ROCKAWAY BEACH — An electrician. A retired ConEd worker. A recruiter. A law enforcement officer.
These are just a few of the protesters whose messages are so disruptive to Bill de Blasio that his aides have been shooing them into a so-called "free speech zone" at the mayor's public events over the past few months — despite de Blasio's past defense of First Amendment rights.
"Our goal is to get into the mayor's face as much as possible and keep pushing our agenda," said law enforcement officer and civic activist Philip McManus Sr., 49, of Rockaway Park, who advocates for additional transportation for the peninsula.
On May 22, McManus dressed in a suit and tie and printed out a professional-looking poster with the words "Keep the Ferry" and "NYCEDC Invest in Rockaway," referring to the city's economic development corporation. He loaded up the car and, accompanied by his 21-year-old son, Philip Jr., drove to the boardwalk and calmly walked toward the area where de Blasio was expected to speak.
That's where he found himself face-to-face with a mayoral aide who ordered him into the "free speech zone."
"A lot of the mayors are isolated from the people," McManus said. "Giuliani did it. Bloomberg just avoided people. And now de Blasio is doing the same thing — and he's worse at it."
When they were sent to the special zone, he said he didn't argue about it.
"I knew there was a place for me, but when I realized how far away it was, I said, 'This is BS,'" he said.
He and his son didn't put up a fight and went into the penned-off area hundreds of feet from where the mayor stood, but he wondered why he was sent so far away.
"We don't count. Did he do that for the police protesters that took over the city?" he said.
"If you're going to protest the mayor he's more likely to go against you."
McManus said he's not finished fighting to get his message across, and hopefully organize for better transit options for his home peninsula.
"We're not going to give up, we can't give up. if we're going to give up, we may as well move away," said McManus, who frequently protests about the issue in the area.
MEET THE PROTESTERS BANISHED TO 'FREE SPEECH ZONES' AT DE BLASIO EVENTS
The mayor's office has come under pressure for its so-called "free speech zones," which aides defend as a way to minimize disruption at de Blasio events.
First Amendment advocates, however, see the zone as an unseemly change for the formerly protest-friendly mayor, who has defended the right for people to protest issues ranging from Occupy Wall Street to the death of Eric Garner during an NYPD arrest on Staten Island.
De Blasio met with groups who protested the District Attorney's decision not to prosecute Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, and defended the United Federation of Teachers when they came under fire for being one of the sponsors of a march through Staten Island.
In a radio interview during his tenure as Public Advocate in 2011, de Blasio defended Occupy Wall Street's encampment at Zuccotti Park, saying on a radio show that City Hall — when it was run by Mayor Michael Bloomberg — "should stop the saber-rattling and stop the schizophrenia and just make clear that we’re gonna respect their First Amendment rights and let this play out."
And as public advocate and mayoral candidate in July 2013, de Blasio was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct — being led out in handcuffs after shutting down streets — during a civil disobedience protest against the closure of Long Island College Hospital.
The rules are different now that he's on the other side of the podium, many activists said.
John Cori, a 52-year-old electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 3, lives in Rockaway Beach and has been a vocal opponent of many facets of the mayor's handling of post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding.
In October, at a job fair in Far Rockaway, Cori brought a hand-printed sign demanding the city continue to fund ferry service between the peninsula and Brooklyn and Manhattan.
When he attempted to enter the job fair, which was open to the public, NYPD officers, aides from the mayor's office and the mayor's security detail told him that no one with signs would be allowed inside.
"They told me to go across the street," said Cori, who was one of fewer than a half-dozen protesters who were outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by police, mayoral aides and the mayor's security detail, he said.
Cori said he went to stand beside the mayor's SUV for a while, where he chatted with the security detail, before they explained he would have to go stand on the opposite sidewalk behind a wall of NYPD officers and vehicles.
"They told me I had to go to the 'free speech zone,' which was out of sight to him," Cori said. "The security said the mayor didn't want to see us."
Cori was undaunted, and continued to protest on May 22, erecting a huge sign saying "Rock Jetties Now" across the street from the rebuilt Rockaway Beach boardwalk where the mayor attended the unveiling.
He wants the city to invest in hurricane abatement jetties to protect the peninsula from future floods. Cori said he was able to gain access to the boardwalk because he didn't attempt to bring a sign with him.
However, he said his daughter, who left the boardwalk to use the restroom, was stopped by police on the way back and told she couldn't return to the boardwalk event because the officer "didn't know if she was a protester."
"It's ludicrous," he said.
Danny Ruscillo, 61, is a retired ConEd worker who is active in local civic issues and is president of the 100th Precinct Community Council in the western end of the Rockaways.
He brought a sign to the job fair in October in hopes of convincing the mayor to continue ferry service to the peninsula, but said he was shooed across the street.
"We should have been able to stand our ground since we were not on the other side of the school, and we were not obstructing anything. We wanted to show the mayor our signs," Ruscillo said.
He added that after this week's A-train debacle, in which service was suspended to Howard Beach after thieves stole copper wire off the MTA train tracks, the city's decision to end ferry service from the Rockaways was short-sighted.
"I really wish he would have left the ferry," he said.
Rick Horan, 61, a business recruiter who lives in Rockaway Park, brought a sign to the boardwalk unveiling advocating for bike access to the beach around the clock, not just during the current weekday hours.
"I was aware of the beach opening, I just hate those things. It's just politicians patting each other on the back and it just gets me nauseous. But I did decide to take my sign for bikes on the boardwalk 24/7 — specifically because the mayor and the rest of the politicians would be there, to deliver that message to them," Horan explained. "Of course I wouldn't be disruptive. Just to hold a sign."
To his surprise, aides turned him away, telling him that he had to go to the "free speech zone" far from de Blasio.
"The whole point of free speech — by nature it's uncomfortable," Horan said. "Not that you should disturb events — if you do, you run the risk of getting disorderly conduct arrest — but still you need to be able to deliver your message in some sort of reasonable way."
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said de Blasio's office is walking a dangerous line by trying to use tactics reserved for disruptive or unruly protesters on those assembling peacefully.
"If [City Hall] is trying to equate protesters with disrupters, they are making a serious mistake," Dunn said. "If it's open to the public, a protester gets to be there."
Lawyer and radio host Ron Kuby said it's hypocritical of the mayor to crack down on protests considering his crticisms of former Mayor Bloomberg.
"To come into office riding this wave of disapproval at Bloomberg over policing and contempt for dissidence, to be on the crest of that wave that says 'no more,' and [then] to banish a couple of people ... it's unconstitutional, it's bad policy, it's stupid," Kuby said. "And it makes the mayor look very very thin skinned."
He added that public spaces in the city are, by nature, open for free speech.
"We are all free speech zones in NYC," Kuby said. "I am a free speech zone and so are you."