Taking It to the Streets

Four days from now the Republicans will invade New York for their nominating convention, and a lot of people are holding their breath.

People certainly are not expecting much drama inside Madison Square Garden. Seems clear that the Republican convention will be a pep rally where the so-called moderates will be trotted out to do their thing, which is putting a patina of sanity on a radical right agenda that is far from the mainstream of America.

But that is all expected and predictable. No, the big drama in New York will be about how the protestors will greet President George W. Bush and his party.

Will things be peaceful or get violent? And in the end, who might look bad and how will it effect the election? Will it be the Republicans, blamed for causing the anger and division in the country that provoked the dissent? Or will it be the Democrats, blamed because the Republicans will be successful in using the electronic media to tar the Kerry campaign with the sins of the protestors?

Those are the questions and all sides are working feverishly to make things go their way.

The Specter of 1968

There is a lot of speculation – some of it dire – about what might happen in New York. The specter of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which nominated Hubert Humphrey after the peace movement forced President Lyndon Johnson to the sidelines (and after Bobby Kennedy's assassination), is one big buzz. Many veteran activists believe that Richard Nixon's razor-thin margin over Humphrey of less than 1 percent of the popular vote was due to the media coverage of the "Battle of Chicago."

This November election may be just as close as '68. And the irony is that long after the smoke cleared from Chicago, a commission found that there was a 'police riot' generated by Mayor Richard Daley's police force. The lesson is clear: The truth about public spectacles is usually on the slow track.

Michelle Goldberg, writing in Salon, quotes Todd Gitlin, former '60's radical and now professor and media commentator, saying: "I think the Republicans will probably do what they did in 1968 and make television commercials of people rioting in the street and then promote their guy as the superintendent of order. I sure wouldn't want to be explaining to my kid how it turned out that Bush won the election by three electoral votes because of some last-minute surge of opinion in West Virginia where that commercial played three times an hour."

Fears aside, no one knows what is going to happen outside the Garden on the streets of New York between Sunday, August 29th and Thursday, September 2nd. There is no clear indication that an angry, disorganized crowd, like the one that descended on Chicago in '68, is in the works for New York. In 2000, both political conventions (in Los Angles and Philadelphia) had large numbers of protestors and major confrontations with police. That was the post-Seattle, high point of political activism for a new generation. Many remember the shock when John Sellers, the creative Ruckus Society organizer, was arrested walking down the street in Philly, and bail was set at $1,000,000, immediately making him the most famous protestor in America. However, the level and energy of protest has faded since 2000. It was invigorated again in the build-up to the Iraq war, only to fall back again as many focus their energy on getting Bush out of office.

Roadblocks from the Mayor

On the other hand, in a situation that seems at times surreal, a bungling Mayor Michael Bloomberg and an intransigent police department have made it virtually impossible for the responsible leaders of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the lead group organizing the big march on Sunday, August 29th to have a decent protest, in a city where protest has often been celebrated.

There has been a litany of ultimata by the city, a refusal to make Central Park available to marchers despite strong positive public opinion that it should, with the whole march being sent out to oblivion on the Westside Highway.

A New York State Supreme Court judge ruled against UFPJ today, saying that the organization was “guilty of inexcusable and inequitable delay” in their case against the city of New York. The New York Times reports that the UFPJ organizers still plan to hold the march up Seventh Avenue past the Convention site at Madison Square Garden.

The Bloomberg administration has undercut organizers of the march at every turn. Lisa Fithian, one of the UFPJ leaders, and a veteran of both LA and Philly clashes in 2000, says: "The city and the police's intent has been to minimize, marginalize, and squelch the voices of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, all here to express their constitutionally protected rights of dissent."

Another part of the buzz is that Mayor Bloomberg and Police Chief Raymond Kelly are taking their cues from Karl Rove and the Secret Service, which ultimately controls the police presence around the Garden. Their goal may be just as historian Gitlin suggests – create campaign opportunities for the Republicans in what has already become a very dirty campaign.

What About Civil Disobedience?

Then there is the civil disobedience community – it includes dozens of organizations, affinity groups, and freelancers, calling themselves A-31, some of whom plan to be arrested in the midst of the convention on Tuesday, as well as freelancers and others who intend to just make trouble. These groups and individuals are feeding the fears for the bad case scenarios. Nature and the media abhor a vacuum, and the pre-convention vacuum is being filled by media spinning, posturing, and inflammatory rhetoric and stereotyping.

One media message emerging is that the city has two battles next week – "one with the terrorists and the other with the protestors." Some of the rhetoric of the demonstrators is adding to the fears. Here is Jamie Moran from RNCnotwelcome.org, featured in the "Indypendent," the newspaper articulating the issues around the protests: "If we kick ass in the early part of the week, we're going to inspire people to come out into the streets and join us. People like winners. Roving bike blocks, sneaking into events, wildcat marches – just harassing the shit out of the GOP delegates is going to create a mosaic of militant resistance. It will be a lot more than sloganeering and sign waving."

