Madison Square Garden was under heavy guard all week but Thursday afternoon, hours before the ANSWER rally, getting near it without identification was impossible. Even people who live and work near the Garden had to prove they belonged anywhere on the blocks between 29th and 34th and 7th through 9th. (All of which makes the infiltration of it, two days in a row, all the more impressive).
Near 4:30 pm there were a smattering of people milling about 8th, penned-in by metal barricades and eyed by police. The ANSWER rally was still 3.5 hours away.
Over at Union Square Park, the most active area in town all week as far as protests go, the situation was quite different. Several hundred, close to a thousand milled about in the waning daylight, resting on the lawn, chatting in groups, and wandering between hawkers selling their wares, a variety ranging from omnipresent anti-Bush and anti-War shirts, stickers, hats and buttons, to newspapers (plenty of those from the various communist/socialist orgs.) and "peace beads," and the display, a memorial "wall" made out of plastic bearing the names of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, empty military boots, banners and flowers, set up by the Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against War. In all realty the protest vigil felt more like a bizarre.
Several street medics who asked not to be named, said as much as dusk approached.
"Whenâ€™s something going to happen," one of the medics commented to another. "Some of us are angry," she told TNS, slowly swinging her left arm across the folks assembled on the South side of the park. "No, all of us are angry, but some of us want more to happen. This, this is hold your candle, donâ€™t do anything."
At this time many people, several hundred, were holding candles. Others were singing, some chanting, most talking and walking around. Occasionally a couple police officers would walk the perimeter and ask people to step inside the barricade of portable metal fences the police had been using to corral demonstrations all week. Most did, but some just stood, or moved a few feet away as the officer walked on.
The police presence was heavy, well over 100 cops surveyed the scene, either from the edge of the park, along the curb, or across from it on a traffic island or nearby corner, some roamed around the paths and still others waited near their motorcycles and scooters at the Northern tip of the park. Lanes of traffic were blocked with orange cones and police directed at each intersection save the Northwest.
At one point, before the sun began creeping below the horizon, a man, late thirties, shaved head, goatee, wearing a blue dress shirt and gray pants, waded into a group of protesters on the Southwest side of the park and began berating them for being there. His tirade was met by many, nearly 200 hundred people surrounded him at one point, before various media circled in. The demonstrators attempted to discuss, argue and persuade with the man, but he grew louder and more vehement as each camera and microphone found their way to him. The session endured for an hour or so, before he walked off. There was no attempt by the police to address the disturbance, unlike their energetic efforts to prevent delegates from being harassed. The crowd handled themselves well and most walked away after a minute or two, only to be replaced by another curious onlooker.
The veterans groups packed up between eight and nine -- by then the park was mobbed, as was the ANSWER rally at MSG. Reports at the park and on the text messaging board "RNC," arranged Tuesday by unknown people with the alleged aid of the NY IMC, put "thousands" at MSG and over 1500 at Union Square. Police at the park had largely given up attempting to keep demonstrators behind the barriers.
A New York woman, Cathie Bell, with a group calling itself "No Police State Coalition," was wearing a cardboard sign that read, "just released from arrest. Held 44 hours." Bell says she was arrested while holding a sign on Irving Place Tuesday evening. The charges are parading without a permit and two counts of disorderly conduct, she says.
"The police seem more subdued tonight," says Bell, who plans to defend herself in court. "But the protests all week have been so creative, such talent. People have been so courageous and I think the Republicans are so stupid for thinking they can come to our city and exploit the tragedy of September 11th."
Others shared a similar sentiment, and demonstrated it in a variety of ways. Just about everyone wandering through the area wore a red or yellow sticker, handed out for free, that read, "when Bush gets the nod, give â€˜em the no." A group of 14 women marched around the park holding aloft vertical signs made much like those delegates used inside the hall, only these bore inscriptions like "fear, loss, disgust, shock, intimidation," and the like instead of the names of states. Another group, ten people in all, wearing orange gags bearing similar messages in their mouths, marched silently single file around the Southside, hands clasped behind their backs.
The protesters were discordant, assembling in different clusters and often following a different agenda from one another. There were veterans of both the peace movement and wars, communists and socialists of every stripe, a group called September 11 families for a Peaceful Tomorrow, feminists, vegetarians (leave it to PETA to attempt to hijack a protest), anarchists and everything in between, including folks trying to register others.
As 10 pm rolled in a few people were speaking with a police commander about their desire to head over to MSG with a large contingent. The negotiations, conducted by Adam Rosh and a few others with Captain (?-sorry not positive about the rank, he was wearing a white shirt and I never attempted to figure out what the ranking system in the department is) Paragallo were a bit contentious at first as he told the demonstrators there could be no legal march. Even if they chose to march toward MSG 2x2 as a group and crossed with lights, theyâ€™d risk arrest, Paragallo said, right before retreating behind two officers, Lieutenant Albano and another, as he realized reporters were present. Rosh followed him.
"It seems like theyâ€™re just using judgment," says Rosh, after returning to the sidewalk upon the conclusion of his conference with Paragallo. "I donâ€™t think they have a strict protocol for what to do here. They said we could take 200 people, but I think more want to go."
At the same time Rosh was negotiating, others walked through the crowd telling people to assemble at the West Side of the park for a march. Paragallo hears and attempts to explain his decision.
