Protest Postcards From New York
Among the approximately 150,000 people who took to the streets of New York on March 20 to protest the US occupation of Iraq were six Nation interns. After chanting and marching, they wrote the following "postcards" about what they saw.
"Bush claimed to be a uniter," shouted the young speaker. "He was right. He has united all of us against him." From my embedded position amid the masses on Madison Avenue and 27th Street, I glimpsed throngs of colorful signs projecting a canon of diverse calls in opposition to the Bush agenda. "Left Behind" signs were pinned to the backs of children who sat atop their parents' shoulders; hipsters with pink slips thought it time to "give Bush the pink slip"; Haitian and Philippine Americans rallied for an end to US interventions around the world; and "He Lied, They Died" signs bobbed and swayed against a brisk blue sky. This, of course, was the slogan that best captured the meaning of Saturday morning. A backlash of casualties continues daily, as a world on fire copes with the effects of unbridled power and militant retaliation.
Looking back to the 2003 marches in San Francisco, I realize now how much easier it was to protest a war that, though imminent, had not yet begun. Today, shouting for the immediate pullout of all troops seems too simplistic a solution for the complex task of stabilizing Iraq. But such is the nature of the protest slogan. What stands as vital is the collective energy engendered by the river of thousands flowing through New York City. It asserts to those in power that one year later, the people--as diverse in thought, country and age as they are--still, somehow, stand united in the streets.
On the first day of spring , Americans rallied together in New York to mark the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The lack of cops on horseback probably added to the absence of the tension that marked last year's protests. Still, the original anger and frustration ran deep among the protesters. The tens of thousands who marched reminding the world that we're "still" against the war could not be pigeonholed into one, in the unforgettable words of Ari Fleischer, "focus group." No matter what the agenda--people called not just for troops out of Iraq but out of Haiti, while also demanding the freedom of Palestine and Taiwan--everyone could agree that "Bush and Co." (Cheney, Rice, Powell and Rumsfeld) needed to be held accountable for the war crimes they have committed. The wide range in ages among the marchers was especially striking. The majority seemed to consist of the standard college-age up to late 20s, but many well-dressed professionals and button-clad elderly were also amply represented.
The protest was saturated with bobbing placards of Bush puppets. Usually he was just pictured as Public Enemy #1. Some more creative signs portrayed him as Hitler, trigger-happy GI Joe. oil-happy GI Joe and, in our very own Nation cover, as the gaptoothed Alfred E. Neuman. The best signs by far, however, was being held aloft by their parents. Hoisted on adult shoulders, a few children, looking bored or dazed, had the phrase "Left Behind" taped to their backs . It may take the average spectator a few seconds to get it; nevertheless, the confusion just reminds us that even we have managed to forget yet another promise our President has made and broken. It was comforting to see that even with all the war talk going on, we can remember our troubling domestic situation suggested by other signs, such as "Money for Jobs and Education, Not War."
This past Saturday the road was Madison Avenue. I had decided to march with THAW, Theaters Against War, who called for all New York actors, artists, street performers and activists to march together. Although I experience the energy of this crazy city daily, I was aware of something extra on Saturday morning, a heightened electricity and an unusual spirit of camaraderie. Protesters were sharing poles, staple guns and tape to lessen the burden of carrying signs and placards along the route.
Several groups were assembling in Bryant Park. "Historians Against the War" is an organization from more than forty colleges and universities formed last year for the purpose of calling a halt to the escalation of the war against Iraq. Jesse Lemisch, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted that the police were out in full force to accompany the marchers. He reminded me that historically, violence has "sometimes been initiated by the forces of law and order" and hoped that it wouldn't be a factor in Saturday's march. And it wasn't. The police were informative, helpful and even polite. What a difference from last year!
I located THAW members Kevin Hardy and Jillian Matundan, who represented the newly formed S.E.E. Theatre (Spontaneous Evolution Ensemble). These guys, who are presenting a new play in April at the Poets Den on East 108th Street, were distributing fliers along the route. And I met pert, pig-tailed Tannis Kawalchuck, who had organized the THAW contingent.
Also marching with THAW was FEVA, the Federation of East Village Artists. FEVA brought its very own New Orleans-style jazz band, which added whimsy to inspiration. Bass drum, snare, percussion, saxophone, trombone and clarinet not only enhanced the feeling of community but made carrying the banner much more bearable, as we grouped both in front of and behind them, performing our personal combinations of dancing and marching to an urbane jazz beat. The melody and tempo alternated between rousing Dixieland and classic blues, prompting us at one point to declare, "Let this be the New Orleans funeral music for the Bush Administration."
