New York City; Aug. 31, 2004 – Thousands participated in organized civil disobedience and spontaneous protests in still another day of demonstrations surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York City. Todayâ€™s actions, loosely coordinated and spread throughout Manhattan, were met by a massive and intolerant police force. Police arrested hundreds of nonviolent protesters in what one civil rights lawyer dubbed a clear policy of "pre-emption."
A decentralized conglomeration of groups, calling itself A31, planned many of todayâ€™s protests and said they intended to engage in nonviolent "direct action" and other forms of peaceful protest to call attention to the casualties of war and war profiteering, protest the corporate mediaâ€™s role in disinformation, and generally interfere with the visits of RNC delegates.
Near the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, a group of protesters was detained by the police as they set out to march toward the Convention Center. Those remaining participated in a "die in" to symbolize war casualties before being arrested themselves. Farther uptown, protesters held a "Fox News Shut-Up-a-thon" outside the right wing news networkâ€™s building. In uptown Manhattan people angered over a Republican delegates visit to an auction of Johnny Cash paraphernalia held a lively protest. And in various other rallies and protests, activists blocked traffic and heckled delegates.
â€œI was heading out of work and I saw this and I knew I had to join it... Itâ€™s quite simple: if youâ€™re for democracy and peace, you are going to be against Bush.â€ --Christine Washburn, New Yorker
In all, police spokesperson Jennara Everleth told The NewStandard the department arrested 1,100 people Tuesday. The majority of arrests occurred during mass round-ups that failed to distinguish between protesters engaging in civil disobedience, other demonstrators, disinterested bystanders, media and legal observers. Since protest began last week, police say, over 1,700 arrests have been made in connection with anti-RNC protests, mostly for disorderly conduct and obstructing government administration, both misdemeanors.
The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which have deployed legal observers to the demonstrations this week, have condemned police conduct.
Former New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Norman Siegel, who acted as an observer today, said he believed the police were engaging in "pre-emptive arrest," which he said is unconstitutional and illegal. "This is a very Orwellian doctrine with huge legal implications. Never has it been legitimate for the police to arrest people for merely thinking about committing civil disobedience or who appear like they are going to engage in civil disobedience."
Antiwar March and â€˜Die-inâ€™
By 3 p.m. several hundred people had gathered at the former site of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks. Most of the demonstrators were associated with national antiwar groups School of the Americas Watch and the War Resisters League.
Among the 100 or so police officers who assembled nearby, many wore no badges or individual identification, their shirts bearing only the NYPD insignia and the letters TARU, for Technical Assistance and Response Unit. When Marie Kullman, an SOA Watch member, noted the officersâ€™ lack of identification, she remarked, "I know what to expect now."
Greg Harvey, an accountant wearing a business suit who said he works near the WTC site, approached wearing a wide-eyed expression. Asked why he was there he replied that curiosity had gotten the better of him. "I'm pleased with this," he said. "'I would like to see more people protest. And I'm very impressed with the diversity."
As the planned marching time of 4 p.m. approached, Matt Dallisio of the War Resisters League began organizing protesters into columns. "We're well within our legal right to free speech," he said. "As long as people follow the laws, walking two-by-two and crossing with the light, we shouldn't have a problem."
Right before the march began, a police officer who addressed the crowd confirmed Dallisioâ€™s assumption, encouraging demonstrators to remain on the sidewalk in two orderly columns.
But as the first marchers began walking, police halted them in the middle of the street when a traffic light turned against them. While several protesters were attempting to make it back onto the sidewalk, police arrested two of them and then promptly surrounded and began arresting the bunched-up group behind them, whom the police had ordered to halt. The only explanation offered by police was that the marchers had violated contrary instructions by blocking the sidewalk. In all, police arrested about 200 demonstrators in the incident.
In a press release issued later in the day, the New York chapter of the ACLU condemned the police tactic, which it referred to as "bait and switch." According to the NYCLU, Bill Perkins, a city council member who negotiated with police during the demonstration, called the tactic a deliberate "set-up" on the part of police.
After the arrests, Eric LeCompte, SOA Watch communications director, announced the decision by some to march anyway, using a different route. "The plan here is to bring the memory of Ground Zero, the memory of our lost loved ones, to the warmongers at Madison Square garden," LeCompte said before adding a warning that participants would be risking arrest.
"We're trying to do what we're allowed to do," said Kate Gondall of New York City, one of the two women who led the resumed procession.
Many walking or driving by honked and waved at the marchers, who now numbered around 220 strong. A few bystanders attempted to badger the demonstrators, though none of the marchers took the bait.