"You can walk over there," he says to about two dozen gathered near him in the street at the South East corner of the park. "As long as you donâ€™t block pedestrians or traffic and cross with the light, anyoneâ€™s free to walk over. You just canâ€™t have a march. Thereâ€™s not enough room, thereâ€™s already five or six thousand people there."
The demonstrators walked away. "He gave us two different answers," says Rosh, before wading into the crowd to gauge the interest in pushing the issue.
Meanwhile about 80 people held a die-in on the Southside steps of USP, though it remains unclear whether they stayed â€˜deadâ€™ for too long as the march plans began heating up and people abandoned the site of the die-in in favor of walking to MSG.
Over at the West side demonstrators were slowly assembling across from east 15th Street. And police commanders were talking with each other and the assembled people, attempting to negotiate a deal. With people chanting "let us march" in the background, Paragallo and his fellow commanders gave in around 10:30 and people streamed onto East 15th, passing the commanders and almost passing-by the bicycle cops who had quickly jumped on their bikes as people began walking.
Up 15th to 8th they marched, most chanting and some playing jazzed-up marching tunes. Many thanked the police, applauded them and suggested they deserve raises, a common refrain throughout the week. People came out of their houses, a few joined the march, and many walked outside to cheer on the un permitted march toward MSG. Initially the crowd covered little more than half a block. By the time they arrived at 8th and 30th, the closest point to MSG, a point police led them to, the assembly spilled over into a second block, prompting police to rush in and fill the intersection, preventing the tail end from meeting with the main body.
And while most of the crowd was somewhat celebratory after the invigorating walk, many expressed wariness and trepidation.
"I think its Bloomberg," says Adrienne Verrilli, voicing a common refrain along the march route. "Heâ€™s afraid of looking bad on the last night of the convention. Heâ€™s worried about his reelection. He knows his job is on the line if the police are accused of preventing free speech."
And Rob, who decline to give a last name but says he is a city resident, said, "itâ€™s only a matter of time before they stop us" when asked what he thought about the un permitted march. His friend Sena said the RNC caused all the disruption in the city.
Still others think the march had some use.
"Donâ€™t ever try and do this again New York," yelled Velma Alvarez, about the RNC in NYC. "Donâ€™t ever bring this convention to this city again. Theyâ€™ve turned their backs on us and exploited our tragedy for their own gain. All these protests, marches or whatever, show what New York feels about the Republicans."
With the group split in half, most between 29th and 30th, and another group almost spanning the block between 29th and 28th, communication became difficult. Several seemingly false rumors spread through sections of the group, including one dire warning from the text messaging board that claimed the spontaneous march was led by "masked provocateurs," though there was no physical evidence to confirm the warning. A corrective message came along an hour after the first, which was attributed to an unnamed United For Peace and Justice "lead organizer." Incidentally, UFPJ members were attempting to dissuade people at USP from going on a march.
As confusion grew, small groups wandered from one end of the pen to the other, some claiming to have heard reports that the police were going to arrest everyone who didnâ€™t leave by 11:35. These claims were not confirmed by NYCLU or NLG observers.
The separation of the two crowds bothered many. Erik Jensen, a Jersey City resident, said "itâ€™s a peaceful demonstration and I donâ€™t understand why theyâ€™re keeping us apart. I donâ€™t really understand what the point of doing this is." Jensen was one of the many marchers who joined in after the group began walking. He says he joined as it passed 16th, along 28th.
At 11:35, police pulled the barricades separating the two blocks away and stepped aside, allowing the two groups to merge together. Many were audibly boisterous as they clapped and cheered the "freeing" of the rallyâ€™s tail end.
At this point about 40 demonstrators sat on the ground near 30th and began encouraging others to do the same. Another fifty or so joined in, though those at the edge were unsure as to why sitting was so important at the time. Nearby less than twenty feet from the edge of the sitting circle, the band was playing funk and jazz rhythms as others danced. Many people began leaving as midnight turned.
With the continued loss of hundreds, a group of those sitting near 30th began calling for action. Some said a march, some suggested harassing delegates and still others advocated staying put until the police arrested them. The decision-making group formed a semi-circle and attempted a quick caucus, only to have media types and photographers clog up the middle and disrupt cross circle communication. Many more people began leaving.
As NYPD, FDNY and NY Sanitation trucks moved in and police officers began disassembling barriers, 16 people, most under thirty, sat in a row, arms interlocked, making their last stand of the convention. To the surprise of many fellow demonstrators, media and legal observers, and the bewilderment and bemusement of NYPD officers, the group had no plans to move. Some tried to dissuade them but the lot refused.
Upon learning the 16 intended to be arrested, Lt. Riley says, "tell them to come back tomorrow. Maybe we can accommodate them then." Other officers attempt to convince them to go home and still others shake their heads in wonderment.
At 1:30 Riley announces that anyone still in the street will be arrested. His officers shoo media and legal observers, by far the two largest contingents left, and a smattering of demonstrators onto the sidewalk. One by one the arresteesâ€™ hands are placed in plastic cuffs behind their backs, they are stood up and walked to a waiting paddy wagon. The crowd clapped and a couple of those being arrested chose the moment to speak out against the war, against the republicans, and against the system. In short, they explained what they were doing, what had been going on all week, in the few moments before being shepherded into the wagon.
The 16 are charged with obstructing governmental administration and disorderly conduct, according to Riley.
As one NLG observer who asked not to be named said, "This is the most poignant anti-climax Iâ€™ve ever seen."