groups, the Utah Animal Rights Coalition and the Citizens Activist Network, with concrete protest plans. No national or international groups have contacted the mayor's office about protest permits, which continue to be ratified by city attorneys, spokesman Joshua Ewing said.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Janelle Eurick said protesters' numbers remain a mystery.

"We know of some smaller local groups that are coming and (UARC) plans on having People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals come, and they could reach up to 500 people, although I'm not sure if they're still planning to come," she said.

A separate group calling itself Build Underground Resistance, Not the Olympics, started a Web site; www.burntheolympics.org before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, calling for large demonstrations during the Games.

But the site seems to have experienced a public backlash since Sept. 11. One day after the four hijacked planes crashed, a Web site calling itself Breathe Understand Relax and eNjoy the Olympics popped up. The site's domain name is exactly the same as the anti-Games site except for one difference — the pro-Olympics site ends with ".com"

In the days since Sept. 11, the anti-Games BURN the Olympics Web site has received several threats via e-mail.

"This is Utah, probably the most conservative state in the USA, where the clear majority believe in the right to bear very large, high-capacity firearms," read one e-mail. "The people here will not allow this to turn into Seattle during WTO meeting. They are not going to let you riot like that, and given recent events, your groups will not be able to."

The anti-Games BURN the Olympics issued a statement shortly after the terrorist acts that read in part, "Activists with BURN the Olympics are considering what it means to mobilize a massive protest against the 2002 Winter Games. We are wondering, 'Are we asking people to come to Salt Lake City to be killed?' "

Police and lawmakers seem to be firm in their resolve to quell any violent disruptions by protestors. Wednesday, the Utah Senate voted 19-6 to pass a bill that increases the penalty for rioting and calling in bomb threats from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. Rioting is defined as any act by two or more persons that is violent or disobeys a lawful order. The bill was expected to come up for a vote in the House Monday.

Dinse, whose department handled violent protests during his tenure in Los Angeles, says the penalty for rioting should be raised to a felony.

"To be able to run through the streets with impunity and then be slapped on the hand with a fine and a short jail stay is a crime," Dinse said.

Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers, who is also head of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command, agreed.

"You're talking about people who go out there and promote violence and they need to be held to a higher standard," Flowers said. "I think (the penalty for rioting) needs to be enhanced in light of what happened (Sept. 11)."

Olympic protestors say they're worried the public's paranoia might somehow place them in the same category as terrorists.

UARC member Eric Ward said public backlash and police brutality are on the minds of all protestors.

"This hysteria works well to serve the agenda of those who want to keep protesters off the streets of Salt Lake City and elsewhere," said another portion of a statement from the anti-Games BURN the Olympics Web site. "All that police need to do is call demonstrators by the big, bad 'T' word and they have a case against anyone."

Dinse said he's aware that not all protestors resort to such radical measures. But the chief also vowed to punish demonstrators who don't obey the law, especially those who become violent and threaten the lives of any police officers.

"If we can get our hands on them we'll put them in jail for attempted assault," Dinse said.

Dinse said he hopes it doesn't have to come to that.

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com; bsynder@desnews.com