August 30, 2004
Anti-Bush Protests in New York Exceed Expectations Manyfold! August 30, 2004
Report by Stephen Bartlett, with photographs by Anuradha Mittal*
There is a kind of contagion to the protests being staged this week on the occasion of the Republican National Convention in New York City. By Monday night August 30th on the first day of the official convention, we have already seen several massive mobilizations. Starting on Friday and over the long weekend, we saw 25,000 pro-reproductive rights activists march across the Brooklyn Bridge, 5,000 bicyclists create an anti-petroleum industry traffic gridlock throughout midtown Manhattan in a historic critical mass‚ action of civil disobedience, and on Sunday we had an estimated half a million people (500,000), mainly families, marching against the mere idea of a new Bush mandate under the United for Peace and Justice Coalition banner. Sunday's march against the Bush agenda was thought to be the largest protest since the early 1980s during the anti-nuclear energy mobilizations. Arrests have been high too, with more than 500 arrested before the official opening of the convention, but this has not seemed to dampen the spirits or courage of the protesters.
Today (Monday), two major marches by excluded social movement coalitions were staged, the first by the Still We Rise‚ Coalition of immigrant, housing rights, AIDs activists, anti-racism and anti-economic exclusion groups, together with some anti-war activists, and the second led by the Poor Peoples' Campaign for Economic Human rights. The first march had an official permit and, by the time everyone had left Union Square for the 2 km. walk to Madison Square Garden, we appeared to be some 7,000 strong. This march included fun-loving anarchist drum corps, immigrant groups of various ethnic origin and many community-based peoples‚ organizations. Some choice slogans included: "There is a terrorist behind every Bush," and "Educate, Don't Incarcerate."
The second march, organized by the Poor Peoples‚ Campaign for Economic Human Rights, held a rally at a park across the street from the United Nations starting at 4 p.m. There were many speakers, including the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA Bob Edgar, an African-American hip hop poet, various homeless women leaders including Kiana Black and her 10 year old son from Kentucky. The sound system was weak and many of the marchers tired from walking all over Manhattan in previous marches. But by the time the assembled people were led in prayer to God to uphold our cause and protect those who would be risking arrest in the technically illegal‚ (because unpermitted) march, we must have numbered a diverse 2,200. No one knew what was going to happen when the first marchers stepped out into a city street. People invited to the front row included an organization of deaf people, old folk in wheel chairs, and single mothers with small children. Would the police arrest these defenseless ones, we wondered?
To everyone's joy, the police did not proceed to arrest any of the marchers as we expected. It was a long route, going miles south, then west and finally north on 8th Avenue, with police vehicles (including paddy wagons) leading the way and many rows of riot police moving along at intersections to provide boundaries for the march. New Yorkers streamed onto the sidewalks at the sight of this spontaneous‚ march surging past with unison chants and coordinated dance steps. Many of them began to join the march, clapping and shouting. As nighttime fell and we approached Madison Square Garden where the official convention was beginning, our numbers had expanded exponentially. (I would make a rough estimate at 15,000).
So large had the march become that police were caught unprepared for our dusk arrival at the final barricades. With no exit plan on the part of the marchers (who had declared in their communiques they intended to make a citizens' arrest of Bush at the convention) and rows of barricades alongside the route, the police decided to unfold a barricade between the front and middle of the march, thus dividing the mass of people. The crowd reacted to the placement of this obstacle and demanded in unison that police remove the barricades. Scuffles between overly crowded protesters and police ensued. The police were evidently unprepared and a couple of horses were not enough to intimidate or calm the multitude. The situation was quickly getting out of control, and some protesters began leaving down side streets. Meanwhile, hundreds of police began arriving on 29th Street at top speed in all manner of vehicles, including the Italian scooters. Large buses began getting into place on 6th and 7th Avenue, presumably to hold arrested protesters. One protester was reportedly hit by a speeding scooter. Photographer Anuradha Mittal, separated from myself and in a different part of the march, reported some pepper spray and tear gas being used to disperse the people. One policeman, arriving on a scooter at the intersection of 7th Avenue and 29th Street was heard to say: "Damn it, I was about to go home for the night! And now this!! Move back. Move back, people!"
While the opening ceremonies and speeches of the Republican Convention were beginning with their slick media spin and cheerful praise of the Bush administration record to date, homeless people of every ethnic background, age and size, were finding their bodies hemmed into the barricaded pens devised by the police, cordoned off three full blocks from the site of the Convention. They were being corralled and they pushed back.
It is this pushing back that appears to characterize this more militant stage of many US peoples‚ rejection of the Bush agenda. We saw it in action tonight on the streets. The New York police were making efforts to allow for respectful, non-violent protest, but the limits placed upon dissent from the authorities/ politicians inevitably put the police in the position of defending exclusion and indignity. It is at that point, that people are willing to push back, even knowing that the police per se are not the enemy, but the tool used by the enemy. And so the pushing on both sides escalates. As protesters sang: "This is what democracy looks like."
The Republicans had hoped to use New York as a backdrop for their convention narrative about the terrible terrorist attacks on us and why we needed their strength in the war on terror.‚ But many New Yorkers have joined the protesters from around the country and they are angry. Angry that the Republicans came to New York to gloat, angry that Bush has led us into an expensive and useless war on false pretenses, and angry to have to be so angry. The Republicans are under seige here in NY and they know it. Only multitudes of riot police can keep them comfortable and at a distance from angry protesters of every age and color and socio-economic background. One Republican delegate walked past a side street while police were moving in on the scuffle. Protesters told him to go back home, that he wasn't welcome here. The man pulled his tan suit higher up over the back of his neck, bent his head down and went, and he didn't look back.
* Stephen Bartlett is with the Agricultural Missions and Anuradha Mittal is the Executive Director of The Oakland Institute.