Scenes From a Protest: A Day in New York City: By OSHA NEUMANN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 07, 2004

It’s Tuesday evening on the corner of 34th Street and Sixth Avenue. The sidewalk is packed with protestors hemmed in by a wall of police. Traffic had been diverted. The protestors are chanting and yelling and waiving signs, and have made passage up and down the sidewalk nearly impossible.  

The doors of the corner pizzeria are open. At the table nearest the entrance a woman is trying to calm an 18-month-old baby, who is clearly at the end of her rope. The baby is clutching a tattered stuffed animal, saying “piggy, piggy” every time she drops it. The animal is now an indecipherable shade of grey from too many close encounters with New York sidewalks. 

The mother is trying to feed the child with spoonfuls of baby food, smeared on slices of cold pizza she has ripped into bite sizes with her teeth. The child is not eating. She grabs her mother’s hand and tries to pull her out into the street, into the thick of the demonstration. The mother resists. The baby cries. The mother gets up, takes the child’s hand and commences a game of ring around the rosy. The child is happy for a minute, and then begins to cry again. Finally the mother gives up, gathers her belongings, straps the child into the stroller, and starts off towards the subway. I follow Rachel, my daughter, who has been trying do the impossible—nurse a sick child and at the same time report on the protests for AlterNet. 

After I help her load the stroller and Luna June into the back seat of a taxi, I head back to the protest. Police have blocked off access to the 34th Street corner. On the next street south, 33rd street, at the northern end of Greeley Square, the sidewalk is clogged with protestors, who are taunting delegates heading to the convention from one of their numerous parties. They walk by in groups of twos and threes, with large plastic convention passes dangling from chains around their necks—the women, carefully coiffed, the men in their suit jackets and leather shoes. 

As each group approaches the corner the protestors erupt with raucous shouts of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” One of them lobs a half eaten banana in the direction of the delegates. Another raises his fists with a double middle digit salute. Stony faced or with a weak smile the delegates try not to make eye contact as they walk by. A few walk through the crowd massed on the sidewalk. The majority make their way down the center of the street, escorted by police. 

A squad of cops waits on the other side of Sixth Avenue. Long blond wood riot batons dangle from their black gloved hands. High above the scene, a large billboard advertises the ipod. Against an olive green background the black silhouette of a woman grooves to the music. She holds her white ipod in one hand. Thin white wires dangle from her ears. She is in her own world, plugged in, while below her, an unruly rabble of protestors has clearly come unplugged and is decidedly out of control. 

Which is why I expect a bust to happen any minute. An argument breaks out in the crowd between a man in a “Microshit” t-shirt who identifies himself as a Navy veteran and another man with a crew cut and an open neck dress shirt, who is questioning his military record. As I pass by, Microshit is yelling at dress shirt: “The Arabs invented zero, you dipshit.” 

I take a break to pee and buy a bottle of water. In the basement restroom of Steevie’s Fast Fresh Food I encounter Louis Alvarez, a short old man with skin the color of a Havana cigar and a white stubble sprouting on his face. He’s standing at the sink, washing up, his pants down around his knees, and a straw hat on his head.  

“What do you think of the protests?” I ask.  

“It’s a great country,” he says, as he hitches up his pants. “Anybody can protest. Why just the other day there were people protesting naked.”  

“What were they protesting?” I ask.  

He doesn’t know.  

“And what do you think about the protests going on outside?”  

He tells me he would not protest, but he supports them. He doesn’t like Bush, primarily because of polices towards his homeland, Cuba. He does not understand the point of the blockade, or the new rules making it harder to visit and send money. “I will vote for the other guy,” he says. “I don’t know what the other guy will do, but at least he’s not Bush.”  

The arena of Madison Square Garden, ringed around with police, is like a spaceship that has landed on planet New York from which alien life forms, the convention delegates, venture out into the city in well-guarded clumps. But the protesters are also in some sense an alien form. Walk away from a demonstration, go down into the subway, and there, waiting for the train, are old people, large people, mothers with children, beggars, tired workers falling asleep. People who look like them are by and large not out there on the street with picket signs and banners. There have been very few children at the marches. And the bubbling racial mix that is New York is not much in evidence. 

It does not need to be this way. On Monday a “March for Our Lives” is led by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The Union was started in April 1991 by a group of welfare mothers who lived in the Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia, the poorest district in Pennsylvania. They began organizing around the basic human needs for food, housing, medical care, jobs, and the price of utilities. 

Now the Union has brought people from the neighborhood to New York and established a makeshift encampment they call “Bushville” at a church on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. And although they came from Philadelphia, their march looks like New York. In the lead is a line of children in strollers and elderly women in wheelchairs. In the lap of one of the women rests a book, "Spiritual Solution.” One of the children in the strollers sucks on a bottle of red punch. 

An unruly scrum of photographers pushes and jostles for the money shot of the kids and old women. The crowd chants “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Poverty must go!” The monitors struggle to keep the photographers from falling onto the strollers, and although this is an unpermitted march the cops are putting most of their energy into helping the monitors control the media. It’s a tumultuous wonderful scene. 

The march is headed for Madison Square Garden to deliver a letter of demands to the GOP. There will, no doubt, be some sort of confrontation. I want to stay to see what happens, but I need to leave to take care of Luna June so Rachel can continue her reporting.  

Walking away, with the sound of the protest diminishing behind me, I’m suffering from protestus interruptus. I feel like I’ve been tossed up by a churning river onto a dry embankment. A woman walks by carrying bags of groceries. A man passes me talking on his cell phone. We each inhabit our separate worlds, and as a consequence the world we share in common becomes unexamined background, imbued with permanence and inevitability.  

The next day I search in vain for a story on the march in the Daily News and the Times. Nothing. What happened to all those photographs all those photographers were jostling to take? If a protest falls in a forest of silence does it make a sound? What if the whole world is not watching? 

The silence is never complete. The corporate media could not completely ignore half a million people marching on Sunday, and 1,500-plus arrests over the week of protests. We do not know the resonances of our acts. Old men, tucking in their shirts in basement restrooms hear shouts from the streets above. Mothers at home with sick babies, may look down from their windows and catch sight of a banner fluttering by below. Protest—permitted, unpermitted, disruptive, orderly, inclusive and less inclusive—preserves our capacity for audacity. It’s a capacity we will need in full measure no matter who wins in November.