NEW YORK—The streets on day two of the Republican National Convention belonged to the A-31 coalition of affinity groups. A-31, or Aug. 31, was organized to create “a day of nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action,” according to their website.
The various groups were intent on causing disruption in the streets and at targeted Republican events around New York City. The New York City police were having none of it, though. They took a heavy-handed approach and arrested more than 1,000 demonstrators on this day.
Many of those arrested were not engaged in civil disobedience and some were not even protesters. More than once police simply announced that “this is an illegal gathering” and began encircling groups of people with orange netting and placing them under arrest. Two hundred were ensnared and arrested en masse in one street action.
They were attempting to march, without an official permit, from ground zero—site of the World Trade Center—to Madison Square Garden. Others were arrested participating in various civil disobedience-related activities including die-ins, blocking traffic, and unfurling large banners off buildings, including draping one of the famous lions in front of the NYC Public Library with an anti-Bush slogan. Perhaps some of the most chaotic, fun, and creative protesting occurred right outside of Fox News headquarters on Sixth Avenue and 48th Street.
A “Bill O’Reilly Shut Up-athon” was slated to be held at 4 p.m. on the sidewalk outside of Fox and sponsored by the group Code Pink. The idea seemed simple enough: assemble outside of Bill O’Reilly’s office and chant, “shut up.” O’Reilly is the subject of a recent documentary, OutFoxed, by film-maker Robert Greenwald. His video was originally commissioned by MoveOn.org and first shown in thousands of house parties across America. It has received acclaim from several movie reviewers and now is appearing in movie theaters. But simple this one protest was not.
The patience of the police as well as the tenacity of the almost 2,000 protesters who attended this one of many counter-convention events was severely tested. Then, Greenwald himself showed up at the Fox News building holding a sign-photo of O’Reilly which read, “Shut up Bill O’Reilly.”
How this shut up-athon developed is reflective of many street actions. The spontaneity, energy, and sheer chutzpah of the demonstrators is what makes any single event a success. This was but one event called for on a day of multiple planned civil disobedience protests across the city. Of course it was nothing like the peaceful, non-confrontational march of hundreds of thousands through Manhattan on Sunday. People involved on this day of protests were generally young and daring.
The particular gathering at Fox News included a smorgasbord of inventiveness. Many wore O’Reilly masks so there could be something real to yell “shut up” at. There were costumed Bush Administration look-alikes, a bus complete with a large video screen displaying O’Reilly and all the episodes of his show in which he said “shut up” to his guests, and a 15-member hip-hop band from Seattle, Infernal Noise, which lent an almost carnival-like atmosphere to the gathering.
Around 4 p.m. about 30 people mingled and milled around. No police were yet in sight. While this was one of the more popular events on this day of direct action, the reasons protesters came seemed to be their palpable outrage at either O’Reilly or Fox News.
“I’m saying ‘shut up’ to Fox News in general,” Tom Bregman, a Telecom Products Manager from Cornwall, N.Y., said. “Fox News is a propaganda machine for Bush just like Pravda was for Bresnev in the ‘70s.”
Ann Salmirs, an unemployed consultant from Manhattan came for a slightly different reason. “I want to make a statement because Bush is exploiting 9/11.”
Roger Anderson, an office worker from San Francisco, was very precise about why he came to make his voice heard. “We’re here to protest Fox News and protest the misperceptions which Fox puts out. We’re going to do a little civil disobedience shut up-athon against Bill O’Reilly,” he said.
By 4:30 p.m. over a thousand had gathered along with 100 cops. Around this time two Code Pink activists, Medea Benjamin and Andrea Buffa, were arrested and hauled away in one of the ubiquitous police vans that occupy almost every corner of this city. While demonstrators chanted various slogans like, “Shut up, Bill O’Reilly, shut up,” “Fox hates freedom,” “ Interview us,” and “Shut up Fox,” a crescendo of street activity seemed to be reached at 4:40 p.m. At that time there were almost 2,000 protesters and 200 police.
At 4:50 p.m. a pleased and smiling film director Greenwald appeared and held an impromptu news conference along 48th Street. “We invited him (O’Reilly) down, but like all bullies he didn’t come,” declared Greenwald to the roughly 10 journalists present. “The wonderful thing about O’Reilly is that when you ask him if he ever told his guests to shut up, he denies it. Then we show him the clips.”
By 5:10 p.m. the police had created a large mobile “pen,” for the protesters. The pen took up one lane of Sixth Avenue and the cops were pushing protesters into it. “Get in the pen or get arrested,” one of them shouted. This behavior on the part of the police has been a recurrent strategy “since Guilliani,” according to the National Coordinator for United For Peace and Justice, Leslie Cagan.
What happens is a large truck comes in and workers unload heavy metal five-foot sections of fencing material and then put them together rather quickly like the pieces to a child’s erector set. Pieces of this fencing can be seen all over this city, suggesting a former, or impending, war zone. Once “the pen” is built the police begin organized pushing and directing of protesters to get in. The cages appear odd to passers-by, but clearly demarcates us-them zones.
By 5:15 p.m. the protesters began to evaporate into the Manhattan night and a little while later it was over. Many went to rest up for the coming night’s renewed confrontations with police. Others went to dinner and then home, too tired after a long day of pitched battles with Republican delegates, the news media, and New York police.