CISSY M. REBICH
"Sir, are you with the demonstration?" "Um, no," I manage to lie, sidling past the cop down the sidewalk, shooting a parting glance at my friend, hopelessly branded by her "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things" button. Above 34th Street, where we met, the cops penned the marchers in on the sidewalk to either side of the street; below 34th, the inscrutable crowd-control tactics of the NYPD dictate that we be herded into the street and kept from the sidewalks. When things come to a halt at 28th I decide to pass myself off as a pedestrian.
This affords me maybe a block and a half before it becomes clear that the sidewalk ahead is closed even to pedestrians. Rejoining the crowd, now shoulder to shoulder, I somehow work my way down to 25th Street before reaching the conclusion that it's impassable. I can't see the speakers. Several older gray-haired women elbow their way over to the barricade and ask the young Asian officer there to let them through. He's politely unyielding. The gray-haired women announce that one of their number is disabled, and sure enough the crowd parts to reveal a woman with a cane. Eventually the officer unhitches the barricade, and the Archimedean principle of crowd displacement does its work.
On my way back to my friends, I pass the by-now-familiar TARU (Technical Assistance Response Unit) cops with their videocameras and demonstrators holding a banner with a startling rendition of Guernica: all those twisted, compacted forms, reshaped under power's eye. When the crowd finally begins marching again, we swing round onto 23rd Street and eventually north on Sixth Avenue, by which point the police seem to have decided we no longer need to be so tightly contained. We happily spread out across the avenue, dissipating and mingling with the passers-by.
Ten blocks south of the heart of the peace march, protesters streamed through the Union Square subway station toward an uptown train. With their bright, hand-painted signs, faux floral crowns and cheerful maracas, the march-goers' excitement was perceptible and infectious. On the platform, two women passed around sheets printed with the lyrics of popular peace songs while several small children wearing signs that read "Left Behind" darted through the crowd of young and middle-aged protesters. Happy chatter praised the sunny weather, speculated about the day's turnout and recalled last year's antiwar march.
At Grand Central Terminal, the train's crowd spilled onto the street, mixing with activists hawking an array of fliers, signs and buttons. A picket line of labor strikers with a giant, inflatable rat and the rhythmic beating of a circling helicopter's blades added to the energized buzz of protesters walking along 42nd Street toward the march. At the north end of the barricades on Madison Avenue, a small but eager crowd of African-American and Hispanic high school students loudly chanted, "Drop Books, Not Bombs."
As the march's noon start time approached and the crowds began to swell, the energy of the day changed. The march's giddy enthusiasm took on a darker edge, as pockets of closely packed demonstrators began to chant aggressively. A unifying mood of discontentment was palpable, and the crowd's fervor for antiwar and anti-Bush sentiments was equally as clear. One popular and articulate poster read "Not One More Day. Not One More Death. Not One More Deception," while a more graphic poster depicted Bush in a bloody Rambo pose holding an Uzi.
Critics might say that a protest highlighting a war's one-year anniversary is an exercise in futility, but presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich argued otherwise when he characterized the peace march as "a statement of conscience [and] a statement of morality." The crowd responded to his words with a deep, rumbling cheer.
After five days of snow and rain the sun finally showed itself and warmed up the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who took the streets. The mixed crowd gathered to express its fury against the US occupation of Iraq. And Afghanistan. And Haiti. And Korea. And Puerto Rico. The one-year anniversary of the Iraq war turned out to be a massive protest against occupation and imperialism in general, wherever it is practiced. The most common symbol was the black, white, green and red flag of Palestine, often carried by resolute youngsters in black and white scarves.
The rallies in New York in February and March of last year had orchestras, dancers, hundreds of people riding on bikes, and signs with inventive and cogent slogans. This year much of the energy and ingenuity were gone. Maybe people were too angry, maybe their slogans now seemed like clichés. Some did stand out, though. A group of fifty Haitians called for the reinstallation of Aristide; a grim senior citizen flashed a sign saying: "Let's Not Kill Anyone Today, OK?"; and even Ronald Reagan was there, with red paint on his hands, juggling with a inflatable globe. There were "Elevator Mechanics for Peace," today represented by a single person, but he claimed that the other two at his company also opposed the war. Some people chanted pro-Spain slogans in response to comments made by US officials in the aftermath of the Spanish election saying that Spanish voters had handed terrorists a victory by voting to oust a conservative government that had lied to them..
The NYPD, "practicing" for the coming Republican convention, trailed the march with vans and helicopters. Dozens of officers walked in front of the cars, sometimes falling in the lines of the protesters, which was noticed by a young man. "I'm so glad you guys could make it," he said.