At the intersection of Broadway and 25th St., an officer with a megaphone stepped in front of the line and halted the march.
At that moment, 54 members of the procession walked into the street and began to perform a planned "die-in" demonstration. The activists laid down in the streets in symbolic representation of those killed in the war against Iraq. After about five minutes, police surrounded and arrested the demonstrators, whose comrades cheered them on from the sidewalk.
LeCompte was pleased with the demonstration. "I have to say that I'm amazed by this action," he said. "I really feel this turned out well. It was terrible the way this started off, with police illegally arresting over 200 people. But this is but one way to let people know what the Bush administration's foreign policy is doing here and across the world. These people who participated in the die-in are true heroes."
The FOX News â€˜Shut-Up-A-Thonâ€™
At 4:00 p.m. protesters gathered in front of the FOX News building, which towers above the Avenue of the Americas in Midtown Manhattan. Protesters hurled slogans like "The more you watch, the less you know" at the building.
Numbering in the hundreds, the protestersâ€™ ranks were swelled by passersby who joined in the demonstration.
"I'm tired of the lies the media puts out, and FOX news is the worst," said Queens, NY resident Jamel Jackson, a nurse currently on disability. "It's total propaganda. I think American people need to be treated with respect."
Peter Gilbert, 26, from Raleigh, NC, commented, "One thing that's good about [the FOX protest] is that is raises the consciousness of the people that it isn't just the President; it's also the media."
Mackenzie Macker, 27, works at a group home for people with mental disabilities in Utica, New York. "There are a few different things going on today, but this seemed to be the most interesting," he said. "Most people have been mislead by FOX News, which is dragging the political spectrum to the right."
At one point, protesters hung an inflatable Bush doll from a noose above the crowd, and police, numbering about 100, spent most of the time pushing the protesters off of the sidewalk, ostensibly to clear the way for pedestrians.
Defending the Legacy of Johnny Cash
In a continuation of the tactical theme of stalking GOP delegates to the various daytime events set up for their visit to the Big Apple, roughly 400 activists answered a call to protest the Republican Partyâ€™s "cooptation" of the image of country singer Johnny Cash, who died last year at age 71. Protestors heckled delegates who attended a showing of Cashâ€™s possessions, which have been placed on the block at the elite auction house, Sothebyâ€™s in Uptown Manhattan.
Guitarists strummed Johnny Cash favorites while the crowd of demonstrators, most of whom wore black in homage to the music legend, sang along. Songs were interspersed with lively chants, among them: "Welcome to New York, now go the fuck home."
John McCarthy, a Metro worker from Brooklyn, expressed outrage at what demonstrators considered the Republicansâ€™ use of Cashâ€™s image and possessions. "I am a working class person so I can identify with him," McCarthy said. "He stood up for the poor and native Americans. Now the man's dead and the Republicans are using his name for something he would be very much against. Cash would be against the current war in Iraq, the economic problems in the US, and the US exploitation of the third world."
In reality, according to recent press reports, it appears even Cashâ€™s own family is unaware of his political affiliation, if he held any. Cashâ€™s family approved the event but distanced itself from supporting either party.
The March to Nowhere
More than 100 people began a protest march with no specific theme from the New York Public Library, heading toward Madison Square Garden to protest the convention itself. Numerous bystanders joined the event just before police surrounded the procession, wrapped its participants in the orange, fence-like netting they have employed on numerous occasions since Sunday, and arrested several dozen demonstrators.
Literature handed out by members of a group called the True Security collective, which appeared to play a leading role in the demonstration, stated the groupsâ€™ reason for engaging in civil disobedience was to "emphatically and nonviolently withdraw our consent from the Bush administration." The collective expresses an alternate view of "security" to that articulated by the GOP, which includes meeting "the basic needs of life for food, water, shelter, health care, community, a thriving environment, education, opportunity for meaningful work and pleasure."
When one demonstrator with a foreign accent asked why police had rendered the sidewalk off limits to protesters, an officer identified as Sergeant Owen responded, "Look, if you donâ€™t fucking like it, why donâ€™t you go back to where you came from?"
Christine Washburn, 23, came upon the demonstration after leaving her job at J.P. Morgan. "I was heading out of work and I saw this and I knew I had to join it," Washburn said, adding that was trying to obtain a political button to wear. "Itâ€™s quite simple: if youâ€™re for democracy and peace, you are going to be against Bush."
Among an estimated 40-50 others, police arrested Dan Myers, a 43 year-old New Yorker. While he was being taken into custody, he told The NewStandard, "I didnâ€™t do anything except engage in peaceful protest."
