Like my previous post about a D.C. protest I went to years ago, this is a post that just transfers something written on paper to the digital format for broader distribution. It is about my solo trip to NYC in 2004 to protest at the GOP National Convention.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
(If I Can Make It There…)
By Cairril (a patriot)
This Very Long Tome is an attempt to describe my trip to New York to protest the Republican National Convention. In a larger sense, it’s part of a quest to understand what changes are happening to our country in the aftermath of September 11th, as well as a personal journey of self-discovery. I’ve taken most of this from my journals, so it’s a very personal statement, replete with my political commentary and spiritual beliefs and practices. I have no intention of offending anyone I’m sharing this with; please feel free to consider this as an invitation to conversation if you wish. I’ve divided this into chapters so you can skip to the bits that interest you the most.
WHY I WENT
The process of going started with the process of deciding to go. Over the past several months I’ve been reading a lot about totalitarian states (particularly Nazi Germany), viewing countless documentaries about 9/11 and the Iraq war, and continually questioning myself if my actions to resist what I see as a dangerously anti-democratic administration were appropriate in relation to my depth of feeling.
Here are the main issues I see worth protesting:
- The war against Iraq. It is illegal, immoral, and unjust. It is the first salvo in a new American policy of “pre-emptive” war against any nation that could be perceived as a threat. It has given Islamic fundamentalists the perfect recruiting tool and reinforced all the negative stereotypes the world holds of us.
- The use of torture, the suspension of Habeus Corpus, and the invention of “enemy combatants” to avoid Geneva Convention limitations.
- The orientation of the economy around war, deteriorating our infrastructure and diverting vital resources away from meeting basic human needs.
- The “F— you” attitude of this administration to the rest of the world (examples too numerous to mention), destroying 50 years of consensus-building, ensuring that even our allies don’t like us.
- The institution of a shadow government (executive branch only) in the wake of 9/11.
- The assault on civil liberties, most egregiously in the “PATRIOT” Act and John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness project.
In addition, the Bush administration’s record on the environment, women’s rights, and the advancement of a fundamentalist Christian agenda are abhorrent. On the other hand, those are issues I expect with just about any Republican presidency.
I believe this administration is the greatest threat to democracy since Nixon asked the military if they would support him in a coup. When talking about Nazi Germany, everyone always asks, “How could it happen?” Like anything, the answer is, “Step by step.” In debating with a friend whether I should go to NYC, he said, “If they institute a police state, that’s it, I’m out in the streets.” Without even thinking I replied, “At that point it’s too late.” To maintain democracy, it has to be defended now so that the drift towards totalitarianism, no matter how small, is stopped in its tracks.
I have this ever-expanding knowledge base in a static sphere of inaction. Voting is not enough. Writing Congress is not enough. These feeble forms of expression left to me are not satisfactory uses of my power. I think of the civil rights movement and how people sacrificed for freedom. I think of the Nazis and wonder what I would have done in that regime. I think of my ancestors, putting their lives and their children’s lives on the line in the hope of freedom, and I keep asking myself if I am too complacent, if it’s just too easy for me to set back in my safe enclave and criticize but risk nothing.
THE REAL CHURCHILL, 1943: “You might consider whether you should not unfold as background the great privilege of Habeus Corpus and trial by jury, which are the supreme protection invented by the English people for ordinary individuals against the state. The power of the Executive to send a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian governments whether Nazi or communist… Extraordinary power assumed by the Executive should be yielded up when the emergency declines. Nothing is more abhorrent than to imprison a person or keep him in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilization.”
But I also felt reluctant to go because I didn’t really trust my motives. I seemed too excited about it. 🙂 It was widely reported that violence was likely, that the FBI had infiltrated key groups, that the NYPD had been taking lessons from the Miami police (who brutally put down a protest a couple years ago), and that the Left was also itching for a fight. Andrew nailed it when he said I would be drawn to the intensity of conflict “like a moth to a flame.” He was right, and that gave me pause.
Margot’s e-mail a day later clarified everything for me, though. She described the conversations happening among activists, how many people committed to civil disobedience thought this was not the proper venue for it (and it would probably only help Bush get elected), how some of the native New Yorkers were a little leery of the enthusiasm of out-of-town “professional” protesters. Reading her message, I suddenly got clear. “I am Called to go in a spirit of love. If there is no Martin Luther King at the head of us, I must carry a Martin Luther King in my heart. I am Called to go in love. I am Called to bear witness. Other than that, I do not know. I am to use my magic and my body and my voice and my power for good, rooted in love. Everything else is immaterial. I cannot control the outcome.”
My intention was to go and put my mindbodyspirit on the line to the extent that it felt right; to be physically in the space across from Bush and Cheney, confronting evil in the way that is open to me; and to say no, we are better than this. A better world is possible. Even in the midst of all the horror of 9/11 and the terrorism filter which is now an everyday accoutrement, we still make choices. And the choices we’re making could be different ones. Ones which allow us to retain our humanity and maintain our foothold at this stage of civilization’s evolution instead of slipping back. I wanted to stand in the belly of the beast and raise my voice for hope.
MEETING THE COPS AT THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
Flying in, the first thing I saw was Lady Liberty. A beautiful sight.
I don’t know how anyone can fly into NYC without thinking about 9/11.
I arrived in the city and got settled a little too late to go to the “funeral procession” that was scheduled to go from Ground Zero to Madison Square Garden. I found out later that, had I gone, I probably would’ve been arrested. Thousands of people were at the rally at Ground Zero; when they tried to cross the street to start the procession, about 200 were arrested immediately. Various attempts to make legal marches to the Garden resulted in only about fifty people finally getting through.
I had thought quite a bit about participating in civil disobedience. I’d decided to go to a CD training event held at the NY library Tuesday evening so I at least would be familiar with my rights and with various techniques. (I’ve taken part in some CD before, but always impromptu and always in ignorance of what could happen to me.)
I grounded, called on my four main goddesses to guard and guide me, and set off for the library. With each stop closer to downtown, the police presence became more pronounced. I had a small banner saying “A Better World Is Possible” on my backpack, the red armband I’ve worn to every protest since 1987 tied to a strap, and my spirit bag from the Pagan Summit hanging from my wrist.
The library has a set of stairs going up three sides towards the entrance. The stairs take you to a “plaza” level where the north and south ends have little café tables and trees. Leading up from the plaza is another set of stairs that lead into the entrance.
Coming from the subway, I headed for the main entrance on the east side of the building. I noticed there seemed to be an awful lot of cops around. As I walked up the north stairs, I saw a large crowd of people on the plaza in front of the entrance. In the middle of them was a crowd of police, whose riot helmets I could see. Something was going on but I had no idea what.
As I approach, something suddenly snaps. People in the café areas suddenly pack up and scramble to get away. The decibel level increases dramatically. I see cops pushing outward in all directions, people confused and angry and moving out and down the steps. I don’t understand what is happening, and I don’t think it’s legal—“Isn’t the library public space? There was no violence or screaming or anything. How can the cops lockdown the area?”
I’m not really thinking this. These are just vague colors of thoughts. By this point I’ve switched over into Spirit and am simply reacting in the moment. The cops are in a line, riot visors down, billy clubs drawn, pushing outward. There’s open space in the center where a moment before it was densely packed with hundreds of people. It’s all happening so fast.
[Note: For some of you, some of this may not make sense, because it deals primarily with a magical working. Don’t be scared. 🙂 You can feel free to ask me questions.]
I stand my ground while people scramble backwards all around me, being pushed back by the cops. As the police draw near, the main cop for this line calls out something like “Cuff ‘em.” In a flash, I think, “That’s it? I just got here! And already I’m arrested!” I ameliorate, placate, not with words, but with hands and intent. Put it out there with Spirit that arresting us is not necessary. (“These are not the droids you’re looking for…”) He looks back to me as if he never said it; the cops continue as if nothing happened.
I stand my ground. I’m face to face with him—literally. I feel his riot mask on my face and see his mouth shouting rhythmically, “Move! Move!” as his eyes dart behind me, a professional sizing up the situation every millisecond. White guy, maybe Italian ancestry, 50-something, very New Yorker. Not menacing. Professional. Serious about crowd control.
Somehow the words come out, “Are you ordering me?” Very calm, very clear. Hands up in a placating gesture, body totally relaxed. “Move!” “Are you ordering me?” His eyes come back to me and he says, “Yes, I’m ordering you, move!” I move. It is important for me to stay between the police and the retreating crowd. I shield them with my intention: “We are not a threat to you.”
