Evan's RNC Diary
3-5pm Up and down 7th ave and back again.
Trolling the streets for a pass to the RNC's final evening in the supersaturated afternoon heat reminds me of something. When I was a kid we'd run around my small suburb looking for vacant backyard pools. Hours of searching followed by a dip in the warm, dirty, petri dish covered with an unsavory layer of gooey, decomposing leaves. In other words: the treasure ain't worth the voyage.
Still, I give it a go for several hours. It proves an excellent opportunity to speak with volunteers, press, and guests, but curiously few delegates deign to respond. And who can blame them? "Excuse me, I'm looking for the California delegation so I can get a pass..." They spy my gingham shirt and, perform, no doubt some intricate Republican calculus, determine that I'm not kosher – except they probably don't think the word "kosher" – and write me off.
The best reaction by far didn't involve delegates at all. After spouting my spiel to a dressy couple with rolly suitcases, the woman turned back and screamed, "What, you thought we were one of them?! We would never go in there! How dare you!"
Am I supposed to tell Republicans by their horns? I thought so much of what was odious in the Republican lifestyle had to do with its discrimination based on external cues, characteristics, and qualities. Too often those who don't look right or present properly but are otherwise huge bastards are excluded from that mix.
2 pm Union Square
Why don't black helicopters work as the official vehicle of The Conspiracy Theory anymore?
Because they don't provide any space for advertising. But the Fuji blimp fills that role, because it's doubling as an NYPD surveillance vehicle. As I entered Union Square, I did noticed an older bearded man pointing at the sky. Or, no, he wasn't pointing, he was giving it the finger. I asked why he was giving the Fuji blimp the finger and he giggled. "Look real close and you can see the NYPD lettering on the side." He went on: "They can see your socks! Well, not yours, your jeans cover them but mine, they can see mine."
The revolution-smashing will be televised. And sponsored. It's becoming clear who the real beneficiary of the convention actually is: Poland Spring. On Sunday, bottles of Poland Spring water were distributed to marchers. Today, I watched as police distributed the very same little bottles of Poland Spring amongst themselves. If they're a publicly-traded corporation, you'll find me buying in.
29th st. and 6th ave – 12 PM
The perfect metaphor unfolds.
The cops have been, for the most part, individually, extremely kind and human. When you look into their eyes you can tell they understand, if not the anger, then the fact that protest is natural, human. Several days ago I questioned some officers standing next to a group of Anarchists calling them alien fascist pigs. The cops didn't just spout rhetoric about free speech and tolerance, they spoke of it warmly – like they would about a relative or a puppy.
This same police force, however, has tackled young girls to the pavement, wrongfully arrested dozens of people, and harrassed numerous protesters and citizens whenever Republicans are near. I experienced this myself while simply interviewing people on the street. I've been threatened with arrest for taking photos. One undercover cop told me that I didn't have a right to stand on the street.
And while trying to figure out how to capture all this, I went and stood near some Republican volunteers. Most of them were kids, not fooled by me for a minute. Despite my shiny new spats, it was crystal clear that I was not of them. No matter, if Bush can say some of the things he says – on national TV no less – I figure these kids might be brazen enough to give me a juicy quote.
Their conversation was as dull as the music being piped out of the convention – until one girl approached a nearby cop.
He smiled at her, and in earshot of fifty people, out of nowhere as far as I was concerned, she yelled: "Do a dance for me!" He smiled and looked around sheepishly. It was clear that he wanted to, but he was too shy.
He needn't worry. The cops have already danced admirably for the Republicans.
August 31 –
Sotheby's, 72nd Street and York Avenue – 4:30pm
Outside the RNC today there was Johnny Cash and nothing else. Just kidding. But consider it for a moment. It's a nice thought.
The story goes like this: property from the estate of Johnny and June Carter Cash will be auctioned off at Sotheby's sometime in the near future. Some convention planning committee thought it'd be nice for the delegates from Tennessee to spend some of the precious few hours they have in New York City to trek uptown to Sotheby's for a sneak preview of the goods of a genius forever associated with, umm, Tennessee.
Johnny Cash fans on the political left do not, it is now abundantly clear, take kindly to their musical hero being exploited for political gain. He's not 9/11, for chrissakes.
