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Photo by: Miriam Axel-Lute
From New York, With Outrage

Peaceful, Plentiful, Powerful
First-timers and veteran activists from the Capital Region join the huge turnout for Sunday’s historic march, and help send the RNC a pointed message: We have had enough

‘I’m going in the deep water,” says Nicola with a small laugh. “It’s not like a little small-town thing.”

It’s nearly 8 AM, and Nicola has been ensconced in her seat toward the front of the Yankee Trails bus for well over an hour. One of the many first-time protesters on the bus, she didn’t sleep so well last night. At 3 AM she got up and turned to her Bible for reassurance. It opened to a passage in which Paul is imprisoned “for speaking out against the leaders of the time,” and God tells him to be brave. Taking that message to heart, Nicola was able to get a few hours of shut-eye before making the trip from her Glenville home to Albany where she got on the bus for the ride to United for Peace and Justice’s massive anti-Bush and antiwar march on the eve of the Republican National Convention.

Nicola has a hard time picking out which issues are the most pressing, but she wants money redirected from tax breaks for the rich to education, and says we need new strategies to deal with terrorism beyond traditional warfare. Her motivations for going to Manhattan today include knowing she’s not alone in her views, wanting to be counted, and hoping she may “inspire someone who may have been teetering about who to vote for.”

Stylishly dressed and soft-spoken, she doesn’t look like a stereotypical protester, and neither do a majority of the people on bus 240. There are more polo shirts than T-shirts, lots of sensible shoes and baseball caps, and one man in the front of the bus wearing a shirt with a flag pattern superimposed on a deer head and the words “Hunting: An American Tradition.” The atmosphere is not exactly tense, but it is a little grim. Unlike at the massive direct actions of 1999 and 2000, the feeling is not one of pushing necessary change forward, but rather of holding back encroaching disaster. Few people are here because they expect it to be fun.

“I just feel sort of desperate,” says Sherry Marty, who drove into Albany this morning from western Massachusetts with her daughter. “I hope that enough people come, that someone else will pay attention who hasn’t been paying attention.”

“I consider myself to be a patriot and what I’m seeing now has nothing to do with democracy. It’s almost enough to make me physically ill,” says Mike, from Minerva, also traveling with his daughter.

“I very much felt an onus to come out to do something because I write letters to editors and sign petitions and at some point you have to get on your feet and do something,” explains Chicago transplant Brady G’sell.

“[Bush] hides behind the flag and he hides behind Christianity,” says Bill Brooks of Scotia. “I’m a Christian, and I resent the fact that he thinks he’s serving this country by divine right.” Brooks isn’t worried about police harassment, but he is concerned that the demonstration be peaceful so it won’t “hurt Kerry’s chances.”

Photo by: Miriam Axel-Lute

The issues that brought out the newbies and the veteran activists are pretty much the same—the war in Iraq, loss of civil liberties, constitutional rights and democratic integrity, environmental degradation, economic fairness. So are their hopes for the march, which are modest and realistic: They want honest and fair media coverage, to feel among like-minded people, and to demonstrate to fellow Americans and the rest of the world that there is active, and most importantly diverse, dissent against what is summarized as “the Bush agenda.”

The issue of being able to protest at all is also alive, with the fight over a rally permit [“Orange, Smorange,” FYI, Aug. 19] fresh in everyone’s minds. “It’s disappointing that the Republicans seem to be so welcomed, but folks that are thinking critically and trying to express their views are not welcomed in the same way,” says Louise McNeilly.

Students for Peaceful Alternatives, down from SUNY Potsdam, felt it a little more personally; they were stopped at 3 AM by the border patrol and asked if they had terrorists in their trunks.

“I feel that if George W. Bush is reelected this’ll be my last ever chance to exercise my constitutional rights,” says Jason Chapman, another first-time protester.

As important as the diversity of the march is, it is still the longtime activists who have made it possible for so many people to get there. The Monday before, the usual suspects—core antiwar/progressive activists who likely couldn’t tell you how many protests of this nature they’ve been to—are on their own in the Social Justice Center on Central Avenue. The group of eight, simultaneously weary and wired, struggle under the gaze of Martin Luther King Jr. posters and a rack of colorful political postcards to stick to an agenda as they tackle the daunting task of coordinating the transportation to the protest. They have five buses reserved, but after the mailed-in checks and reports from various stores selling the tickets are painstakingly tabulated (“No you can’t put it on the computer and alphabetize it,” says the Ashcroft-era-minded woman opening the mail. “I’m buying a ticket and I refuse to have my name on a computer.”), they have only enough people to fill two buses. They agree to cancel two of the five they had reserved, figuring last-minute types will fill the third.

