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.”