The role of civil disobedience (CD) protest is a complex one within the broad peace and social justice movement, and generally poorly understood by the media and the public. How civil disobedience – exercised by clergy, the Quakers, the War Resisters League and others – gets played out on the streets of New York and in the media will determine the perceived winners and losers of NYC 2004.

Some of the most effective and strategic leaders for social change – from Mahatma Gandhi to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Greenpeace to Rain Forest Action – have effectively used peaceful symbolic protest to earn important victories.

On the flip side, there is a long, well-documented history of police harassment, infiltration and agent provocateurs damaging peaceful protests, often resulting in negative media images exploited by law-and-order politicians and publicity-hungry police chiefs. The recent revelations in the New York Times that FBI agents have been interrogating dozens of young activists across the country believed to be planning protests at the Republican convention is just another chapter in a long saga. In this hair-trigger environment of terrorist fears, often apparently fabricated, there is an unprecedented atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and political opportunism.

Things rarely go smoothly in these circumstances. Ruckus Society's John Sellers recently wrote in an e-mail to supporters: "I know that everyone with a brain is deeply concerned about what kind of images will come out of NYC during the convention. Let's be frank. It is almost inevitable that there will be some lefty goofballs in the streets doing their best to alienate everyone. And if they are only partially successful, there's sure to be right-wing psychos dressed as left-wing idiots out there to finish the job. But does that mean we stay away and cry about how unfair the world is and how Fox News is setting us up again?"

Veteran '60s activist Tom Hayden goes much further in support of militancy, writing in an Aug. 20 Op-Ed in Newsday that protesters need not fear that they will be playing into Bush's campaign strategy. "Protest, even more than property, is a sacred resource of American society. Prophetic minorities instigated the American Revolution, ended slavery, achieved the vote for women, made trade unions possible, and saved our rivers from becoming sewers. Protest by its nature challenges authority. It cannot be managed or commodified without losing its essence.

"Shall we trade this rich heritage for the convenience of those who want to preserve their Republican authority, like the grass in Central Park, from being impacted by our marching feet? For those who infect our culture with the false claim that in a time of terror we must fear dissent? Dissent must come alive in New York City. Dissent against an unelected government that misled us into an unnecessary war that has cost nearly 1,000 American lives and $200 billion that could have been invested in health care and human services."

Yet there are others who feel that any provocation in New York, given the leftover fears from 9/11, and the general hysteria and paranoia that pervade the police, the media and the general public, is counter-productive. John Passacantando, the head of Greenpeace USA, and a veteran of arrests and militant actions, is extremely concerned. He told Salon's Goldberg: "The potential for violence is worrisome, and the potential to have it boomerang against progressive policies is great. People watching this convention will be judging the Bush administration on its policies, but they will also be judging the people in the streets."

As we head into the big week, there are surely huge unknowns along with some things we do know.

What We Can Count On:

New York City will be an armed camp. Sheelah Kolhatkar and Marcus Baram of the New York Observer report: "At least 20,000 law-enforcement officers from agencies as diverse as the Secret Service and Connecticut-based civilian units of the Army National Guard will help secure the convention. Considering that the convention will attract 48,000 visitors from delegates to lobbyists to the media horde, this amounts to one security officer for every 2.4 civilians" and more police than actual convention goers. "This platoon of protectors will prowl the avenues and train stations, many sporting bullet-proof vests and hoisting weaponry that is the stuff of video game fantasies..."

Mayor Bloomberg will say and do silly things. Clearly the mayor has the stage for the moment, until the big guys from DC come into town. But he and Police Chief Kelly have treated demonstrators with thinly-veiled contempt, which is perhaps not surprising, coming from a billionaire corporate CEO who is used to having people do what he wants. Bloomberg has threatened protestors' rights, and then offered them discounts at restaurants and Broadway theaters if they wear "peaceful demonstrator" buttons. He has ordered $35,000 acoustic devices that emit ear-piercing shrieks at demonstrators. He has pushed the billion-dollar Westside stadium plan by basically saying, "Wouldn't if be nice if the demonstrators could use it?" What he hasn't done is be sensible and act like the leader of all the people of New York, instead of the front man for the visiting Republicans.

A lot of New Yorkers are leaving town. A recent ABC News poll found that 83 percent of New Yorkers do not want the convention in town. The armed camp, the cops leaving much of the non-convention city unprotected – and the traffic jams – are more than enough to send New Yorkers scurrying and many were leaving anyway, given that it's the week before Labor Day.

There will be a magnificent Imagine Festival of arts, culture and ideas. The festival has emerged to produce, coordinate, inspire and celebrate more than 150 events of some of the best the city has to offer (in contrast to the visiting Republicans celebrating some of the more tacky things New York has to offer). Chris Wangro, one of the lead producers, explained "the arts community has gone hog wild in creating events and participating. It's a real political outpouring. Combined with the huge level of activism, we're seeing a sparking of the imagination that has echoes from the '60s and early '70s when music art, film, and politics changed the way we perceived ourselves, gave us visions for the way we lived our lives."

It is highly unlikely many delegates will partake of the Imagine fare, but they should. (Disclosure: AlterNet is collaborating with the Imagine Festival on several events and projects.)

