Bush Bash

Live from NYC: Hundreds of thousands of protesters, 20,000 cops, and one coronation

On August 29, the Sunday before the Republican National Convention started, protesters wearing anti-Bush T-shirts and carrying signs walked down Fifth Avenue en route to the starting point of the week's largest march, organized by a consortium of organizations known as United for Peace and Justice. We were supposed to convene before noon between Fifth and Ninth avenues and 14th and 23rd streets. On the way, I found myself walking behind a group of five women. One wore a T-shirt bearing one of the most popular and frequently uttered rallying cries of the week: Fuck Bush. The sentiment was not restricted entirely to our side of the barricades. I heard one cop, standing with a group of his colleagues, tell the woman, "I like your shirt."

As we drew closer to the meet-up zone, I began to hear cheering and bullhorns. On the way to Seventh Avenue, a contingent of punks and hippies gathered around a papier-mâché dragon was playing the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" on a portable stereo. It sounded great. Later, right in front of the Garden, some schmuck set the dragon on fire, which delayed the march and gave the media its only real snapshot of anarchist bedlam from the week. When I hit Seventh, I got the kind of sensory jolt one feels at the first glimpse of some natural wonder. It was easily the largest crowd I'd ever been in. Once in a while, an oceanic wave of sound moved through it--Super Bowl, rock-concert-style applause, but without any object of idolatry. We were cheering each other, really.

"Those who support the president are inside the Garden," offered President Bush's campaign communications director, Nicolle Devenish. "Those who are opposed to the president's policies are outside the Garden." This system of accounting would seem to bode well for progressives, since the 6,000 or so delegates, alternates, GOP staffers, and officials inside the Garden were greatly outnumbered by those of us in the streets raising as much hell as the police and their bosses would allow. The United for Peace and Justice march probably didn't swell to the half-million participants its organizers claimed, but it definitely drew hundreds of thousands, making it probably the largest NYC protest in 20 years. The whole week was the largest show of dissent ever mounted at an American political convention--bigger, if less sensational, than Chicago '68.

Terry Gydesen

While the Republicans were dove-hunting John Kerry inside, anti-Bush fervor was thick in the streets. In sometimes cathartic, sometimes miserable ways, it felt like Hate Week in Manhattan. "It's not even about disagreement over ideas," Vietnam vet Jim Murphy told me at a rally. "It's hate. I might have to give up my Republican friends. We can't talk anymore." Delegates and RNC staffers were badgered and booed left and right, while protesters, mostly charged with misdemeanors, were rustled into a filthy warehouse and detained for up to 67 hours in an apparently calculated bid to contain the dissent. There was little violence and the police were largely courteous, but it was a kinder, gentler police state. Once the convention started, the cops labored efficiently and often randomly to keep any sizeable congregation of protesters away from the Garden and out of the delegates' sight.

Around the city and from the convention podium, it was again clear how much the ruling party has invested in the so-called War on Terror--which is not just a no-end-in-sight military affair sold to the public with half-truths and bald-faced whoppers, but likewise an excuse for marginalizing anyone or anything unflattering to the status quo. Several times before and during the convention, protesters were likened to terrorists, treated like terrorists, or accused of being on the side of terrorists. Meanwhile, actual terrorists killed 16 people in two bombings in Israel during Day Two of the RNC and hundreds of people in Beslan, Russia, on the day after the convention.


Lavishly Caffeinated Anarchist Grannies

In advance of the RNC, the New York papers--especially the tabloid press, but the Times as well--shrieked about the coming invasion of allegedly violent and scary anarchists bent on a repeat of the "Battle in Seattle." According to some protesters I spoke to (and media reports), about 50 anarchists were followed by plainclothes cops throughout the week, yet no anarchist group called for violence, and I heard of no serious property damage during the RNC, which made it harder for mainstream liberals or the conflict-hungry press to vilify the punks. Anarchist, of course, has become a media code word for punk-and-hippie anti-capitalist rowdies. It was one of numerous stereotypes in play. In the New York Post, Andrea Peyser called the demonstrators "lavishly caffeinated, overwhelmingly white, wildly affluent folk, who share a blind spot to history." Peyser framed her condemnation with an asinine quotation from one such protester, who happened to be 14 years old.

Despite such bullshit, the anti-RNC demonstrators were a heterogeneous lot. At the UPJ march on Sunday, the protesters were predominantly white but with plenty of exceptions. I saw families and old-timers and punks and yuppies, and the kind of Anglo-dominant yet racially mixed congregation that one might see on the cover of a college brochure. Other events throughout the week were more diverse or representative of long-standing pockets of liberalism. Monday's Still We Rise march and rally for a myriad of causes ranging from fighting homelessness and AIDS to immigrants' rights was mostly led by African American and Latina women with a strong showing of punk allies.

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