Election 2004

Public Thunder

Sunday's protesters in Manhattan went shoulder-to-shoulder in a free-speech free for all.
Together, undaunted by a blazing late summer sun, hundreds of thousands marched through some of New York City's busiest streets on Sunday in a massive protest against George Bush and the Republican National Convention. The BBC estimated the number of demonstrators at over 250,000.

Some carried clever posters decrying George Bush's ascent to power. Others wielded drums, horns, or in one case, a frying pan, and banged out their frustrations in rhythm. Still others carried small children on their shoulders.

Despite rumblings about Molotov-cocktail hurling anarchists and a bitter last-minute legal battle between protest organizers and the city of New York over where to hold the march, Sunday's event was largely peaceful, even as protestors came face to face with police, the secret service, and a loud contingent of Republican hecklers at Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention.

A police spokeswoman told AlterNet at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday night that 200 arrests were made, a relatively small amount considering the sheer number of protestors – at press time, organizers estimated 450,000 according to news reports while the police have not yet released a figure – and there were no immediate reports of violence.

According to the AP, the largest mass-arrest was of "50 protesters on bicycles who stopped near the parade route were carted away in an off-duty city bus." Another 15 were arrested "when someone set a papier-mache dragon float afire near Madison Square Garden," the AP reported.

Protestors began gathering between 14th and 22nd Streets and 7th Avenue in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood early Sunday morning in preparation for the march. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the marches' organizer and an umbrella of over 800 different groups nationwide, designated different sections for the various participating contingents to assemble – Vietnam, Gulf War and Iraqi War Veterans' groups were gathered at the front as were labor unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and PSC-CUNY (City University of New York's Teachers' Union). National peace groups, youth and student collectives, as well as numerous regional organizations and individual protestors filled in behind them.

Virtually all those in attendance were donned in brightly-hued t-shirts, holding an equally colorful sign, or wearing a politically charged button, many of them laden with the sort of sardonic slogans that have become symbolic of the left's criticism of the Bush administration.

One man wore a shirt that read "I'll Mess With Texas." A woman held a sign which said 'Yee-ha Is Not Foreign Policy.' One elderly man raised a placard asking "Whose Taxes Would Jesus Cut?" A young woman grinned as she hoisted a cardboard poster which demanded "Pull Out Like Your Father Should Have!" Another solemn-faced woman grasped one which stated: "Bring My Son Home."

"This is incredible," gushed native New Yorker David Rosner, who came to protest by himself and wore a button which read "Somewhere in Texas, A Village Is Missing An Idiot."

Just before noon, filmmaker Michael Moore, Reverend Jesse Jackson, and UFPJ organizers led the march up Seventh Ave. toward Madison Square Garden. A team of yellow-shirted protest marshals from UFPJ locked arms and escorted them as they walked. The march snaked uptown at a snail's pace at first, with throngs of people waiting shoulder to shoulder for nearly an hour in stifling near-ninety degree heat to walk to one city block.

"We want an end to this war. We want the troops home," said Michael Moore. "It's just not going to work with us there. We owe a huge apology to the people of Iraq for creating the amount of death and destruction that we have created there."

Though police had cordoned off the first half of the protest route with barriers on either side of 7th Avenue, preventing anyone from exiting and entering the march except at designated areas, the mood of the marchers remained festive. The first ten blocks resembled more of a raucous political street party than anything else: Code Pink, a women's social justice group stopped at virtually every block to perform a well-choreographed dance routine as they chanted anti-Bush slogans; a head-bobbing group of teenage activists co-opted the hit Ludacris hip-hop song "Move Bitch" and began rapping "Move Bush! Get Out The Way!"; one young woman belted out an unrecognizable protest tune as she strummed wildly on an acoustic guitar.

Meanwhile, as police helicopters pounded overhead and a corner of Madison Square Garden's coliseum appeared in the distance, 80-year-old Phillip Miller trudged along slowly and deliberately in his full U.S. Army First Cavalry regiment uniform. "Well, I'm here to protest the war," he said. "The same unit I fought with in World War II is fighting in Iraq. If this thing isn't stopped, it's going to be never-ending." Austin, Texas native, Rebecca Webber (25) marched nearby.