By the time I arrived, the protest outside Sotheby's was in full swing. Anarchists, country folk and a banker belted out middling renditions of "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line" in unison. The protesters closest to Sothebys' doors dispensed with singing, opting instead for boos and regular doses of the infamous Johnny Cash salute to cops – you may know it as "the finger."
Johnny Cash's name is fertile ground for protest chants. There was "No Cash for the rich," and "Whose Cash? Our Cash!" and the old standard: "Welcome to New York, now get the fuck out!" So that one didn't have Cash's name in it, but it was popular.
The singing and chanting had everyone so riled up, so energetic and eager, protesters resorted to vulgarities and insults. "You dumb, fat bitches!" they cried to passing delegates. How this had anything to do with Cash's blessed memory, is anyone's guess.
As the crowd downshifted into "This Land is Your Land" (a Woody Guthrie song, but whatever), I talked to an older woman about the profanity: "I don't like it, but I have the urge to call them baby killers for the babies dying in Iraq, but," she said sheepishly, punctuated by nervous laughter, "that's what they call women who have abortions."
There were but few couples over 40 at the Cash event, but one husband and wife I met – who described themselves as native New Yorkers but later confessed they were from Missouri and Indiana – were out there to "tell the GOP that Cash was pro-union, anti-war, and a real man of the people." I asked them if they thought that he has particular significance with the Republicans due to his rather illustrious initials. "Oh, wow, I never thought of that before. I did see a 'What would Johnny do?' sign." She paused and then offered: "That was neat."
The chants became simpler as the novelty of the protest began to wear off for those attending: "New York hates the GOP!" The young couple next to me joined in half-heartedly before the girl turned to her boyfriend who'd already trailed off and confessed, "I don't like that chant, ya know? It's important for your chant to really say something... let's save our voices for a good one."
Just as I began to lose interest in the protest, manna fell from the sky in the form of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. It was a shiny new protest.
The world's funniest hand puppet was suddenly just a few feet away. Right there. He was right there talking to people and making comments that were both angry and funny. A person couldn't help but feel insulted and charmed.
For those of you unfamiliar with Triumph, picture Kermit the Frog but caustic and rated R and just plain mean sometimes. But maybe the best part about him is that he's attached to a guy who makes absolutely no attempt at ventriloquism. Here I am, he says, the guy behind the dog puppet.
The puppet dog starts riding a little guy in an Uncle Sam getup: "Oh, don't you have beautiful hair. All it needs is a shower 5 days ago.... Do you have a lady at home? How inflatable is she?" But this hand puppet recognizes the great political import and turns his attention to the delegates. After yet another chorus of boos, Triumph yells: "Take your money and stick it up my ass!"
Johnny would have smiled a little.
Manhattan, 34th st. and 6th ave – 2:00 p.m.
A young blonde couple with Bush/Cheney buttons headed for the RNC with me in tow. They walked close together and didn't speak. Both wore identical baby blue t-shirts with "Ft. Lauderdale spring break '03" above Greek Sorority lettering tucked into pleated khaki shorts. At the corner of 7th ave, where the mix turns from public to Republican, the couple asked a police officer for directions to Madison Square Garden. The officer raised his eyebrows and pointed to the massive, well-guarded complex 200 feet to the left.
Before they could say thank you to the officer, an older woman covered in Kerry/Edwards stickers smiled to me and thrust her hand over the couple's shoulders from behind. "Here are your directions," she told them as she shoved "Buck Fush" stickers into their view.
Boy clutched girl's hand as they stared straight ahead – identical baby blue stares.
Fashion Institute of Technology – 1:20 p.m.
So far I have been appalled by my diary entries and my preoccupation with the poor clothing choices by the GOP and its adherents, so I decided to get some sartorial guidance.
I milled about for 45 minutes before finding a single design student. Nine out of ten students at FIT, it seems, are interested in the commercial aspect of fashion. It sounds like the opening line to a joke. When I did stumble upon four design students chatting on the front steps I ask whether their politics were influenced by fashion – or vice versa.
"Do you care how politicians or protesters dress?"
