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A Wintry Discontent

The first thing that normally hits you upon emerging from the subway near Central Park South is the smell of manure from the small fleet of horse carriages parked nearby. Last Wednesday, the scene was dominated by dozens of New York City police officers clustered around vans and patrol cars, and a newly unfurled chainlink fence put much of the park‘s south end off limits. This was the day before the World Economic Forum and the protests, and the NYPD had established a stunning presence around 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Cops do grow on trees, it seemed, as a few plainclothes men with telescopes and cameras hung in the park’s winter-barren elms, while others stood high up in cherry pickers, presumably scoping out potential gore points between the Plaza Hotel and the Trump Building.

Since the 1999 World Trade Organization donnybrook in Seattle, international congregations of power capitalists (WEF, WTO, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund) have had their meetings challenged and disrupted by armies of dissidents united by their antipathy toward corporate globalization. In New York the groups mostly included radical environmentalists, trade unionists, socialists, animal-rights activists and anarchists. Especially anarchists -- would they or wouldn‘t they go off?

For that matter, would the cops go off when confronted by loud anti-government, anti-war displays so soon after September 11? Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had quickly thrown down the gauntlet by declaring that anyone who broke jaywalking or other laws would be arrested without warning, and for good measure invoked an 1845 edict against wearing masks in public.

By Wednesday night, the police completely dominated acres of Midtown radiating outward from the WEF at the Waldorf-Astoria on Lexington Avenue between 49th and 50th streets -- the ”frozen zone“ from which all automobile and most foot traffic was banned. Cops prowled the ramparts of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and stood shoulder to shoulder for an entire block along Madison Avenue -- an intimidating tableau vivant of uniforms and batons. Yet they all seemed jovial and at ease with the public, and in the Irish bars around the corner from the nearby 17th Precinct, most people seemed concerned only with the Ranger-Islander hockey game.

”What‘s fa dinnah?“ one officer called out to a passing blonde carrying a bag of takeout on 51st Street, while a pair of cops offered tips to a man seeking sushi restaurants. If the cops felt uncomfortable and unfamiliar with anything, it was their riot helmets, which few wore that night. (In L.A., riot helmets look as natural on cops as mustaches.)

John Sweeney did not look good Thursday.

The AFL-CIO chief had come to the French Institute that afternoon to take a poke at a new political piñata named Enron (the real crime, he said, was not the company’s fall but its rise) and to insist that workers get a better break from the global economy. On the stage behind him sat seven workers who had just finished telling personal horror stories about that economy to the packed audience at Gould Hall. But Sweeney, who‘d taken over from the old Meany-Kirkland machine as a rainmaker in 1995, looked tired and jowly in his brown suit. He hardly glanced up while reading his remarks from the podium, barely looked at the cuff-linked labor leaders, or at the rank and file wearing big varsity jackets, let alone at the old, old lefties with the People’s World book bags. Instead he droned on in a Bronx dialect no one spoke anymore, half complaining that big business made the rules of the global economy, half begging it to share some of its wealth.

The problem was that neither Sweeney nor anyone else in organized labor had been making much rain lately. Not only that, but the Bush administration was actively dividing and conquering parts of the traditionally pro-Democratic labor movement, making Faustian deals with the Teamsters and building-trades unions in return for their support of oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, while buying off the machinists with a few war-tech jobs in the proposed missile-defense-system boondoggle.

Soon Sweeney and the crowd moved out of the warm hall into a bone-chilling, rush-hour rain to face lines of horse-mounted cops as the unionists hurried to join a protest at the 54th Street and Fifth Avenue Gap store.

This was the first large demonstration of the week, and it immediately revealed the police‘s total control of the ground war: Between 500 and 800 demonstrators across from the Gap were sardined between steel barricades while cops guarded the avenue’s stores. It also revealed the diversity of the demonstrators, one undreamt of in the history of American protest, as skateboarding rebels wearing Peruvian headgear and watch caps strained to hear Sweeney speak over a weak sound system, along with NYU rads in North Face parkas, droopy-eyed Thoreaus in long gray beards, and a troop of Asian and Hispanic garment workers with neatly printed signs who stood wrapped in clear plastic sheets and wore baseball caps that said UNITE!

Across the street, the word khaki was printed in large letters behind a second-floor Gap window, next to the cut-out image of a falling woman; with the reflection of another building superimposed upon the picture, the woman looked like one of the doomed jumpers from the World Trade Center.

