September 5, 2004
Reflections on Democracy, Dissent and the Republican National Convention
Reflections on Democracy, Dissent and the Republican National Convention
by Sujani Reddy*
August 31, 2004. It was a day for non-violent civil-disobedience. It was a day for direct action in protest of the Bush agenda and the policies of US imperialism. Protestors put out a general call to converge that evening on Madison Square Garden (MSG), the site of the Republican National Convention. I was supposed to be there to cover the protests for WBAI. But it was already nine thirty at night and we were still standing at the corner of 32nd Street and 6th Avenue. We watched while the NYPD blockaded all four corners of the intersection with a line of police barricades, followed by a line of motorcycles, and then two rows of heavily armed police. The streets were cleared of traffic and filled with empty vans, paddy wagons, and police vehicles. Low flying helicopters patrolled the scene from above. Protestors demanded their right to cross the street by chanting: “Whose streets? Our streets!” The NYPD continued its display of overwhelming force and intimidation unmoved, arresting protestors en masse. The only thing that seemed to move the police was the appearance of a convention delegate. And then it was as if Moses was parting the seas all over again. A path was cleared and the delegates had a police escort through the crowd of jeering protestors. Pen in the protestors, protect the delegates. The same scene was repeated from intersection to intersection surrounding MSG. You thought unilateral pre-emptive strikes and displays of militarized aggression were reserved for distant lands that many Americans can’t even identify on a map? Think again. Welcome to the streets of New York City.
It started before the protests even began. The press warned us with their coverage leading up to the convention: “The anarchists are coming to town!” The media was swamped with images of the Battle in Seattle, of hooded youth with a blatant disregard for private property and a predilection for violence. You’ve heard of “rogue” states? Now beware of “rogue” protestors! The question in the minds of many activists and organizers across the country, however, was not the threat of violence from unnamed youth of any political persuasion. It was the reality of the violence that is central to the policing of dissent in the aftermath of Seattle 1999, and especially under the Bush administration. We remembered the protests against the FTAA in Miami last November, where police instituted martial law and trampled on the civil rights of protestors. We remembered Genoa where an anti-corporate globalization activist was shot to death. We knew that the FBI had already interviewed, in some cases subpoenaed, and was now following at least 50 activists from the Mid-West and West Coast to New York. We knew that they were prepared to arrest up to 1000 people a day and that they had already arrested a couple hundred cyclists at the Critical Mass bike ride.
So on Sunday August 29th, many of us went to the United for Peace and Justice March prepared for arrest and/or police violence. We had numbers for legal and medial defense written on our bodies, proper identification, bandanas for the threat of tear gas. To our relief, the march went off with relatively few disturbances. “They’re saving it for Central Park” a friend warned me. We had a permit to march; we did not have a permit to rally. But thousands of people did go to the Great Lawn after the long day’s march, and were able to end the day peacefully. However a mass arrest occurred in Times Square where the Mousebloc, a group dressed up as Micky and Minnie Mouse, greeted RNC delegates to remind them that they may be elephants, but elephants can be frightened by mice. So they weren’t saving it for Central Park. They were saving it for the “threat” of non-violent direct action. And they let it rip on August 31st.
I witnessed this first at Ground Zero. A few hundred protestors had gathered there to take part in a march organized by the School of the Americas (SOAS) Watch and the War Resisters League. In addition to the marchers there were police everywhere, all equipped with riot gear, many armed to the teeth. Before the march began I interviewed Christy Pardew, one of the organizers from SOAS watch about the action. She explained that the action was meant to draw attention to the Bush administration’s use of September 11th to justify unending cycles of death and violence across the world. That is why the march started at Ground Zero. Once it reached MSG the protestors planned to perform a “die-in.” They would fall to the ground and refuse to get up, risking arrest, to dramatically draw attention to the lives lost in US led or sanctioned wars across the world. I asked her what she expected of the police who surrounded us, given the arrests at the Critical Mass rally earlier. She was very confident that the actions they were taking had a historical precedent and that the protestors were following in a powerful tradition of non-violent civil disobedience. A few minutes later, protestors began to line up on the sidewalk two by two, per police orders. Organizers were walking up and down the line reminding everyone to stay in double file, falling out of formation would be cause for arrest. And so the march began as people processed across Church Street and onto Fulton.
“They totally set them up. It was a trap!” one eyewitness was practically jumping up and down as he explained what he had seen. He described how the police told the protestors to stay in double file if they wanted to avoid arrest, and then let them cross the street. As soon as the block was full they surrounded everyone with orange mesh net. They said that a couple had gotten out of the line. They were all being arrested, one by one, and taken into police custody. The rest of us stood in front of Ground Zero dumbfounded. The action was stopped before it had even started. Protestors were unsure what to do. Clearly, they were being served a warning about what might happen if they decided to proceed. They decided to march anyway, and take a different route. I kept in touch with them via phone as they went on their way. They never made it to Madison Square Garden but they did perform their die-in at 28th and Broadway.
