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Protesting protests

Right-wing entrepreneurs work to beat the left at their own game-and are turning it into a profitable business

Protesting protests

The upcoming Republican National Convention might well be the Olympics of protesting. Thousands of anti-Bush protesters are likely to picket the convention, but a small contingent of conservative counterprotesters is ready to compete, armed with signs such as, "Except for Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism and Communism, WAR HAS NEVER SOLVED ANYTHING." One such group, dubbed ProtestWarrior by founders Kfir Alfia and Alan Lipton, is headquartered in ultra-liberal Austin, Texas.

Along with two friends, Mr. Alfia and Mr. Lipton decided early last year to visit an anti-war protest in San Francisco. Mr. Alfia's homemade sign showed a burqa-clad Muslim woman tied to a pole with a leash and read, "Protect Islamic Property Rights Against Western Imperialism! SAY NO TO WAR." Mr. Lipton's was just as subtle: "Saddam Only Kills His Own People. IT'S NONE OF OUR BUSINESS!" The other protesters argued and swore at them, but no violence occurred.

The next day, Mr. Alfia told political commentator Rush Limbaugh about the experience. Mr. Limbaugh put the story and pictures on the front page of his website for a week, and Mr. Alfia launched a week later. When 25 Protest Warriors hit another anti-war protest soon after, Mr. Limbaugh linked his website to theirs. "That's when we really hit the national scene," Mr. Alfia says.

Chapters sprouted up across the country. ProtestWarrior's internet site began selling T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and mugs. By mid-2003 sales revenue and occasional donations enabled both founders to go full-time. "We usually get accused of being backed by large corporations," Mr. Lipton says. "[The left] thinks there is no way any private citizen could be able to take them on."

ProtestWarrior videotaped the reaction it received at a peace rally in Washington last October. "No more violence, no more hate!" the peace marchers chanted, but when the ProtestWarrior signs confronted them, expletives flew. Some peace marchers tried to rip down the signs while others shook the video camera.

On March 20, 2004, ProtestWarrior chapters in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco staged simultaneous counterprotests at anti-war rallies. Footage from the Chicago operation shows protesters chanting anti-war mantras and then yelling in self-congratulation, "This is what democracy looks like!" But when ProtestWarrior signs went up, anti-war demonstrators tried covering them with their own signs and Palestinian flags. Then they shoved, pulled down, and tore some of the ProtestWarrior signs as the peace-rally speaker continued: "Why would other people feel so much hatred? We're ready to make a change."

ProtestWarrior now grows by about 1,000 members a month, spiking when the group gets media coverage from Fox News, the Associated Press, and MTV, among others. At last count it had just under 8,000 members. Mr. Alfia says he and his colleagues protest mostly at anti-war rallies because that's the issue of the day: "We've received thousands of e-mails from soldiers stationed in Iraq saying thank you for representing their position."

Not everyone is grateful. "We receive death threats all the time," 30-year-old Mr. Alfia says. He says his mom worries about him and that the film footage proves leftist protesters can get physical when provoked. One threatened to destroy the ProtestWarrior website. But Brendan Steinhauser of Young Conservatives of Texas calls ProtestWarrior members "proud, confident, and intellectual," with "the courage to speak up in a crowd."

ProtestWarrior is now gearing up for the GOP convention with plans known as Operation Liberty Rising. "This will be our biggest showing," Mr. Lipton says. In addition to the usual signs, talk, and video cameras, Mr. Alfia hints at some theatrical satire involving "a member of the New York chapter who looks like Lenin." But ProtestWarrior won't divulge anything more about its plans, Mr. Alfia says: "They require an element of surprise."

Jess Mission

Jess Mission