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PROTESTERS

Billionaires for Bush? Well, yes and no

There was a fraction of a moment when no one knew how to react. Outside the Park Plaza Hotel -- where a boisterous crowd of protesters was chanting, beating drums, and bristling with antiwar signs meant for President Bush -- a group of about a dozen approached. They were in ball gowns and suits and drinking champagne. "Bush and Cheney are good for us," they chanted.

"Look at all these liberal hippies coming around with their boo-hoo signs," said one of them, a woman in a silver lame wrap and designer sunglasses.

Some of the protesters turned, stunned. But then someone pointed to the signs the fancy-dresssed group was carrying -- "Free the Enron Seven" and "Corporations are People Too!" -- and the crowd erupted with shouts of approval. "We should let them get up front," somebody shouted, telling the crowd to part and let them pass toward the hotel.

The group is, in fact, part of a well-organized, liberal-leaning protest machine calling itself Billionaires for Bush. With founding members in Massachusetts and New York, it plans to dog the Bush campaign through November, using satire as its gimmick. Staging swanky protests in which they enthusiastically defend tax loopholes for the rich and war contracts for friends of the president, they claim to be winning a loyal following -- donors and members at 25 chapters in several states. And they say they're making a more lasting impression with their anti-Bush message.

"If that can be burned into people's minds, then we're successful," said Matthew Skomarovsky of Cambridge, an organizer of yesterday's billionaire protest. "It's been a lot more successful in drawing attention than traditional protesting."

The group did stick out at last night's anti-Bush demonstration, in which protesters estimated by police to number about 500 marched, chanted, and carried signs in a more traditional vein. Near the Arlington T stop, where many protesters gathered, there were signs saying "Where are the jobs, George" and "Hail to the thief." A few dozen Bush supporters shouting "Four more years!" met with rebuttals of "Blood for oil" and "Down with Bush."

Much of the message yesterday was about jobs. "The Bush presidency is a disgrace for working families," said Richard Rogers, executive secretary treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council. "His fiscal and economic policies are designed to enrich affluent Americans. His tax policies starve state and municipal governments. The Bush administration is doing everything to destroy the labor movement."

Like many others protesting, P. John Anderson, 64, said he opposes the war in Iraq. "This is aimed squarely at the voters," said Anderson, a member of United for Justice with Peace, who was holding a sign that read "Democracy yes, Occupation no."

The crowd was smaller than the 1,000 to 2,000 people that some activists had predicted, and police said it was largely peaceful. Although no arrests were made, police said several people were forced to leave.

The Billionaires for Bush group is among several activist organizations sprouting up in recent years whose main tactics include humor and irony. "Reverend Billy" and his "Church of Stop Shopping," an anticonsumerism organization, stages church-revival-type rallies with a preacher. Then there is a group that purports to be made up of "housewives" from Bush's hometown of Crawford, Texas, with proverbs such as "A bomb, in time, saves 9" and "A country bribed is an ally earned." The "housewives" have made appearances at Times Square in New York, where they dressed up in red, white, and blue, and straddled plastic missiles.

Proponents say such humor is helping political groups attract younger participants. "This makes it fun, it makes it hip," said Andrew Boyd, "director of high-level schmoozing" for the Billionaires. "It gives it that ironic sensibility, which is a deep current in youth culture. Witness `The Daily Show' and Michael Moore."

Last night, it was unclear how well the message sunk in. Having been allowed through the crowd to stand in a prime place by police barricades, they enthusiastically threw fake $10,000 bills. But when they tried to lead the crowd in a chant of "No justice, no problem!" few of the traditionalists seemed willing to join in. The Billionaires dispersed.

"They're stuck in the '60s," said John McMillian, 33, of Cambridge, who helped organized the Billionaires for Bush protest. "They don't even know what's going on."

Globe correspondents Kevin Joy and Matthew Rodriguez contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com

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