NEW YORK—We couldn’t have a rally in the Great Meadow of Central Park because 250,000 people would ruin the grass, and because we didn’t come to court early enough to say “pretty please can we have our rights”—that’s what the judge ruled when United for Peace and Justice, the organizer of today’s mammoth demonstration, asked him to rule that the city must give us a permit.
So that’s why thousands of us, though dead on our feet from a day of marching on New York’s unforgiving cement, were determined that the Great Meadow is where we would be, permit or not. The Great Meadow became our great green mother, beckoning us into her arms. And we came, and by late afternoon she was filled with our tired, sweaty bodies. We sprawled on her grass, our picket signs and banners laid down beside us, as the cooling shadows spread, and practiced a peaceful, pleasant politics, a politics without speeches, which is not really such a bad thing. Perhaps the judge did us a favor after all.
It was one of those days where everything worked out. United for Peace and Justice did exactly what it intended to do—turned out the numbers to protest the Republican National Convention. All the trash talk about how tough the cops would be, all the scary stories of their fancy high-tech weapons, the sonic blaster that could break eardrums, all the on-again off-again uncertainty about a permit did not deter us.
By 10:30 a.m., the designated feeder streets for the march in lower Manhattan are clogged with people and more are coming every minute. On 15th St., both sides of the entire block between Sixth and Seventh avenues are lined with cardboard coffins under construction, each draped with its own American flag. A few blocks further on, a Korean dance group, with drums and clashing cymbals, dances through the crowd. Metal police barricades lined both sides of Seventh Avenue, the designated march route, and the crowd fills every inch between them, and stretches in both directions as far as the eye could see.
At noon the great mass of people begins to move up the avenue towards Madison Square Garden. As we get closer, the lines of police behind the barricades thicken. Every intersection is blocked by a sanitation truck, behind which is a street full of police vehicles of every sort and description.
The closer we get to the Garden the more police line the barricades. By the time we reach the Garden itself, the cordon of cops is three or four rows deep, supplemented by clots of Secret Service, looking like refugees from a Men in Black sequel, except their sunglasses are a different brand, and their suits are charcoal gray, not black. They all sport that little cork screw wire dangling from their ear, a sure sign that they’re not quite human.
Hanging from the Garden Arena is a many stories high banner of the Statue of Liberty with a background of stars and stripes. Just up the street, the equally huge billboard proclaimed Fox News the place where America goes to get its information.
The block of Seventh Avenue directly in front of the Garden is as close as we will get to what more than one sign calls the “asses of evil.” The crowd roars, and yells epithets, and chants “RNC Go Home” more loudly and breaks out the sidewalk chalk to write greetings to the delegates.
Just before we pass the Garden and make the turn towards Fifth Avenue, we catch a whiff of tear gas, and a woman on rollerblades says there’ve been arrests, but for the hundreds of thousands of us who are not watching it on the news, this march may be the largest and perhaps the least violent we’ll ever experience in our lifetime.
If the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, this crowd has 10,000 ways of saying no to this administration, its wars, its dreams of four more years of power. They range from the obscene, “My Bush would make a better president,” and “My Dick would make a better vice president,” to the plain: “Moderate against Bush,” carried by the nice librarian from Boston, who sits down next to me, taking a breather on 21st Street and Fifth Avenue. Perhaps the least well represented way of saying “No to Bush,” is “Yes to Kerry/Edwards.” If most of the protesters are planning to vote for the two Johns, and I suspect they are, almost no one is advertising the fact. The real alternative is here in the street.
No doubt the character of the protest will change over the next few days, and perhaps also, the response of the police. In the corner of the Great Meadow, behind the backstop of a clay baseball diamond, I come across a small group of people training for a day of civil disobedience scheduled for Tuesday. They are sitting in a circle, practicing how to go limp if arrested, and what to do if you’ve locked arms, and the police pull one of you away. Before I left Berkeley, the East Bay Express carried a Chris Thompson diatribe warning of the menace of black block anarchists, and other self-indulgent disturbers of the peace, sewing chaos, alienating middle America, and giving a big boost to Bush’s chance of reelection. Todd Gitlin, writing in the Nation made much the same point, though with a more fatherly tone. His message: If New York, 2004 = Chicago 1968, we risk getting Bush for our efforts, just like we got Nixon back then.
Today all that grumpy worrying seems a little silly. Today was just what the doctor ordered, mass mobilization, a message written in large numbers, and if tomorrow or the next day a few or many brave souls lock arms to sit down in some intersection, it is, as they say, all good. If today we walked inside the barricades, and tomorrow some of us push them over, nothing will be lost and much will be gained. Let the spinmeisters spin as they will.
At the end of the day, exhausted, I take a taxi to meet some friends in a restaurant. Hassan, the driver, a man in his 40s, says business is bad. Republicans are staying hunkered down, and not venturing out much into town. When I ask him what he thinks about the protests, he tells me how important it is that many of us are in the streets so that the world knows the people of the United States are not the government, and how we must care about the future, about the trees and the rivers, and our children who will depend on them, and how money and power corrupt, and about working 70 hours a week and not being able to pay the bills, but he says he’s lucky for there are many people without any work at all, unable to put food on the table.
When he pulls to a stop at my corner, he refuses the large tip I offer him, pushes it back at me twice, and says what is important is that today he made a friend. And so, with these demonstrations, we make friends, and how that friendship will blossom is more important than all spinning of the spinmeisters. It’s been a good day, and it’s only the beginning.›