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The Perfect Storm 

Remember me to Herald Square

Thursday, Sep 2 2004
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Photo by Ted Soqui

“Are you going to protest today?” a deli customer asked the young woman working the counter of Russ and Daughters.

“I really want to,” she replied, “but I’ve got to work.”

It was early Sunday morning on the Lower East Side, far from Madison Square Garden, but already cops were racing up and down Houston Street as marchers gathered outside subway stations with signs attached to cardboard tube-sticks — the only kind permitted by police.

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The main question that morning was whether the demonstrators would risk confrontation with police by illegally rallying in Central Park. Of course, the march turned out to be massive and mostly peaceful, with only a few thousand drifting up to Central Park afterward. But despite the half-million head count cited by The New York Times and others, the demonstration will soon be forgotten by an apathetic public. Besides, even though everyone in the march hated Bush, resented the war in Iraq and was tired of the Treasury being treated as a private ATM by the president’s country-club friends, how many were willing to do more than vote Democratic when they went home — let alone tell John Kerry to stop trying to out-Bush George Bush?

Before leaving for New York, I’d spoken to Linda Boyd, a first-time Republican delegate from Glendora. A registered nurse, Boyd told me she’s been working 70 hours a week as a GOP volunteer. The figure partly explains why Republicans have been getting their message — and voters — out. I couldn’t think of any group, from the Democratic Party to the Greens, fielding an army of such committed volunteers. The GOP is clearly placing a great deal of hope in volunteers like Boyd (instead of simply throwing money on ads) and is rewarding them accordingly.

“A big effort was made this time to make sure volunteers got chosen as delegates,” Boyd said. “There were some donors included, but the delegation has about a 30-70 split between donors and volunteers.”

Did she have any apprehensions about coming to New York?

“We know the Democrats are making a concerted effort to make us feel unwelcome — they have it all choreographed out,” she said. “They have big bucks from the Hollywood crowd, which is trying to defeat our president.”

When I asked why that might be, Boyd replied:

“They have a hate-the-Republicans mentality. They’re not good sports — they’re mean, they throw things and shove people.”

This, of course, sounds like a mirror-backward view of how Democrats see Bush and his party’s faithful — the other side is irrational, filled with spite and hate, and falls back on brute force when it cannot win on the strength of its ideas.

 

Inside and out of the Garden, street theater provided a welcome break from both slogans and polemics. While Log Cabin Republicans were being welcomed at the Bryant Park Grill by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki (whom Bloomberg intriguingly referred to as his “partner”), the young gays and transgenders of Queer Fist assembled around the corner on the public library’s steps. Like San Francisco’s Gay Shame, the group humorously skewers middle-class gay materialism and its quest for marriage and acceptance. Here, beside one of the library’s stone lions, they staged a mock wedding in which the newlyweds promised to “earn the highest possible corporate salaries and gentrify as many neighborhoods as we can.” The 15 or some Queer Fisters, costumed in veils, suits and one priestly cassock, then strolled around the block humming the wedding march or shouting, “Fuck Marriage!” — and repeated the nuptial ceremony anytime they encountered a set of stone steps leading into Bryant Park.

I asked member Durward Charles if Queer Fist was headed to the Log Cabin gathering, and he replied, “No, we don’t want to confront them — besides, our legal observer hasn’t shown up.”

Meanwhile, late in the afternoon, the equally colorful Billionaires for Bush performance group was getting bullhorned off the traffic island in Times Square. They reluctantly left, but small groups of demonstrators stood vigil outside the theaters known to be hosting Republican audiences.

One group from Richmond stood outside the Lunt-Fontane, where they eyeballed members of the Virginia delegation as they entered for Beauty and the Beast. One protester, T.J., complained to me that every time his group tried to stop and orient themselves in the city, cops would appear in their faces and tell them to move along.

Clearly not everyone sympathized with the protesters. “It’s a little bit disconcerting,” an Ohio Republican named Debra told me as she waited for a bus to take her group away from Wonderful Town. “My fear is that a gang mentality will get out of control. I don’t know if people are here because it’s trendy to protest and I don’t know if it’s helping their cause.”

Linda Boyd told me she saw her fellow delegates spat upon as they left a performance of Aida.

A block away, police were arresting people demonstrating outside the Marriott Marquis, where many delegates were staying — penning onlookers out of their areas of operation with rolls of orange plastic netting. (The delegates were easy to spot — even when not showing Bush-Cheney buttons, the men tended to wear sports coats and ties, while the women carried red New York Times goody bags.)

As night fell Sunday, a change had come over the protesters who had seen their friends tackled, cuffed and hauled away to a waterfront detention facility on Pier 57. The demonstrations, so long in the planning, were now no longer theoretical but suddenly personal. Those who were not arrested grew increasingly angry and began following delegates as they emerged from the Marriott, cursing them as they strolled through Times Square. It seemed that the mix of Republicans, cops and enraged protesters was making for a perfect storm.