They nodded. Their answers were all over the place. They were confused and upset, and it was very hot out. After agreeing amongst themselves – with stoner nods – that the way we dress is often a cue for others to tell what our political/cultural stances are, they proceeded to muddy the water of that intellectual puddle.
The one boy in the group at the Fashion school told me he's voting for Bush. He told me this while wearing a pair of oversized '70s suburban housewife sunglasses, carefully tousled hair, and Pumas. I asked for his views on gay civil rights and he responded by telling me that he's bisexual. When I followed up with a question about reconciling that with the fact that Bush, by all accounts believes he is destined to go to the fiery pit of hell, he gives the typical spiel about safety and terror.
Republican messaging has clearly worked wonders if hipsters fear for their safety – al Qaeda hates your trucker caps!
Recalling the earlier line about clothing as visual cues, I ask if his clothing does indeed telegraph his beliefs. He responded by telling me that in Michigan his Conservative Christian parents brought him in for his first tattoo when he was 16. "You should never judge a person by their clothing."
But I thought... but... cues... you said there were cues. Fashion students.
Tasti-D-Lite 7th ave and 31st – 1:00 p.m.
An older woman on a park bench struck me as peculiarly apolitical. Maybe it was the way she rested with her groceries while protesters streamed by the endless row of cops lining the sidewalks. They call this kind of person "a real New Yorker."
I hate this line we hear again and again, used to describe the kind of person who doesn't interact with the world around them. Someone fazed by nothing.
Without waiting to see whether we were in a going to have a conversation, she pointed to the cops clustered nearby and said, "Have you ever seen such fat guys? I mean, if someone did something, do you think those... those... FAT guys are gonna run and catch 'em?"
I agreed but pointed out that there were a lot of them.
"What excitement!" She goes on, "This is the first time I can jaywalk in the city legally... I been walking in the streets and there're no cars, nothin'!"
"I don't care about politics. Carter was the best president. Ya' put your money in the bank and the interest rate was 12, 13% and it grows."
"And you know, I liked Nixon. Did you know he was a wife beater? I liked him, and I don't know why."
When I asked her if she planned to vote she looked at me like I was crazy. "You have a girlfriend? Yeah? Why aren't you married? You're 32! Oh lord, you look 22! You should be ashamed of yourself." I'm still not sure if it's for looking young or my marital status.
She quieted down as if remembering something. "There used to be Muslims on the streets. Yeah, you'd see the women pushing babies with the things." She waved her hands around her head as though it were crystal ball.
"A head wrap?" I offer.
She ignored me. "And now, not one. Not since the start of the convention." She shook her head and told me she can make it the three blocks home now. "I'm 83." She looked like she was in her sixties, despite the labored breathing. "You should be ashamed of YOURself," I tell her.
"You watch out," she says. Smiling.
And I thought to myself: "Yeah, a real New Yorker."
August 30 –
Madison Square Garden – 4:30 p.m.
Or the street outside, actually. I'm tracking down delegates to get early impressions. The police rhythmically cage and uncage pedestrians as they cross the street. The cage consists of orange netting that resembles that mysterious plastic wrapping that fancy fruit arrives in.
The netting swallows a new round of Republicans who mask their discomfort by acting like they're on a Club Med tour in Mazatlan, rather than the bubbling cauldron of pure evil they're involved in. Or so I think. I don't know just how evil it is because I'm not credentialed.
Snap judgments like the one I just made are fun, but they aren't terribly fulfilling – thus the delegate hunt. I'm rebuffed by five or six who study my press-passless neck and move on. Shamelessly, I approach an elderly delegate woman in an electric blue ensemble with the slip hanging a good five or six inches below the skirt's hem. She walks with a cane and so, I think, she's more likely to submit to my questions. Which she is.
It turns out that she is an "Honorary Delegate" – the result of her 56 years of service to the Grand Old Party. Her first comment is that the music at the RNC is far better than the DNC's. I ask who was playing inside the Garden, and she tells me it's "just being piped in" over the speakers.
This is her 12th convention, so naturally I'm curious to know how she thinks the party has changed. "It's moved to the right," she says, "I wish it wouldn't." I rock my head softly at the insight-vacuum I've unleashed.
