New York City; Aug. 30, 2004 – In a massive march that surpassed in size even organizersâ€™ expectations, hundreds of thousands of activists overwhelmed midtown Manhattan today in a peaceful demonstration under the banner: "World Says No to the Bush Agenda." It took the crowd, which spanned the width of 7th Avenue and stretched for nearly two miles, four and a half hours to snake its way past Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican National Convention.
After the march, thousands gathered in Central Park, which had become the focal point of protest permit disputes in the months leading up to this weekâ€™s demonstrations, and, in more confrontational protests, hundreds harassed RNC delegates attending plays on Broadway.
Though they had predicted a crowd of 250,000, United for Peace and Justice organizers estimated that half a million people marched to express their collective displeasure with the Bush administrationâ€™s agenda. In spite of terrorist alerts, threats of police and protester violence, and an unforgiving midday sun, people were determined to demonstrate.
"I feel compelled to stand up against the administration's absolute disregard for human rights," said Sister Elizabeth Proefriedt, a 72 year-old Catholic nun from Jamaica Queens. "I do this as a matter of conscience -- I believe in the nonviolent power of people."
Protesters flew, drove, biked, walked and marched to todayâ€™s United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) sponsored march, despite the dayâ€™s high temperatures and sweltering humidity.
Protesters flew, drove, biked, walked and marched to todayâ€™s United for Peace and Justice-sponsored march, despite the dayâ€™s high temperatures and sweltering humidity.
One contingent of "Women in Black" from Long Island, perhaps a few dozen strong, started their day out walking over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan to meet up with the thousands of other protesters at Union Square.
From another part of the city, roughly 400 people, most of them high school and college aged, participated in a youth march from Columbus Circle to Union Square. Instead of negotiating with the city for a permit before the march, the coalition of youth and student activist groups from New York negotiated with police as they went along, avoiding the bureaucratic snares that had entangled their adult counterparts. Due to the large size of the youth turnout, police allowed the march to proceed along one lane of 5th Avenue, instead of restricting the group to the sidewalk.
Peter Loâ€™Re, an organizer of the youth march and student at Hunter College, said, "We did not try to get a permit because of what United for Peace and Justice was going through," referring to the almost year-long negotiations between UFPJ and the city, which culminated in the city denying the national coalition a permit to rally in Central Park.
The youth and Women in Black contingents were just two among dozens of other groups and coalitions that planned marches in the morning to feed into UFPJâ€™s main event.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers come out to show their resentment that the Republicans had chosen the largely democratic Big Apple as staging grounds for their convention. They were joined by demonstrators from across the country and from many parts of the world. Though they were unified in their condemnation of the Bush agenda, protesters expressed dissatisfaction with a broad diversity of government policies.
"No job, no money," a 27 year-old protester from Ohio named Matt stated matter-of-factly. As a backdrop, the crowd around Matt angrily shouted "Shame on You" at a hotel next to the convention center that boasted a large sign welcoming the convention and its delegates to the city.
As protesters marched up 7th Ave, on their way to the convention site, banner drops, protest signs and supportive onlookers greeted them.
Owen Evans and Alia Ganaposki wheeled their four-month-old, Sam, in a baby stroller with cardboard signs attached to it, saying: "WMD found: Wheels of Messy Diapers, " with flames painted on the sides.
"I care about the future," said Ganaposki, pointing to the stroller. "I love what America stands for. I love its independent spirit, but Bush just makes my soul revolt. Hopefully we can get him out."
A stay-at-home mom, Ganaposki said she likes going to protests so she does not feel alone in her beliefs. "I've only been to one other protest and it inspired me so much," she said.
"I'm here because I'm angry," said Jahanara Ulla, a Queens resident and psychology student at St. Johnâ€™s University. "They are getting rid of overtime and all the immigrant workers will be working for beans. They are already working for beans, 50-60 hour weeks," she said. Ulla, a child of an immigrant father from Bangladesh, said that Bushâ€™s "family values" rhetoric is "merging religion and state when they are supposed to be separate."
Mary Margaret Crapper and Tomislav Svoboda came from Toronto and had Canadians against Bush signs attached to their shirts. When asked why they came, Crapper said, "Because Bush is a world problem. He's a menace." Svobada added, "It's important to show Americans that what their leaders decide to do affect the entire world."
Carlo Mirabella-Davis, a 22 year-old filmmaker from Yew York, said he was marching for many reasons. "I think Bush is creating the perfect climate for terrorism to breed," he said. "It's pretty clear that New York is going to vote for Kerry, but it is still extremely important to show that despite 9/11, New Yorkers are adamantly against the war on terror," he said. "I think it is about oil, but it's more about draining the coffers of the government into the pockets of corporations -- like with the no-bid contracts in Iraq going to Bechtel and Halliburton."
Martine Koeppel, 42, her daughter Margaret and Margaret's friend Breanna Zabel, both twelve, took the train all the way from Wisconsin. Koeppel, an accountant, wore a homemade patch on the back of her shirt that read, "Listen to your mother earth: fire Bush." Asked why she made the 22-hour train ride to New York for the protest, she said: "We want to show the world that we do not support this man. We want to show the world that we are not a part of this. The guy's gotta go."
