By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
When an organization fearedaround the world for its might and ruthless avarice, for its merciless assaults on enemies real and perceived, for its proven willingness to shed the blood of thousands, announced last year that it intended to celebrate its accomplishments with a party in Manhattan, New York responded sensibly enough. The city budgeted millions of dollars for beefing up its surveillance capabilities, patrolling its skies and harbor, purchasing new high-tech crowd-control weaponry, importing bomb-sniffing dogs from nearby municipalities, coordinating its efforts with as many allies as it could find, from the Long Island Rail Road to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and by training and retraining its 37,000-strong police force, which one city councilman has called “perhaps the world’s 10th-largest standing army.”
The only odd thing in all of this was that the city was not hoping to protect New York from the Republicans, but the Republicans from New York.
In the end, the buildup didn’t matter. Sunday, the first day of major protests, was a smashing success, involving little to no smashing — of heads or anything else. Upward of half a million people, according to the organizers’ count, marched up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden and back down Fifth Avenue to Union Square, making it one of the largest political protests in the city’s history. New York police did not release an official crowd estimate, but the march was, by anyone’s reckoning, enormous. A dense sea of people of all shapes and sizes, colors and ages as far as the eye could see, all of their disparate causes joined by one simple chanted sentiment: “No more Bush.”
This was what Mayor Michael Bloomberg had been trying to scuttle for months, refusing a permit to many groups, including the organizers of Sunday’s march, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), who applied for a permit in June 2003 and only received one last Thursday. The group had originally intended to march past Madison Square Garden and on to Central Park for a rally. Bloomberg developed a bizarre obsession with the health of the Park’s lawns, and steadfastly refused to allow any protests in the Park. Offers and counteroffers were introduced and rejected (mainly introduced by UFPJ, and rejected by the city), deals made and then broken, until at last, just four days before the demonstration, Bloomberg and the police agreed to allow the protesters to march through the center of Manhattan.
The police had been sowing fear as best they could for weeks, warning of “fringe elements”: shadowy anarchist militants intent on chaos and destruction. “These hardcore groups are looking to take us on,” harrumphed New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in July. “They have increased their level of sophistication and violence.” The press eagerly regurgitated it all — the tabloids with full-cover fright lines (“ANARCHY THREAT TO CITY,” quaked the Daily News), the more sedate dailies with consistent but cautious fretting. Republican strategists prepped to blame any protest violence on the Kerry campaign, while timid liberals attacked slightly less timid liberals, worrying that any excesses of zeal would work in Bush’s favor.
In the end it was all for naught. The protesters (gathered, after all, to march for peace) were peaceful, the police, for the most part, restrained. Relations between the two groups were so polite that at one point protesters, lined up along the first row of barricades outside Madison Square Garden, chanted “Fuck you RNC! Thank you NYPD!” All the usuals were out in force — PETA people, Mumia devotees, Trotskyites and Spartacists hawking newspapers and revolution. Various carnivalesque alternatives to the sulky Black Blocs of yore paraded along, including a women’s Pink Bloc, dressed in violent fuchsia and carrying a clothesline hung with symbolic pink satin undergarments (“Give Bush the Pink Slip” was their chant of choice), and an Elephant Bloc, wearing long gray nose extensions, intent on rescuing that noble beast from its association with the Bush administration.
But the vast majority of the people in the streets on Sunday resembled nothing other than that mythical animal, much vaunted in the press of late, the “ordinary New Yorker” (close kin to that other fictive beast, also in attendance, the “average American”). Just such a creature stood next to me outside Madison Square Garden, expressing a sentiment common to his kind. Gazing up at all the red, white and blue bunting hanging over the stairs and the giant LCD display flashing the words “THANK YOU, NEW YORK,” he displayed the city’s famous native charm, responding: “You’re welcome, now get the fuck outta here.”
John and Beth Titus carried placards bearing photos of a pretty young woman named Alicia — their daughter, killed on September 11 on United flight 115. They flew out from Michigan for the march, because, John Titus explained, “We don’t want to see any more families go through what we’ve gone through, whether they’re Afghan or Iraqi or American.” They had protested the Vietnam War years ago, but until their daughter’s death, he said, “We’d become too passive. Now we can’t.”