A Protest from the City

Election '04

Harlem housing organizer James Lewis calls out, "Is this a good day for a protest? We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it any more."

"That's right," said the chorus of protesters behind him.

Lewis kicked off Monday's Still We Rise march, organized by a coalition of more than 50 mostly local New York neighborhood, housing, immigrant, homeless, and AIDS groups. It drew around 10,000 people, and addressed the gritty economic realities of life in a city where the gap between the rich and the poor is as bad as it has ever been. This is the New York outside the Republicans' glitzy cocoon in Midtown Manhattan. This isn't the New York you see on Sex and the City, where women torture their feet into Jimmy Choos; this is the New York where buying the kids a pair of sneakers is a big deal. This is the New York, where, as 19-year-old Jesus Gonzalez of Brooklyn puts it, "We've got schools that look like prisons, with metal detectors and police in the halls, and prisons that look like schools, because they've got so many kids locked up."

"The Republicans are coming to town and seeing this totally sanitized version of New York City," says Patrick Markee of the Coalition for the Homeless. "They could spend all their time there and not see the impact of Bush's policies on New Yorkers."

Homelessness in the city, he says, is up 60 percent since Bush took office, has doubled among families with children, and is likely to get a lot worse if Bush's plans to decimate the Section 8 rent-subsidy program go through.

"This is a message to the Republicans that they can't wrap themselves in the flag. There's nothing more American than dissidence," says Hector Landron, 38, a graying newspaper deliveryman from the South Bronx. Landron, who has three children, is most concerned about education: Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program has cut money for schools while requiring teachers "to teach to a test instead of teaching our children."

Brooklyn's FUREE – Families United for Racial and Economic Equality – marched in a group of about 40, mostly mothers with children, all clad in red T-shirts. Maria Jones, 43, a former child-care worker, said they're trying to ensure both that day-care centers are safe and that workers are better paid. Child-care teachers now get around $7 an hour, she said, maybe $8 to $10 if they have a college degree, and no health benefits. Joe Burrell, 29, said he became homeless about two years ago, after he lost his job in a Queens hospital and "wound up doing lots of street things, drugs and alcohol." He carried one end of the black banner for the Positive Health Project, a needle-exchange program. It's not just about needle exchange, they help you build your life back up."

Despite the grittiness of the issues, the march was far from grim. Kori, a 24-year-old percussionist from Oakland, California, played a salsafied version of James Brown's "Funky Drummer" beat on a water jug. Scores of young Asian immigrants chant "One! We are the people! Two! A little bit louder! Three! We want justice! For the Third World!" And a bass drum and cowbell lay down a breakbeat under "If Bush had AIDS, what would he do? Find a cure, Find a cure."

One of the most vivid contingents was SIAFU, who wore scarlet or bright-olive T-shirts with an ant inside a black star. The siafu is an African ant that organizes into groups big enough to attack elephants, explained Raquel Larina, 30, an education worker from Oakland, California. "All of us decided to take off work and come here," she said. "Bush will probably ignore the protests," she added, "but they send a message to American voters and the world that "there's lots of opposition and you're not alone."

A substantial number of the marchers were sympathetic middle-class whites. Will Cummins, 46, of Palm Springs, California, carried a "Fight AIDS-Vote" placard. He was here on a business trip, but arranged his schedule so he could attend the protests. "We want our country back," said Jamie, a special-education teacher from Brooklyn. "And the peacefulness of it is great."

The march headed up Eighth Avenue until it reached the designated protest area just south of Madison Square Garden. A pen for the speakers was set up between 30th and 31st streets, demarcated by interlocking metal barricades on the sidewalk and an eight-foot metal grille down the middle of the road. About 20 riot cops stood across the avenue spaced about a yard apart, legs slightly spread, waists weighted down by guns and radios, clubs and handcuffs, keeping the marchers behind the barricades at 30th Street. The adjacent sidewalks, normally inhabited by several homeless people, were vacant. Police started kicking the homeless out of the area a few months ago, said Rogers, who only gave his last name, "so the wealthy Republicans wouldn't see homeless people on the street."

Rogers, a 50-year-old with tortoise-shell glasses, says he's been homeless for about three years, alternating among friends, the shelters, and the street, and is now "in the paperwork jungle of Section 8," waiting for placement in an apartment.

