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First They Came for the Protesters

The demonstrations in New York offer lessons on future strategies to get protesters' messages across to the public.
 
 
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Tourists, old ladies and gentlemen, a building superintendent who was taking out the garbage, teenagers on their first date to a play, ministers, students, bicycle messengers and a good number of bruised and dirty yet singing and chanting protesters. It's the kind of diversity that New York City is famous for, and during this past week, the best place to find it was in the makeshift jail at Pier 57. The biggest underreported story of the Republican National Convention was not Laura Bush's Botox or conservative women making fools of themselves for California's manly governor. It was this: how could 1,800 people be arrested when they had done nothing wrong with the exception of crowding the sidewalks or block traffic? These events happen a thousand times every second in New York City. If these are crimes, all of New York should be arrested every single day.

In a country that engages in preemptive war against a small nation that had neither the intention nor the ability to attack us, preemptive suppression of dissent is the next logical step. But the word "preemptive" is misleading here, because it implies that a crime was about to be committed. It implies that Barbara Gates, 78, whose plans were as nefarious as walking at a slow pace to somewhere near the Convention and lying down, is a criminal and a threat to society. It implies that Julia Gross, 24, arrested while walking away from a "kiss-in," is a potential terrorist. These arrests, the lack of media attention concerning them, and the simultaneous pageantry within the convention imply that there is a legitimacy, in these "unsafe" times, for arresting anyone who has the audacity to even think about speaking up for dissent, even before they do so. After all, the Boy's Choir of Harlem is about to sing and the show must go on.

Some are calling the pier where the arrestees were held "Guantanamo on the Hudson." While the comparison is obviously a gross and privileged exaggeration (arrestees were released within days, not years, and none were interrogated, tortured, or isolated to the extent of the Guantanamo detainees), it does emphasize the cold but consistent policies of this administration: bomb, suppress, detain, arrest and shoot first, defend and prevaricate later. The police officers and the major newspapers were generally full of nothing but praise for the unconstitutional tactic. "It's been a good day," said Police Detective Kevin Czartorsyski on Tuesday, a day when over 800 people were arrested. "Things have pretty much happened as planned."

At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, 420 people were arrested – more than 75 of whom were locked up for sleeping in a large space used for making puppets. It wasn't until April 2004, almost four years later, that the final arrestees stood trial and were acquitted on all charges. The arrests and protesters' subsequent treatment in jail brought heavy criticism from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International and other civil rights organizations, but so far there hasn't been either acknowledgement or compensation to people who experienced the excessive arrests.

So the arrests in New York were not a surprise. There were a number of comparisons made, pre- and post-Convention, to the Chicago '68 demonstrations, in which the police were much more violent but arrested half as many people. The main difference between New York and Chicago, however, is the media savvy of both the police and the protesters. There were no pictures in New York of protesters being violently beaten by police. There were too many cameras around for that. Instead, protesters were just peacefully and unconstitutionally arrested. Similarly, there were no pictures of protesters being violent, and not because they didn't get the chance, but because – as protest organizers made clear – it was never in their plans.

The protests and arrests in New York raise two interrelated questions. First, how do we hold police and other agencies accountable in blatant examples of "preemptive arrests?" The second, and the one asked less often, is: what constitutes a strategically effective protest in a time of mass media conglomeration and constitutional disregard?

The first question is an easier one to answer. Christopher Dunn, associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told a Boston Phoenix reporter that "the common denominator" in alleged civil rights violations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami was the presence of the Secret Service. In a pending lawsuit, the ACLU accuses the agency of discriminating against President Bush's critics, confining them to protest areas where the president and media will not see them. Gross and others arrested said they are also considering civil suits against the New York Police Department for unlawful arrest and chemical burns that occurred while staying in the toxic and uncleaned pier.

Answering the second question is more difficult. Does it make sense to focus on large peaceful marches that get positive media attention but don't show the range, intensity, or directness of the marches and protests that occurred the rest of the week? Or does it make sense to continue to protest in a myriad of ways: large general marches like Sunday's United for Peace and Justice procession; fierce and focused marches like that of the poor people's campaign marching for their lives; outbreaks of theatre, kiss-ins, satire, shut-up-athons; and blockades designed to disrupt and bring home people's deep dissatisfaction with the government's international and domestic policies? Part of the strength of the left/liberal/progressive/radical movement is their diversity and breadth of tactics. And activists will continue to do it all. In doing so, however, it is wise to neither underestimate the possibility for suppression and arrest, and to continue to strategically refine the message. The question for activists is not just what are you for or against, but who are you speaking to and who is really listening.

Delegates and bystanders appeared genuinely unsure of what the protests were specifically opposing and what they were offering as an alternative. There is a greater communication gap and divide between people in America than perhaps most people realize, and this emphasizes the need for protests to have a clear and articulate message. During the protest organized by the War Resisters League and the School of the America's Watch, for example, the only sign visible among the approximately 400 people while the press cameras were snaping was "Nader for President." If a march the size of Sunday's could have the discipline and unity of the poor people's campaign, based in community and specific in its message, it could articulate a progressive vision in a way that would be more difficult for the mainstream media to ignore. Watch "Amandla!" or any video of the South African people's struggle against apartheid for a look at a mass protest with a unified message.

As it was, on the final day of the convention, with over a thousand protesters still arrested and sitting in detention, the New York Times was quick to declare "victory" to the forces of suppression and order:

"It appears that the New York Police Department may have successfully redefined the post-Seattle era by showing that protest tactics designed to create chaos and attract the world's attention can be effectively countered with intense planning and a well-disciplined use of force."

While the paper of record might have been a little too eager, it does point to the need for activists, protesters, and other potential dissidents to consider their tactics more carefully. Many of the protesters – including the ones who are still protesting, and the ones who were detained at the pier – saw this as a week of victorious dissent. "We have made our voices heard, both directly to the delegates, throughout the country, and around the world," said David S., who had been planning and helping organize some of the protests. The goal of many on the streets of New York was not to speak up for John Kerry but to make visible the vast and deep running opposition to the President, the war on Iraq, and what Kensington Welfare Rights Union Director Cherrie Honkala and others called an "aggressive and unrelenting war on the poor" at home. They achieved this with limited success as most major media mentioned the size of the crowds and the number of arrests, but very little of the protesters' concrete concerns, including the vast increase in numbers of people in poverty or the consequences of the war in Iraq.

The final night of the convention, as George W. Bush proclaimed, "we are the path to the future," protesters inside and outside the convention fought hard to hold up a vision of an alternative future. Two separate protesters disrupted the speech, forcing the president to stop speaking momentarily. A carnival of resistance at Union Square had hundreds of people dancing, singing, chanting, and imagining their own kinds of freedom. It may not have changed the outcome of the election, but the week in New York made it impossible for delegates and protesters to continue as planned. Delegates, RNC officials, and media watchers around the country could not help but be aware of the vast dissent rumbling outside their windows. And protesters, faced with the effective shut-down of much of their plans, are left with the need to rethink the idea of simple disruption as a protest strategy in what promises to be an ongoing battle. Nearing midnight, as the balloons fell in Madison Square Garden, thousands outside chanted: "No More Bush!" their voices hoarse from a week of protests, but still, for now, unfettered.

Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.