Bush Bash

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

A few minutes later, the police seemed to decide that the hecklers had had their say, and an officer wielding a can of Mace told the crowd to move back. Then the cops donned riot helmets and continued to drive the crowd back. Some of the protesters shouted about their First Amendment rights, but none seemed eager to get arrested. After 10 minutes or so, the crowd was dispersed.

The delegates were out in force on Sunday night. Some wore convention badges and many carried red bags apparently given to them by the New York Times, which suggests that the conservative distaste for liberal media does not extend to free personal accessories. Even those conventioneers who did not bear such telltale signs of RNC allegiance were recognizable by their country-club or pro-U.S. attire: lots of navy blue blazers with brass buttons, red dresses, and red-white-and-blue Western shirts like the ones the Texas contingent wore on TV. One woman wore a stars-and-stripes dress and matching hat so loud they made Minnie Pearl look as elegant as Nancy Reagan.

The Broadway outing, predictably, seemed to draw the squarer GOP elements. Around my Midtown hotel, the delegates tended to be younger and more stylish, or at least garish in different ways. (My favorite ensemble featured a polka-dot miniskirt, a "Don't Mess with Texas" T-shirt, and a "Cheney Rocks" baseball cap. Cheney Rocks!) I saw a lot of young guys in Ivy League habiliment, and under-40 men and women in executive gear. Many of these fiscal conservatives did not give a rat's ass about the culture war advanced by Bush's base of Christian conservatives.

The Mouse Bloc thing was a mixture of clever street theater and moronic heckling on the lines of the popular "Republicans Aren't Even People!," which I heard one very young punk screaming. Throughout the week, mostly as delegates and RNC staffers walked to and from the Garden, some protesters harassed them more directly, getting in their faces and yelling or hissing "Shame!" or "Lies!" Few delegates took the bait. Some appeared a bit shaken, some were amused or pretended to be, some held their heads up and walked briskly.

There were at least three things going on under the "heckling umbrella." There was the straight-up trash talking, the street theater, and the desultory mini-protests around the Garden during the convention's prime-time hours. The week's leading street theater troupe was Billionaires for Bush, ironists who dressed up in evening clothes and carried signs or shouted slogans such as "Swift Yacht Vets for Bush" and "Free the Enron 7." Other performance activists include Missile Dick Chicks, a chorus line sporting strap-on martial phalluses and singing satirical songs such as "These Bombs Are Made for Droppin'."

Irony and phalluses were big all around. At various times, the Ronald Reagan Institute for the Criminally Insane presented its Republicans Gone Wild show, which featured actors wearing giant one-dimensional masks bearing the images of both Presidents Bush, Dick and Lynne Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice, and, of course, prosthetic penises. (Condi's hermaphroditic tool was an oil tanker emblazoned with the name of Rice's former employer, Chevron.) In front of the Plaza Hotel on Park Avenue, the Insane Reagan folks and members of Code Pink and Missile Dick Chicks put on various shows for a few staid delegates and a couple of celebrities. All of the Kings, it seemed, were staying at the Plaza. Within a span of 20 minutes or so, both Larry King, sans suspenders, and Don King, carrying two plastic flags, came and went. Both seemed amused.

 

Shut Up and Move Along--Please

During the United for Peace and Justice march, the police were unobtrusive and accommodating. You saw them stationed at side streets and at points along the route, hugely outnumbered and fairly inconspicuous. Much of the time, they chatted with each other or just watched. None that I saw were in riot gear. I did see riot gear on other occasions, quite a lot of it on Tuesday's big day of arrests, but the NYC cops didn't wear the full storm-trooper gear seen at anti-globalization protests in recent years. This was a more professional, civil, less intimidating police effort than many of the protesters were used to; yet in its scale and efficiency, it was also a more repressive force than seen in the past.

Here is Bloomberg on the heckling and street actions: "It is true that a handful of people have tried to destroy our city by going up and yelling at visitors here because they don't agree with their views. Think about what that says. This is America, cradle of liberty, the city for free speech if there ever was one, and some people think that we shouldn't allow people to express themselves. That's exactly what the terrorists did, if you think about it, on 9/11."

It was a deeply perverse definition of free speech, but Bloomberg's statement accorded perfectly with the Bush administration's with-us-or-against-us logic. Prior to both of this year's major political conventions, the FBI visited the homes of numerous activists and questioned them about their plans for convention-related activity. Contrary to Bloomberg's assertion, the hecklers in Manhattan were never allowed to impede the convention's business or interfere with the expression of Republican views. But the city and the cops routinely interfered with the speech and assembly rights of the protesters. Most of the protests were confined by the city to bullpen areas and to side streets away from the delegates' view. A few times I shouted antiwar slogans in the direction of RNC delegates and was told by police that I had to stop because we were inside "a secure area." Secured from what? I was alone once and with a group of three others on another occasion. The entire vicinity surrounding Madison Square Garden, in other words, was secured from any expression that might make the guests so much as uncomfortable. It was a non-free-speech zone.

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