Election Section

Thousands Won’t Keep Off the Grass: By CHRISTOPHER KROHN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 31, 2004

NEW YORK—Two self-described Republican women “from the South” had wandered over to Central Park’s Great Lawn on Sunday. On the lawn already were several thousand people sharing stories from an exuberant day after a huge sweat-soaked march. Refusing to offer their names to a reporter, the two southerners pronounced the Great Lawn event “another Woodstock.” 

As they looked out over the numerous groups of mostly young people scattered about the park, many having just come from the march, one of the women called the gathering “misguided youth” and said they were “the reason John Kerry will lose.” The two 60-something cultural voyeurs then ventured into several political conversations with some of those present only to come away disappointed that they could not convert anyone into a Bush supporter. 

Those who came to the Great Lawn on Sunday night saw it as a political act in the free speech vs. pristine grass debate. They came to defy Mayor Bloomberg’s no-rally-in-Central Park edict. Bloomberg’s views were backed by two court decisions coming in last week. The mayor had earlier said there would be no large gatherings on the Great Lawn a traditional political rallying point. Most present scoffed at the Mayor’s final reasoning, coming through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, that a large group of 250,000 would ruin the recently re-seeded Great Lawn. Even the New York Times, in an editorial, declared that this was a bit much and came out in support of a Great Lawn rally as did 70 percent of New Yorkers when polled. 

In an interview with New York City Police Deputy Commissioner for Training James Fyfe, it seemed a fait accompli to him that marchers would in fact show up on Central Park’s Great Lawn. “I’m sure they will be in the Park, and it’s okay as long as they don’t bust up property.” 

Fyfe was cornered by this reporter as he scurried down west 31st Street, body guard in tow, after reviewing the police lines and barricades which separated marchers from the Hotel Pennsylvania. The hotel is directly across from Madison Square Garden and had become a de facto holding tank for many Republicans who could not brave Sunday’s five and a half hour march. 

“Things are good, the protest is going well,” Fyfe replied when asked about the march. When he realized the reporter worked for a Berkeley newspaper he responded further. “Berkeley,” a bemused look fell over his face as he recalled a long-ago time in his life. “How’s Berkeley these days? I used to have a girlfriend from Berkeley. What a place!” 

And go the protesters did to Central Park’s Great Lawn. It was part teach-in, part be-in, and part soap box. There were Berkeley-style drumming circles, yoga, and at one point a conga line snaked across the field. Woodstock? No, the Mayor would not allow amplified music, and there wasn’t. Bloomberg also said there were to be no gatherings of 20 or more without a permit and there were. The police chose not to enforce this law. 

The thousands occupying the Great Lawn were basking not only in the late-day warm sunshine but also in the glow of a rare protest victory. They collectively sensed that the day’s large protest was something historic, but most weren’t yet sure what it meant. The numbers had far exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations especially after a spate of negative headlines appearing in the Times and the tabloid, New York Daily News, in the days leading up to the event. Everywhere people asked, “How many? How many were we? 200,000? 400,000? 700,000?” 

Several estimates came in Monday: “More than 100,000 (amNew York newspaper, published by Russell Pergament), 120,000 (New York Daily News), over 400,000 (United for Peace and Justice, march organizer), and 500,000 (New York Times, “rivaling a 1982 anti-nuclear rally in Central Park”). Several local veteran marchers said it was the biggest march they had seen since the 1982 Central Park no-nukes rally. 

Graphic Designer Bruce Krueger from the Bronx said simply, “It was big.” He wasn’t as much a Kerry supporter, as many who gathered in the park that day were not, as he was an inspired and focused George W. Bush detractor. “Let’s have Kerry win and make him regret every day,” he said. Then, curiously, Krueger stated rather matter of factly, “You know, Bush is smashing imperialism all by himself.” 

Paula Ryan, a commercial litigation lawyer from Larchmont, New York, was also present along with her lawyer-husband who had performed legal work for Vietnam protesters. Both are enthusiastic Kerry supporters. She said, “Today went well. Peaceful. The sentiment was against Bush and the only time people seemed to become really angry was when they marched past Madison Square Garden (site of RNC 2004). Bill Anderson, a Green and a student from Delafield, Wisconsin is studying at UW Madison. “Today’s march sends a message…there were so many people.” He added, “I think it shows the power we have to affect change.” 

New York City artist Stefan Calabrese, a member of the Abbie Hoffman Brigade, “a group of Abbie’s friends and Abbie’s wife” that meet frequently for dinners and political discussions, was not so sure how many came out. “I’m not sure what it meant. I need a few days to process it and process the numbers,” he said. Travis Morales from Houston, Texas is in Advertising. He said the march ”was a massive repudiation of Bush and everything he stands for.” 

Tim Goodrich from San Diego came outfitted in his U.S. Air Force uniform. He is a veteran of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan “Enduring Freedom.” Goodrich is also founder of the group, Iraq Veterans Against the War. He said he was not only surprised by how many people rallied earlier in the day, “but how many people there are in Central Park right now.” 

Scanning the Great Lawn crowd as dusk fell on the weary protest lot, Goodrich spoke in his lilting native Oaklahoman accent. “I am voting for Kerry ‘cause he’s the lesser of two evils, but when he gets elected we’re going to call on him to withdraw all troops from Iraq and remind him that he was the founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” 

No one seemed eager to be back on the Great Lawn protesting during a Kerry presidency.