People are walking backwards, confusion everywhere, trying not to trip over the tables and chairs or run into the trees. Cops calling, “Hold the line!” Periodic halts. Chants start up, about being peaceful, about democracy. Somehow the cops know when to start again and as one they push. My hands stay up as they have since the beginning, the placating “Look, I have nothing to hide” gesture which also happens to be the ancient Egyptian pose of praise to the Gods.
Pushed back, things are getting tight. I resist the pull from behind, resist the advance from the front, but never provoke. Concerned someone will get hurt—we hit the steps and the crowd compresses. Some cry out to the cops to slow down, people will fall down the steps, the cops bellow, “Turn around and move!” I don’t turn around. I take a pace back, stop, back, stop. Hands up, body relaxed, making eye contact with every cop on the line (about 15 of them at that point), constantly Sending, “We are not a threat to you. We are not a threat.”
We finally halt. The group is at the bottom of the north steps. The cops are at the top of the steps. I remain Between the Worlds, standing a few steps down from the top. Arms up, elbows bent, palms showing.
The long stand begins. Active magical working, filtering the energy. The protesters are too loud, too provocative, too angry—I don’t like it. Turn the energy down. Direct it into the Earth before it reaches the cops. Any hostility or threat from the cops—transmute, transmute. Peace, peace in my heart. No thinking, no planning, just certainty that my place is here. Continue making eye contact with each cop, one at a time, “We are not a threat.” Someone unfurls an American flag behind me on the step below. Men hold the ends on either side. Someone waves an Earth flag above my head.
By this point photographers are all over me. I focus the energy but some small part of me recognizes the photo opp. Over time, very slowly, no sudden movements, I pull my American flag out of my pack and stick it in my jeans pocket. I turn the pack so “A Better World Is Possible” is showing. I pull out the banner “I am a Patriot” and slap it across my chest, high, knowing the cameras will eat it up. Let this be the image of dissent: not angry protesters smashing windows or violent clashes between protesters and police. Click click click. Photographers everywhere, another layer of protection, physically and politically—can’t make me a martyr, not with so many witnesses.
Photographer in front of me on step above. I look directly into the lens, still Calling on everything I can to manage the energy. He gets his shots, then winks and smiles as he pulls away. I ask for the time and the flag holder on my right and a reporter give it to me with huge smiles—they support me. Flag holder on left pulls a leaf out of my hair. Another person moves the Earth flag so it stops whacking me in the head. I feel their support.
It’s going on too long. Protesters were blindsided by the cop action and the “leader” (the only guy with a megaphone) has been getting more absurd with the chants. Things are getting more strident, more personal. The cops don’t have contracts yet with the City. Leader starts shouting, “Who will be the first one of you to come and join us? Why stand against us when you can’t even get a contract? We support workers’ rights!” It’s almost mocking.
I completely disagree with these tactics, roll my eyes, re-center, ground. Call on the trees for their power. A pigeon flies overhead, reminding me of a Scottish song, “She comes to me/Like a high-flying seagull,” a reminder of Gaia, and I smile a huge smile. I’m holding on for dear life to Angie’s hands, Calling on the power of my sisters and brothers in our little “Angie’s Not Dead” band, activating every web I can think of for more energy. The intensity of the situation has been gradually building this whole time and it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to manage all the threads. My arms are going tingly-numb. I dig down deeper, call on the ancestors, call on William Bradford, then no, Susannah Fuller White Winslow, I don’t care how long you’ve been in your grave, you’re the strongest ancestor I know, get your butt up here and help me! 🙂
On and on. Tension mounting behind me. No direction. Guy with megaphone is totally shooting from the hip at this point, running out of things to say and consequently blathering idiotic things. The main cop (who’d left earlier) is back, going down the line of police, giving an order to each one individually. I try to read lips, can’t. Doesn’t matter—my place is here, now.
Suddenly something shifts, the cops call out for us to disperse and start to move toward us. At the same moment a guy behind me calls out, “Hey, there’s an action going on down at 7th Avenue!” Within seconds (it feels like) the group behind me is gone. Confrontation over.
One photographer says, “Good job,” as she passes me. The flag-holder on my right comes into view and shakes my hand with a big smile—proud. I start the “come-down” process, giving thanks thanks thanks, I’m trembling all over and only now starting to feel the effects of the currents I was riding.
A reporter comes up—Mom, Dad, you’d be proud, she asked, “Are you with Catholic Worker?” Even after all these years, I guess that upbringing somehow shows through! She was with Democracy Now, handed me a microphone and asked me questions which I answered to the best of my ability. She knew there was “some kind of ‘prayer’” going on, but I didn’t want to lose the effectiveness of the potential platform by scaring people off with words like “magic.” I gave my name, said where I was from, and realized I had just possibly jeopardized my business. Irrelevant. Difficult to speak—still Between the Worlds. I explained trying to carry MLK in my heart. Explained there’s no need for violence, if we are open and clear about our intentions, “we can work this out.” I flash to Rodney King in my mind—as much as people make fun of his question, I think it’s the pivotal question of the 21st century: “Can we all get along?” Not “Let’s all love each other,” but can we simply, at the base level, just get along?
We finish the interview. I turn and say “Thank you” to the cops. I’m trembling all over, eyes tearing up, I can’t ground. I go to the bottom of the steps and start ringing person after person on my cell phone, trying to find a Pagan who can just walk me through a grounding exercise. Voicemail everywhere! I turn to walk away and see my way is now blocked by another line of cops. I take a picture of them, then slowly, in trust, “I am not a threat to you,” pass through them and around the side to set down trembling on the sidewalk. Finally get hold of Kate, who, as a Buddhist, is just as qualified to do a grounding! Which she does beautifully. She reminds me of the circle of love my friends hold me in. Good stuff. My feet stop their “pins and needles” tingling. I’m breathing better and my head is where it should be rather than floating 40 feet above my body. I eat half a granola bar, drink some water, and I’m good to go.
I have never seen so many cops in my life. They are in groups everywhere I look. Vehicles everywhere, uniforms everywhere, cops on horses, choppers overhead. I turn the corner to head back to the 42nd Street subway and, lo and behold, the energy is jacked up, cars are backed up on the streets, cops are swarming, photographers are out in hordes. Some protesters (I learned later this was the group that was pushed off the south steps) were still in the street, where they’d sat down to block traffic in protest. Cops were arresting them all. (I later learned that “my” group of protesters was the only one to escape arrest.)
I employ a tactic I will use many times over the next few days, playing a little dumb to talk with the officers and try to find out what’s going on. I ask for subway directions but hang around to see if I can learn anything. I cast around with my ninja-sense, but I’m not needed here. There are enough people, enough cameras, the protesters are going peacefully, there’s no threat of violence from the cops. I get on the subway and head for Madison Square Garden, where there’s supposed to be some sort of rally going on.
IN THE PENS AT MSG
Thus begins the walking. I was one block east of the Garden and just kept walking south, trying to find a street that I could walk over on. Every. Single. Street. Blocked off—barricades across, 30 cops standing guard. At almost every intersection I talked to at least one cop, asking how to get to the Designated Protest Area (protest pens). Nobody knew. Or so they said. After I was about dead with walking, I found 29th Street was open. The air was buzzing with adrenaline.
On my walk I saw a lot of tired cops. At one street some cop cars and vans were going through and the cops were setting on each other’s laps in the back seat, all looking exhausted. The entire day had been declared a day of civil disobedience, and actions had started at 7 am, so they were zonked by this point. Most of the ones I interacted with were professional and totally non-threatening (except for the knowledge that if I were perceived as a threat I’d be slammed to the ground in a heartbeat!). Many called “Good luck” or “Be safe tonight” after me. As I walked past one older cop with my “I am a Patriot” banner on, he said, “Well, I’m glad to hear it!”
Finally got to the pens, cops everywhere. By now I was asking every cop I ran into, “If I do x, will I get arrested?” Most of them made jokes in reply, but I wanted at least a tissue of false hope to cloak myself in.
The pens themselves were actually the streets south of the Garden. MSG faces 7th Avenue and takes the blocks between 31st and 33rd; the protest pens started at 8th Avenue and 30th. That means we were a block to the south and a block to the west of the back of the Garden, nowhere near where any delegate would see us. I could barely see the Garden from where I stood. The result? DISSENT IS INVISIBLE. (It’s because of this that activists tracked convention delegates down at Broadway shows and corporate gnoshes—because there’s no viable channel to communicate their message. By cracking down and limiting access, the cops actually create more problems. The dissent is still there, the will to act is still there, so the more you press down, the more these little groups will pop up everywhere, doing individual actions.)
