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Report From New York

Despite police blockades, New York City on Saturday was one enormous, intoxicating, unpredictable protest march drawing well over one million people to the streets.
 
 
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"This is so unconstitutional!" frustrated demonstrators kept exclaiming, as police kept blocking their passage.

Protestors in New York City on Saturday were angry, not only because President Bush was making plans to wage a brutal war on Iraq, but because, five days earlier, a federal judge had upheld the city's right to deny organizers a permit for a march. The city had permitted a rally at the United Nations, but most people never got there because of the police blockades.

As a result, in an exhilarating expression of the anti-war movement's profound decentralization and spontaneity, peaceful demonstrators filled the streets, marching in whatever direction they could. It was the best anti-war protest yet, everyone agreed. Who needed to stand still in the cold and listen to the (at least 30) boring speeches, when so much of the city was one enormous, intoxicating, unpredictable protest march?

More than 70 illegal feeder marches--organized by everyone from NYC People of Color to NYC Labor Against the War to the GLAMericans for Peace (the latter decked out in glitter and feather boas, bearing signs like "Makeup Not War" and "Baby, I am the Bomb") set the tone for the day, though people quickly lost track of organizations and affinity groups, happily mingling with the festive multitudes. Try as they did--and they did, of course--police could not contain this protest. Taking over First, Second and Third avenues, from Midtown, extending past 80th Street, people of all ages chanted and marched, waving signs, which included, "War in Iraq is Wack," "Goo Goo Dolls Fans for Peace," "Viva La France!" "It's Imperialism!" "Lay Down Your Swords (J. Christ, Occupied Palestine)" and "Eat Another Pretzel, Asshole."

The protest, organized by United for Peace and Justice (though every major national coalition participated), was a phenomenal achievement. There were probably well over one million people demonstrating in New York City on Saturday. Melbourne had kicked off the protest weekend with 150,000 people on Friday. At least a million turned out in London on Saturday. Protests took place in Syria, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Bulgaria, Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, Indonesia, Uruguay, Germany, Greece, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Thailand, Holland, Denmark, South Africa, Japan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Hong Kong, Kashmir, Russia, China, Ecuador, India, Iceland, Egypt, Nigeria and even Antarctica.

Israelis and Palestinians demonstrated for peace together in Tel Aviv. In the United States, rallies were also held in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Buffalo, Raleigh (North Carolina), Columbus (Ohio), Huntsville (Alabama), Athens (Georgia) and numerous other cities. Worldwide, Saturday's may have been the largest coordinated peace protest in history.

The day's protests were so massive that even the mainstream media were compelled to report on them, and even the President had to respond. Back in New York, in Flanagan's, an Irish bar on First Avenue where some protesters stopped to eat, drink and get warm, patrons cheered as TV reporters remarked on the staggering size of the protest. They jeered at President Bush's assurances that he, too, favored peace and was still hoping the conflict with Iraq could be resolved peacefully.

On the streets, the mood was buoyant. At one point, when a police car, siren blaring, drove through the crowd, one protester laughed. "They're making it so much better. I hope they know that. More noise, more fun!" She was right, of course. But at certain points in the day, things got ugly.

As it grew dark, I followed a group of protesters, younger than the majority of the day's marchers. Though confrontational, they were more law-abiding than most of us had been all day: they were actually staying on the sidewalk. They were marching and chanting on the sidewalk on Eighth Avenue, away from Times Square, where the police presence was dense and intimidating. As the group turned to walk downtown on 41st Street, more than a dozen mounted police officers surprised them. The marchers hastily turned away. A few minutes later, we were ambushed on 39th Street, by cops on foot coming at us from both sides. "Freedom to Assemble," protesters chanted. One young man yelled, "What's the big deal? There are more people on the sidewalk after 'Miss Saigon.'"

Some people were taunting the police and showing a certain tactlessness, chanting "Go fight crime" and "We pay your salary" ("Cops deserve a raise" might have won us more friends). But mere rudeness is legally protected. The cops arrested all of us, abruptly, for absolutely no reason, lining us up against the wall to be searched. Clearly they were sick of us and wanted to go home. That was understandable, but last time I checked, no legal basis for arresting people.

Just as I realized, panicking, that I forgot to bring the National Lawyers Guild phone number with me, a small group of us were released, again for no apparent reason. (Yet probably not entirely at random: a young black man capturing everything on videotape was among those released. As we ducked into a warm, cop-free Starbucks, he told me, "They usually let me go when I've got the camera turned on.")

Those who weren't so lucky were taken down to One Police Plaza, where they were held without charges, in handcuffs, denied medical attention and access to toilets, food and water. According to the National Lawyers Guild, the NYPD arrested more than 322 people throughout the day.

Police misconduct should never be allowed to overshadow the issue of war -- and the lack of a permit undeniably made the protest bigger, more conspicuous and more fabulous -- but the city showed remarkable indifference to protesters' rights, and shouldn't get away with it. Some cops expressed private dissatisfaction with the city's decision not to grant the permit, saying it made their jobs much harder: a single, legal march would have been easier to control.

John Mage, who has been active in the National Lawyers Guild for decades, said the city was unlikely to make this blunder again. "Trust me," he laughed, "next time they'll be allowed to march."

New York City-based journalist Liza Featherstone has written for The Nation, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Ms.