The Fine Art of Bush-Bashing
For the past decade, in contrast with the 1960s, political and cultural dissidents have occupied largely separate worlds. Antiglobalization activism, for example, inspired little music and art of significance, and with a few notable exceptions, the cultural underground--indie rockers, hip-hop performers and visual artists--stayed out of politics. Protest art was becoming an oxymoron. As New York City's preparations for the Republican convention show, George W. Bush is changing all that.
Artists, musicians and other creative types, most unaffiliated with activist organizations, are planning numerous ways to "welcome" the Republicans. A No RNC Poster Project is attracting stunning talent. The Bowery Poetry Club will be open twenty-four hours throughout the convention. Visitors to the city at the end of August may see illegal murals with political messages, and the city itself may become a giant art installation. Don't be surprised if, say, you're crossing the street and a traffic light flashes "Beat Bush" instead of "Don't Walk." Some visual interventions may even be visible from the air, greeting the right-wingers as they fly into the city (since we don't want to spoil such plans, that's all we're going to say about them). One People's Project, a New Brunswick, New Jersey, antiracist group whose website offers free "Ronald Reagan Rots in Hell" buttons, plans to hold a punk rock and hip-hop concert along with Punknite.com, MediaClectic and Ever Reviled Records in Tompkins Square Park on September 2.
Of course, standard-issue protests are planned, too, and not insignificant ones: While organizers won't say how many people they expect, considering the strength of the coalitions and the rank vileness of the Republicans, 1 million people could easily show up. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) hopes to hold a march and rally on August 29. A coalition called Still We Rise will lead a Poor People's March & Rally for Justice the next day.
The city is desperately trying to prevent these actions from happening. The G-8 meeting in Georgia set a bad example, as protesters were banned from Sea Island, and the surrounding area was practically under military occupation--Humvees, police and military uniforms were everywhere. As a result, only a few hundred protesters showed up. In New York City it would be impossible to prevent protest, but local officials are doing their best. So far, only the Labor Day march, which is organized by major unions, has been granted a permit. The Parks and Recreation Department has refused to issue UFPJ a permit for a rally in Central Park, ostensibly out of concern for the vegetation. Every major city newspaper, including the right-wing New York Post, has objected to the city's decision. Most New Yorkers agree with UFPJ spokesman Bill Dobbs, who says, "It is a public park. It's not a grass museum!"
There is no doubt that some activists are planning to engage in direct action and civil disobedience. But there is less emphasis on this than at past protests; indeed, the plans for colorful artistic activism are more representative of the prevailing spirit. Activists do not, at a time when hostility to Bush is so widespread, want to help him out by creating an unappealing fracas. Amanda Hickman, a Reclaim the Streets activist who has often been involved in direct action in the past, is now working instead on Counterconvention.org, a website informing the public about RNC protests. "We are really trying to figure out what will be most effective," she says. "There is a lot of concern about how this could play out in the press. You don't want people to just see masked anarchists running around."