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.

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!").

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.

Nor was it clear where this secure area began and ended. For example, Union Square, which is a good distance from Madison Square Garden, usually seemed far overstaffed with police. The NYPD has over 30,000 officers, and it often seemed that most of them were in Midtown Manhattan. Pennsylvania Station, 4 which adjoins Madison Square Garden, was teeming with police, National Guard personnel, and Secret Service agents in dark suits with radio earpieces. On some street corners in Midtown, one saw 10 to 20 cops. Helicopters flew overhead during protests. Police regularly recorded the faces of protesters with digital cameras.

In the days leading up to the RNC and during its four-day stand, over 1,800 people were arrested. Most of the arrests occurred on Tuesday, or "A31," a day of civil disobedience loosely planned in advance by anarchist groups and other proponents of direct action. On Tuesday afternoon, I visited St. Mark's Church in the East Village, which functioned as a hub for anarchists and other activists over the week. Police stood outside St. Mark's as attorney Katya Komisaruk of the Just Cause Law Collective led a workshop on civil disobedience in the church's courtyard, coaching a mostly young and punk crowd on their legal rights. The strategy was for those arrested to employ non-cooperation techniques: Refuse to give your name, demand a lawyer, demand the same charge and sentence for all those arrested, negotiate a universal plea bargain. And fast in solidarity if your demands aren't met. Such noncooperation will present the authorities with a "looming disaster" and force capitulation, the spiel goes.

Later that afternoon, Union Square became the scene of a tense and fairly pointless battle for control of a fenced walkway through the park. The cops moved in with riot helmets and shields to clear protesters from the walkway, a show of force that more or less blocked the path by itself. "Get out of the way!" a cop commanded me as I tried to get off the path. Protesters on both sides of the walkway traded chants ("We are peaceful people practicing nonviolence," the popular "Give the Cops a Raise," a reference to the underpaid NYPD's current struggle to get a bigger pay increase from the city). Others called the cops "fucking thugs." Finally the cops relented, freeing the Union Square walkway for light foot traffic. Not In Our Name's David Durant, who had led many of the chants and who would be arrested later in the day, claimed a victory, though it wasn't clear what had been won.

Around the same time, a march organized by the War Resisters' League was supposed to be making its way from Ground Zero to Union Square and then up toward the Garden. The group didn't have a permit but had negotiated an agreement with the police to walk on the sidewalk, two by two. Within minutes, though, police claimed the marchers were congesting the area. Without giving them time to thin out the march or disperse, the cops on hand corralled over 200 marchers into orange netting and placed them under arrest. Meanwhile, those marchers who weren't snared in the net simply proceeded on. Arrests often had this kind of random quality. Sometimes protesters would be given clear direction and dispersal warnings. At other times they were arrested before they could do anything, which led to the arrest of some reporters and legal observers whose credentials were clearly visible. One unsanctioned march would be allowed to proceed on the sidewalk, another on the street, and another would be shut down--such as when about 20 young GLBT activists from Queer Fist were arrested during a sidewalk march and "kiss-in" on Monday night. Other arrests were just bizarre, including that of a protester who was booked for marching without a permit in front of the offices of the company that manufactures Hummers (official SUV of the Republican convention?). She was alone.

Tuesday night, a group of mostly college-aged protesters sat on the edge of Sixth Avenue, penned in with barricades and awaiting arrest. They were still waiting over an hour later as the police went about using their metal barricades and polite but authoritative commands to disperse the area. "You're not seeing the intimidation techniques as much," said Ben Hale, a young philosophy professor at SUNY/Stony Brook. "They're not wearing the full riot gear, not using tear gas. Everything's much calmer than in the past."

Mandeep Gill, a 36-year-old from San Francisco who's getting his doctorate in physics at Stanford, was one of the 1,200 or so people arrested on Tuesday, reportedly the largest-ever number of arrests in a single day in any of New York's five boroughs. Gill was among those doing in-your-face street theater for the delegates, but he and some friends also had a friendly political discussion over lunch with a delegate and his wife. He was arrested, he says, as he walked away from a protest with a group of friends. Their crime apparently involved carrying signs and looking like folks intending to protest further. This kind of preemptive-strike arrest seemed to be common during the RNC.