Few of us made it to MSG as planned. Instead the NYPD repeated the same pattern of intimidation and pre-emptive strike all day. And in an atmosphere rife with terror alerts and threats to national security, the clampdown on protest too easily associates itself with a war on terror write large. And on August 31st we saw non-violent direct action being re-written as a threat of violence itself. I am not talking about protestors attacking the police or passerby. I am not talking about the destruction of private or public property. I am talking about historical forms of non-violent direct action that have played a critical role in resistance movements for centuries. I am talking about the kind of protest that ignited the civil rights movement in the US, the decolonization movement in India, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, to name a few of the most prominent examples. How is this violent? It incites state violence and intimidation. But too often the violence remains associated with the act of protest rather than the intimidation and incarceration of activists by the state. State violence and pre-emption of dissent is too easily erased; or re-coded as a form of security. For who? From what?
The answer seems fairly clear in this case - from democratic dissent. And there is a reason for the Bush administration and its corporate sponsors to be afraid. Over the past few decades protest has again taken on increasing momentum and effectiveness, largely through the efforts of a global movement against corporate-led globalization. Civil society shut down the WTO in Seattle 1999. It helped bring the WTO ministerial in Cancun to its knees in September of 2003. And in a protest unprecedented in its scale and coordination, millions of people across the world stood up and said no to the invasion and occupation of Iraq on February 15, 2003.
With this precedent the Republicans could take no chances. In New York City they followed their tried and true doctrine of pre-emption. Stop it before it starts. And build up what “it” is even before you get there. This time it began with the FBI investigations in the weeks leading up to the convention, and reached its crescendo on the day of direct action when the NYPD arrested and detained almost 1000 protestors (including journalists, legal observers and medics). Preventive interrogation. Preventive intimidation. Preventive arrest. Preventive detention. Pre-empting protest. This was the order of the week in NYC. So while the Republicans were inside the convention defending the doctrine of pre-emptive strike abroad, the streets of New York City were filled with the practice of pre-empting protest at home. But instead of the pre-emptive strike most of what we hear from the mainstream media has to do with peace. The police presence insured that the protests were largely peaceful. However, as we speak protestors and civil rights groups are busy suing the city of New York for its tactics, especially around the extended detention of protestors and passerby in a facility that many are calling “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” This of course draws attention to the massive amount of militarization that ensured this “peace.” Indeed dominant versions of “peace” are founded on the continued repression and oppression of those on the “wrong” side of racial, gender, sexual, political and economic divides. Those of us out on the streets were not only protesting war - we were also opposing a “peace” without justice.
So I will not talk about a week of peaceful protests. With the amount of state intimidation and pre-emption I saw that is not an honest report-back. Another reporter asked me in an interview what I thought the RNC protests achieved. Did I think they would change the minds of Republican delegates or mainstream America? Did I think they could potentially harm the causes they purported to defend? I replied that there are two main outcomes that I think the protests did achieve and that these are not to be underestimated. One is that they showed the rest of the world that not everyone in the US supports the actions of their government, and that there is indeed a strong movement of dissent that stands in solidarity with global resistance. And alongside this, for all those at the protests this week it was an exercise in movement building. There were many who had never protested before, or not in a long time. Participation in collective action is empowering and inspiring, even or especially when the powers that be crack down. Indeed this has been the case as we have seen resistance movements to US imperialism grow inside the US during the onslaught of the Bush administration. The antiwar movement in the US stands alongside resistance movements across the world, and especially in the global South, to oppose the regime of corporate led globalization and unilateral military action with the power of mass democratic dissent. And this past week was full of dissent: Fernando Suarez del Solar from Military Families Speak Out standing inside the convention holding up a sign that read “Bush Lied, My Son Died;” protestors from CODE PINK slipping into the convention to call the speakers out on their hypocrisy; poor people’s marches organized by the Still We Rise coalition and the Kensington Welfare Right’s Union; a late night protest outside of the Copacabana to remind those partying inside of that their sponsor, Coca-Cola, is guilty of labor, human rights, and environmental abuses across the world; “cabbies against bush” who had their headlights on in opposition all week; thousands of protestors who held a “shut-up-a-thon” in front of Fox news; and the list goes on and on. Again, this is not to be underestimated. This is what democracy looks like.
* These reflections were filed for The Oakland Institute by Sujani Reddy, a producer for the Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI, Pacifica Radio. Sujanai is also a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the NYU.