Saturday, April 12

Protesters gather near Augusta



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Backed by about 50 supporters with a giant inflatable pig and a cardboard Klansman for props, Martha Burk bashed the all-male Augusta National Golf Club with a tepid protest that was more circus than showdown.

Martha Burk
Martha Burk's protest was much smaller than the 200 protesters she predicted, but she nevertheless reiterated her message.

The combined picketing Saturday by Burk's National Council of Women's Organizations and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition turned out to be much smaller and shorter than expected. Still, Burk said the corporate executives in the club that holds the Masters were terrified that the activists would force them to admit a woman member.

''You've got to make a choice -- is it discrimination or is it dollars,'' Burk said, threatening to boycott companies whose executives belong to the club. ''Today we are protesters with placards. Tomorrow, women will protest with their pocketbooks.''

But Burk's target audience -- Augusta National's green-jacketed members -- was nowhere close. While she spoke in a vacant lot with a pink pig to represent the millionaires in the elite club, the members were on the course watching the third round of The Masters.

Burk still drew a crowd, even without the 224 protesters she initially planned to bring. Her anti-discrimination speech was heard by a small army of reporters and a handful of booing hecklers.

''I think she's pretty much just shot herself in the foot,'' said Ron Pontiff of Newbern, N.C., who has opposed Burk under the monicker Golfers for a Real Cause. ''I'm glad it's over.''

But Burk, whose organization claims to have 7 million members, said she wasn't flustered by the low turnout.

''I don't think we're hurt by that at all,'' she said. ''We already know the women of America support us.''

The 5.1-acre field hand-picked by Sheriff Ronald Strength for Burk and her opponents to protest resembled a policemen's picnic.

Strength chose the lot after receiving requests for more than 900 protesters. But it turned out to be mostly empty, save for 100 deputies and state troopers who leaned against patrol cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the grass to separate protesters who never arrived.

Sheriff's Maj. Ken Autry said it was too hard to differentiate journalists from protesters to get a headcount.

A single bus pulled up to drop off Burk supporters -- and 17 people got off. A handful more, mostly college-age women, were already setting up their small stage. And 20 Rainbow/PUSH protesters joined them.

Jackson himself was a no-show. The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a black minister who heads the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, flew in from Los Angeles with five members to ridicule Jackson for siding with Burk.

The Ku Klux Klan also turned up -- make that one Klansman, Joseph J. Harper of Cordele, Ga. He eschewed white robes for a plaid shirt and blue jeans. Sitting under a tent and showing off photos of his prized poodles, Harper said Augusta National has the right to exclude women.

Burk sought to embarrass the club by linking it to Harper. At one point, she ceded the stage to a 7-foot cardboard figure of a hooded Klansman wearing a Masters button.

''We're not all white trailer trash,'' Harper muttered into a bullhorn, his voice drowned out by passing cars.

The free-speech freak show didn't stop there.

A man calling himself Georgina Z. Bush dressed in circus drag -- clown makeup, black garter belt and an American flag as a shawl -- and denounced the war. An Elvis impersonator struck karate poses in his rhinestone jumpsuit in hopes of sponging a Masters ticket.

Frank Mizell, a banker from Aiken, S.C., had a similar idea. He wore a sign saying: ''I Will Kiss Martha Burk For a Ticket.''

Burk's opponents seized on the sideshow atmosphere and low turnout to declare the protest a flop.

''It says to me Jesse Jackson knew this was going to happen and pulled out,'' said Todd Manzi of Tampa, Fla., Burk's self-appointed nemesis. ''This issue was never an issue. It's all about Martha Burk's self-promotion.''

Not that Manzi's fared much better. He says he's $35,000 in debt after trying to turn anti-Burk sentiment into a cottage industry. His T-shirts, buttons and bottled water bearing Burk-bashing slogans haven't been hot sellers.

Burk had initially wanted to protest outside the wrought iron gate where golfers and members enter Augusta National, but the sheriff denied her a permit citing safety concerns because of heavy traffic.

Burk, who had permission to protest for seven hours, left the site within an hour. She also opted not to risk arrest by approaching the gate against the sheriff's orders.

Reaction at the course to Burk's presence was ho-hum.

''None of these people really care about what's going on outside the gates of this club,'' six-time Masters champion and Augusta National member Jack Nicklaus said. ''Come on, it's a golf tournament.''

At a house across from the protest site, Dutchess Smith, her husband and a few friends arranged lawn chairs where they could watch the protests while sipping beer from foam cups.

''I thought there would be a whole lot more protesters,'' Ms. Smith said. ''It's just a joke.''

Her friend Jim Campbell, watching the first patrol cars roll off the lot, had another thought.

''Be a good time to rob a bank,'' he said.






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