”Jesus -- you scared me!“ The young blonde in the leather trench coat nearly fell out of her seat in front of a TV when a reporter entered the New York Stock Exchange‘s press hospitality suite. She explained that she’d been alone in the room for so long that when the man asked for directions to the restroom she‘d forgotten where she was. Although the press suite was a cozy, frilly oasis in the busy Barclay Inter-Continental Hotel, complete with tub and bed, it was easy to see why no journalists were there -- the NYSE was not handing out press invites to its Saturday ”gala-soiree“ at its Wall Street headquarters, which, for the occasion, were broken down into unintentionally colonial themes (”A Taste of Asia,“ ”The Rhythms of Africa,“ etc.). The trench coat could only distribute press kits about the forum and the NYSE’s role in it.

The press were not anyone‘s favorite people at the WEF, which, among other things, temporarily banned distribution at the Waldorf of the Earth Times, a local nonprofit publication that had, ironically, run an article airing media complaints over lack of press access to the forum. Reporters also found that their NYPD media passes to the event got them no closer to the Waldorf than the far side of Lexington Avenue -- about where the silent wall of Falun Gong protesters stood and slowly exercised. The WEF wasn’t the only one keeping the press at bay -- the Weekly received a terse e-mail from the Students for Global Justice informing it that no reporters would be allowed to attend its two-day ”counter-summit“ workshops held at Columbia University. Journalists couldn‘t even mingle with the Columbia participants during lunch breaks, since a swipe-card was required to enter Lerner Hall, the workshops’ site.

Many protesters viewed reporters as either snide distorters or freelance police spies. It was easy to understand a the first perception: The New York Times rather predictably chose to describe the protesters in the bemused, condescending tone it reserves for most nonconformists. For their part, the tabs carped about how the protests were hurting small Midtown businesses (”Armed Camp,“ screamed the Thursday Daily News‘ front-page headline) while the local Fox TV affiliate openly editorialized against it in the guise of news reporter John Deutzman’s sneering ”interviews“ of protesters.

At several events calls to ”kick out the media“ were heard, and before the WEF began there had been some grumbling about a recent Village Voice article slanted against the coming protests. ”What was that about?“ wondered a Chicago member of the Independent Media Center. ”We thought they were on our side.“

There was another reason for press hostility: Both global capitalists and protesters knew that most of the media were in New York to watch another Seattle or Genoa explode and had little interest in grasping the forum‘s economic agenda or the demonstrators’ grievances with the globalized economy. Yet, perhaps, like any government officials or corporate CEOs, the protesters knew the media could also be helpful tools if used the right way.

”Hey, cops!“ yelled one woman at some officers who stood in front of a banner she was helping to hold. ”You‘re blocking our sign -- you’re blocking our photo op!“ A cop stopped laughing when he saw the woman was dead serious.

Students for Global Justice did allow the press into its nightly ”plenary“ sessions, held down the street from Columbia in the Synod Hall of fire-damaged St. John the Divine Cathedral. Two nights were filled with speeches by panelists and followed by question-answer sessions. It was in the relative downtime of these political seances that the full panoply of the new New Left -- what might be called Generation Left -- could be glimpsed.

There were women with faces meticulously made up, punkily painted and completely plain. Some guys had crew cuts, some dreads, others hippied out. But all belonged to a generation that is far more empathetic to the environment and its creatures than any other, a transcendentalist youth less anchored to the Judeo-Marxist assumptions of the past than any modern American left. Yet, at the same time, this new generation of rebellion is the most openly socialistic in decades, burning with an unmistakably American resentment of velvet ropes and suspicion of gold braid.

”We‘re not against this or that,“ a young man told the Weekly, ”but for diversity, peace, creativity and art. We want to spread the idea that technology should be more than about the comforts that we take for granted and that these comforts come from the blood and sweat of others.“

The anti-WEF demonstrations would not likely influence the men and women in the Waldorf. Nor would their marches and slogans persuade liberal politicians to rethink their positions on global trade; if anything, they could alienate a lot of ordinary people. Their importance lay in the old anarchist notion of the propaganda of the deed. The mere fact that any number of Americans -- especially young Americans -- were shaking off the worst activist torpor since the Eisenhower years was what really counted. The organizers in New York knew the value of positive publicity, but they also knew that the greater importance lay in an existential cry of defiance, even if some windows got smashed. The alternative was to roll over and watch MTV forever.

