by Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project
EDITOR’S PREAMBLE: The Republican National Convention protests in New York City were preceded by a First Amendment show-down in the federal courts over whether the main march, organized by United for Peace & Justice, would have access to Central Park’s Great Lawn. At the eleventh hour, the courts ruled against the protest coalition and for the Republican administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Consequently, the big march of Aug. 29, the day before the convention opened, brought out historically large numbers but concluded anti-climactically with no rally–and the entire route was closely contained behind police barricades, with access restricted to a few choke-points. Throughout the convention, several blocks around Madison Square Garden were a "frozen zone," closed to all pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
The protests were also preceded by a full-fledged anarchist scare, with the media sensationalizing about impending street chaos (Daily News front-page banners: "Anarchy Threat to City," July 12; "Anarchy Inc.," Aug. 26) Police response to the Friday Aug. 27 Critical Mass bike ride in midtown Manhattan set the tone, with some 250 cyclists arrested indiscriminately as police blocked off streets. Media reported a total of 1,821 arrests at the RNC protests–overwhelmingly on legally-dubious charges. Detainees were taken to an improvised jail at Pier 57, an old bus depot on the Hudson River, before being transferred to Manhattan Central Booking (the notorious "Tombs"). Harsh conditions at Pier 57 included overcrowding, old motor oil and other filth on the floor, and inadequate access to water and sanitation. The glacial pace at which protesters were released resulted in further litigation by the NY Civil Liberties Union. On Sept. 3, a state judge found the city to be in contempt of court, and imposed a $1,000 fine for each of the 470 still being held.
Police surveillance of the protests was carried out by a Fuji Film blimp which hovered over Midtown throughout the convention. Creative use of the law against protesters was also in evidence. Activists who hung a banner from the roof of the Plaza Hotel Aug. 26 (with arrows pointing in opposite directions reading "Bush" and "Truth") were charged with felony assault after an arresting officer put his foot through a skylight. A federal subpoena was issued against the NY Independent Media Center after the names of Republican delegates were posted to their web site. Despite the draconian degree of control, activists from ACT UP and Code Pink actually managed to infiltrate the convention site at Madison Square Garden–the latter even heckling Bush’s acceptance speech on the closing night before being hauled off by security.
Anne Petermann of the Vermont-based Global Justice Ecology Project provides the following day-by-day eye-witness report of the protests, beginning with the historic Aug. 29 march. Photos of the protests by Orin Langelle are on the Global Justice Ecology Project web site –WW4 REPORT
Sunday August 29
Protesters from all over the country began amassing at 10:30 in the morning near Union Square Park in Manhattan in preparation for a huge march. They stepped off at approximately 11:45 AM and it wasn’t until around 5:45 PM that the last demonstrators started the 28-block march route.
"Official" estimates of the number of marchers ranged from the absurdly low 120,000 to a reported 750,000. United for Peace and Justice, the march organizers, put the estimate at somewhere around a half million. No matter which estimate you use, the march is being called the largest-ever protest in the US at a political convention.
While the organizers may have intended for the march to be an indictment of war and injustice in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overwhelming cry of the march was simply against the Bush Administration. Issues represented included pro-choice, anti-war, the environment, education, health care, labor rights, justice for veterans, and almost every other issue you could imagine. The cacophony of concerns was united by the cry to overturn the Bush Administration–despite the reality that Democratic candidate John Kerry shares many of the same positions, with only slight variations.
The march was lively despite the hot, humid New York day. There were only a few arrests. The New York Times reported a couple of dozen arrests related to a "bike bloc" blockade of an intersection on the outskirts of the march near Madison Square Garden–the site of the Republican National Convention (RNC). A few others were reportedly arrested when some people set fire to a big papier-mache dragon. There was speculation whether the igniters were in fact demonstrators, or undercover police dressed as protesters, trying to discredit the march.
Because the City of New York refused to grant a permit to United for Peace and Justice for a rally after the march, once participants arrived at Union Square Park, the end point, they were asked to disperse. Many lingered, enjoying a rest in the shade before moving on. An unofficial call passed by word of mouth to reconvene in Central Park–where UFPJ had applied for the post-march rally. By about 4 PM, several thousand people had gathered on the Great Lawn in defiance of the city for a festive afternoon and evening. A marching band played, drummers added a continuous rhythm, and people danced, played frisbee, and generally relaxed after a hot day of pounding the streets. In one section of the Great Lawn, participants were trained in the art of direct action, in preparation for events later in the week.
The City had refused the permit ostensibly to "protect the lawn." In June 1982, however, nearly a million people gathered on the Great Lawn to protest nuclear weapons. Somehow the grass survived. UFPJ even offered to put up a bond to pay for repairs to the lawn, but to no avail.
Later in the evening, the "mouse bloc" marched through the theater district, where RNC delegates were attending performances. The mouse bloc was so named in response to the invasion of Republican "elephants" into New York City–elephants being afraid of mice. There were reports of over 150 arrests related to this un-permitted expression of the right to assemble.
Monday, August 30
Demonstrations directed at the Republican National Convention continued today in Manhattan with numerous marches and a "living mural" of the Statue of Liberty.
In the morning the "Still We Rise" march departed from Union Square and marched up to the intersection of 8th Avenue and 30th Street, adjacent to Madison Square Garden, where the RNC is taking place. This "march for the poor" was attended by 3,000 or so people and was very lively and festive. In the march were AIDS activists, advocates for the homeless, and many others in a very culturally diverse gathering.
At the end of the march, police penned in activists with barriers on three sides of the group that extended for at least two blocks. There were no reports of arrests in this spirited march.