The streets were lined with metal barricades for several blocks south. There was a clear passageway at each intersection, so each pen was contained. Cops were stationed all along the sidewalks and in the clear passageways, on the top of every building in sight (in clusters no smaller than 3), inside many of the surrounding buildings, and on top of police vehicles. The northwest corner of the pen was reserved for the press. There were at least 3 choppers above us at all times, plus the Fuji blimp. Cops on the buildings have binoculars, video cameras, and still cameras. It is illegal for cops to photograph people, but I saw it at every action. I know the cops on the buildings would trade their cameras for rifles in a flash if they perceived any threat.
The whole thing looks like a trap. There you are in the midde of the street, completely exposed, surrounded by barricades on every side, with cops behind every barricade. If tear gas starts, there’s nowhere to run. It’s completely contained, all to the cops’ advantage. I enter anyway. What the heck.
Inside the pen was a huge peace sign chalked on the street, along with other chalked messages. There were about 75 people there. I was surprised there were so few; it wasn’t until later that I learned over 1,000 people had been arrested that day and police were actively preventing people from coming to the Garden. In the midst of the protesters (many of whom were sitting listlessly) was a crazy-looking man ranting. “These are the cops who were at the 1968 Chicago Convention!!” I was like, “Ummm, no. They’re not.” I hang back and watch the mood of the others. One young woman jumps up and says something that seems to contradict Crazy Man, but I can’t hear her. After some more of Mr I Have Never Left the Sixties, another man steps forward and says, “I’d just like to dissent from some of these statements. From what I’ve seen, the police have done an excellent job of showing restraint.” Big cheer from the crowd.
- KNOW YOUR RIGHTS• It is legal for police to lie to you in order to get information out of you
• You can refuse your consent to a search unless a police officer expressly orders the search
• It’s common to be held in jail for 24-36 hours with no charges being brought, though judges frown on this
• The police can imply you are not free to go, creating a situation where they hope you will say something that gives them enough evidence to bust you. For something. If any officer asks you to do anything, ask, “Are you ordering me to do x?” If the answer is yes, you must do it or be arrested. If the answer is evasive or “no,” leave the area calmly and quickly.
• In NYC, it is unlawful for three or more people to wear masks (including bandannas) in a public place
• You have the right to hold a demonstration or rally or march on a public sidewalk so long as you do not use amplified sound. You cannot block building entrances or more than half the sidewalk.
• Commit these to memory: “I’m going to remain silent. I want to see a lawyer.” Also, “Am I free to go?” Also, “I do not give my consent to this search.”
• Allegedly you can carry a CD cutter on your belt and use it to cut through the plastic handcuffs. Keep that in mind, kids!
• It’s legal to photograph police so long as you don’t interfere with their “work.”
A reporter enters the pen with a cameraman and starts interviewing Crazy Man. Excellent. This is what will show up on the nightly news. I tune out, noting the Completely Excessive security arrangements. Suddenly something happens. I learn later that the reporter is from Fox News (everybody here hates Fox News; if the US went fascist, Fox News would be key to the Propaganda Ministry) and the cameraman was almost violently shoving his camera in two women’s faces even as they told him repeatedly they did not want to be photographed. Well, the crowd turned into a mob. No violence, but they swarmed the reporter and cameraman and broke into the ever-eloquent “Fox News sucks!” chant. Over about 10 minutes they slowly drove the Fox team from the pen (the camera running the whole time, no doubt shooting acres of “foaming at the mouth protesters” footage).
During all this I plop down next to the young woman who’d spoken up before and a small group of us discuss how pointless and stupid Crazy Man and the Mob are. After they’ve driven the reporter off, the mob disperses. Our little group (about 8 or 9 of us) decides to head down to Union Square. Actually, they decide and I tag along, having no clue how much walking it will take to get there! A cop tells us how to walk legally (stay on the sidewalk, don’t block intersections, keep our signs down, no chanting) and we head off. As we leave the pen a street cleaner goes in—they were cleaning off the chalk on the street. We’d been disappeared.
We walked (I trudged, trying not to whimper too loudly) for about 17 blocks. At every intersection save one there were at least 20 cops. Always cops. (There were 10,000 cops directly surrounding MSG alone.) At one intersection we stopped in order to let a couple stragglers catch up and several cops descended on us, ready to make a bust. When it became obvious we were about to start walking again, they reluctantly let us go.
All these people knew each other. I was definitely odd person out. One brown-haired young woman (late teens, early twenties) went out of her way to try to chat with me. I told her about the “Peaceful Protester Discount Card” (the tourist bureau gives you a pin and you get discounts at area shops: ”Come to protest—stay for a show!”) but she was not amused.
BUSTED AT UNION SQUARE
Finally got to Union Square. Holy crap. Cops, cops, cops, EVERYWHERE. Easily 200 cops just that I could see directly in front of me. There was a march happening on the square. Our “leader” (an articulate blonde in his late 20s) went up and called, “Hey! We’ve just come from Madison Square Garden to get you!” (At which I went “Hunh?!?” and then “Oh, no” in anticipation of walking 17 blocks back.) Someone said, “All the roads are blocked!” He calls back, “We know the way!” So these two punks (the first time since the 80s I’ve seen a foot-tall mohawk) who were marshalling yelled, “About-face!” and everyone turned around. That put us at the head of the column. Yikes! I thought, Wait a minute, there’s no plan here, what are we doing, but after a moment’s hesitation our guy headed off. Immediately (I found this very impressive) the 2 punks and the brown-haired woman sprang into action, calling out, “Two by two, people, let’s keep it legal! Signs down! No chanting!”
We started across the street and the sidewalk on Broadway, where many people dining al fresco cheered us on (this would never happen in Bloomington!). We tried to head down the street we’d come from a few minutes before, but the police had moved the barricades into place. Our leader headed over to talk to them, and since we’re all doing Follow the Leader, the whole column (I’d say 200 people or more) wheels and heads for the cops. As humans are wont to do, the ones at the head of the line (I dropped back about 20 feet at this point) all crowded around to “help” with negotiations. Tactically bad. This is what happens when you don’t plan. Who listens to the lowly Hoosier Capricorn.
- YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK• The FBI planted about 65 undercover agents in various activist groups before the convention
• Ashcroft defended the FBI’s “interviewing” over two dozen people in 6 states before the protest, asking what they knew, did they expect violence, etc. Three senators accused the FBI of “systematic political harassment and intimidation of legitimate antiwar protesters.”Ashcroft said, “The interviews we conducted were designed to support freedom, to enrich it, to make sure it was not interrupted or otherwise disrupted by violent criminal terrorist activities.” Right.
• The FBI announced it was monitoring people visiting “anarchist” Web sites (a day after I’d visited an anarchist site to view the calendar of events. Oops.).
• A couple weeks before the convention, NYPD puts 56 “anarchists” under 24-hour surveillance, sending 6 officers and one supervisor per “anarchist.” According to some estimates, this is more agents tracking protesters than the military has hunting Osama bin Laden.
• The total police presence for the convention was 37,000, called “perhaps the world’s 10th largest standing army.” Over 10,000 cops were deployed around Madison Square Garden alone.
• Half a million people marched against the war on Sunday the 29th. This is a huge crowd; normally protest marches attract about 100,000 – 200,000. It was the largest protest at any political convention in history. The largest protest of any kind in U.S. history was when 750,000 people took to Central Park in 1984 to protest the nuclear arms race.
We got the go-ahead from the cops and they let us through the barricades to walk west down 17th Street. I was so impressed with the group I’d come with—they’d suddenly switched from fresh-faced, naive kids to experienced, capable leaders. I was never that together at 20!
A little past halfway down the block I got a twinge. A warning. I could see some cops and barricades ahead but nothing different from what we’d seen before. My head, curious, wanted to rush ahead. But I’d promised myself to pay attention to my body’s messages. And instinct was saying to wait. I stopped outside a little café and asked the proprietor (standing in his doorway, perhaps hoping against hope some hungry activists would fill his barren shop) if I could set down and rest on one of the patio chairs. No problem. Rested my aching body and observed. Cops had pulled barricades across the street. The column was bunched up in the middle of the street in negotiations. A cheer went up—obviously we’d been given permission to pass.
People were coming down the street on foot, on bikes, streaming in from Union Square behind us. I waited and watched, paying attention to the growing warning sign within. “Walk away.” My head fights it: “I want to see!” but then I laugh and get up to go. That’s when I see the cops pull out the orange netting and pull it across the barricade.
