Bush Bash

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

There was also a good-sized pro-labor protest and a deeply moving rally in Union Square sponsored by Veterans for Peace and others. There I heard speakers and talked to veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Desert Fox, and other wars and conflicts. One of the speakers was Ann Wright, a military commander and diplomat who resigned her diplomatic position in protest of the Iraq war. There was Jorge Medina, whose son died fighting for a country he wasn't born in. And three guys just back from the war who have helped start a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War. "I saw cities in ruins," said member Michael Hoffman, "people shell-shocked from the 'shock and awe' that George Bush talked about."

I saw a number of people crying at the veterans' rally, and a number of people drifting around disinterestedly. At a different rally, a speaker excitedly asked, "Are y'all tired?" to which some responded with an emphatic "No!" Me, I was tired, sunburned, and painfully aware of the orthopedic inadequacies of Converse low tops. Others seemed to feel likewise. Over a week of protests, outrage fatigue surfaced repeatedly, especially for out-of-towners who wanted to cram in as much action as possible. The week was both a counter-convention and an expo, a display of nearly every anti-Bush force you could imagine. With loads of organizers big and small, one got no sense of an overarching logic or strategy to the anti-RNC marches, rallies, and acts of civil disobedience, and it's hard to imagine that many protesters left with a clear sense of what to do next, though it's equally hard to imagine that they didn't leave with a sense that they ought to do something.

The number and diversity of events evinced an encouragingly energetic and far-flung group of liberals and leftists, but no single event really tied the week's events together. That seeming lack of coherence, coupled with the fact that there was much more passion expressed toward the Kerry campaign inside the Garden than out in the streets, gave the sinking impression that the show of dissent in Manhattan was a dress rehearsal for four more years of trying to limit the damage from the Bush agenda. The left, even in the final months of a crucial election, is more united about what it opposes than what it supports, which makes sense considering that the Democratic opposition has spent more time advocating managerial change than policy change.

In keeping with the counter-convention's lack of cohesion, its central event, the United for Peace and Justice march, came to no real conclusion. For a year, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought the group's request to end the march with a rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park. First he argued that the expected crowd of 250,000 would damage the grounds. Later he retreated from this lame stance and claimed that the request was denied because there was no way to ensure the safety of a crowd that big in Central Park. (In the '90s, open-air concerts there by Paul Simon and Garth Brooks drew hundreds of thousands of people.) While Bloomberg steadfastly refused to let protesters use Central Park, he did court the protesters with buttons that read, "Welcome Peaceful Political Activists." One could use the buttons to get discounts at such left-friendly establishments as Applebee's and Miss Mamie's Spoonbread.

So the terminus of the march turned out to be Union Square, where an organizer thanked everyone and told people to disperse at the end of the route. There was no official rally afterward. Instead, there were transit cops at the subway station pleasantly ushering people onto trains leaving the vicinity. The ride was free, which kept things moving and left participants with two extra bucks to give to the poor or spend at Bed, Bath and Beyond. Some of us proceeded to Central Park for a post-march gathering, though it fell short of a rally, since no sound equipment is allowed without a permit.

It was pleasant in the park on a hot and humid Sunday afternoon, but not particularly exciting if you were lukewarm about drum circles. Though the turnout for the march exceeded expectations, Bloomberg's refusal to give the protesters a permit for the park was clearly successful on one level. John and Ryan, two Brooklynites in their 20s, were surprised by how mellow it all is. "It seems like a way to defuse all the energy," said John.

 

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

Since Sunday's informal post-march rally in Central Park was kind of a snooze, I headed to Times Square--once seedy, now a monument to American commercial aesthetics at their most glaring. Anarchist and other groups--collectively dubbed the "Mouse Bloc" to commemorate Disney's hold on the area--had announced plans for various street-theater events and monkeyshines to coincide with delegates' visits to see cheesy Broadway shows. A group of about 50 protesters was lined up in front of the entrance to the New Amsterdam Theater, where The Lion King has been playing since the Mesozoic Era. About 10 cops formed a line to block off the entrance. As delegates left the theater to board waiting charter buses, the protesters shouted slogans at them (such as the Michael Moore-inspired "Send your kids to war!").

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