”I always like whatever I’m doing,“ said one Midwesterner in his early 20s. ”It‘s either that or you have to constantly move on to something else. So I know I’m going to like the police and they‘re going to like me.“

Starhawk is the moniker of a self-described pagan and Earth-based spiritualist, and Friday evening was her night at Washington Square Park, where the Northern Californian inaugurated a Pagan Cluster to kick off the weekend’s activities. In the center of a platform stood a wickerWicca version of the Statue of Liberty, and it was toward this idol that Starhawk, a woman in her 50s, directed the crowd in a call-and-response ritual that encouraged those present ”to be grounded in our true selves.“

The clusterers were a heterogeneous mix of the very young and veterans of the ‘60s left and counterculture. Yet if this was a magick evening of caftans and capes, nose rings and patchouli, it was also a night of cell phones, walkie-talkies and digital cameras, for unlike their protesting ancestors of the Vietnam War era, the kids who came to yell against the WEF came strapped with chip-filled gadgetry. Everyone seemed to be aiming new DV camcorders or pointing microphones connected to DAT recorders as red-eyed diodes glowed from the pockets of backpacks.

Perhaps 150 to 200 people had gathered, with a contingent of Revolutionary Communist Youth huddling off to the side to offer more traditional and strident exhortations against imperialism, a word that, like crossbow or sundial, sounds anachronistic -- not because there is no such thing, but because it has evolved so far and subtly from 19th-century images of gunboats and colonial plantations.

”I’m appalled -- disgusted!“ said a woman claiming to be ”a ‘60s radical from Boston.“ Looking at the young faces in sweatshirt hoods and backpacks, she declared, ”Today’s kids have no blood in them!“

Indeed, this middle-aged lefty probably found the RCY and their red flags at least somewhat recognizable politically compared to the slackers with their Discmans and iPods.

And yet the young protesters in Washington Square Park, some of whom had earlier that day hauled around a 200-year-old redwood at another Gap demonstration, are not so different or ”bloodless“ as that woman made them out to be. Writing about the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Norman Mailer described the anti--Vietnam War generation in his book The Armies of the Night, and he might have been talking about the anti-WEF-ers:

”The new generation believed in technology more than any before it, but the generation also believed in LSD, in witches, in tribal knowledge, in orgy, and revolution . . . Their radicalism was in their hate for the authority -- the authority was manifest of evil to this generation.“

The Pagan Cluster ended with a ”spiral dance“ in which the assembled, one by one, hooked arms or held hands and became a slowly spinning mass of humanity. As the group grew into what seemed an impossibly large body, it sang a repetitive goddess chant sometimes known as ”Brighid‘s Song,“ slightly amended for the occasion:

We will never,

never lose our way to the well

Of Liberty

and the Power of her living flame it will rise,

It will rise again!

Then, for a sudden instant, with this hypnotic lullaby floating in the night, a wind blew through the skeletal trees and caressed the gathering. A connection seemed to have been made -- between the elements and the crowd, and between the demonstrators and a long-gone America of abolitionists, suffragettes and pagan Marxists.

”We’re out here against greed, against layoffs, against war!“

The speaker‘s voice ripped through the air like Barry McGuire’s in Eve of Destruction, full of old-time rage and condemnation. ”They think that by putting in a few pop stars and religious figures they can appear human, but they‘re not!“

This was part of the International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) demonstration, held one block catty-corner from the Waldorf amid a sea of signs saying ”World Exploitation Forum“ and ”Let Iraq Live.“ By noon the ANSWER demonstrators joined the main assembly organized by Another World Is Possible at Central Park South, but not before a few had been arrested for allegedly plotting to attack police officers.

It was also plenty tense on 59th Street at the park’s entrance. ”If this thing turns into a riot, you‘re gonna be right in the way -- gimme a break!“ said one cop as he ordered a sidewalk picture vendor to pack up. Even the horse cabbies were frustrated: ”Business is bad!“ bemoaned one. ”Tourists don’t want to come here, even if it‘s peaceful.“

All morning the air had been filled with the beating of drums and, in imitation of recent Argentine protests, the clang of pots and pans. The sun shone brightly against a deep-blue sky, but it was bitterly cold -- photographers were seen trying to warm their camera batteries by rolling them between their palms.

”Well, that ends my coverage today!“ announced a disgusted betacam operator as he pulled off its dead battery.