I turn deliberately and walk east back up the street, not too fast, not too slow. I’m back to “I am no threat to you.” People flying past me to the west to see what’s going on, so they’re obviously letting people through at the east end. I limp up to the east barricades and pause to “catch my breath” against a building on the corner, slipping past the barricades while the cops’ eyes are trained down the street. I’m trying to eavesdrop. I pull out my subway map and pretend to study it. Suddenly, “zing!” you can feel the energy snap up again and a cop is violently dragging a barricade over next to me to block the street more effectively (running it into the gut of another cop in his zeal. Oops.). I see the gesture I’ve learned to fear: They pull their riot visors down. More cops pouring into the streets around me in groups of 25-30 (I start counting, pretending to study my map), putting their helmets on.
I need a better excuse for hanging about, plus I need to use the restroom. Two barricades away I can see the equivalent of a chippie, some sort of chicken restaurant. I nonchalantly put my pack on and wander through the barricades (I am not a threat to you). No one stops me.
I get some food and wash off the accumulated grime and head back out. Ask a cop about the subways, he has no idea, he’s from Queens. (Earlier someone said they’d pulled in cops from all over the state and people were afraid there would be a crime spree elsewhere, since so many cops were in NYC.) I wander around, trying to overhear anything, can’t. Count cops in riot gear. Finally get back into Union Square itself where I chat with a guy from New Orleans and a New York yoga teacher. They told me the cops were mopping up a huge arrest on the east side of the square (we’d been on the west side the whole time). It was also then that I learned what was going on with my compatriots on 17th—the cops had barricaded both ends of the street, made an opening in the center of the barricades, and let them through one by one, arresting every single person.
I was torn by the news. Felt that I’d abandoned my companions in some way. On the other hand, I was now extremely clear I didn’t want to get arrested. (All detainees were taken to Pier 57, a huge old warehouse, so as “not to overwhelm the prison system.” The fact that it’s a warehouse, with no facilities for the almost-2,000 eventually detained there, seemed to make no difference.) It was at this point that it started to dawn on me—the cops were sweeping up as many as they could, arresting them to clear the streets. There was no need for tear gas, and in fact, that would only make the cops look bad. Better to just disappear these people. Throw ‘em in the slammer for 36 or 48 hours until the convention is over. Who cares if it’s illegal? Let the lawyers sort it out. (And indeed, by Sunday a judge had ordered everyone released and there were threats of $1,000 for every illegal detention. Small price to pay to keep dissent invisible and the police smelling like a rose.)
After chatting a little longer and wrestling with my feelings, I headed home to my hotel on the Upper West Side. Totally fried, too much to process from the day. Caught some of the news. The cops had gone to every single place where a march was supposed to start (Ground Zero, Herald Square, the library, Union Square, etc) and arrested everyone they could get their hands on. It’s a brilliant strategy. “One Thousand Protesters Arrested” looks a lot better in the headlines than “Two Killed, Hundreds Injured in Clashes with Police.” Very smart—far smarter than anything the protesters came up with. Also very effective at trampling First Amendment rights.
I kept asking myself, “Why didn’t they just let us pass?” Let all the groups pass, provided they did so legally. Then you’d have us all in one place, in one big pen, surrounded by a military presence. You’d engender no anger from the protesters and keep them controlled, while they (all the while) would believe they were in control. Why not let us through? Because that, of course, would mean allowing dissent to be visible. Clearly, that is not allowed. Constitution be damned. Sweep ‘em up and let the lawyers sort it out.
And that, dear friends, was Day One in the Big Apple.
THE UNEMPLOYMENT LINE
Wednesday dawned bright and clear—actually, it was dismal and groggy, since I had to get up about 5:15 am our time to make it to The Unemployment Line! This was a demo organized by People for the American Way and a few other groups that lined up people starting at Wall Street with big pink posters in their hands saying, “The next pink slip could be yours!” Obviously, the intention was to draw attention to the problem of unemployment and the economy in Bush’s America.
I’d been contacted beforehand by PFAW and asked if I would be willing to be interviewed by NBC, who was doing a piece on people who came from out of town to join in. But where was my TV crew? My reporter? My swarming fans? Nowhere to be seen. How is one supposed to be a diva with this kind of treatment?!? This travesty was exacerbated by the fact that the guy standing next to me got interviewed and was murmuring inarticulate, moronic things, whereas I’d actually memorized talking points! “Me me me!!!” I made myself shut up. 🙂
Anyway, they’d expected 5,000 people and ended up with 8,000. It was organized so everyone was single file and stayed off the corners of sidewalks, so no permit was needed and the police couldn’t arrest anyone. As it was, far fewer cops were out, and those who were out kept a much lower profile, such as drive-by’s and unmarked cars rather than gangs of riot police.
I wore my “Capitalist for Peace” banner across my chest and “Peaceably Assembling” and the usual “A Better World is Possible” on my backpack. I like the first one because it’s such a brain-twister. Not something you normally see. A woman walked up to read my poster and I invited her to join us—she did! She is a career counselor at NYU, really nice, and we had a great conversation for the half hour or so that we stood there.
To fortify myself for the perilous trip back to the hotel I ate a doughnut in Union Square. I love New York. It’s so real. Beautiful architecture everywhere you go, whether Victorian, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, or Art Deco. Rational street plans. Matter-of-fact people who aren’t afraid if you just turn to them and start chatting. Great locally-owned businesses crammed in cheek-by-jowl. And the accents! Accents from every country in the world, skin colors of all hues—it’s the world in miniature. And so many things to see and do.
At one stop on the train back uptown, four uniformed Secret Service agents board and stand right in front of where I’m sitting. Three male, one female, all in late 20s or early 30s. I look carefully at their uniforms, patches, badges, and their kit—especially their guns. Right there, four guns, so close I could shift to one side and I’d be touching them. What’s it like to carry a gun, to do that job? day in, day out. What do they know that they cannot tell? The male Aryan of the group even had the little wire coiled, coming off his right ear and snaking down his shirt, just like in the movies. I noticed the cut of the shirts, the way the fabric lay—each person was wearing a bullet-proof vest underneath. What is that like, to put that on in the course of a day’s work? I broke their magic circle to get off the train. Shouldered my pack and paused in the doorway so they can see my banners, Send “This is the person your government warned you about,” then left. No threat to anyone.
Went back to the hotel and wrote and slept, then back down to the library in search of a free wi-fi connection. The library is gorgeous. In sharp contrast to the night before, there were no cops, just two security guards to check all bags. I wandered around. Nobody seemed to know what wi-fi was, and I didn’t really see many books, but wow, ya gotta love the marble. Finally found their computer area (security checkpoints everywhere), but they don’t have wireless. Whatthefuh. Bloomington has wireless broadband, but NYC doesn’t? Anyway. Ended up in Bryant Park for a free connection and caught up on e-mail and voicemail in the gorgeous afternoon.
News coverage of the protests was very strange, very disconnected from my experience. The major networks totally focused on high-conflict, high-color stories, reducing complex issues and people to this weird, two-dimensional world. NPR’s coverage (yay, Margot!! It was awesome to hear your voice coming out of my tinny little laptop speaker!!) was unbiased and good. BBC was good. But AP, MSNBC, etc all missed the point. And the real story—are police tactics destroying freedom of speech and freedom of assembly? That’s not sexy enough to sell papers, I guess. One guy arrested at Ground Zero went into the paddy wagon crying out, “What have I done? What have I done?”
On the other hand, I went up to a cop in a subway station (the subway could really take some lessons in signage from London’s tube system!!) and poured out my tale of woe (I kept getting on trains going the wrong direction) and he said, “Welcome to New York!” We laughed and he continued, “That’s what you get when you’ve got millions of people and thousands of protesters and police on every corner and a president who’s a dick.” I tried not to let my jaw drop in astonishment as I laughed. We agreed I didn’t hear him say that. He was really sweet (Bill) and walked me up to a place where he could actually point out the next station. And it dawned on me that if 80% of New Yorkers are Democrats, some of the cops must be, too.
EYES WIDE OPEN
Next on the agenda was the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit back at Union Square. Sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group I’ve admired since high school. The “exhibit” is boots and shoes put out for every person killed in Iraq; combat boots for soldiers (including a tag with name, rank, age, and state) and “civilian” shoes for everyone else. I tried to imagine living, breathing human beings in all those shoes. Very intense. They were reading the names of the dead over a PA system. Most of the Iraqis were stated as “The husband, two sisters, three children, and one uncle of so-and-so.” The US doesn’t count Iraqi casualties, nor does the government allow photos of American caskets coming home to be published, purposely keeping the war’s human cost invisible. This exhibit made it very visible.
