Dispatch from New York: Whose Streets?

At this year’s Republican Convention, the protesters are the other elephant in the room.


There’s a popular revolt afoot in New York City. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s refusal, backed by a state judge to allow protesters to show their strength in numbers in New York’s most hospitable venue—Central Park— the demonstrations confronting George Bush and the Republicans are shaping up to be the biggest manifestation of popular dissent in the history of party conventions.

New York is now the sounding board for all the pent-up frustration against Bush that was stifled in Boston and repressed in John Kerry’s softball campaign. The antiwar and social justice crowd is crashing the GOP’s ball—bringing with them a whole host of gays, workers, immigrants, veterans, and Democrats still seething over the election fiasco in Florida. And while many New Yorkers have fled to escape heightened terror alerts, rerouted trains and a security gridlock all too reminiscent of the lockdown following 9-11, for a surprising number of people, the coming week will be all about street protests.

Indeed, many say Bloomberg’s clampdown on the park has only
inspired them to protest more. At least 200,000 people are expected to march through midtown Manhattan this Sunday, and perhaps tens of thousands more will be taking part in protests and events throughout the week.

“It’s not just a snowball, it’s an avalanche,” says William Etundi, a web technician and rave promoter who helped launch CounterConvention.org to serve as an online portal to the myriad expressions — from memorials and die-ins, to flash mobs and guerilla theater — that folks have come up with to register their dissent.

“We’ve injected ourselves into their sound bite,” says Max Uhlenbeck, a recent college grad who helped organize a three-day conference called “Life After Capitalism” in hopes of extending the Bush critique. “The line in the media is not going to be whether Lynn Cheney did a good job introducing her husband. It’s gonna be the RNC and the battle on the streets.”

Just how that battle will come across is a matter of hot debate. Sixties veterans like Todd Gitlin and Norman Mailer, and contemporary liberals like Eric Alterman, warned of a potential reprise of Chicago in 1968, should rowdy demonstrations devolve into violent clashes with police—a scenario that some believe is exactly what Karl Rove and company intended when they chose to New York in the first place.

More militant activists dismiss this as just more liberal hand wringing from an older generation out of touch with the energy of the streets. “I think it’s really bad analysis to compare ‘68 to what’s happening in 2004,” says Jamie Moran, a 30-year-old anarchist who helped launch
RNCNotWelcome.org to provide protesters with tools for direct action. “In Chicago, people were protesting the Democratic Party because LBJ was carpet-bombing Vietnam. This time we’re protesting George Bush and the Republicans who brought us to war, and the crowds are gonna be way more huge and diverse” than the 10,000 or so hippies who marched in 1968.

“What is our alternative,” says Moran. “To just sit back and watch this thing happen? As a New Yorker, I find it offensive as hell that they would come here to try and capitalize off 9-11, and there are a lot of other people who feel that way, too.”

Protesters are a fixture at political conventions, of course. But what’s unusual about New York is just how homegrown the opposition is. A recent poll of this city of 8 million found 11 percent of New Yorkers plan to protest in some manner, and a full 81 percent approve of the convention protests. Yet more striking, 68 percent approve of non-violent civil disobedience. That’s far different from the attitudes that prevailed in 1968, when the Democratic Party itself was riven by internal divisions.

And even more moderate voices than Moran’s say the GOP’s decision to delay Bush’s nomination to just nine days before the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center amounts to something of a provocation.

“It’s like they’re trying to hijack our pain,” says Mike de Seve. The 41-year-old Brooklyn Heights resident is neither a scary anarchist nor a member of any leftwing group. In fact, he’s best known for being the animation director for Beavis and Butthead, and has directed features for Disney. But he’s now feverishly at work trying to build 1000 flag-draped coffins to call attention to the US soldiers who have died in Iraq (currently 968).

“We want to give the media something real to shoot,” says De Seve. “The Bush Administration has classified all images of the incoming dead — they’re not allowed to be seen. So we want to really put it out there: What are the real costs of war?”