"My brother's in Iraq. I want him to come home. He wants to come home. And that's why I'm here."

Things heated up considerably when the protestors reached Madison Square Garden, which spans from 31st to 33rd Streets between 7th and 8th Avenues. Police had blocked off the entrance to the arena, and stood stone-faced, side by side plain-clothes cops and secret service agents.

"Li-ars! Li-ars!" a huge group of protestors taunted, as they pressed up against the steel barriers, only a few feet away from police. "One, Two, Three, Four! We Don't Want Your Fucking War!" chanted another group in Kerry/Edwards t-shirts.

The Korean Alliance for Peace and Justice, from Los Angeles, which advocates for an end to U.S. presence in Korea and Iraq, formed a circle in front of the barricade and began playing the drums they were carrying, and some protestors stopped to dance. 21-year-old Cornelius (last name not given), wearing a hand-written "Baboons For Bush" shirt, doled out bananas to curious onlookers. "I'm voting for Bush, because I'm a baboon, and he's one of us," he chortled.

18-year-old Jessica Miller, from Alexandria Virginia, and a member of Food Not Bombs, an anarchist affiliated group which was handing out vegan meals to protestors, was more serious as she tugged at a gas mask dangling from her neck.

"I expect everything," she said glancing warily at the police.

The day before, one anarchist also affiliated with Food Not Bombs who asked not to be identified, told AlterNet he didn't expect any violence, and that his group and others were not planning on breaking away from the main march.

"Violence would be suicidal," he said.

"This is not a protest. It's more like a conference," added Karen Wheeler an organizer for the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, which sits on UFPJ's Steering Committee. "I haven't spoken to or heard from anyone who wants this march to result in violence or chaos."

Indeed, the only visible signs of confrontation were just across from Madison Square Garden where a hodge-podge of Bush supporters had gathered behind a police barricade and shouted at marchers walking directly past them.

"You can't chant U.S.A 'cause you're traitors!" screamed one purple-faced man. "Get the fuck out of my city!" hurled back one protestor in a thick New York accent. From Madison Square Garden, the protest route took marchers east on 34th Street, over to Fifth Avenue and down to Union Square, where 14th Street. Park Ave. and Broadway collide.

Roving teams of legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild were everywhere, particularly in this area, offering up legal advice to anyone who asked. One legal observer, who asked not to be identified, said he had seen no evidence of police misconduct and had only taken down one complaint from a protestor throughout the entire duration of the march. The National Lawyers Guild's press office could not be reached for comment at press time.

As the march thundered downtown, police removed barricades, and the protest flowed more freely all the way to Union Square, where UFPJ organizers, some perched on ladders and armed with megaphones, advised protestors to disperse quietly and peacefully.

Virtually all of them did – with many walking or taking the subway home, and others heading up to Central Park's Great Lawn, where UFPJ had originally hoped to hold the protest (an August 24 New York State Supreme Court decision ordered them to use the 7th Avenue route as per the City's request).

Some of the demonstrators after the march headed for Times Square to pay a visit to the Republican delegates, who were attending Broadway shows as guests of The New York Times. Traffic was at a standstill for many blocks in the theater district, and police conducted large-scale arbitrary arrests of large groups without warning, catching protesters, bystanders, legal observers and some members of the press in their nets.

Back in Central Park, as a light evening wind brushed the sweat off of the thousands who had trekked uptown to gather on the Great Lawn's grass, a jazz band played and a circle of drummers began beating on bongos.

A man in an oversized Dick Cheney mask danced, dangling a tiny puppet of George Bush in front of him; others spoke in earnest tones about the day's events; exhausted news media gobbled long-neglected lunches; and young children darted amongst the throngs as the city sun began to move slowly behind the skyscrapers surrounding them all.

71-year-old Korean War veteran Arlen Dean Snyder watched, still thrusting his "Bring The Troops Home" sign high in the air. "This," he said. "was a wonderful march."
Dan Frosch is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He's been on staff at the San Gabriel Valley Weekly section of the Los Angeles Times, The Source magazine, the Pacific Palisadian Post and most recently the Santa Fe Reporter. Dan also contributes to VIBE and POZ magazines.
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