NEW YORK—There are many stories to tell at this convention. The known storylines inside Madison Square Garden are familiar Republican themes that are repeated over and over: the recycled compassionate conservatism, John Kerry’s misrepresenting his war record, the war on terror, George Bush is the only candidate who can protect you, and of course, Bush will cut your taxes even more.
The recognizable mainstream news storylines from outside the convention are about ever-tighting security around the Garden, the large Sunday afternoon half-million strong anti-Bush protest through Manhattan, and customer-starved small businesses in and around what has become known as the convention’s Green Zone. But, there have been perhaps, a dozen or so stories that are either being covered inadequately or not at all.
The under-reported stories of Republican National Convention 2004 occurring on the inside include the numerous demonstrators—up to 30 in all—who have broken through the intense Madison Square Garden security lines and gotten onto the convention floor to make protest statements, the relentless pursuit of the Missouri delegation by members of ACT-UP and other activists, the now infamous and short-lived Band-Aid over a purple heart stickers representing John Kerry’s not really earned medals that were passed out and worn by an estimated 250 Republican delegates, and finally the glaring absence of any fresh Bush—read Republican—ideas on really moving the country forward.
Outside the Garden the untold narratives are legion. First, the ubiquitous, forceful, costly and massive presence of police in the New York City streets surrounding the convention site may be seen, when history is written, more as an occupying force that had to kill some democracy in order to save the Republican convention.
Next, the daily large-scale street protests—nothing like the half-million, but significant by Bay Area standards—often received little or no coverage. The wretched conditions which exist at the Pier 57 detention center, an old oil-stained former bus maintenance facility set up by police to hold and process those arrested during this convention week is another story not often told. And finally, a story which has received scant exposure was the absolute outrage by average New Yorkers towards the Republicans’ attempts of co-opting the 9/11 terrorist tragedy for political gain.
On three out of four nights of the convention, anti-Bush people made severe breaches in security, according to secret service members.
The first two nights saw several patches of empty seats inside the Garden and Republicans sought to fill up the seats even if it meant handing out tickets to non-delegates who never underwent the usual security background checks. In fact, on Tuesday night Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, the recipient of one of these passes, unfurled a banner that read, “Be Pro-life, Stop Killing in Iraq.”
She did it during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s prime-time speech. In fact, Schwarzenegger, Vice President Dick Cheney, New York Governor George Pataki, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card all had there speeches interrupted by protesters. And yes, even President Bush’s speech was interrupted by one very determined Code Pink heckler, June Brashares.
In an interview, Code Pink’s Benjamin said, “The great under-reported story of this convention is June Brashares getting in without any credentials at all. She just walked onto one of the hotel shuttle buses and told security that she simply lost her credential.”
Contrast all of this with the relative few street protests at the Democratic convention in Boston, and only once was there a floor protest, by Benjamin herself, and you have a recipe for an extremely polarized America. By mid-week New York City’s police chief was even chastising the Republicans for being lax about security.
The Missouri delegation was targeted by protesters from the very beginning. Missouri has passed a “Defense of Marriage Act,” and the delegates definitely bore the brunt of protester’s ire for the passage of this measure. Whether it was at their hotel (Westin), or the restaurants or clubs they frequented, and even while attending a Broadway show, the Missourians were confronted again and again. They were beseeched in the form of picket lines, kiss-in’s, chants, and in your face cat-calls. The Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender community and their supporters clearly made it a more uneasy convention for the Show-me stators.
And what about the Band-Aid over the purple heart incident? “A little Ow-ee,” is how former Nixon Administration operative and now conservative radio commentator, G. Gordon Liddy put it to this reporter when asked about the mocking of John Kerry’s purple hearts by some Republican delegates.
Democratic National Chair, Terry McAuliffe, earlier in the day, was incensed about this gesture of wearing Band-Aids over purple hearts to signify that Kerry sustained only light war wounds. McAuliffe said, “It was disgraceful and disgusting. There were 250 of these [Band-Aids] handed out and that doesn’t happen without the top leadership directing it.” While no formal apologies were issued by the RNC, few Republicans spoken to agreed with this type of action.
Finally, from the inside, the most startling revelation coming from the mouth of President Bush during his prime time acceptance speech was that there were no new policy ideas, only recycled ones. Beyond the revamped compassionate conservative sloganeering—“Government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives,” Bush read off a state of the union-type litany of “new” program ideas, but without identifying the legislative hurdles or economic impacts each would have.
Overhauling Social Security and Medicare, tax relief, health savings accounts, reining in federal spending, reshaping immigration law, “simplify the federal tax code,” and of course, the 9/11 tragedy and protecting the United States from terrorists—”we have fought the terrorists across the earth.” These are all Republican topics from the past. There is nothing here akin to the bold agenda that the president’s aids, in the days leading up to the speech, promised reporters that he would divulge.