The logistics are so overwhelming there is hardly time to be disappointed at the ticket sales so far. At one point two different people are on cell phones trying to reach people who have critical information while two other conversations are going on and the facilitator is trying heroically to get the discussion back on track. Radio stations need to be called, fliers of emergency phone numbers compiled, plans for getting from where the buses are parking in New Jersey in to the march figured out. Most people in the room have multiple responsibilities for the week, leading more than once to the silence familiar to any overtaxed group where everyone is hoping someone else will break down and volunteer for a given task.

At one point someone volunteers people who aren’t present to be bus captains, and there’s a momentary pause of relief before the room realizes that’s not OK, and someone insists on calling the people in question to see if they’re actually willing.

And yet, on Sunday morning at 6:30 AM, there are four buses waiting outside the Madison and Eagle streets parking garages and another on its way filled with members of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. Joe Seeman, who has been the phone contact for the buses, still looks frazzled as he tries to account for people who have paid for seats and determine how many, if any, are free, but overall those who were at the organizing meeting look like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

A swell of people had made their decisions at the last minute, nearly filling another two buses, and thanks to Albany’s status as a Southwest Airlines hub, others had flown in from Dallas, Chicago, and Florida to fill up the remaining seats. The hard work and scrambling was paying off, and the Capital Region was on its way to represent at the RNC.

Sunday afternoon, from the middle of a wall-to-wall packed and sweltering Seventh Avenue, it is easy to believe you are in the middle of the largest protest the city has seen in decades, but also completely impossible to get a real sense of the scale—400,000 according to organizers, 250,000 according to mainstream radio reports that day, and 100,000 according to a surprising number of newspapers. In the hours it takes to move a dozen blocks, not losing your companions in the press of bodies, staying hydrated, and avoiding being offered your 20th socialist newspaper compete with taking in the swirl of different people represented, bouncy drum rhythms, and creative signs.

Photo by: Miriam Axel-Lute

For most of the Capital Region folks, the day passes without incident, aside from sore feet. They inch their way up to Madison Square Garden, chant “Go Home” at the cordoned off convention area, boo the hotels draped with red-white-and-blue bunting and “Welcome RNC” banners, and shout “Change the channel” at the huge Fox News screen at the corner of 34th street. After the rubbernecking at the Garden, the march thins out considerably, and groups of people drop by the wayside to rest their feet and eat some lunch before heading down the u-shaped march route to Union Square.

It might be partially exhaustion and relief, but the group that trickles into bus 240 around 6 PM is a considerably more relaxed one than the one that had headed out to negotiate the PATH trains eight hours earlier. They speak more softly, but more happily, pleased with the diversity of what they saw, the absence of violence or police harassment, and the overall turnout. They have been counted, done what they can for now.

“I was impressed, given the size of the crowd, how pretty much respectful people were,” says Mike. “The energy was terrific.”

Kerry Brooks is even pleased with the counterprotesters. “Good for them,” she says. “They knew not everyone agreed with them and they would be in the vast minority.” She had a little more trouble, actually, with the communists. “You have the right to do that, that’s what our country’s all about,” she says, “but it’s kind of ironic that they were doing that while we’re all trying to exercise our democratic rights.”

For those like Greg from New Lebanon and Jim from Albany, who were expecting a historic event, there’s hope at least for now that this was indeed one for the textbooks.

And Nicola made it through her deep water. In fact, she says, seeing all the children there “made me wish I’d brought my son.”

Photo by: Rick Marshall

Down and Out at the RNC
In which a Metroland reporter strides confidently into the Republicans’ midst, and is forced to toast George W. Bush in order to make it out alive

I’m in a bar on 33rd Street with Beverly and Hannah, operations assistants for the Republican National Convention, and I just toasted the notion of electing George W. Bush for another four years.

We’ve spent the last hour discussing the choice of New York City as host for the Grand Old Party’s bash, and the two ladies from Arkansas have let their matching white cowboy hats slip way back on their heads while they drink vodka tonics. This is the closest I’ve come to the actual convention in 48 hours, and I’m getting desperate.

“I’ve always loved Manhattan,” Beverly tells me, “and now I can do two of my favorite things—do some great shopping and help George W. Bush get the four more years he deserves!”

“To four more years!” echoes Hannah, raising an arm of her red dress to repeat the toast. They look over at me expectantly, so I shrug and raise my glass again.

