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Protestors Greet Start of GOP Convention with Poor Peopleâ€TMs Marches

by NewStandard Correspondents
Benjamin Dangl
Andrew Kennis and Amanda Luker contributed to this piece.

Themes of poverty dominate Monday's major protest marches, which are smaller but more lively than Sunday's broader-based main event. As it nears the Convention center, police attack the "March for Our Lives."

New York City; Aug. 31, 2004 – As the first day of the Republican National Convention commenced today at Madison Square Garden in New York City, opponents of the Bush administration and the Republican agenda continued to march in the streets.

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Today’s two major demonstrations highlighted poverty, hunger and homelessness and what organizers said was politicians’ failure to address the struggles of America’s most vulnerable. The second march, which lacked a demonstration permit, ended in the arrests of several people under unclear circumstances.

"Our city has unique problems that need to be addressed," said Jean Rice, an organizer with the Still We Rise Coalition, sponsor of the day’s first march, which kicked of at midday from Union Square and traveled to an area near Madison Square Garden. "Our job base has been eradicated; our free educational system has been taken away. The present people at the bottom of New York social strata have no hope for jobs, no hope for education, but they are going to be stuck at the bottom."

Another large demonstration began in the late afternoon at the United Nations Union with speakers calling for international human rights monitors to observe conditions in the US.

Throughout the day, protesters cited crises in housing, health care, jobs, wages, AIDS, immigration policy and other concerns directly affecting low-income members of society as reasons they were taking to the streets.

The anti-Bush sentiment expressed in the protestors’ sign and speeches did not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, John Kerry. Still We Rise organizer Jean Rice said, “Neither party has addressed hunger and homelessness, which was identified by the National Conference of Mayors as a major domestic crisis.”

Unlike yesterday’s massive United for Peace and Justice march, which, for the most part, calmly meandered its way through Midtown Manhattan streets, today’s demonstrations bore a bit more edge.

"Yesterday’s [march] was encouraging from the standpoint of Middle America because there were a lot of different kinds of people represented," explained Roy Zimmerman, a musician from Los Angeles. "Today is kind of the ‘usual suspects’ and that’s why it has more of an edge to it. It’s hard to say which kind of a rally would have more of an effect on public consciousness or public policy."

"Still We Rise"

At the Still We Rise march, in which 5,000 people participated, a woman named Santana said she was at the march to represent the Coalition for the Homeless, a national advocacy group that helps people in homeless shelters find suitable housing and protects the rights of the homeless. Santana herself works at a women’s shelter in New York.

"The Republican party has not signed an act to continue Section 8 funding as a subsidy for people to afford housing," she said, "and without that funding going into effect many families are housed in substandard shelters all around the city."

She continued: "This is a poor people’s march. People are saying we did not elect this president, his agenda is not our agenda… So we are representing ourselves."

As explained by James Lewis, the Still We Rise coalition is made up of over 50 grassroots organizations, mostly from New York City, that have come together to amplify the voices of poor people. Lewis is also a member of Harlem Operation Take Back, a tenant advocacy organization fighting the negative effects of gentrification in the historically black, traditionally poor but culturally rich Northern Manhattan neighborhood.

Still We Rise organizers said they are working to register 100,000 voters for the upcoming election.

The anti-Bush sentiment expressed in the protestors’ sign and speeches, however, did not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, John Kerry.

Still We Rise organizer Jean Rice said, "Neither party has addressed hunger and homelessness, which was identified by the National Conference of Mayors as a major domestic crisis."

Steve Ekverg, from Burlington, VT, who collects unemployment, carried an enormous black sign with neon letters that said, "Elect Ralph Nader." A few people came by Ekverg, heckling him with comments like, "I like Ralph, but not this year."

"I get a lot of support and I get a lot of dissention," Ekverg said. "They think Kerry is going to be a difference from Bush and give us peace when Kerry has outright said that he is going to escalate the war in Iraq. They are so filled with hysteria and emotion that they can’t think straight."