As anti-Bush as todayâ€™s demonstration may have been, Democratic officials have distanced their party from the protests surrounding the RNC. In a conference call with reporters last Monday, Terry McAuliffe, chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, said he wanted his adversaries' convention to go on undisturbed by outside agitators. "Let me be crystal clear," he said. "I'd like to draw a line in the sand. We have nothing to do with the demonstrators.... Absolutely nothingâ€¦ We want no disruptions at the Republican Convention."
For many in the crowd, though, there was no love lost between themselves and the Democratsâ€™ presidential candidate.
"Kerry is a huge disappointment for peace activists," said Mike, 45, from Ohio. "His positions range from those that produce concern to others that are simply alarming, such as his desire to prolong the occupation."
Dave Hall, a New York City resident, proudly proclaimed himself a Green party supporter and voter, adding that he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, when Nader headed that partyâ€™s presidential ticket.
"I think neither [major] party represents the future of America," said Hall, who added that he was drawn to the Greens, like many other Arab Americans, in reaction to some extremist pro-Zionist positions seen within both the Democratic and Republican parties.
But Hall also echoed a more common position among Greens regarding this election, in light of 2000â€™s squeaker finish between Gore and Bush. When his friend, fellow protester and registered Democrat Jan Meshon, confronted Hall about whether he would vote for Nader if he lived in Florida rather than New York, Mr. Hall responded resolutely that he would not.
Meshon, in contrast to Hall, was among the demonstrators who perceive clear, delineated differences between Senator Kerry and President Bush. An enthusiastic, long-time Democrat, Meshon sarcastically said, "Sure, thereâ€™s no difference between [the Democrats and the Republicans] except on womenâ€™s rights, civil rights, gay rights, social security, Medicare and Medicaid."
As marchers ended back up in Union Square, United for Peace and Justice organizers reminded demonstrators that the march was over. "United for Peace and Justice thanks you for coming," they shouted into megaphones. They offered subway directions and explained there would be no speeches or other events.
But many protesters had no interest in going home. Though UFPJ had given up on their plans to rally in Central Park upon losing a lawsuit over permits, a few thousand people gathered in Central Park anyway in an effort to reclaim the area as public space.
Over the course of the evening, roughly 3,500 people rallied on the Great Lawn, many staying into the evening, playing music, carrying signs, dancing, talking and recuperating after a long day in the streets. In a decision upheld by the courts, the city had denied UFPJ a permit to demostrate on the lawn, citing potential damage to the grass by the thousands of expected protesters.
Other activists headed for the theatre district, intent on confronting delegates as they attended Broadway productions. In a loosely coordinated action, a group calling themselves the "mousebloc" converged on Times Square.
"Thousands of mice will swarm the streets to remind the forgetful old elephants that they are not welcome in this town," proclaimed the mousebloc demonstrators in their call to action.
By 7 p.m., the area around Times Square bordered on bedlam. As soon as the police cordoned off a section, another incident sprouted up.
Police became aggressive when protesters gathered out front of the Broadway show Aida as the performance let out. "Go home RNC," protesters yelled at fancily-dressed folks walking out of the theater, a few of whom called back, "Four more years," in amused response.
As the demonstrators became more vocal, shouting, "Your time has come," and other slogans, police moved in with a steel barricade and netting, forcing the picketers back, knocking down one man who was not moving fast enough. Officers forced the whole crowd into the middle of the intersection of 47th St. and 7th Ave., where traffic -- already light and dominated by police vehicles -- came to a standstill. Police shoved people seemingly at random, as others streamed by behind and to the side of the herding officers.
Members of "Food Kitchen," a collective that provides free food at demonstrations, were caught up in a police corner sweep. Police pulled one of their group, Mark Randall, from the middle of his three associates, tossing his tray of food to the groundtaking him away, presumably under arrest.
Joan Stead, RNC attendee from Utah who was coming out of Aida, said the protests "disgusted" her. She said, "I think it just puts a shadow over the whole thing. I don't think anybody should be treated like this."
The New York Times reported that police arrested more than 50 protesters for obstructing the entrance to two hotels where RNC delegates are staying. New York City Police Commission Raymond W. Kelly told the Times that most of the 200 arrests throughout the day were for disorderly conduct, though nine people are being charged with felony assault.
In a press release, the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a group that often provides legal assistance to activists during demonstrators, criticized the treatment of those arrested. The group said that protesters were "being held in jail for up to 34 hours, only to be released on a desk appearance ticket, arrestees being held for as long as 20 hours, only to be released without charges, and the NYPD refusing attorneys who have asked to see their clients."
Overall, protest participants and organizers alike deemed the dayâ€™s events hugely successful. Various groups of activists have pledged to haunt the 5,000 Republican Convention-goers throughout the week, and tomorrow two large marches are planned to highlight the effects of the Bush administrationâ€™s policies on poor people.