I looked at the boots for all the Indiana soldiers and felt very sad. They’d probably hate me, think I’m sumkinda pinko-commie. But I just felt sorry and helpless, and said only, “I’m sorry we weren’t able to find a better way.” I hate war.
There was a big stone that 9/11 families had brought from Boston to New York, engraved “In honor of all the civilians killed in wars.” There was a wreath of paper cranes on it. I find it too overwhelming to contemplate the civilian toll of war. Dresden alone is mind-numbing.
Went back to the hotel for a nap, then got my gear together and headed over to Central Park for a NOW rally. Was a little scared (I never think “Central Park” without thinking “Central Park Jogger”) but trusted my body and spirit to tell me if there were any danger.
The rally was in the East Meadow, which is as far away from MSG as you can get and still be in Central Park. Hm. No coincidence there, I’m sure. The cops would only allow people to enter on the west side of the park at 90th Street, when the rally was on the east side at 99th. Could this be intended to discourage people from going? Surely not!
The NOW volunteer at the entrance had me thoroughly confused when a native New Yorker came up and offered to escort me—he was going to the rally, too. He was totally fine, hardly interested in anything I had to say, and he knew the park way better than I did. I was almost killed several times by these flashes of mass that would shout “Bike!” after they careened past.
A MOTHER SPEAKS
“If Mr. Bush were in front of me, here’s what I would say: You are an arrogant, egotistical, Bible-toting liar, and if your war is an appropriate thing for us to be doing, put your daughters into the war…”
– Sue Niederer, New Yorker, whose son was killed in Iraq in February
We finally found the rally—all you have to do is look for the cops. Trying to avoid a blurred mass flying towards me, I almost walked into the back of a huge Clydesdale police horse. Visions of being catapulted backwards by a well-placed horse’s hoof and having all the bones in my body broken made my phenomenally sore self suddenly nimble. As everywhere else, the place was crawling with cops and barricades. There was even a cop at the entrance to the barricades, which I at first assumed meant we were either going to be frisked or asked to buy a fish fry ticket.
Settled on the grass. A parade of speakers, each going about 5-10 minutes, so things moved along quickly. Probably about 500-1000 people there, though there was so much coming and going it was hard to tell. First speaker we heard was Sibel Edmonds. I’d never heard of her but soon found out why. She’s an FBI whistleblower who allegedly found US government ties to the 9/11 attacks. She’s been subsequently suppressed by Ashcroft, “for reasons of relations with foreign nations.” She says even Congress has been suppressed. You can learn more here.
A city councilwoman spoke, noting no one has been fired from the Bush administration over 9/11, over Abu Ghraib, over anything. “This is an administration that refuses to take responsibility. Well, somebody’s gonna take responsibility on November 2nd!” (Big cheer.)
A variety of other speakers, then Ann Wright, a US diplomat for 29 years, one of 3 who resigned over Bush’s pre-emptive war against Iraq. She was in Kabul, Afghanistan to re-open the embassy when we drove the Taliban back. She talked about a woman she met who was wearing the burkha. Ann said, “You can take that off now! You’re free!” The woman replied, “Someday you will leave, and all the warlords you paid to get rid of the Taliban will be in control, and it will go badly for women who do not wear the burkha.”
These issues are so complex. We think we can go in there with guns blazing and make everything peachy-keen. WWII is the national dysfunction. What Americans never seem to realize is that it was an aberration, not the norm. Every other war is messy, messy, messy. It is war’s nature to be that way.
Ann Wright’s great line was “Get blisters for democracy!” Get organized, get in the streets, and vote. For all the lip service we give to the “Founding Fathers” and their great sacrifices to start this nation, how much do we sacrifice to keep that promise alive?
A New York Congresswoman was up next, noting that census numbers usually come out in September but were released a month early this year. Why? Because of the rise in poverty. Best to bury that headline among convention coverage.
Then some lame-ass, guitar-toting, tepid-song-singing woman got up and played embarrassingly bad songs. Time to go. My inner timer said to get back to MSG.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PROTEST
The trip south was a little scarier this time. Just as many cops on the streets but way fewer people. I tried to catch up with little knots of pedestrians here and there so I wouldn’t be alone.
At the entrance to the protest pen I couldn’t believe my eyes: No one was there! There’s Madison Square Garden, with freaking DICK CHENEY in there, architect of some of the worst policies of this administration, and no one there! Whatthefuh.
I chat with a group of cops on the southeast corner for about 10 minutes. They’re eating junk food supplied by some Benevolent Association, bored out of their minds. They’re glad to have a diversion and everything is fine until one asks if I’m for Bush or Kerry. I say I’m for neither but Bush has got to go. He agrees, but another cop in the group gets all serious and intense-looking and tells me he’s pro-Bush (the other cops start backing away), thinks he’s done a great job with 9/11 and everything since. No one could’ve done better. (Boy, does this guy lack imagination!) I can see he’s revving up for a fight so I shift the conversation back to the junk food and the tension passes. They send me over to another group of cops at the pen entrance, whom I disarm with, “Hi, I’m the Designated Protester for the evening?” Some chit-chat and then I go in.
FROM 1001 THINGS TO HATE ABOUT THE CONVENTION, New York Press
996. Osama bin Laden’s name will not be mentioned by a single speaker during the convention.
993. Bush pitches himself as protector of New York, even though the state still inexplicably ranks 35th in anti-terrorism funding.
939. [Republicans’] original plan, since canceled, to lay the foundation of the Freedom Tower [at Ground Zero] during Convention Week.
935. White House advisor Matthew Dowd says for Bush not mention 9/11 “would be like Roosevelt not talking about Pearl Harbor.”
936. In fact, Roosevelt didn’t mention Pearl Harbor at the 1944 Democratic convention.
808. Abraham Lincoln not arisen from the dead to say, “Dude, where’s my party?”
It was a very curious feeling. At the very far end (nearest MSG) there were two small paddy wagons within the pen, as well as the food truck. I wanted to be at that end. Far away. I walked down the middle of the street, all down the long block alone, heading towards the glare of lights and unknown officers at the other end. I felt very vulnerable and very safe, very alone and very confident, all at the same time. No one was going to shoot me in cold blood. All I had to do was walk. All the cops were watching me, from boredom if nothing else. No one there to hurt me, yet I’m at the center of a wide open space absolutely bristling at the perimeter with weapons. Every building has a sniper on top. I flash to the memory of the Chinese man standing alone in front of the tanks after Tiananmen Square, briefly wonder how he found the courage to go out into that wide, open space, so alone. And instantly I know how he did it—he didn’t think, he just acted. Just like I did yesterday. You see it, you know it’s wrong, your body and Spirit take over and your mind gets the hell out of the way. Single focus. Single purpose.
Walked to the other end of the pen, where I tried my “Designated Protester” line again on the appreciative cops. Bantered quite a bit with a Chinese cop, probably early 30s, probably has lived much of his life here. He kept trying to get me to go over to the press area and get on TV as a joke. I tried to get him to engage in a fake altercation with me so we could both get on TV. He was laughing but smart enough to stay at least 10 feet away at all times. He suggested we form a rap duo.
I managed to get out of him that 5,000 people had attended the labor rally that afternoon. (By the way, the police stopped giving crowd estimates sometime within the last fifteen years, fearing it would legitimize protesters. Media outlets routinely cut cop estimates in half for reporting purposes. So they must still be counting, mustn’t they?)
I had decided that my personal protest for the evening would be to sing Bronski Beat’s No More War at MSG, preferably at around the time Cheney was speaking. Andrew had checked the Web for me, but the convention schedule wasn’t posted anywhere (hm…). By this time it was a bit after 9, so I decided it was as good a time as any. I told my cop I was going to sing. I felt a little ridiculous but remembered why I was there, and knew that it didn’t matter if anyone heard me or not—the point was to offer resistance, to “speak truth to power,” as close to that power as I could be. Pulled out my lyric cheat sheet, planted my feet firmly on the ground, and sang from my soul. Heart pure.
The cops had all retreated when I started to sing, but when I was done my Chinese guy said hey, you’re pretty good, you should go try out for a show (oh, the irony!!). Tried to get him to join me in a duet but he didn’t know any Lynard Skynard. 🙂 Told him I take requests. He asked for Joan Baez (???). I countered by asking if he had a favorite patriotic song. He asked for Amazing Grace. I know that song was played countless times by volunteer musicians for the relief workers at Ground Zero on 9/11 and for weeks afterwards. With pure compassion for whatever trials they may have gone through, I sing for them. A plainclothes cop comes over, beaming, but won’t get too close to me. (Note to protesters: sing patriotic songs to stir cops’ hearts.)