I take a shot in the dark and ask if she's even voting for Bush. She looks at the sky and asks if I'm going to write her name down. "You'll get me kicked out of the party," she warns with a smile.
"Unsure" is her final answer. She explains that she's pro-choice and against the war. "So why not vote for Kerry?" I offer. "Oh, no. He said that given what he knows now, if he could do it all again, he'd vote for the war! What's that?"
This is something I hear all day from moderate Republicans and independents: "I might consider Kerry, but I can't tell what he's about and he's not even against the war." The lady continues, "I had a gut feeling that the al Qaeda connection was phony. I was right! And he's pro-choice but then I read that he believes that life begins at conception? And then he's personally against abortion...."
Given the fact that she's fundamentally a Democrat, I ask about gay marriage. "A person should do whatever they want." She leans in: "You know, I don't like it when the people have those braids in their hair (she makes motions that indicate that she's talking about cornrows), but I don't care. Do what you want. Let gays marry. I don't like it but I'll stand up for them!"
I thank her for talking to me and ask for her name. She repeats what she said earlier: "I'll get thrown out of the party!"
And I realize that's what this is about. This thing is just a party.
August 30 – 12:00 noon
I'm looking for a man with a mustache. Unlike NASCAR Dads and Soccer Moms, the mustache demographic remains virtually unmolested by the media – mostly because it's a solidly Republican crew. My shallow prejudice pays off and I quickly find a Bush voter leaning on a parking meter surveying the crowd outside the Chelsea antique market.
He isn't sure whom he's going to support this time around, since he believes Bush went into Iraq without a plan. He tells me the war was fought over a "grudge" but he's turned off by protests: "If you're unhappy you vote 'em out of office." He's also upset at Friday night's Critical Mass bike rally. He shakes his head, "When you inconvenience people and they're just trying to get home, they've had a rough day or whatever, you tend to get the reverse reaction." He stands up away from the meter for the first time and strokes his mustache. "The protests are funny." He falls silent so I thank him and walk away.
August 29 – 5pm
The middle-aged woman working the Socialist Worker's Party table is as sweet and demure as your grandmother's bridge partner and handles my brisk questioning with good humor. After the standard rhetoric: "the problem is the system" and "we envision a government run by farmers and workers," I ask whether, since the party doesn't support Kerry, she sees a difference between the two major candidates.
At first she tells me they're just a part of the same system. When pressed, however, she admits that she believes Bush is worse, and ends up throwing me a phrase I'll hear again and again at all the Socialist Worker's Party tables in slightly different forms: "It's time to be defined by what you're for, not what you're against." If nothing else, shrinkwrapped slogans make me crave humor. So I point out that the Socialist Workers Party has set up their table at the confluence of TJ Max; Bed, Bath & Beyond; Old Navy; and The Container Store.
It's important to point out here that Manhattan is not like the rest of America. It isn't quite as easy to find four retail chain stores on four corners. When I point out the irony of her location she perks up, like Bush receiving a carefully screened press question, and responds, "No choice, we're in capitalist America."
August 29 – 3:00 p.m.
As I approach a large man wearing a Jesus sandwich board, the crowd begins to boo the Fox News broadcast, which has begun a story on the President's journey to the convention. The man, like the president, is a born-again Christian. Marchers are screaming at him – often viciously – and he's feeding off of it. He concludes that the marchers hate Jesus and that they very clearly have black, black hearts.
But is it any wonder? I ask whether it isn't a Jesus-like quality that inspires so many hundreds of thousands to take to the streets to protest greed, war and empire – the very focus of Jesus' message? He tells me that I have Jesus all wrong and paraphrases Matthew (that's his thing, "paraphrasing" – he's not very good with the verbatim thing) "I came not to bring peace but a sword."
A Mel Gibson-ite. While we speak, a tiny born-again woman approaches to tell him that she doesn't think Jesus would vote for Bush. When he tells her that he won't either she looks puzzled and disappears into the crowd. Now I'm interested. "If you want to know my politics, I'm to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I think Bush is a baby killer." Apparently Bush doesn't do enough to curb abortion.
He's sure that, were the police to leave, the protestors would swarm the shops and steal TVs. "That's all they want," he says as he makes humping motions to the air.