One of the most notable things about Herald Square, New York at 7pm on Tuesday evening, was the wide variety of police transportation options. There were cops on bikes, cops on horses, cops on foot, cops on motorcycles and little go-cart type things, cops in cop cars, cops in vans and trucks, and cops in Down With Bush T-shirts pretending to be protestors. The only thing I didn't see was cops riding piggy back on each other, but the night was still young. Somewhere amid the throng of police, over 500 people shouted protests at Republican National Convention delegates who hurried by, heels clicking and heads held high, to go hear Laura Bush canonize her husband. It was a clash of fashion and ideology that seems, at least for tonight, proof enough of this country's deep divide.
People with pig's noses roll in fake money. Protestors in white lie prone in the middle of Broadway in a "die-in" to represent those killed in Iraq. Banners unfurl, street parties are shut down, my daughter and I sing "ring around the rosey" in the middle of it all, and inside the convention a woman successfully unfurls a banner that reads: "Pro-Life? Stop the killing in Iraq." This was the intense passionate madhouse that was A31, the day protesters designated for civil disobedience. In its creativity, its spontaneity, and the lack of clear structure and organization, the protests outside were a marked contrast from the scene within the Convention, where even Laura Bush's eyebrows didn't move without a scripted command.
The day began as it would end, with large protests interrupted by massive unprovoked arrests. Close to the World Trade Center, activists led by School of the Americas Watch and War Resisters League had intended to peacefully march, two by two, up near the Convention before lying in the street in protest of the appropriation of September 11 for political reasons. They didn't even get half a block away before a group of over 200 of them were arrested for "blocking pedestrian traffic" on the sidewalk. Protestors planning to meet at the library were "run off" according to one of the cops blocking the entrance. Meanwhile, a party in Union Square was stopped before music could even begin playing. Other groups were able to accomplish their goal and blocked a bus of delegates for over fifteen minutes before being led away in handcuffs.
The media, both progressive and conservative, has warned of violence, but the weapons used today by the protesters were their costumes, their voices, and their bodies. As I nursed my bruises today (caused exclusively by overly aggressive media camera men determined to get to the action) and looked over the gaps in my notes (caused almost exclusively by overly aggressive police officers arresting a whole peaceful march before I could get in and interview anyone), I realized that asking protestors to refrain from violence for the day or applauding them when they do is like asking a witness if he has stopped beating his wife. It assumes that violence is a protest's natural state, that all protests and protestors, if not reigned in by their more strategic and far-seeing comrades, will resort to violence. It's an attitude quite similar to that of the police – expect the worse and pull back, occasionally, with grudging acknowledgment of good behavior.
Perhaps it is the condescension that most bothers activists, but I think the damage is more than that. At the end of the fifth day of protests against the Republican National Convention, with over 800 people arrested, how do we evaluate the success of the struggles so far? Clearly it is more than just our ability to control ourselves. Who is the audience for the theatrics, for the long feet-swelling marches in the hot sun, for the songs, chants, and curses? Is it the delegates, rushing past and shaking their heads? Is it that highly sought-after swing voter, watching the news coverage from an arm chair hundreds of miles away? Is it the rest of the world, watching us closely, knowing their own fate is at stake? Is it for ourselves, to reaffirm our hope of a better world, to feel the warmth of bodies next to us reminding us that we are not alone?
It is for all of this, of course, and for me, heading home tomorrow, it is most of all for the baby daughter I dragged along with me, to let her know that she will be not be alone in this unfinished struggle to create a more just and peaceful world.