De Seve is not alone in his newfound fervor. Beyond the pro-choice march across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, the mass march organized by United for Peace and Justice on Sunday, the large protests called by immigrant rights, AIDS and antipoverty campaigners on Monday, the big union rally on Wednesday, and a black-led march in Harlem on Thursday, there are dozens of independent initiatives in the works by ordinary citizens who say they are outraged at the thought of a Bush coronation here.

Across Brooklyn, people are draping their rooftops with giant banners that read, NO MORE YEARS, FIRE THE LIAR, and even REPUBLICANS FOR KERRY in hopes of sending a message to GOP delegates flying into New York. “We want them to know that we live in the city most at threat of terrorist attack, and we feel that Bush has failed us and failed America, “says Genevieve Christy, a 57-year-old management consultant who’s said the project is “spreading like wildfire,” with 84 brownstones already covered, and more on a waiting list.

On Saturday, thousands are expected to ring Ground Zero with a choreographed dirge of bells in remembrance of the victims of 9-11. “We want to honor those who died and let freedom ring,” says Christian Herold, a 47-year-old adjunct professor who said he came up with the idea as a way to counter Republican efforts to use the 9-11 attacks as a drumbeat for the war on terror. He and his collaborators are also distributing thousands of bells for people to “ring out” the Republicans every night of the convention at 7:30 pm.

Much of the creative ferment on the streets reflects the lengths people are going to express themselves without being herded into protest pens, like those used during the massive antiwar rally here on February 15, 2003.

There are calls to shout “No!” during Bush’s acceptance speech, to drown him out by banging pots and pans, or light candles in silent opposition. Cabbies Against Bush are asking fellow hacks to keep their headlights on throughout the convention to “shine a light” on the Bush’s “war policies.” (Taking a cue from Michael Moore, the group is also offering free trips to the airport to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and any GOP delegates who volunteer to go fight in Iraq.)

Others are arming themselves with humor. Perfecting their line of class warfare, Billionaires for Bush have plans to set up their own “fee speech zones,” and to perpetrate random acts of ballroom dancing as they send up Dubya and his corporate backers. They’ll also be taunting their fellow activists, like the hundreds who are expected to engage in a giant unemployment line on Wednesday stretching from Wall Street to midtown. “This administration is so desperate, they’re throwing out terror alerts to keep us quiet,” says Victoria Olsen, aka Billionaire Fonda Sterling. “It’s inspired protest groups to be more mindful and disarming in different ways. It’s a lot more playful. People are willing to embrace different strategies and be more creative, more experimental and adaptable.”

The city’s refusal to grant a permits for the big Central Park rally and other events has only galvanized the direct action crowd, who are now threatening to turn the whole city into a “free speech zone,” with schemes to use cellphone text-messaging and pirate radio broadcasts to orchestrate a “be-in” in Central Park and other creative swarms. Thousands of bicyclists are expected to take to the streets on Friday for a Critical Mass ride through town—defying police threats to arrest them–and there’s a call for a “Mouse bloc” to disrupt Republican delegates sampling the Disneyfied fare on Broadway with mouse costumes and marching bands.

Contrary to some tabloid claims, activists say they have no plans to try and block access to the GOP convention. “The police are already doing that, and we don’t have the firepower, period,” notes Eric Lauren, a member of the A31 Action Coalition. Instead, the group has called for a day of decentralized “nonviolent civil disobedience and direct actions” on Tuesday, August 31, targeting corporate fetes for delegates as well as the headquarters of “war-profiteers” like the Carlyle Group and Hummer of Manhattan, followed by a mass convergence to “reclaim the streets” outside Madison Square Garden with sound systems, marching bands and free food—presuming police let them get that far.

“We want to show that democracy begins where the barricades end and to protest the fact that a huge chunk of Manhattan is being turned over to the Republicans for a big corporate cocktail party,” says Laursen.

But stage-managing the message won’t be easy given the autonomous, anything-goes ethos of leftwing organizing these days. For instance, while members of RNCNotWelcome and the A31 Action Coalition say they’re not advocating or engaging in property destruction, they’re not willing to criticize those who do. Nevertheless, organizers say word’s gone out that it’s in everyone’s interests to tone things down—including advisories to young rebels to ditch the black hoodies and face masks and sport khaki instead.