The best thing about the Still We Rise coalition, Rogers said, is "the cross-pollination. Victims of domestic violence, some of them are homeless. People with AIDS, some of them are homeless. Immigrants, some of them are homeless. When you talk about them, you're talking about us."

Would the news of this march reach George Bush? "The people are speaking with their feet and voices," said Cerita Parker, 50, of the Bronx, a food-service manager in the city's schools. "On November 2nd, we'll speak at the ballot box. This time he won't be able to get the Supreme Court to put him in."

Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican convention sat mute in response to the marchers, a concrete fortress dome decorated in red, white, and blue. North of 30th Street, the beginnings of the frozen zone, the only pedestrians outside the speakers' pen were police. The Times Square subway station was as empty as a sardine can with maybe two or three fish left. A police officer on duty there said ridership was a quarter of a normal Monday.

The Next March

The day's second major protest was the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, sponsored by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union from Philadelphia. It carried high potential for trouble. They were planning to march across the East Side, from the United Nations to the Garden, at rush hour without a permit. The march had a disorganized feel to it; the marshals' T-shirts are crudely spray-painted stencils that said "Peacekeeper," and the signs were also spray-painted "Housing Is a Human Right" using box cardboard stencils. The crowd was a small core of poor black folks joined by 3,000 to 4,000 white leftist types.

After all the wrangling and stalling about whether the previous day's marchers would be able to use Central Park, the idea of "We don't need any permit but the First Amendment" was appealing to many. Volunteer civil-liberties lawyers worked out a deal with the police and agreed on a route.

So the march started off down Second Avenue, occupying half the street, up the hill to 42nd Street and down into Kips Bay, a residential neighborhood, and people there welcomed the march. The protesters chanted, "Whose streets? Our streets!" The glummest spectators were the passengers on the express buses on East 23rd Street, stuck in traffic as they head out to southern Staten Island and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, among the city's most conservative areas.

"We want jobs that are worth getting," said Brandy Jones, 26, one of about 10 women who came up from Louisville, Kentucky. "We want day care that costs less than $100 a week. That's more than my rent."

Most of the protesters were young. High-school junior Kevin Ballie, 16, complained that state and federal school-aid cuts mean that the city magnet school he attends has more than twice its intended enrollment. He said that he had been politically active since the 2000 election, when his grandmother, a Guyanese immigrant, got turned away from the polls in Orlando, Florida. Many are in countercultural drag, in backpacks, bandanas, and baggy shorts. Still, it's peaceful. "Everyone I know who was ready to get arrested said, 'Don't do it! They're talking,'" said Laura Reeves, 21, of Philadelphia, a heavily pierced gay-rights activist in a backwards "Fuck B*sh" baseball cap.

There were some middle-aged folks in the mix. Solange Schwalbe, 48, carried an American flag with the silhouette of the World Trade Center on it. A film sound editor from Los Angeles, she visited Ground Zero on her Christmas vacation in 2001, and wound up getting a job as a safety inspector "in the pit," which she called a life-changing experience. She came here to attend this year's 9/11 memorial ceremonies, but flew in early to join the protests. "The fact that the Republicans put on their convention in New York and so close to 9/11 is infuriating and insulting," she rages. "How dare they?"

West 23rd Street greeted the protesters enthusiastically. Workers waved from the windows of photo labs and karate dojos. Chelsea Hotel residents cheered from the balconies, as did customers at a gay bistro. Even the anarchist types in sweaty black T-shirts started chanting, "Give the cops a raise."

"It's pretty amazing," says Udi Ofer of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who helped tp negotiate the route. "This was a nice example of demonstrators working with police and police working with demonstrators." But that turned out to be a little too good to be true.

As the march was about to end at Eighth Avenue and 29th Street, protesters pushed back against the barricades, and then a plainclothes detective on a motorscooter rammed into the crowd. "I thought it was some kind of maniac," says Maya Martin of Jersey City. A wave of riot cops rushed in, pushing the barricades up, penning the protesters onto the block. "We are peaceful people," the demonstrators chant. The police remain impassive, lined up five deep to block the 29th Street intersection.

They slowly opened the barricades and the situation gradually defused, but as midnight neared, and the Republican delegates began to file out of the Garden after Rudy Giuliani's "9/11, 9/11-did I tell you about 9/11?" speech, low-flying police helicopters buzzed the neighborhood, a noise as ominous as the sound of approaching jackboots.

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