Shortly after that event, Code Pink activists converged on Central Park to create a giant "living mural" of the Statue of Liberty with their pink-clad bodies and bright pink flagging. The intended message was "Vote for change." Eventually word came via cell phone that the perfect photo had been taken from atop a nearby building. The participants celebrated with a rousing howl before they got up and moved on to the next event.
On the heels of the living mural came the day’s second poor people’s march. The un-permitted "March For Our Lives," organized by Philadelphia’s Kensington Welfare Rights Union, began at 4 PM with a rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza outside of the United Nations building.
With chants like "No Bush, No Kerry, Revolution is Necessary" and the slight variation, "No Police, No Military, Revolution is Necessary," this energetic march had a very anti-authoritarian flavor. A route was reportedly negotiated with the police that would take the group to the corner of 8th Ave. and 30th Street, the same location where the morning march had stopped.
Along the march route, which continued past dark, people in apartments, restaurants and local businesses leaned out of windows, and stood out on balconies and rooftops waving peace signs and fists and shouting in solidarity with the marchers.
There were reports of police grabbing a few demonstrators along the march route, but otherwise the march was relatively peaceful–until the end. At the end point–the protest pen–police again erected barricades on three sides of the march, while participants continued to chant and drum.
This time, however, after fencing the protesters in, police amassed at the back of the march and, on the given order, rushed the crowd. Officers on foot ran at full speed toward the back of the march while police on motorcycle scooters sped into the crowd from behind. Several protesters were reportedly injured when they were run into by the scooters. There were also reports of police using tear gas and pepper spray. Some protesters speculated that the police were trying to panic the crowd to provoke the activists into reacting violently, which would discredit the otherwise peaceful event. New York Indymedia reported that one detective was injured when he overzealously ran headlong into the middle of the demonstrators, slamming into several people along the way. The Indymedia article further stated that an irate protester then pushed the officer over. Mainstream media sources report that the detective suffered a concussion.
Police arrested eleven protesters, and kept hundreds of them penned in for two hours or more, allowing them to leave in individual groups of two or three.
Tuesday, August 31
Police scrambled to suppress demonstrations throughout the day at locations all over midtown Manhattan on "A-31," the day when civil disobedience had been called to oppose the war in Iraq and the Bush agenda.
At almost every location protesters had chosen as gathering points for, police showed up in force. They quickly selected a few protesters–seemingly at random–and arrested them. Police then ordered the space cleared under threat of further arrests.
This tactic was first displayed at around 2 PM at Union Square Park following a press briefing by the A-31 media team. Police first instigated protester anger by arresting three or four activists, reportedly for having cardboard on their arms. Officers then entered the outraged throng of chanting protesters, singling out another four or five people for arrest.
Police repeated this tactic at around 5:30 at the New York Public Library at 5th Ave. and 42nd Street, where a group of protesters attempted to unfurl a banner on the building’s steps. Some by-standers got caught up in the sweep. One young woman who did not appear to be a protester was relaxing at an outdoor table at the library when she was ordered to leave by police. When she moved too slowly, they shoved her and her musical instrument (presumably a banjo or a mandolin in its case) onto the ground. When she looked up at them from the ground in shock and horror, they arrested her. Also arrested was an elderly man. Some eight-to-ten people were arrested at the scene.
In the evening, protesters amassed at Herald Square, where MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews was taping an RNC-related special show. Protesters gathered on the sidewalks surrounding the square chanting anti-war and anti-Bush slogans. The police moved rapidly to pen in the protesters with orange snow fence, followed later by metal barriers, obstructing them from entering the street to conduct the planned civil disobedience action. The police themselves, however, effectively blocked off the square from traffic, accomplishing the protesters’ goal of impeding rush-hour. The stand-off lasted for several hours.
Elsewhere in Manhattan, "flash mobs" of protesters gathered, blocking traffic and keeping police vehicles screaming late into the night. Throughout the city, New Yorkers expressed hostility to the RNC invasion of their town and the extreme police presence that accompanied it. It would be difficult to imagine a more hostile location for the RNC to have selected. Their reasoning, of course, was exploitation of the 9-11 tragedy for their political gain. While this callous strategy may work elsewhere in the country, in New York City it seems to have elicited only outrage.
Wednesday, Sept. 1
Today, a labor rally called by New York City’s Central Labor Council brought some ten thousand workers to the designated protest zone at 8th Ave. and 30th Street. In the evening, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) led a march to the offices of several media companies in Manhattan in protest of mainstream coverage of both the protests and the war in Iraq. Few arrests were reported
Thursday, Sept 2
Tonight’s nomination by the GOP of George W Bush saw a spontaneous march up 8th Ave. towards Madison Square Garden. As Bush addressed the convention, several thousand gathered at Union Square in a candle-light vigil to mourn the deaths of the victims of "Ground Zeros" from Manhattan to Falluja, and all who have been killed by the policies of the Bush regime. Following the nomination speech, hundreds poured into the streets from Union Square, eventually joining a rally at 8th Ave. and 30th Street, outside the Garden. This time police closely followed, but did little to interfere.
Complete text with photos on line at: Global Justice Ecology Project
Earlier on Thursday, a new coalition called Artists & Activists United for Peace held a march in Harlem under the slogan "Eyes are on Iraq, but we’re still under attack." The lively and spirited march wound through the neighborhood from the Harlem State Office Building at 125th Street, led by NYC Council Member and mayoral candidate Charles Barron and long-time activist Rev. Herbert Daughtry. Speakers included Chuck D of Public Enemy.
For more on the protester detainments, see: "Guantanamo on the Hudson," by Sarah Ferguson, Village Voice, Sept. 2
Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, Sept. 6, 2004 Reprinting permissible with attribution