Make no mistake—the Republicans knew exactly what they were getting into by bringing their party to the Big Apple. In fact, in the last 48 hours it’s become increasingly apparent that not only did they know what they were getting into, but that I, in fact, didn’t have a clue.

Now, just a few blocks away, the Republicans’ master plan is taking a clearer form. The bullies are winning, and I’ve been seeing it all go down.

I arrived in Manhattan a day ago to report on the counterconvention scene—that is, the various protest activities going on around the city in response to the Republicans’ visit. Some were permitted, some negotiated, some planned as peaceful civil disobediance, some just cultural events. It seemed like an easy enough task, as demonstrations were scheduled throughout the four-day affair. By most accounts, the choice of New York City was anticipated to be a monumental mistake by Republican decision makers, an ill-timed and overconfident slip-up that would cost them the election.

But it quickly became apparent how far from the truth that assessment was. The city had quickly become a police state, and with a heightened terror alert and the presence of high-ranking officials—including Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived in town that day—nearly 32,000 officers were locking down the proceedings. No day off, overtime rule or vacation was going to stand in the way of the Republicans’ party.

“We’ve only had two years to prepare for this,” a friend of mine in the NYPD laughed, “and we still haven’t decided how to handle most of it. Today was supposed to be my day off—tomorrow, too—but instead we’re working 16-hour days, seven days a week. Hell, I think we’ve got more police than protesters.”

Set to coincide with Monday’s convention kickoff was the Still We Rise march, a joint effort by various social action groups around the state. Event organizers had mapped out a route that would take them within sight of Madison Square Garden, the convention headquarters, but a glaring inconsistency quickly revealed itself in the city’s policy toward the demonstrations.

While many of the city’s streets were closed whenever a delegate was traveling from place to place, there was no such kindness extended to the masses protesting the event. As was the case for the rest of the marches occurring during the convention (except for the one mass permitted march on Sunday, before most of the delegates arrived), police forced the Still We Rise masses to navigate a circuitous route that took them far away from the convention—and out of sight of their intended audience, the delegates.

Despite an oppressive heat, participants in the march were generally good-natured about the redirection, and the squads of security that lined their path—nearly one policeman for every marcher—were given little reason for concern. (Earlier that day, however, I was resting on a bench in Union Square when I overheard a nearby policemen’s walkie-talkie refer to the Still We Rise march as “anarchist activity,” and a warning went out to look for more of the same.)

More direct results of the heightened security were clear later on, as several events—including a massive rally sponsored by rap mogul Russell Simmons—were rumored to have been canceled due to insurance problems. Apparently, it costs a significant amount of money to hold a rally when the city’s on Orange Alert.

Monday, which had once appeared to be a busy day for protest-related events, soon dwindled to only two major actions: the Still We Rise march and a similar procession that started at the United Nations and worked its way toward the convention, only to be turned away when it approached Madison Square Garden.

In hindsight, I should have expected the chaos of A31, Tuesday’s collection of protests, as everyone seemed a bit too gracious during the previous day’s actions. For the second day in a row, the sun was relentless, and tempers were beginning to flare. Police were tense, as another group of protesters had been arrested Monday night for attempting to approach the convention center and hindering nearby traffic.

This police presence was certainly hard to ignore. The streets around Madison Square Garden and delegates’ hotels had already been shut off to the public, with wartime-style checkpoints erected at each end—complete with vehicle-stopping barriers and sharpshooters positioned on nearby rooftops. On the streets, helicopters would pass overhead every few minutes, and soldiers armed with automatic rifles supplemented the NYPD’s ranks. Officers lugged radiation detectors and bomb-squad equipment around the convention site as K-9 units stood guard on the fringes. New York City, it seemed, had been invaded.

But who were the invaders and who were the invaded? By most accounts, those who worked in the city were afforded the same consideration as protesters by much of the police force, herded from corner to corner and subject to aggressive questioning upon approaching the convention or delegates’ hotels.

In order to approach the convention site, a set of color-coded passes determined how much access was available to an individual, some allowing entrance only if the bearer was accompanied by a delegate. Throughout the day, crowds of Young Republicans in badly fitting suits could be found hovering near a checkpoint, hoping to earn a delegate’s blessing. Any delegates who wished to travel around the city received VIP treatment, with lanes of traffic halted for their passage and streets shut down when they traveled by foot. Manhattan was their playground, and for those of us deprived of the Republican-approved press credentials, opportunities to interact with attending Republicans, let alone the delegates, were few and far between.

