Defying Convention

Defying Convention

This article draws on reporting by Eyal Press, Esther Kaplan and Katha Pollitt.

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In the days leading up to the protests against the Republican National Convention, the specter of possible violence by radicals fueled much of the media coverage of the activists. Fox News made every effort to conflate dissenters with terrorism, not by reporting terrorism by protesters–since there wasn’t any–but by constantly juxtaposing the words “protest” and “terrorists.” The New York Post even reported that the Weather Underground, a group with less relevance these days than the Jefferson Starship, was plotting a comeback.

The hysteria wasn’t limited to the far-right Murdoch media. The New York Times reported that a “shadowy group” was coming to town–hoodlums known for “throwing rocks.” The Daily News warned of Anarchists Hot for Mayhem. Former 1960s radicals joined the chorus, fretting over the possibility that if the RNC protests got rowdy, Middle America, fearing anarchy and chaos, would vote Republican in droves, “just like in 1968.”

Let’s cut to reality, shall we? On Sunday, August 29, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) led half a million people in a peaceful march through Manhattan past Madison Square Garden, where the Republicans would convene the next day. Many were mainstream and patriotic. (One sign read, Our Flag Should Stand for Pride, Not Arrogance.) Although the whole gamut of liberal-left cultural and ideological tendencies was on display, the marchers were united in their opposition to George W. Bush and his right-wing agenda. Police were mellow. Like everybody else, they mostly sipped sodas, enjoyed the spectacle and tried to stay cool. (There were about 200 arrests, but most of them were away from the main march.)

Although the city had denied UFPJ a permit to rally in Central Park, citing the need to protect the grass, many protesters gathered there anyway after the legal march downtown. Despite fears that that gathering would be confrontational, it was, literally, a walk in the park, as demonstrators lounged on the much-venerated grass and recovered from the day’s rousing exercise of constitutional freedoms and talked quietly among themselves.

Certainly, some of the negative pre-publicity helped get the word out about the event. But tales of anarchists bent on violence surely kept many away who might otherwise have attended. As Naomi Klein pointed out in several radio interviews, Todd Gitlin and others, riding the 1968 analogy, handed well-meaning New Yorkers a “get out of the protest free” card, and that’s unfortunate.

United for Peace and Justice deserves a peace prize of sorts for organizing such a smooth event. The police and the city deserve some share of that praise, but with plenty of caveats. Rallies are usually the least exciting part of mass marches, but even though this march was undoubtedly more inspiring and more fun without a gasfest afterward, the city should not have prevented the rally. Of more than 1,700 arrests through the third day of the convention, some were deserved (a crew of knuckleheads who purposely set a dragon puppet on fire during the march, for example). But many people were targeted by police for reasons unclear. Bicycling demonstrators, obviously nonviolent, accounted for many of the arrests. On Tuesday, 1,187 people were arrested, many of whom were simply standing on the sidewalk protesting. Across the street from Ground Zero, 200 quiet, peaceful demonstrators, led by the War Resisters League, were trapped by police in a huge orange net. Those arrested were charged, absurdly, with “obstructing governmental administration,” although earlier that day the Mayor himself had given them permission to march on the sidewalk. “They are just people off the streets wholesale,” said UFPJ’s Bill Dobbs. “It’s very unprofessional.”

Many RNC protesters, according to Simone Levine of the National Lawyers Guild, were being held well over the legal limit of twenty-four hours. “The goal is to keep people off the streets,” Dobbs explained. Many were denied the right to counsel, and Pier 57, where many protesters were held, has asbestos and fire-safety problems. Some of those detained said the floor of the former bus terminal was a virtual oil slick; they had to sleep on the floor, and some emerged with serious chemical burns.

Throughout the week, people engaged in acts of civil disobedience, although it was not always evident what tactical purpose it served. “There is no one right way to demonstrate, and the incredible diversity of protests this week is exciting,” said Alex Vitale, an activist and sociologist who works with several direct-action groups, speaking on Saturday before most protests began. “But what concerns me is that these tactics don’t necessarily embody any specific policy. It is not clear what is the point.”

Sometimes the point was simply the right to dissent, and some did so with a clear critique of Bush policy. As veteran civil liberties lawyers pointed out all week, the best way to fight for our liberties is to exercise them, lawfully and unlawfully. That’s why when the city denied permits to some groups, including the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and the Still We Rise Coalition, both representing poor people, they marched anyway, with dignity and discipline, tightly focused on a message of economic justice. After the Tuesday arrests at Ground Zero, about fifty protesters marched from the site reading the First Amendment aloud, then staged a “die in” at 28th Street and Broadway.

After all the hysteria about those on the fringes, RNC week made it clear we wouldn’t have resistance movements without them. The clean-cut middle class showed up to protest, but the activists and artists of the left made sure those good citizens had someplace to go–and that they were entertained. Spectacles included Billionaires for Bush playing croquet in Central Park’s no-speech zone and the Pink Bloque, a Chicago-based radical feminist dance troupe blasting Janet Jackson and breaking into a routine when the march stalled in the hot sun. It’s worth remembering that whether they’re anarchists (in the A31 coalition, which organized many of the direct actions) or socialists (like many in the UFPJ leadership), often it is radicals who most effectively defend the mainstream values of America: values like democracy, free speech and inclusion. At Sunday’s march, a lively band of communists, entirely young people of color, wore red T-shirts and waved red flags. They chanted, “We are ‘the people’ too!”

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