Outside the convention the untold stories were even more numerous. Whether it was the 60 protesters who marched all the way from Boston to NYC after the close of the Democratic convention, or the literal good cop-bad cop split personalities on the part of some New York police units during the dozen mass protest gatherings here, or singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s relentless personal campaign “to turn up the vibe and get people out to vote,” in exorcising “W” from the Whitehouse, and not to mention the previous Sunday’s half-million marchers. Although much has been written about this latter event, given its proper context—the largest convention protest march in history—much more could be said. But I chose four other underreported stories.
First, the cops. Every police officer, traffic cop, and police cadet was mobilized. They were supported by hundreds more—FBI, Secret Service, National Guard, New York State Troopers. All days off were canceled.
This massive security apparatus totaled almost 40,000. The area around Madison Square Garden became known as the “Green Zone,” as the U.S. security zone in Baghdad is known. While police were generally friendly when approached by reporters, none would willingly go on record, and many times in tense situations the media were treated like the protesters, with even some arrests of journalists made by accident. Only in Guatemala City during the 1980’s dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt has this reporter felt so closely watched.
Walls of bicycle and motorcycle cops, waves of helmeted riot police, dozens of plainclothes police were constantly hovering, always trying to be one step ahead of the next protest event, even when there wasn’t one. This situation created an almost permanent sense of foreboding, fear, and confusion. Was it the police strategy from the beginning? Probably. But also, away from the Green Zone of the convention hall, police were almost always hanging out in small groups usually trying desperately to while away their 12-hour shifts.
Secondly, since it would be difficult to top the gigantic march of Sunday, so many of the smaller marches were lightly covered by the more than 15,000 media people holed up in the Garden waiting for the Republicans. On Monday there were two marches. The first, a permitted one, saw more than 5,000 marching towards the Garden. The second, the “Poor People’s March,” was a non-permitted demonstration which police allowed, had close to 10,000 marchers. On Tuesday, the day planned by the A-31 coalition as being a day of “direct action,” saw more than 1,200 people arrested. The largest number of arrests that day—over 200—came during a non-permitted, War Resisters League procession of a few hundred.
The arrests took place when confusion and miscommunication on the part of police and protesters alike had police wrapping orange plastic mesh around the a large group at the front of the march which started from “Ground Zero.” It had been headed towards the convention but never made it. Many non-protesters were arrested including a 15 and 16 year old on their way to a movie theater in the same area, and a building maintenance worker who was putting out the garbage.
Also on Tuesday, large protests took place at Fox News Headquarters where a “Shut Up-athon” targeting Bill O’Reilly attracted about 2,000. Near the same time a demonstration organized in the East Meadow in Central Park by the National Organization of Women (NOW) drew more than 10,000. On Wednesday a massive labor rally was held. More than 25,000 union members and their supporters were jammed into seven blocks along Eight Avenue from 23rd to 30th streets.
The following day, the night of President Bush’s acceptance speech, saw two large rallies. A candlelight vigil at Union Square attracted more than 5,000, and a raucous, closely-watched by police rally of close to 10,000 took place within four blocks of the convention.
Overall, given the number of demonstrators and the number of security people, the vast majority of gatherings were peaceful, well-organized and offered useful outlets for ordinary New Yorkers, hardened protesters, and others in-between, to vent their frustration and outright anger with the Bush Administration.
The most underreported story of this convention was most likely the jail conditions and the time it took for those arrested in street demonstrations to contact their lawyers and see a judge. In fact, on Friday it got so bad that Judge John Cataldo of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan demanded that the city process all demonstrators immediately.
When that had not happened by 6 p.m. that day he held the city in contempt and ordered a fine of $1,000 for each person still held. Many were finally released late Friday, some after having spent more than 60 hours in detention and in violation of their Constitutional rights.
Bill Dobbs, Media Coordinator for group United for Peace and Justice which organized many of the protests and also assisted in legal help, said that as of Saturday afternoon, “The vast bulk of detainees had gotten out of jail and that it looks like [these long detentions] were politically motivated by the city.”
Dobbs went on to say, “In the same way Bush used a preemptive strike against Iraq, the New York Police Department used a preemptive strike against protesters. The Mayor and police department went too far,” Dobbs said. Lots of different lawyers are involved from groups like the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights, according to Dobbs, and that they will be back in a New York courtroom tomorrow (Wednesday).
Finally, the last under-reported story of this convention is perhaps how not-Republican New York City is. Average New Yorkers came out to many protests, people who had never even been to a protest before. Those not protesting often supported protesters. There are stories of restaurant bills paid anonymously, taxi rides given free of charge, and spontaneous bursts of applause throughout Manhattan for anti-Bush protesters.
It is doubtful Bush will be back here to campaign, given that New York is Kerry country, or that the Republican National Convention will be convening in this city anytime in the near future.