I should also mention that when I sang, and only when I sang, a guy over in one of the paddy wagons kept hitting one of the “brap” sounding alert sirens. I just smiled really big, knowing I am such a kickass musician I cannot be swayed by such petty tactics! Poltroon! 🙂
One night I heard a Bush sound clip extolling the virtues of the technology that allowed us to steamroll over Iraq so quickly. There was this shudder, very creepy. “Blitzkrieg” was all I thought, and in my mind saw French citizens weeping by the Arch de Triumph. Are we the bad guys? How would we know?
After a bit I sang Go Down, Moses, this really powerful old spiritual that says “Let my people go.” Belted the hell out of it, during which a passing tourist delightedly took a photo of me with the paddy wagons and empty street behind. By then I was done. Told the cops my contract only ran until 9:30 and then skedaddled. While not an ideal protest, I stood as close to Cheney as I will get and said “No.” By myself, in my own way, by the grace of the Gods, I did it.
FROM 1001 THINGS TO HATE ABOUT THE CONVENTION, New York Press
803. Five total arrests at the DNC vs. 500 in NYC before the convention even began should tell people something.
777. City officially proclaims, “Welcome Peaceful Protesters.” City does not proclaim “Welcome Peaceful Delegates.”
743. As another GOP convention showcases diverse faces and cuddly rhetoric, party strategists admit top priority behind the scenes is energizing the far-right Christian base.
717. Media, Republicans, and protesters all going about their business oblivious to the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Dick Cheney is the man being nominated on Thursday, not George W. Bush.
After doing some work in the morning and desperately trying to revive my now nearly crippled body (A masseuse! My kingdom for a masseuse!), I packed up my gear to head down to Ground Zero and pay my respects.
There was supposed to be a dawn-to-dusk vigil by Veterans for Peace and Families of 9/11, with speakers and music from noon to 5. I say “supposed to be” because when I arrived there was no one there. Just this little band of 6 or seven 911Truthout people. And the overwhelming police presence. I have no idea what happened there. It was a little creepy. Once again, dissent made invisible.
I expected to spend the rest of the day/night “out,” so I was decked out in full regalia with my “Patriot” banner on front and three banners (now featuring “Because Voting Is Not Enough”) on my pack. I tread carefully—I knew I’d be emotionally vulnerable in this place and I wanted zero interaction with the cops.
9/11 is everywhere in NYC. Permeates the very air. Maybe that’s due in part to the upcoming anniversary. I’ve always thought about it as an attack on America, but New Yorkers fiercely hold it as an attack on them, as their tragedy, not to be exploited by anyone. They hold it close to their hearts. Perhaps you’ve noticed the number of references in this text already to that day and its aftermath. I had no idea what to expect at the site itself.
I approach from the east. Being ignorant of NYC, I don’t know what’s missing. But I can see a hole in the skyline. I wonder what it must be like for the thousands of New Yorkers who use the subway and PATH station right there every day, confronted by what’s no longer there. Certainly it must prod at their memories, their hearts, ever so faintly—every day.
The site itself is enormous, an entire city block, and completely surrounded by a large, sturdy metal fence. The fence bends outward at the top and there are installations displaying photos and a site history. All pretty tame, sanitized. The killer piece is the list of names of people murdered. They are on what looks like black marble with “XXI” ghosted behind them. I found a Mills and two McLaughlins listed. While it’s unlikely the Mills is one of ours, the McLaughlins conceivably could be, descendants of William and Bridget who came to New Jersey to escape the famine. Regardless, the list of names is overwhelming. The diversity of names—Slav, African, Irish, Indian, Japanese—this is the world in miniature. It was as if those men didn’t just kill these people, they murdered a little piece of the world itself.
It’s forbidden to leave any tokens, flowers, memorials, etc at the site itself, which I consider to be a travesty. People need tangible means to express their grief and heal, and I don’t really care if City workers have to pick up and put it in a museum somewhere. It was a worldwide traumatic event and people should be allowed to heal.
I cried for a while, pain welling up, but I pushed it back lest I break down sobbing. Everyone holds onto the metal fence, fingers twisted through the hard, horizontal diamonds that form it, face right up against it, peering through to the bombed-out crater within. There’s not a lot to see—rubble, an excavated pit, and signs of new construction. I stood there, flooded with memories of that terrible day: the excruciating wait to find out if my friend Janet had survived, the startling moment when I heard Rick Karr reporting the body count on NPR (he’d played Captain von Trapp to my Maria in Sound of Music in high school), and the sheer chaos in the Spirit realm as souls caught between the worlds cried out in confusion and horror. The whole world, traumatized by the force of the impact (shown again and again from every angle), the leapingfalling human beings, the collapsing buildings, the knowledge that no one would ever be safe again.
All this is resounding in my heart and mind as I clutch the fence. I keep hearing, as I heard so often in my mind on that terrible day, snatches from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address: “We cannot hallow this ground;” “That these dead shall not have died in vain;” “That liberty shall not perish from the Earth;” and, most heartbreakingly, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” Now he was a leader. He made people connect with the “better angels of our nature” rather than be pulled (as Bush has done since Day 1) into fear, anger, cruelty, and revenge.
FROM LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
I’m crying and my eyes sweep the site when they are suddenly stopped by a cross made from steel girders, there inside the fence. It’s the only symbol on the site and it’s like a slap in the face. Why can we never have a national experience that’s just American? Why do we always have to have Christianity thrown in our face? And what an insult to the Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, atheists, Pagans, Muslims, and others whose ashes are embedded on the spot. How would you like your grave marked with the sign of another religion? I rarely feel animosity towards other religions, but this was one of those times when the sign of a Roman torture device was the last thing I needed.
I dried my tears and walked around the south side of the site. There is a building, maybe 100 stories tall?, right next to the site—draped in black. My photo does not do it justice. It looks like it’s covered with a single “garment” of black cloth, with a huge, savage rent up the middle. I can’t tell you what a powerful effect it had on me. It was “funereal” writ large. This enormous, solid, black mass, a dirge made visible. I could practically hear the opening chords of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. The closer I got, the more oppressive it became. I stood at the corner of it and looked up, up, up. Totally overwhelming. Grief made solid and unchanging, rooted and implacable. Its sheer size and mass were more terrible than any rendering of Death I’ve ever seen. I felt more emotion piling up and needed to get away.
If I’d been with someone, I’d have rested my head on their shoulder and sobbed my guts out. All the remembered horror of that terrible day, the tremendous loss I feel for what’s come after, and the pain and anger at how the fabric of our nation is changing because politicians react/ed in fear rather than with true leadership. But, being alone and still needing emotional strength to last through that night’s protest, I decided to go across the street to St Paul’s, a beautiful old church dating to around the time of the Revolution.
For those who don’t know, I adore old churches and cemeteries. Mostly because they’re places of great peace. No one runs through them, no one yells, no one munches on McDonald’s. You just get that great, reverent hush. I love libraries for the same reasons. So I headed to the church to escape the noise and try to collect myself.
St Paul’s, being right across from the site, played a key role in administering to people’s spiritual needs after 9/11. It’s an Episcopal church but committed to an interfaith approach. Their lovely graveyard grounds are encircled by a “Walk of Remembrance and Healing.” At the main entrance was the ubiquitous Security Guard to check my backpack.
The church interior has been converted to a 9/11 shrine. Since I was trying to calm down, I didn’t look around much, but noticed display cases filled with rescue squad badges and teddy bears, an audio-visual kiosk in the back corner (Christian hymns continually playing), etc. I sat in a pew in front, as far from other people as I could get. There is a second floor balcony on three sides, draped with handmade flags and quilts from all over the country. Grade schoolers and whole towns made these oversize messages of solidarity and support and sent them after 9/11. I’m sad I didn’t think of such a thing myself.
I give over to tears for a while, and with the waves of grief rising in me I look around for spiritual comfort. Not surprisingly (I’m in a Christian sanctuary, after all), all I see are crosses and the Ten Commandments and Bibles and all the rest. I’m suddenly, irrationally sick of this culture, drenched as it is in Christian symbols, motifs, stories, icons, beliefs, language, and its ubiquitous Roman torture device. I want a temple. I want a temple among my own people where I can lay down my head in the lap of a priestess and be soothed by the words and traditions of my own faith. Knowing I’m certainly not going to find that here, I go outside and find the most secluded patch of ground I can. I crouch down and place my palms on the good, sweet Earth. Ah. Relief. This is my temple. This spiky green grass, this soft brown earth, these beautiful trees forming a canopy of love and support above. I rest in the arms of the Goddess, allowing my complicated emotions to pass through my arms and into the Earth, there to be recycled and made Whole again. It’s amazing how 10 minutes with a piece of dirt can clear the mind and spirit. 🙂 Replenished, grounded, I pour libation and give thanks, and then am ready to leave.