Those who got arrested were either transported in paddy wagons or on city buses marked, "Not in Service." The transport sometimes took several hours. Before they made it to the Criminal Courts Building, defendants were stored in the warehouse Pier 57, downtown near City Hall. I spoke to close to a dozen people who had been arrested over the week. The Pier had been divided into several cages made of chain-link fencing, including one very large cage topped with razor wire. The floor was covered with oil, antifreeze, and other muck that drips from buses, yet there were no mats to lie down on. Several detainees reported chemical burns from trying to sleep on the floor. Most reported that while water was readily available, the food was limited to stale bread or baloney-and-cheese sandwiches. Several people said that some detainees were denied access to prescription medicines. Kate Gandall, a Tribeca cabinet-maker active in antiwar causes since the Vietnam era, was arrested at a "die-in" on Tuesday. "Eighty percent of the police were fantastic," Gandall told me, "but there were all these gratuitous, punitive procedures--for example, countless searches, allegedly for our safety. We had to be searched every time we went to the bathroom, even though we had already been searched once or twice before, which created 90-minute lines for the port-a-potties." Defendants often spent 20 to 40 hours in the system--even up to 67 hours in one case--just to get processed for appearance at a later court date. By New York law, defendants are supposed to be released if they don't see a lawyer or judge within 24 hours of their arrest.

Police officials claimed that the process was slow because the system was taxed by so many arrests, yet before the convention the police predicted 1,000 arrests per day, over twice as many as there turned out to be. And why, given that cops spent over a year preparing for the convention and its protests, did they not bother to cover the cement floor of Pier 57? Because, it seems, they wanted to make the prison experience as miserable as possible and to keep defendants in as long as they could, preferably until after President Number 43 had hot-footed it out of Dodge.

Tim Corrigan was among those I met outside the Criminal Courts Building. He said that he and the 10 or so people with him, who were walking around with signs and were not blocking pedestrian traffic, were given no dispersal warning. Unlike many others, he did see a judge. "I understand that it was complex to deal with all of us," he told me. "But if you value the Constitution, then go out of your way to protect those rights. Some people say, 'You spoiled little shit, in other countries you'd get killed for protesting.' But I take their rhetoric seriously: If this is the best country in the world, then let's act like it."

 

Where Are the Democrats?

Together the actions throughout the week suggested a movement bigger than the anti-Bush animus that has galvanized it--a movement that will surely balloon with a W. victory, but that might even survive what the latest polls suggest would be a Kerry upset. "Bring back the hegemonists," read one sign at Sunday's march, "so we can have someone rational to protest against."

GOP chairman Ed Gillespie repeatedly tried to link the anti-Republican protests to the Democrats and John Kerry, and made it clear that the Republicans would use any disorder in the streets to paint Kerry supporters as lawless and outside the American mainstream. Obviously, the protesters chanting "No Bush, No Kerry, revolution is necessary" aren't likely to vote for Massachusetts's tallest senator come November. Though some of the people on hand seemed discomfited by such they're-all-the-same sloganeering, it was also true that during the entire course of my week there, I heard no vocal Kerry support beyond that from the few DNC volunteers spread around town. There were Kerry/Edwards signs, buttons, and T-shirts to be seen, but they were incidental to the thrust of what was occurring.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, the Kerry pitch had been something like this: Why settle for bombs, not books, when you can have bombs and books? Kerry, by dint of his "reporting for duty" shtick, his largely similar approach to Iraq, and his failure to attack the Bush administration's well-documented deceptions, hasn't just missed a great opportunity to exploit widespread anti-Bush/antiwar sentiment. In the minds of many, he is barely a part of the anti-Bush equation at all.

On the streets around the Garden, it was an ugly week. On Thursday evening, during Bush's speech and afterward, the cops allowed a non-permitted march/block party that filled Eighth Avenue and served to purge some of the bad feelings. A ragtag marching jazz band played "When the Saints Go Marching In" and other tunes for a jubilant and mixed crowd--in which self-proclaimed revolutionaries stood next to a guy carrying a "Moderates Against Bush" sign--and it felt like a victory. Still, the next day, reading Bush's speech, I wondered: Why can't the Democrats offer a candidate who will forcefully and effectively meet this Machiavelli on his own terms? Why can't the Democrats embrace liberalism the way the Republicans embrace their conservatism? Why, with so much fear and distrust of the Bush regime across the land, does it feel so nearly inevitable that we're looking at four more years of the same?

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