“Even people with some of the most radical analysis out there are seeing that it’s not to our advantage to set ourselves up to feed into the Republican image of itself as the law and order party,” notes John Sellers, director of the Oakland-based Ruckus Society, which hosted a strategy retreat for activists in upstate New York last month. “No one can dictate what any one group does from on high. But people have been having really substantive conversations on this.”

Some worry that the Seattle meets Burning Man aesthetic may go too far. However humorous, troops of Missile Dick Chicks strutting the streets with strap-on silver phalluses, and groups of women flashing anti-Bush slogans on their breasts or underwear may play all too readily into conservatives’ hands. Yet for every freak on the street, there will also be more somber and pointed demonstrations, such as the “Bushville” set up in a Brooklyn lot to protest the rise of homelessness under Bush’s watch, or the group of military families and family members of the 9-11 victims who will be marching on New York with a 1,600 pound granite memorial to honor civilian war casualties.

Still, even peaceful actions can turn nasty depending on how the police react. And some of the schemes floated by anarchists aren’t so innocent.This week an anonymous group posted an website with all the delegates names and the hotels where they are staying, along with many of their personal email addresses and phone numbers.

The tabloids are already spinning chaos.

Anarchy Inc.” blared the frontpage of the New York Daily News on Thursday, which reported that the NYPD was tracking 50 “hard-core extremists” who were plotting to disrupt the convention with possibly violent acts, like hurling Molotovs at military recruiting centers, and claimed that a former Black Panther had been spotted training activists in “weapons use.” The slant echoed a previous Daily News frontpager that trumpeted an erroneous report about activists coating themselves in gunpowder to trigger bomb-sniffing dogs in order to force a shutdown of Penn Station. The New York Post, meanwhile, went so far as to report that aging radicals from the Weather Underground “recently released from prison” were conspiring to foul up the city by “orchestrating” younger activists in nefarious deeds. A police training manual advises cops to brace for possible attacks with nail-studded potatoes, hockey pucks, and even flaming “frisbee-like” devices.

Activists fear the police are floating these stories in order to justify preemptive arrests. Federal authorities are certainly doing their best to intimidate, with reports that the FBI has been interviewing dozens of activists. Last week the NYPD invited news crews to film scary-looking riot police dropping from helicopters and drilling crowd-control techniques as they put on display two new “long-range acoustical devices” mounted on Humvees, which will be stationed in front of Madison Square Garden. Originally designed for Iraq, they’re capable of emitting disabling pulses and ear-piercing shrieks, though police say they only plan to use them to “remind protesters where they’re allowed to march and rally.” Helicopters equipped with high-powered beams are already swooping over the city.

All this energy being invested to protest a largely symbolic event begs the question of whether the demonstrations have become an end unto themselves. If people really want to oust Bush, would they not be better served by registering hundreds of thousands to vote against him, and then harnessing that power to force Kerry to acknowledge the progressive, grassroots flank that helped put him into office?

“I think these protests can go either way,” says Stephen Bronner, a political science professor at Rutgers University. “The Republicans will try to play it as disrespect for the president and the troops. But if there’s serious action at this convention, there’s the potential for Bush to be seen as having lost control of the American consensus.”

Whatever the risks, many New Yorkers say they’re too fed up not to vent. “The stakes are so high this time. People are trying to come up with ways to do it so it doesn’t feel like you’re just beating your head against the wall,” says Joshua Spahn. Before Bush, the 50-year-old software developer hadn’t picked up a protest sign since college. Now he’s going to organizing meetings as part of
RingOut.org and sporting a black T-shirt that reads “Unauthorized Protester,” with the rejoinder on the back: “Permits, We Don’t Need No Stinking Permits.”

Spauhn balks when asked what he hopes the masses on the streets could accomplish. “I don’t know what it will achieve; all I know is that this is what I feel called to do. I’m a liberal, not a radical. But there are certain rights that we need to defend. Our Constitution is one of them.”

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