NEW YORK—They came from across New York and across the country with a protest focus and ferocity that left little to the political imagination. “Bush must go!” was the chant of choice, and water the beverage of all on this hot August day.
On Sunday, in what some are calling the largest convention protest ever held, almost a half-million protesters snaked through the canyons of Manhattan protesting the war in Iraq and Republican attempts to politicize New York’s 9/11 tragedy. The march ended peacefully with few arrests, considering the enormous crowd.
While protest organizers, led by the group United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) had predicted only days earlier reaching the lofty goal of 250,000 demonstrators, no one imagined that the final number would be twice that. Their estimate was that more than 500,000 people braved near 90-degree heat and humidity to let the world know that the Republican Party is unwelcome in New York, and that it cannot continue to use the 9/11 theme—a past campaign success for President George W. Bush—to pump up his present campaign.
Despite repeated police warnings, threats according to some protesters, large numbers of demonstrators still came to New York City. Warnings of impending disaster were also heard from Democratic insiders, offering credence to some Republican hopes that a violence-marred event would be laid at the feet of nominee John Kerry. But protesters heeded little of this advice.
Ray Seidel, a politics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, was there because he thought that “it’s important that there are public protests, that people protest the Bush economic and civil rights record,” he said. “Our children will be paying off his $220 billion deficit.”
Leslie Woo, a New York City educator, said, “It’s important to be out here in terms of the public coming together and choosing the next president, but I do see how an event like this can be spun to middle America.”
Jessie Molina, a registered Democrat and fourth grade teacher from Northampton, Mass., said she had been quite moved the previous night when she attended an event with parents who had lost children in Iraq. She said simply, “I am shocked and appalled that he chose New York City.”
Environmental organizer Ilyse Hogue from San Francisco had another reason why so many had taken to the streets: “This is democracy in action. There was no way for the broad spectrum of humanity to buy themselves seats in the convention,” she said.
Bob McLane, from Tyler, Texas, a Vietnam marine veteran now selling bumperstickers, said he was worried, but he played down the potential of a conflagration between protesters and police. “If there’s any violence today it’s going to play right into the hands of Bush. No,” he said, “there is not going to be any violence today.”
And he was right.
They came from Orlando, Houston, Tallahassee, Madison, and yes, even Brooklyn. They came in wheelchairs, in strollers, and on bicycles. And it was not only the 20-somethings and 30-somethings, but sweat-suited 40-somethings, graying 50-somethings, and some cane-supported 70- and 80-somethings marched too.
And of course, one of Berkeley’s favorites, was there too, the Raging Grannies. In the end, with fewer arrests and even fewer incidents of unruly behavior, the NYC police chief was complimenting the marchers’ comportment and the marchers were complimenting the restraint of the police. Don’t forget, this march uncorked nearly four years of pent-up frustration, anger and enmity toward an administration which those interviewed characterized, again and again, as warmongers and hypocrites who cared little for the poor and the elderly.
Perhaps graphic artist Nicole Schulman said it best. “I’m here because I am a fourth-generation New Yorker who believes we have to get rid of George Bush who is trying to turn a left-wing Democratic city into a police state!”
Bands of protester were organized by region and by issue, from 14th to 23rd streets between Fifth and Ninth avenues, in the Chelsea and Flatiron districts. They stepped off from 23rd Street, led by Jesse Jackson, Danny Glover and Michael Moore. The march moved down Seventh Avenue towards Madison Square Garden, the convention site, and returned to Union Square via Fifth Avenue. At one point during this intensely hot day some marchers were reaching the end point before others had even started. At 1:30, according to the New York Times, marchers spanned the entire route.
Although the war was seen by most as the issue to protest, there were clearly other issues on the minds of the demonstrators as well: rescinding the Patriot Act, abortion rights, same-sex marriage, the huge national deficit being rung up by the Bush administration, and the loss of respect for America in the world community.
A few blocks into the march the protesters ran into a counter-demonstration by an ad hoc group calling itself “protestwarrior.com.” About a hundred counter-demonstrators held large manufactured (not hand-made) signs aloft and chanted vociferously at the passing anti-Bush marchers. Slogans included “Take a shower, take a shower; we’re the real progressives; fry Mumia; and John eff-ing Kerry, no eff-ing way.”
The counter-protesters were kept away from the marchers by a huge wall of barricades and police. Simon Teitelbaum, an engineer from Chicago now living in Boston, said he had heard about this counter-protest on the Internet, though he hadn’t previously met any of them. “The object is to mingle in with the crowd,” said Teitelbaum of the tactics of the counter-demonstrators. “They say they’re for peace, but it is guaranteed they’re going to try and silence us. Unfortunately, we have a police escort now!”
And mingle in several eventually did. They were met with the animosity Teitelbaum predicted too. This reporter witnessed several incidents, as the day unfolded, of marchers grabbing signs from counter-marchers, ripping them apart and hurling them over the barricades to the sidewalk. Each time the police refused to get involved.
In general, police in New York City were very different from their counterparts in Boston. In Beantown, questions to police were usually met with indifference or contempt, and often went unanswered. In New York, although no officers would be quoted on record about what they thought of the protest, they were uniformly friendly, well-mannered, and at times helpful to both demonstrators and the press. Of course the presence of so many demonstrators demanded that the police restrain themselves, while in Boston the police and the military most often outnumbered demonstrators.
One footnote: at a Critical Mass rally on Friday night, police unleashed a torrent of force against unruly bicyclists, and arrested more than 250 of them. One, Edward Potter, told the Daily Planet that he went to seven different jail cells that night, one a pen in an old warehouse where they shone spotlights on the prisoners all night. He said he was held for 27 hours before he saw a lawyer. One cop, he said, told him, in a friendly way, “you guys were like guinea pigs” for all the new equipment and training the police force had received for the convention.
Did the demonstrators succeed in upstaging the Republicans on the eve of their convention which was one of the organizers’ hoped for goals? It would seem so. The resultant large and relatively peaceful demonstration of almost a half million competed in the media with Republican pre-convention messages of how former New York Mayor Rudy Guilliani would exhort the Republican faithful on Monday evening and where George Bush would be campaigning leading up to his Thursday acceptance speech. There was no comparative Republican salvo during the Democratic convention in July. Clearly yesterday’s New York reception was not the one Republican strategists were looking forward to when they made New York their first choice for this year’s convention.