Oil Opponents Clash with Boardwalk Officials

Originally published in the Northwest Florida Daily News on August 4th, 2012

OKALOOSA ISLAND — Five minutes before the scheduled noon start of the local Hands Across the Sand event, Valparaiso resident Trish Rowe was standing alone in a sea of bathing suits, searching for any hints of activism.

Ten minutes later she was joined by a dozen others, engaged in a stand-off with Boardwalk officials.

“There are families here,” said George Golematis, Boardwalk general manager. “This is a county park, and you gotta go through county parks and rec to do this.”

“We pay our taxes,” said one of the participants, an older man wearing a Vietnam veteran cap. “How about our right to peacefully assemble?”

Hands Across the Sand was held at hundreds of locations in over 40 countries nationwide at noon local time on Saturday. Participants joined hands for 10 to 15 minutes in a statement against offshore oil drilling and in support of clean energy.

“I don’t want to have to do it, but we can get the authorities involved,” Golematis told the gathering. “We need to see your permit from the county.”

A beach patrol officer driving an ATV soon pulled up and as the argument continued, the crowd swelled, so that by the time they went down to the water and joined hands there were over 30 participants.

“Join us, join us,” Navarre resident Maggie Roberts called out over the beach. “Help us protect our beaches.”

The officer told the group to move off of Boardwalk property, but the line simply dipped down into the water, which is outside jurisdiction.

Although Okaloosa County does require a permit for an event involving 50 or more people, according to its website, there were no more than 35 people participating at the Boardwalk on Saturday. Nonetheless, officials present at the beach repeatedly told the group they needed to leave if they did not have a permit.

The conflict escalated to its height when a drunk man shouted from behind a 32 oz. beer, “Boo! You’re blocking the view!” But participants counteracted the catcalls by waylaying passerby and gathering up the dozing or drinking clans of midday beachgoers to join hands in the surf.

“The whole idea is to stand together to oppose oil drilling,” said Karlene Gentile, of Mary Esther. “If we don’t do that, one day these beaches will be like Louisiana…this is so our children, our grandchildren, our tourists can continue to enjoy this beautiful place. I don’t want even the fractional possibility of another oil spill destroying this.”

The Hands Across the Sand website preempts one of its most common criticisms, that it is hypocritical to protest oil development while driving a gasoline-powered vehicle to the beach, by encouraging all participants to either carpool, bike, or use public transportation to travel to the event.

The protesters took a lighthearted attitude to the confrontation with officials.

“It’s so ironic that (the confrontation) probably drew a lot of those people over to come support us,” said Rowe. “I haven’t had this much fun since the 60’s.”