MEETING THE DELEGATES
At some point during this sojourn I realize I’ve left my cell phone at the hotel. Not only do I want the security of having a phone on me, I also had told clients to ring if they needed anything. This meant another tedious trek all the way back uptown, then another trek back down again to get to MSG. Oh well. I headed off, and between closed stations and closed streets and bad signage, I manage to get sidetracked a few too many times. I plunge into a foul mood, well beyond cranky.
It is at some point while I’m stomping the streets and fuming and trying to find a damn subway station that I realize I’m walking next to a line of GOP delegates being disgorged from a luxury bus. I am soooo ready to turn that irritation on them and skewer them with a laser beam of hatred, but my own words about carrying MLK in my heart come back to me and I (reluctantly!) try to reign myself in. If I can’t control myself I should look away; there’s no reason for these people to bear the brunt of my irritation (though they make such lovely, plump targets. Bad monkey!!).
FROM 1001 THINGS TO HATE ABOUT THE CONVENTION, New York Press
669. NYPD’s policy of “take only photographs, leave only footprints” unfortunately applied to protesters and their heads.
651. Greeks protest Powell’s planned visit, get results. New Yorkers protest RNC’s planned to visit—to bemusement of Republican officials.
650. And their own mayor.
592. 3000 WTC dead unable to protest Bush’s ineptitude or his subsequent stonewalling of 9/11 Commission
506. Three years later [after 9/11], they still don’t have a better explanation than, “They hate us for our freedom.”
It’s while I’m sorting all this out that I vaguely notice this striking woman get off the bus. From behind she looks Pakistani—she’s wearing this beautiful cream-colored flowing suit, she has gorgeous black hair flowing down to her rear, and she has the grace of a dancer. Stunning. I glance away, preoccupied with my own thoughts, then glance back unthinkingly as she glances at me. Simultaneously our own self-preoccupation falls away and in this sudden instant we are connected through each other’s eyes. Now I see that, apart from the fact that she’s genuinely, naturally, drop-dead gorgeous with deep brown eyes and chiseled, graceful features, her “jewelry” is actually a Native American breast covering made of bone. The word “Oklahoma” flashes through my head. (I do not burst into song.) I don’t even know what I’m doing, in my shock at recognizing Who She Is it’s like I make a space for her ancestors to peer through my eyes and inside her gaze. We are so sad. We stand within her mind and ask, “How can you be with them?” I’m horrified, I accuse her, not vindictively, but in the knowledge of all that’s happened to her people—of all that’s continuing to happen to her people—how can she ally herself with this Anglo, wealthy elite that doesn’t give a damn about First Nations’ issues?
It was all in an instant and I saw her recoil inwardly. She didn’t have an answer.
I dropped my gaze to break the connection, feeling as if I’d accidentally walked in on something terribly private and personal. I just wanted to get away. I walked alongside the white, aging Republicans in their dressy clothes and their cheap decorations and privileged Texan airs. I kept my mouth shut, descended into the grimy subway underground and scuttled home.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING
I’m back at MSG and there couldn’t be more contrast with the night before. The pen is packed and quickly filling up with more people. For this final night of the convention, a legal rally is being held, sponsored by A.N.S.W.E.R., a long-standing anti-war group. I take some snaps and enjoy being around such a large group of positive, committed people after so much time alone.
Energy was high, the press was lively and all over us, and the cops and choppers and paddy wagons were everywhere. Business as usual. A stage was set up at the north end where I’d sung alone the night before and huge speakers blared anti-war hip-hop music. We white folk bobbed our heads, nearly all of us in time to the music! Woo!
I went to the front of the crowd and hung out there until people started batting around a big blow-up doll of Bush. It didn’t feel right to me. I understand too much about magic and didn’t like the intention behind what was going on. I ducked over to the press area, figuring that would be safe. Nope. At one point the people next to me were laughing and kicking it, stomping on it, throttling it. I understood the cathartic nature of it, but I also flashed to the barbaric execution of the Ceausescus in Romania in ‘89. Something barbaric and primal and ugly about it, and very human.
Our block filled up quickly, then the next block down, then the next. There were several thousand people there, and reports kept coming in that more were trying to come but were being held up at the interminable barricades. For some strange reason, the cops wouldn’t let protesters move between the blocks. But the speeches soon started and that had everyone thinking about other things, like “When are they going to shut up?” and “What a stupid chant!” and “Who the hell cares?” It was a terrible rally. A.N.S.W.E.R. had most of its board speak, which meant we heard about the suffering of Koreans and how the people of Venezuela need us and how the women of Palestine stand with us. Oh really. They had this “poet,” a terrible rapper who couldn’t even keep a beat, come up and lead everyone in a rousing chorus of “Fuck Bush.” It was ridiculous. With all the things people could be saying (let’s face it, there’s plenty of material to work with), all this guy can think of is “Fuck Bush”? Please.
The main media attention-getters were a guy dressed in drag with a Bush mask on and a sash that read “Corporate Ho” and a woman dressed in shorts and sports bra with “My country got fucked and I didn’t even get a T-shirt” written all over her torso. This is the level of wit and intellectualism present in the streets today. Embarrassing.
Things creak on, a particularly shrill-voiced A.N.S.W.E.R. rep trying to lead us in complicated, stupid chants (you’re fortunate I’m not replicating her delivery in person, as it would splinter your eardrums). Every time there was a lull people would start chanting “No more Bush! No more Bush!” or “Two more months! Two more months!” (I was partial to the second of the two.) But the A.N.S.W.E.R. folk, who are allegedly all about “power to the people,” kept cutting off these spontaneous chants and tried to make everyone stick to their pre-determined agenda. I was already getting really annoyed when one of the speakers started a chant about Chavez’s victory in Venezuela (a cool thing but really off-topic [I later changed my views on Chavez]) and then went on about the coming Glorious Workers Revolution!! Auuuugh!!! This same old socialist bullshit! And completely irrelevant. Meanwhile the Republicans are in there, they’re anointing a puppet, there is evil going down, and this is all we have to say?!? I was furious. And frustrated.
Speeches were short and strident and full of screaming. In between speeches they played Rage Against the Machine. A lot of agitation but zero transformation. I was aware enough to realize that I was hearing as much fear and gloom and doom as I hear from Republicans (brilliantly documented in Moore’s Fahrenheit 911). I imagined what MLK would say from that same stage and about felt sick. Tried to imagine what I’d say from that stage but that just made me more angry. I tried to center and test the energy, but it was immediately clear that, should anything go down, I would have no power in that situation. It was just too big, too diverse, too unfocused. These people were all about fear and fighting and struggle—towards what? A world free of war? A nice goal, but do you really get to a world without violence by constantly evoking the images of fighting? Do you get to a world of “harmony” by continually dissing the cops? “Us vs. Them” is obsolete. These people perpetuate the very system they want to destroy. It is that urge to destroy that makes them ineffective. You can’t force a flower to grow, especially not by stomping around and yelling at the seed. These are people who would turn into guerrilla fighters who would in turn establish a dictatorship—or crumble from within.
As is so common in my life, I feel Between The Worlds—not part of the establishment but not part of the resistance. Not entirely at home in business and not entirely at home among the Greens. I stand on the steps of the library in between, unable to find my community.
The one useful speech was from the head of the National Lawyers Guild. They had 500 lawyers come from all over the country to volunteer as legal observers at every protest. They are impartial observers, sort of like UN election observers. They wear these bright green baseball hats so they’re very easy to distinguish. Forty of them had been arrested so far. Forty. Lawyers. These are people who know the rights and the wrongs of the law and how to stay on the right side. Two of them were beaten by cops. An undercover cop tried to buy one of the hats from an observer for $40 (observers pay $7 apiece for union-/American-made caps). Obviously it was an attempt to infiltrate the group and/or instigate violence while wearing the hat, thereby discrediting the group. The president proudly stated, “These hats are not for sale!”