Big time musicians have abandoned New York Even a modest concert, co-sponsored by the creative advocates at Music For America, featuring Sleater-Kinney and Tom Morello, has been cancelled. Virtually all attempts to attract talent flopped, as musicians focused on swing states or just didn't want to mess with New York.

Many progressive leaders and groups have also abandoned New York. Many groups that played a major role in the anti-war movement against the Iraq war are fervently anti-Bush – in particular the 2.5 million-member MoveOn.org, but also enviro groups like the Sierra Club – and won't be in New York for two reasons. First, their top priority is defeating Bush and their PACs are focusing on swing states and get-out-the-vote efforts. Secondly, many leaders think that any demonstrations against the Republicans during a nominating convention are counter-productive, and will turn off voters. They prefer election messages.

An unintended consequence of these absences – including the fact that the unions have their own, separate day of march on September 1st – may be the lack of the moderating influence by these groups on the overall organizing of the demonstrations, as well as frustration on the part of many New York-based activists who feel abandoned. One organizer involved in the noRNC effort said: "All these national organizations are so afraid of associating with us 'crazy protestors.' It makes me so angry. We basically want to hold Bush's feet to the fire, for all his horrors, but there is no help, or support. They don't put their money where their mouth is. It creates a big vacuum." Into the vacuum step militants, some of whom clearly do not care much about who wins the election. "Getting Bush out of the White House is an aesthetic thing – I won't have to look at him anymore," says the A-31 Coalition's David Graeber, explaining his mild preference for Kerry. A 43-year-old anthropology instructor at Yale, Graeber, who lives in Chelsea, says, "Maybe I'll vote for Kerry, maybe I won't."

Ironically, big resources, talent, pro bono law firms, et al are being invested in keeping Ralph Nader off the ballot in key states. In contrast, there has been very little ongoing effort or presence in the trenches during long discussions, doing the hard work to create the most rational kind of demonstrations in New York. Nor has much of the clout of the big groups been applied to get the city to behave responsibly regarding marches, even though a mess in New York City could have a more negative impact on the election than Nader, although some would argue that hard-core protestors are going to do what they do, no matter who is in the room or involved in the debate.

What We Don't Know:

How big will the march be? Maybe someone wants to start an office pool on this question. This much we think we know: There will be a big march on Sunday beginning at 10:00 a.m. at 14th Street and 7th Avenue. Early estimates of 250,000, even 500,000 protestors, printed in the New York Times, may be seriously out of whack. Every possible factor to thin the crowd is in play – the lack of city cooperation, no specific plans for the march, lack of support from large membership groups focused on the election, a separate union march on 9/1, the dog days of August, the armed camp mentality, the fears of terror, need I go on?

Where will the march go? Where it goes, where it stops, what happens when it stops, no one really knows. It is pretty shocking that five days out, with tens of thousands of people converging, the path of the Sunday march is still unknown. At one point, several weeks ago, the UFPJ, desperate to come up with something concrete, agreed to city demands to move out to the Westside Highway. But when the City refused to work out details with members of the UFPJ coalition, and the general public demanded the marchers go to Central Park, the group bailed on the agreement. UFPJ took its case to the New York State Supreme Court and the judge ruled it out. In one case for a separate Saturday demo in the Park, the judge said "Work it out," but refused to force the city to open the park. The New York Times reports that in spite of the two rulings, protesters maintain their intention to go to the park, permit or not, and that officials plan to police the area.

What will the media coverage be like? Ahhh, the $64,000 question. There is a lot of trepidation about the media images emerging from the week ahead. A number of activists concerned about potential media negativity are developing a campaign to challenge the media to do their job and report accurately.

The biggest concern has to do with the civil disobedience demonstrations on August 31st, which will range from principled forms of CD to deliberate attempts to provoke the 20,000 cops and harass the delegates. It is at this nexus where the most heated battle for the media frame will take place. However, the situation on Sunday, the 29th could get messy as well, if groups decide to march to Central Park without parade permits, and the Bloomberg administration plays hardball.

There is lots of discussion among veteran leaders about militant action. Many feel principled civil disobedience is an important tradition and should be supported, no matter what the potential impact in the media. Nevertheless, they are wringing their hands about what they will have to deal with and how to keep the lid on things.

Privately, leaders suggest "the people who want to wreak havoc are provoked, rather than pacified, when we try to tell them what to do, especially when we denounce their tactics in public. We are talking with people privately and we think that is what will work best."

Those doing the talking have to deal with people like Jason Flores-Williams, an anti-RNC activist and political writer who seems to think the demonstrations are about him. He told Salon, "First off, you've got to do what you've got to do for yourself. I'm less concerned with how things are going to affect the vote, and more concerned with confronting the systemic problems in this country head on – to make New York reflective of the anger that's inside of us."

There will be many people of good will on the streets working their butts off to project a positive message. There will be thousands of journalists from all over the world, poised to tell their stories. And there will likely be a lot more drama than your favorite reality show. Stay tuned.

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