|Photo by Ted Soqui|
When an organization feared around 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.”
A woman named Dorie Southern marched with a photo of her son, Gabriel, 25, a soldier stationed in Korea. He’ll be transferred out in January, she said, but “even if he doesn’t go to Iraq, there are thousands of Americans there right now who are in danger and who are endangering Iraqis.” Her son, she said, is also opposed to the war. “He’s not going to vote for George Bush, I’ll tell you that.”
Some highlights: a sign with a simple message: “Draft Jenna”; another with a Magic Markered drawing of Ronald Reagan bearing the words “Not Dead Enough”; a young man wearing a cage of chicken wire around his head, mocking the police’s planned protest pens with a sign reading “Free Speech Zone”; the young guy in the Harvard T-shirt, yelling in a Boston drawl, “New Yo’k hates the GOP!”
When the march was over, many headed up to Central Park, permit or no permit, and engaged in the usual summer Sunday activities of urban rabble-rousers: sunbathing, Frisbee-tossing, napping in the shade. The grass did not appear any worse for the wear, despite the mayor’s fears.
I did not witness the arrests of 15 people when the folks from Greene Dragon (“modern-day patriots celebrating the American Revel-ution against Corporate Monarch George II”) lit their float on fire, or the 15 who were taken in after allegedly hurling bottles at the police on 34th Street, or the dozens of bicyclists whom police rammed with scooters and dragged into custody (NYPD appears to have it in for bicyclists: over 200 were arrested during a Critical Mass ride Friday evening). In Times Square, though, I did see a group of what looked to be about 100 protesters get penned in by the police and arrested after staging a brief and spontaneous sidewalk kiss-in.
Monday, things grew somewhat tenser. The first march of the day — organized by a group called Still We Rise, a loose coalition focused more on domestic issues (housing, AIDS, jobs, education) than on the war — went off without a hitch. Several thousand chanting, singing protesters marched from Union Square to Eighth Avenue and up to 30th Street, within sight of the ass-end of Madison Square Garden. Things would get quite nasty there when the unpermitted Poor People’s Campaign’s March for Our Lives reached the same spot six hours later.
The city had refused the group’s requests to march from the United Nations to the Garden, but when several thousand people gathered in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, police, showing short-lived but admirable flexibility, consented to a rather roundabout march route. Energized by their victory, the marchers strolled downtown, then across town, then uptown again without incident. Relations between protesters and police were relaxed, friendly even, until, after a portion of the crowd had begun to fill the penned-off section of Eighth Avenue closest to Madison Square Garden, police suddenly charged through the crowd with a line of metal barricades, dividing the group in two at 29th Street. Protesters began shaking the barriers and riot police streamed into the crowd. A brief melee broke out when a plainclothes officer attempted to ram through the crowd on a moped. Witnesses said he knocked protesters over, and was soon knocked over himself and, allegedly, was punched and kicked. (The officer was hospitalized with head injuries, a police spokesman said, and was in stable condition.) With an impressive display of force, police cleared the streets. Despite the chaos, only 11 protesters were arrested Monday.
Far more arrests occurred on Tuesday, as would be expected on “A31,” the scheduled “Day of Non-Violent Civil Disobedience & Direct Action To Confront the Bush Administration’s Unjust Policies at Home and Abroad.” The mood was largely festive and often rowdy, but police effectively quashed most actions of any size. Early on, the War Resisters League staged a march from the former site of the World Trade Center and headed north to Madison Square Garden to stage a “die-in.” They didn’t make it far. The majority of the group was led into a gated protest pen on Fulton Street, through which police told them they would be free to march. At least 100 were held in the pen and arrested. Another few dozen made it as far north as 28th Street and Broadway, a few blocks south and east of the Garden. Police stopped them there, and they lay down on the sidewalk and played dead for the police and press, if not in sight of Republican delegates, as planned.
While protesters chanting “Shut the Fox up!” staged a “Shut-Up-athon” at Fox Headquarters on Sixth Avenue, several hundred others rallied at Sotheby’s on the Upper East Side, where the American Gas Association was sponsoring a “celebration” of Johnny Cash for Tennessee Republicans. The Man-in-Black Bloc — largely young and tattooed, and wearing black with a purpose — was there to protest the Republican co-optation of the man who called himself “a dove with claws.” Penned in as usual by the police, they sang “I Walk the Line,” waved signs reading “Send Bush to Folsom” and heckled arriving Republicans with chants of “Whose Cash? Our Cash!” and “Welcome to New York! Now get the fuck home!”
The Dead Kennedys’ ever-quotable Jello Biafra made a brief showing at Sotheby’s, saying, “I’m tired of being ruled by Skull and Bones. Skulls and bones belong on punk and metal albums for people who can’t come up with more interesting artwork, not in the White House.”
At about 6, several hundred gathered at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, planning to march to Madison Square Garden. The police were, as usual, a few steps ahead of them, and blocked the march before it began. About 30 people and a newsstand were netted and detained by NYPD’s low-tech but highly effective crowd-control weapon: long rolls of orange mesh.
Hundreds more protesters did make it as far as Herald Square, where MSNBC was conducting live broadcasts just a block from Madison Square Garden. For at least an hour Tuesday evening, every corner of the square, where Broadway and Sixth avenues converge at 34th Street, was filled with a sometimes volatile, occasionally ebullient mix of protesters, commuters, shoppers, lost delegates and police. The latter undertook occasional shoving campaigns to clear one corner or another, and arrested a few people, most notably one valiant soul who leaped four layers of barricades onto the MSNBC stage and made it to Chris Matthews’ side before he was jumped by a security guard.
At about the same time, 20 blocks to the south, a protesters’ gathering in Union Square turned into a spontaneous “moving street party,” as one participant put it, complete with marching bands. They barely made it a block. Police quickly closed off both ends of 16th Street, shoved the partiers against the wall, and arrested them en masse. The festivities continued in the park and moved on into surrounding streets where a dozen students from Knoxville took their Utopian Street Orchestra, marching off into the night, dancing, blowing their horns and swinging cowbells and tambourines, doing their best to compete with the sirens.