And maybe that’s where the genius of it all lies. Maybe that’s where Beverly and Hannah have got the right idea—New York City just might be the best place in the world for the Republican Convention. In a state that consistently votes on the Democrat line, there was no reason to believe that any of the chaos accompanying the Republicans’ arrival would cost a single electoral vote. In a post-Sept. 11 world, full of NYPD hats and terrorist scares, who could question the men with the badges?

Photo by: Rick Marshall

The few delegates I encountered seemed well aware of their favored position, and had the sort of swagger that 32,000 trained bodyguards on someone else’s payroll tends to provide. And, as one of the president’s campaign advisors put it on the day before the event, the angry crowds were simply considered “Democrat sympathizers.”

Of course, that a significant portion of the protesters called for an alternative to Kerry and Bush went unnoticed and unreported by most media outlets with access to the event. For some, though, there were other reasons to be indifferent about the counterconvention activities.

“I’m just waiting for a celebrity to show up,” explained a reporter for People magazine who had taken up a post near me during a demonstration along Fashion Avenue. And strangely enough, despite the recent outpouring of anti-Republican sentiment from the nation’s household names, there wasn’t a celebrity to be seen in any of the crowds that gathered during the convention’s first two days—not even in Times Square. The absence of these “Rock the Vote” champions was almost eerie.

And without a voice in counterpoint, the Republicans pulled off in the first two days of the convention what no one deemed possible in the days leading up to the event. They marginalized the thousands of people in the street—turning them into a group that, according to Beverly, was “just a bunch of Kerry supporters.”

So, on the second night, I set out to cover a loosely organized march from the site of the World Trade Center to the arrival points for Republican delegates. From the start of the march, it was clear that the police had no intention of letting this event get underway: Hordes of protesters were corralled on each of the corners near Ground Zero and prevented from joining into one cohesive unit. Only those who had arrived early by subway were able to set out, and that they did—along a route that had them marching dozens of city blocks away from their intended path.

In Union Square, the groups were able to marshal their forces and set out for the convention center, but things turned sour as the march neared the intersection of 33rd Street and Broadway. It was evening by the time they reached 33rd Street, and the police forces had already massed in anticipation of their arrival—planning to ensure that the groups remained far from delegates’ sight. When they arrived, the massive assembly, numbering in the thousands, mixed with the normal sidewalk population and spilled out into the streets, edging into the lane specifically reserved for convention vehicles.

New York’s finest reacted with cold efficiency, quickly fracturing the massive, unified body of dissent into small, disorganized clusters. Those who weren’t forced onto blocks far away from the delegates’ travel route were rounded up and arrested.

“It’s the photographers’ faults,” policemen shouted as they closed down after block. “It’s all the people who are stopping to write things down that are making us do this.”

And there we were, the journalists who fell outside of the convention’s approved press corps, stuck among the masses and targeted by the powers that be. Pedestrians caught up in the protest’s surge quickly turned on anyone carrying a camera or a notebook. The legal observers brought in for the action had already been sectioned off from the rest of the crowd, leaving us there to report from the inside in the midst of a suddenly hostile crowd.

Nearby, a cop knocked a camera out of a dreadlocked girl’s hands, telling her to, “Go get a job.” It was carefully orchestrated chaos, and many of us were forced to flee, licking our wounds in the nearest doorway. This was the Republican Convention the way the Grand Old Party intended—angry protesters turning on each other, group arrests and a ratings boon for the convention-approved media conveniently posted behind police lines.

And that’s how I came to be in the bar with Beverly and Hannah, surrounded by Republicans and toasting the president.

“So what is it that you do again?” asks Hannah.

“I’m in the media,” I tell her, and the flinch is unmistakable. The question is a test, just like the initial toast, but it’s been a long day—my last one in the city—and I’m looking forward to getting back to a place where there’s a little more sanity. There are two days left of the Republican convention, and I have already had my camera swatted by police officers, been threatened with jail time for taking notes and been attacked by irate fashionistas.

“Not the regular media,” I lie—it’s a white lie, a lie of self-preservation in a hostile city. “I do publicity for the police department and soldiers and all that troop-supporting sort of thing. It’s all very patriotic.”

“The police need publicity people?” Hannah asks incredulously.

“In this city,” I tell her, “everybody needs publicity.”

“Well, let’s hope the good publicity goes to the right people,” she winks at me and raises her glass again. “To George W. Bush?”

“Let’s hope so,” I shrug, and raise my glass. “To George W. Bush!”

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