More than 200 people, including about two dozen topless women, marched on the Venice Beach boardwalk Sunday afternoon to protest state laws that bar women from going bare-chested in public.
Participants obtained a permit in advance and agreed to obey the law by covering their nipples with red tape, Band-Aids and other makeshift pasties. Los Angeles police hovered at the periphery as the group marched nearly a mile from Navy Court to Windward Avenue on Sunday afternoon, but did not arrest anyone for indecent exposure, a misdemeanor.
The protest — organized by gotopless.org, a website that depicts exactly what its title says — was the third of its kind at Venice Beach and one of about a dozen planned in cities across the country Sunday, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Denver, Miami Beach and Seattle. The protests were timed to precede the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote Aug. 26, 1920.
The chanting women caused a stir. Wait staff at boardwalk cafes paused to watch them pass, diners climbed on tables to catch a glimpse of the crowd, some bystanders flashing their breasts as men in surrounding apartments hung out of windows and balconies, cameras in hand.
Equal rights did not seem to concern many of the men who gathered to gawk at the topless women, record amateur videos and snap photos with cellphones as girlfriends and wives looked on.
Topless protester Kat Kaplan, a dancer and rapper, admonished the crowd using a small megaphone.
"It's not just about taking pictures — you got to back the cause and wear a bikini top, men," Kaplan said.
About 50 men strapped on red bikinis supplied by organizers to show their solidarity. Protesters hoisted signs that said, "Free your breasts! Free your mind!" and "Demand topless equality."
"If we are not allowed, men must be forced to hide their chests on the basis of gender equality," said organizer Nadine Gary.
Some men in the crowd said they agreed with her reasoning.
"We walk around topless. They should be able to if they want," said Jesus Romero, 22, of Phoenix, a furniture store worker who stumbled across the protest while on vacation and joined in, as did his stepbrother, both wearing bikini tops.
Just as the march was about to start at 2 p.m., two counterprotesters showed up from the Bible Believers church in Los Angeles, toting signs and shouting at the crowd on the sand.
"Women and men are completely different. Just because men do things doesn't mean women need to do them," shouted Mark Steven, wearing a "Trust Jesus" T-shirt.
"You ought to be offended — there's kids here!"
One woman, incensed, flashed the pair. A few other topless women posed for photographs in front of them. Police briefly intervened. Eventually, the topless women marched away and the crowd followed, chanting.
Among the bystanders was Kirk Montgomery, 52. A freelance television producer visiting from Kona, Hawaii, he described himself as a "liberal conservative." He has an 18-year-old daughter and said he would not necessarily recommend that she go topless — especially given the gawkers Sunday — but if that was her choice, he would support her.
"Women should have the right to express themselves as they want, as long as it doesn't hurt someone else," Montgomery said.
Mike Maute, 38, drove down from the Antelope Valley to visit Venice Beach on Sunday with his wife, sister, 11-month-old nephew and a cousin visiting from Oklahoma. The topless protest took them by surprise.
"Maybe Venice Beach boardwalk isn't the place to do it, but they should have a place," Maute said as his group got caught in the congestion. His cousin from Oklahoma just laughed, saying bare breasts were one of the tamer things she'd seen on the boardwalk.
As the protesters reached Windward Avenue, Gary was pleased — about twice as many people showed up as last year, she said.
Just then, a stranger approached her. Dave Robinson, 57, an artist from East Los Angeles, was wearing one of the red bikini tops.
"Thanks for giving us this," he said. "I don't want to be a gawker — I want to do something."
Gary thanked him. As they talked, he stripped off his bikini. Gary asked why.
"It's itchy," he said. "Now I know how you feel."