"I’m marching because a lot of people don’t have homes and I’m one of them," said Raymond B., 46, who strips and waxes floors for a living. From Brooklyn, Raymond says he has been homeless for a year and a half and is marching with the Coalition for the Homeless. "If I can help families and children have homes, then I can feel like I’m accomplishing something."

Raymond said he will not be voting this year. "Why?" he asked rhetorically. "They’re just going to do what they want anyway."

"March for Our Lives"

The second anti-poverty event of the day started at 4:00 p.m. in a small park near the United Nations. In gearing up for the march, organizers said they intended to march up to the doors of the Convention and serve George Bush with an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity. Speakers at the rally called attention to loss of housing, jobs, food security and health care, saying the deprivation of each constitutes human rights abuses in the United States. They called on the Organization of American States to send human rights observers to the US to monitor these abuses.

Organizers did not obtain a permit for the march, which also numbered about 5,000 participants.

Sherry Larson-Beville, an elderly woman who came all the way from Oakland, California to attend the march, said her participation in the afternoon protest was a continuation of the earlier Still We Rise coalition action, a response echoed by many of the protesters.

Larson-Beville said: "It’s important to be here with like-minded people that care passionately about people that are homeless, jobless without medical care, without education. There are a whole bunch of issues that are being represented at this march. I thought this would be a great place to come and be with people and to march for the people that have the smallest voice in this country."

The march was part of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC), an effort by over 100 groups from across the nation to call attention to poverty as a human rights violation.

Tim Dowlin, an eight year organizer with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, a major sponsor of the march and a member of the PPEHRC, said the goal of the coalition is to "unify as many grassroots anti-poverty organizations as possible, so we can build an organized mass movement that can act together doing everything from educational activities like reality tours to marches and even direct actions, such as abandoned housing takeovers and welfare office sit-ins."

Another group in attendance was the Immokalee Migrant Agricultural Workers, who are undocumented immigrants largely from Mexico and Central America. They have been struggling for years against low wages and exploitative labor conditions in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Florida.

Immokalee worker Gerardo Reyes Chavez, 25, said: "We’re all in the same struggle as we’re all poor people. Maybe it’s harder for us people who don’t have papers in the fields, but the small differences don’t matter because if we all come here together and are united, we’ll all be stronger."

After the rally, a procession started to assemble at one of the corners of the small park. A number of elderly people, three of them in wheel chairs, and several baby strollers with toddlers squirming in excited anticipation led the procession behind a banner reading "March for Our Lives, Stop the War at Home."

One of the elderly people at the front of the march was Barbara Moore, who traveled all the way from Chicago to attend the protest. Asked why she was willing to risk arrest by participating in a non-permitted march, Moore simply responded from her wheel chair, "Well, we need more low-income and public housing, so I’m here to support that!"

When the procession edged out of the park, heading west, the police simply moved out of the way and even escorted the un-permitted demonstration, taking out two lanes of traffic for the demonstration.

Police Sergeant Codiglia, a commander from the Manhattan South Borough Patrol, was on hand to explain the decision. "Sometimes you just have to be a human being first, and you just have to do the right thing and common sense prevails," Codiglia said. He added, "The fact that they were obviously going to do a peaceful march led to the decision, you have to take all of these un-permitted marches on a case-by-case basis and this was the appropriate call to make for this demonstration."

As the crowd slowly moved down 2nd Avenue, protesters boisterously shouted, "Money for housing, not for war" while police flanked the march with an exaggerated presence including dozens of scooters manned by officers and many police vans behind the march.

Jeremy Flannery, a writer from Ohio, said he felt that the police presence at the march seemed "like a takeover." Flannery said: "I have never seen police with M-16s before. That’s pretty damn scary that they feel the need for that."

The march continued down 2nd Avenue all the way from 47th street to 23rd street, finally turning west toward the convention center. From the time that the un-permitted march received the go-ahead from the police as well as being escorted by them, few expected a confrontation to occur.

However, as the march started veering north toward the Convention center, the police suddenly divided the demonstration into two as undercover officers on scooters and motorcycles drove right into the middle of the protest. Chaos ensued as people attempted to jump over police barricades. There were eyewitness reports of injuries and an unknown number of people were arrested. Details were sketchy at press time.

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