Playing â€˜Hardballâ€™ with MSNBCâ€™s Chris Mathews
By 7:00 p.m., protesters converged on Madison Square Garden, the site of the GOP Convention, coming from all directions. At the same time, hundreds of people were trying to get shop or get to the train on their way home from work, causing significant confusion and dense crowds at Broadway and 34th Street.
Around the corner, a large crowd of protesters gathered to yell at delegates gathered to watch an outdoor taping of the MSNBC show, Hardball with Chris Matthews.
At one point, a protester wearing an Abu Ghraib-style mask rushed the stage, but police tackled him and pulled him off camera.
By 8 p.m., police corralled the crowd onto the sidewalk with pens, and officers were walking into the dense crowd to break it up, threatening people with arrest.
There was some resistance by activists as police asked people to disperse. Many yelled remarks such as, "You're breaking up our protest; we have a right to protest." Tensions with the police escalated as the crowd chanted at delegates passing by and police continued to try to break up the unruly gathering exacerbated by repeated encounters with unforgiving police personnel throughout the evening.
Rally and Civil Disobedience at Herald Square
At around 8:30 p.m., eleven people wearing black hoods sat in the street and linked their arms to block traffic, which included buses headed to the convention. The intersection was immediately filled with police and media. Chris from Austin Texas, one of the protesters blocking traffic, said: "I am doing this in solidarity with poor people in America who cannot have their voice heard. It is the responsibility of people with privilege to take risks and make sure that we can have justice in this country." When asked why he used this tactic, he said, "We are disrupting business as usual at the GOP convention." He said his group was not a part of a specific organization.
Another participant, a young woman who declined to give her name, said: "[W]e were standing on the sidewalks out there trying to give a message to the Republicans. [The police] split our groups, and so we wanted to stop the buses because they wonâ€™t let us give our message any other way."
Bob, from Austin Texas said: "We want to stop the delegates from getting to Madison Square Garden. We're blocking a bus of delegates right now. The reasons for this action are varied, but primarily while there is bloodshed going on in the streets of Iraq we can't allow the GOP Convention to run roughshod over the city of NY and the US the way it has."
When police arrested the eleven activists, the crowd that had gathered was outraged. Nervous police pushed protesters and pressed metal pens against the crowd. Tensions escalated on both sides. When another 200 protesters showed up, the climate shifted among the attendant police units.
Police began to push the crowd back onto 35th St. toward the East Side of the city. Some 1000 protesters headed down that street followed by police in riot gear. While the impromptu march gained momentum, police on foot and on scooters surrounded the demonstrators and then rushed into the group.
The result was mayhem. Two groups of roughly 150 were trapped between the fence of scooters and the walls of the buildings on the side of the street. Within seconds, police began throwing activists and bystanders onto the sidewalk and handcuffed them, some clearly hitting their heads.
Police arrested legal observers as well as bystanders leaving a nearby restaurant.
As police lifted handcuffed people by the arms and carried them into a truck, legal observers attempted to gather names and phone numbers of the approximately 150 arrestees. One observer called to an arrested protester kneeling on the ground, "I called your mom, she's behind you!"
The cuffed girl was happily surprised. "No way! Tell her I was trapped and didn't try to get arrested."
Protesters who remained free became outraged at the police. Many of them sputtered insults at every officer who passed by.
As the arrests were taking place, John Gan from Baltimore, MD said: "My feelings as far as what we've been witnessing over the last couple of days in New York is that there is no right to peaceably assemble in the city. We can't just stand here and express ourselves."
Asked how he felt about the evenings mass arrests, officer Deputy Burns remarked: "They were blocking the street. They were asked to leave and didn't. I have no feeling about it. There's no feeling involved."
Linda Milazo, a writer from Los Angeles and a member of the womenâ€™s antiwar group called Code Pink, said of the dayâ€™s events: "It's what happens when there is a nation at risk because of a president who shouldn't be in office. It's what happens when a nation begins to hate each other and to fall apart from within because itâ€™s not getting any love from the people that are running it. And it is being turned against itself as the rest of the world gets together to gang up on us because they hate us too. So we're hating each other and we're being hated. This is what George Bush has given us. No love, no support. Just a lot of dysfunction."
Late in the evening, in and around Union Square, police officers isolated groups of people marching or gathered on sidewalks, surrounded them, and began making seemingly random mass arrests. Witnesses estimated as many as 300 people were caught up in the procedure, repeated again and again in the area. After 10:00 p.m., the streets were far from quiet. Police were everywhere and several blocks had been shut down. There were many people conducting spontaneous mini-marches along portions of the street.