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.”
It’s important to organizers that the protests seem hospitable to members of the general public; otherwise, fearing confrontations between police and demonstrators, mainstream Bush-haters–who are legion–could stay home. Aware that opposition to Bush reaches across age, race and class lines in a way that many specific issues do not, organizers want to be as inclusive as possible. Compared with protests against the IMF, says Hickman, “there is really broad interest in this. Moms, dads–it’s not going to be just a bunch of 20-year-olds in the streets.”
The emphasis on artistic expression is partly borne out of this “discomfort with the idea of mass riots in the streets,” says Hickman. But these days, the government doesn’t seem to like “creative” and artistic expression against Bush any more than it likes marches and rallies. In Boston in late May, a student who dressed up as an Abu Ghraib torture victim, wearing a hood and standing on a milk crate in front of an Army recruiting center, was arrested and charged with making a terrorist threat (charges against him have been dropped). And in Buffalo, an artist faces indictment under the USA Patriot Act for making a political art installation that used scientific equipment; the Feds are, surreally, claiming that the art was actually a weapons lab.
This mentality has even affected New York City. The Tompkins Square Park concert, for example, has no permit yet. In March the group staging the event was issued a permit for a “concert” of no more than seventy-five decibels. “That’s basically your car stereo,” objects organizer Daryle Lamont Jenkins. In a peculiar development several weeks later, the group received a letter from the Parks and Recreation Department rescinding even that limited permit, claiming it was issued in “error.” Borough Commissioner William Castro wrote, “At this time we are unable to make determinations on any permit applications for events of this scale on September 2, 2004.” If the Bloomberg administration doesn’t give in, says Jenkins, “they will more or less prove our point, which is that Republicans are repressing our rights as American citizens.”
That could help swell the protesters’ ranks and involve still more artistic types, who tend to respond indignantly to First Amendment violations. And as Hickman points out, these repressive incidents do keep the protests in the news, and almost always sympathetically. Jenkins, for his part, is still optimistic that the concert will take place and, most important, that cultural and political activists will continue to work together to fight the right. “The left has more momentum than it’s had in thirty years,” he says. “Let’s hope it stays that way if Kerry wins.”