I’d wanted to stand at the north end of the pen and sing several anti-war songs and then My Country ‘Tis of Thee (in honor of Marian Anderson) but there was just no way. I hunkered down and sang No More War quietly but it was unsatisfying. By this time I was getting regular signals that I should go, that there was nothing to be gained here, but I hated to have such a lame ending to the trip. This was my last and only chance to stand up to Bush & Co before the election and I deeply wanted to have a meaningful experience. I wanted to be able to stand in solidarity with others and chant “No!” when Bush gave his acceptance speech (it’s unimaginative but as effective as that crowd could’ve gotten). But no, instead we’re talking about New York’s infant mortality rate.
I notice cops moving from the north end of the block to the south. While a speaker talks about solidarity with the workers of Brazil (please!!), suddenly everyone in our pen starts walking excitedly to the south end of our enclosure. I watch from afar, close to a barricade (maybe I can jump it?), but nothing seems to be happening. I realize I’ve ignored several clear internal signals to leave. I see a cop come up the street carrying a bunch of riot helmets under each arm. I see a group of protesters sitting bored in the middle of the street, tying bandannas on their faces.
The mic is taken over by an A.N.S.W.E.R. rep, who informs us that the cops won’t let the people in the pens south of us move north into our pen. He ties this brilliantly into a jab at Mayor Bloomberg’s assertion that First Amendment rights are “privileges” that can be “revoked” if “abused.” He says this is all a tactic by the police to instigate violence, but we will be disciplined, we will not fall prey. I feel relieved by that message and hopeful for his solution.
The cops say people in pen #2 can enter our pen if everyone in our pen moves north first. (Why are they doing this? Why are they setting conditions? Why not just let people pass—it wouldn’t even be an issue, no one would think to make it an issue, but the cops force it to be an issue by turning our attention to what we can’t do.) So it’s five seconds after we’ve been told we’ll be disciplined that the speaker starts taunting the police. Our people are moving north but there’s this mad sort of glee in the air as if people are excited that something’s finally going to happen and maybe they’ll get on TV.
THE CONSTITUTION, NY STYLE
NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg suggests that First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly are “privileges” that could be lost if abused. “People who avail themselves of the opportunity express themselves…they will not abuse that privilege. Because if we start to abuse our privileges, then we lose them, and nobody wants that.” The First Amendment is the first of the Bill of RIGHTS, otherwise known as “inalienable,” not PRIVILEGES.
I’m flat-out scared at this point. This situation is balanced precariously on an edge and it can go any direction. I have no allegiance to this crowd; in fact, they represent part of the system that I want to change. They are part of the problem. I try to talk to a cop, who won’t come anywhere near me for fear I’ll detonate a bomb or something, so I’m yelling at her to ask if I can just jump the barricade and leave. No—I must exit through the south exit, precisely where the crucible is. Ick.
Now that I’ve decided to go, I book. Eyes darting, assessing the situation. Drawing down my “I am not a threat” vibe. Trying to be invisible. I pass between the pens—there are tons of media, tons of cops, lots of bright lights. The people in the south pen are straining at the barricades, ready to force the issue and break into the north pen. I go to the side and turn to watch. Coming up behind me is a cop with a mass of plastic handcuffs that he starts handing out to other cops. They didn’t have those before. I turn away, turn back again—am I supposed to bear witness? But no, it’s a circus, it’s a circus of their own creation. The media think they’re “getting the story” when they’re actually creating the story. The protesters and police are gearing up to dance a dance we all know the ending to.
Angry, frustrated, confused, torn, I walk up 29th Street. I try to find a spot where I can stand alone and sing my stupid songs. No go—cops coming up the street and I just know I need to be moving. I go up to the intersection where I can actually see the front of MSG a block away, try to find a spot to sing. No go. Cops and barricades everywhere. Very disappointed.
Killing time in indecision, I chat with a severely bored cop in the middle of the street, who explains to me the relative merits of three-wheeled carts, motorcycles, and squad cars. I wait for another idea to come to me—none does. It’s time to go home.
Dejected, I get on my train for uptown. I’m still wearing my “Patriot” banner. As I slump into my seat a 60-something woman sees my shirt and says loudly, “You are a patriot, young lady!” with typical New York frankness. I mumble “Thanks,” but bite my tongue before I could say, “But I sure don’t feel like one.” My story didn’t get the ending I wanted.
Friday morning I got to dart into a few shops and take a few architectural pictures, but mostly just prepped to leave. I didn’t hear anything about what went down at the Garden after I left, and I assume there wasn’t any massive showdown.
I’d noticed that New Yorkers were not an obese crowd—they walk far too much for that! So standing in line to board the plane I was aware at how many obese white folk were ready to go back to Indiana. Many of them carried RNC gear. I resisted the temptation to bite their ears off. 🙂
When I was waiting by the baggage pick-up in Indianapolis a middle-aged white business-type man started chatting, asking where I was off to and what do I do. Then he saw a friend and started talking to him. As I moved away I realized he had been a delegate. He told his friend, “The NYPD are terrific, I’ve never seen so many police!” I was struck by the difference in our perspectives and was tempted to say, “Oh, you were at the convention? I was at the convention, too. Wasn’t that protest great?”
If there were a God in Heaven, I would’ve lost ten pounds from all the walking I did; alas, I remain a committed atheist.
I’m still processing a lot of what went down. I’ve noticed now that when I see a cop car here in Bloomington, there’s a rise in my anxiety level. I’ve got a lot to make sense of.
What’s clear is the police outclass the protesters when it comes to tactics. L.C. described a protest in Montreal that went on a few years ago. While decentralized, the protesters relied on a system of colored flags. Green flags meant it was a family friendly event. If a group wanted to do civil disobedience, they’d run in and throw red flags into the air. That meant you had five minutes to leave before the action started. It seemed an effective way of communicating what types of things were going down while still keeping the actions themselves grassroots and decentralized (and thus much harder for cops to track).
Actions in NYC were too many and too varied, with no consistent message (bad branding!), and there were no back-up plans for when things went awry. However, with all that said, no one’s asking me for my opinion, so all my analysis and disenchantment (the same disenchantment I felt over ten years ago when I dropped out of the movement) is pretty irrelevant.
There were no songs among the protesters, no singing at all, which I found strange. There was also very little support for Kerry—his positions are too close to Bush’s for anyone to get excited about him. What was also clear was there is a lot of opposition to this war. When you consider how many hurdles people had to jump to even show up, and how much effort had gone into scaring them off, the fact that every major action had more people show up than expected says something!
Another piece that I had not seen before is the part the media play. Independent media and NPR are generally pretty good. Corporate media suck. They constantly send the message, “Dissent is dangerous.” They focus on “anarchists” (who are these people??) and arrests and the “threat” of violence and “expected” violence and “there could be violence” and “no violence yet”—argh! It all adds up to a picture where challenging the status quo equals inviting violence. Not exactly healthy for a democracy.
More than anything, I’m sad it’s come to this, that all this was necessary. It did not have to be this way. Bush & Co could’ve made different choices. The Left could make different choices. But instead they choose the things that increase fear, increase insecurity, and create the conditions for totalitarian elements to arise. None of which sounds too promising for our beloved country.
So let’s end this on a happier note, shall we? I am glad to have gone. I learned a lot. I opened a door to learn more. I followed my instincts and avoided multiple potential arrests and potentially violent situations. I got the creative jolt that comes from traveling to interesting places and thinking interesting, new things. I found courage in my self and the ability to listen to Spirit in a way that has not been accessible to me for years. I went and bore witness, so at least I can say that, in the footsteps of my ancestors, I stood up to tyranny. Maybe not to the extent they did, but to the extent that I can.
On the down side, I think I’ve also been more radicalized, which will only make me more annoying. 🙂 Most importantly, I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to stand in that space and say “No” to what I consider to be a corrupt and evil regime. While it may not look like much to some who risk their mindbodyspirit way more than I did, it was right for me. It was exactly what I needed to do.
I remain committed to the idea that the greatest threat to democracy is not outside terrorists but our own fear. Thank the Gods we had Roosevelt to say, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”—I pray we can all deliver that message even when our President says the opposite, so that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
FROM 1001 THINGS TO HATE ABOUT THE CONVENTION, New York Press
419. New York still rands 50th per capita in bioterrorism funding.
277. The laminated checklist handed out to all cops to help them quickly and easily identify “terrorists.”
258. A University of Missouri study found that when test subjects were reminded of their own mortality, they were more likely to be supportive of Bush.
116. Confident expression of two-party consensus sold to public as violent contest of political extremes.
34. The suspension of the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th Amendments for the duration of the convention.
15. The fact that nobody is looking at these security measures and saying, “Well, it looks like the terrorists won after all.”