A 21-year-old Yale student named Julian prepared to take up a position inside a giant dragon puppet that reportedly had been created for World Bank protests in Washington, D.C., before it was canceled after September 11.

”We’re not looking for sympathy,“ said Julian, ”but to spread our message. Even if we only reach two or three people, it will be worth it. People have got to accept that there are other cultures and ways of living worth preserving.“

The dragon was an irresistible metaphor -- the ”big tent“ in which everyone could submerge political identities and move forward. But what will happen after the march, what happens to the alliance of radical ecologists, academic socialists, anarchists and anti-vivisectionists? Who claims the dragon then?

After a mercifully short period of speeches, the march moved out -- first east on 59th, then on to Lexington, then Second Avenue, and all along the way the chants rang out:

”That‘s bullshit! Get off it! The enemy is profit!“

”Whose streets? Our streets!“

”Disease and starvation will not be solved by corp-or-ations!“

As the march eventually swung up 48th Street toward Park Avenue, it climbed a slight hill, and for the first time people could see how far back the procession stretched. Although it looked impressive, a generous count would have put the marchers’ strength at around 10,000. Meaning that a reasonable estimate of the total number of WEF protesters in the nation‘s biggest city had totaled only 10,000 -- Seattle, a much smaller city, had had 50,000 in 1999. Suddenly it became clear why the demonstrators were always so deftly contained by the NYPD -- not only were there so many cops, but there were so few demonstrators.

Another thing had become clear as the march’s full length became visible: It was met with stony indifference by bystanders who had been caught in the middle of their Saturday shopping. ”Get a job, loser!“ one middle-aged man yelled out. Starbucks customers were among the unluckiest people on Lexington that day, as marchers took time to crowd around the windows and take pictures of the bewildered coffee drinkers. When one cop told a marcher in his early 20s to move back, the man got in his face and bellowed, ”You don‘t tell me to move, you ask me first!“ He wouldn’t let it go and continued a stream of invective, drawing about a dozen photographers, who scrambled over sidewalk planters and stood in the middle of shrubbery to take their shots of a potential riot in birth, though they were quickly disappointed.

Inside Murphy‘s Pub and Restaurant on Second Avenue, one of the 17th Precinct’s neighborhood watering holes, a man shook his head as the march went past, and muttered in a soft brogue, ”None of ‘em have jobs!“ Then one of the tipplers left the bar, opened the door and shouted to the protesters, ”Free drinks on the house!“ At this the bartender’s jaw tightened, and he said, ”Close the firkin‘ door before you put me out of business!“

When asked earlier about how the average New Yorker might take to the march, a young man had replied, ”There are no average New Yorkers.“ Still, in the coming days, when sporadic outbursts of civil disobedience on the Upper East Side and in the East Village broke out, they were sometimes forcefully suppressed by the cops but seemed to provoke only shrugs from even young onlookers.

After the march petered out on Park Avenue -- here the police exacted a little payback by refusing to allow anyone to leave on pain of arrest -- many of the cops left just as quickly as the demonstrators. In an almost surreal touch, both groups ended up inside the Viennese Cafe on the corner of Lexington and 48th. Once inside, the cops seemed to act like rundown robots as some sat down and just stared into space, while others stood in line for coffee or cocoa, absent-mindedly picking up and dropping the little packets of pound cake or banana bread on display.

Some of the demonstrators, such as a middle-aged woman with a Bronx accent, tried to engage the cops in a dialogue. The woman spoke of CIA radiation experiments conducted on civilians and the Tuskegee syphilis study, and told one silent, hollow-eyed officer where he could find more information on these subjects.

There had been a moment on 48th Street when marchers strode past a long line of Yamaha police scooters; their riders, standing at parade rest and wearing helmets, had placed their cop hats on the scooters’ seats inside up, revealing some that had saint‘s cards tucked into the linings. And, just as the sun sunk behind the last skyscraper, a familiar chant could be heard rising from Park Avenue:

We will never,

never lose our way to the well

Of Liberty

and the Power of her living flame it will rise,

It will rise again!

There would be more activities to counter the WEF over the next two days, and most of the five days’ arrests would take place on Sunday, but in that bone-cold, exhausted moment, everyone on the street and in the Viennese instinctively knew that the show was really over and all that mattered in these few minutes was to get warm again and find the strength to move on to someplace else.