 

Tuesday, the day of unpermitted direct actions, didn’t start drawing large crowds until the late afternoon, when some 300 people assembled at Ground Zero to march to the Garden. They never left the station — around 4 o’clock nearly a third of the would-be marchers negotiated a deal with police to leave the area by walking on the sidewalk “two by two” — two abreast on the sidewalk. But as this group crossed the street, a light changed, and those left on the other side began bunching up, and soon nearly 100 people found themselves behind arrest netting.

“I don’t buy this two-by-two bullshit,” said one black-clad young man to another. “Look how they’ve got us bunched up here — why don’t we break through where there’s no cops?”

“Then what?” asked his friend, a question that would be asked throughout the day and evening. Around 6:30 a large — and angrier — group swarmed around the public library near Bryant Park. Suddenly they broke down 42nd Street toward the Garden, but in a matter of minutes, with bicycle cops in pursuit, another hundred or so protesters were penned and arrested. New York’s claustrophobic topography and the organizers’ lack of strategy were playing neatly into the authorities’ hands. Eventually most of Tuesday’s remaining actions unfolded in Herald and Greely squares, where dozens tied up Sixth Avenue near Macy’s in a series of die-ins, whereby protesters simply lay down in the street.

As the RNC’s night session approached, GOP delegates heading toward the Garden or attending an MSNBC broadcast in Herald Square increasingly found themselves having to be escorted off buses by police — to jeers from the crowds. Sometimes, however, the confrontations were on a more one-on-one level. A Manhattan family had spent the day walking about carrying banners, one of which read “Dangerously Stupid” and featured a photograph of the president. I caught up with them after they had gone up to Texas Senator Phil Gramm, whom they found standing outside the Garden.

“He said, ‘Are all three of you dangerously stupid?’” the father, William, told me. “I pointed to the picture and said, ‘No, just this guy.’”

Moments later, about a dozen protesters sat on the warm ground at 34th and Sixth, in front of a bus full of delegates. The police, who until now had conducted the arrest procedures with the glacial ritual of a Noh drama, quickly moved in steel pens, pushed back onlookers and rapidly hauled away the protesters, many of whom had donned black Abu Ghraib hoods.

“Looks like we’ve lost our affinity group,” one protester said to another after they had been pushed back onto the sidewalk. They then rejoined their friends — on the ground.

Within minutes, the arrested demonstrators were gone, and the pens folded back on the sidewalk. What the police didn’t know, however, was that a block away nearly 100 protesters, in one of the day’s few coordinated moments, had decided to march to this spot after hearing of the arrests and the fact that delegate buses were parked there. Unable to move directly to 34th Street, they marched all the way around the block. By the time they wheeled around the corner from Fifth Avenue toward the arrest scene, the demonstrators had picked up another 50 marchers. This was a much more militant band than the group that had stood befuddled and paralyzed at Ground Zero. And they were bearing down fast to support their fellow demonstrators — now gone — and to jeer the buses and their passengers.

“No Bush, no Kerry!” they shouted. “Revolution is necessary!”

The cops on Sixth Avenue, who had recently folded their steel pens, hastily pulled them back out again. The marchers, now numbering close to 200, arrived to find their comrades gone. Soon a massive show of force steadily drove the marchers back toward Fifth Avenue. But not quite all the way, because more pens had been spread across 34th Street and the demonstrators found themselves trapped.

 

Suddenly a white-shirted captain began reaching into the front ranks and, like a cop pulling apples off a vendor’s cart, yanked out marchers for arrest. The unfortunate yelled that they had followed the instructions to move back, but it was to no avail. In the end they went quietly, none fighting his or her arrester, just as no one had smashed any windows or thrown anything at the cops. In fact, overall, Tuesday’s demonstrators were about as well-behaved a group of militants as ever had been arrested. All they lacked were the tactics of civil disobedience — when would they discover the snake dance, the flying wedge? Sitting in the middle of a street is all very fine, but only a fraction of the delegates were discomfited by their perp walks — according to Linda Boyd, her night at the Garden was unaffected by the protests, and she even sailed through the security check-in in the shortest time of her visit.

These were some of the things that went through my mind as I was picked out of the crowd and physically pushed down 34th Street by a cop who told me not to be seen there again. My press credentials had saved me from a trip to the protester lockup at Pier 57, and I wandered to a pizza place filled with a group of anarchists taking a break. By now the protesters had stopped shouting at each arrest, and the cops only occasionally and halfheartedly pulled onlookers off the sidewalk and to awaiting vans. Down the street, where the sitdown had triggered everything, the corner had been covered with horse droppings, alleviating the cops of the need to drag out those pens again. They had learned a valuable lesson.

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