Among the few hundred thousand people who took to the streets of New York on February 15 to protest an invasion of Iraq were the current group of Nation interns. When they weren’t busy passing out Nation buttons, distributing free copies of a special antiwar issue of the mag or chanting and marching, they wrote the following “postcards” about what they saw.
The crowds that gathered at Central Park South shortly before noon didn’t need a march permit from the city. They marched anyway. Accompanied by the tunes of a Dixieland brass band, high-spirited protesters headed eastward from the park, on their way to a rally near the United Nations. On East 59th Street, cars were islands in the crowd, which had spilled off the sidewalks and into the streets. “Whose streets? Our streets!” was a favorite chant. Some cars honked in support, others in annoyance. One man in a minivan shook hands with protesters as they passed by. The massive crowd confused police, who at first tried to keep marchers on the sidewalks but then began to block off streets, setting up crowd-control barricades right in the midst of the moving masses. Many marchers were vocally displeased when they reached First Avenue, where pens had been set up to contain the rally. Protesters were in no mood to be penned in–and, in the face of an overwhelming mass of people, even the police seemed only half-committed to the idea. In the upper 60s, crowds on First Avenue continually circumvented the pens. “They are trying to control us, man,” muttered one protester as he moved aside a metal barricade and continued to walk southward, in the direction of the UN. Many others followed, and the spirit of the crowd rose again as people moved forward in the bitter-cold afternoon. Later, as the protest was nearing its conclusion, two police officers guarded a 59th Street Bridge off-ramp. The ramp had been closed to traffic, and departing groups started to walk up it. “People,” yelled one of the officers, “you can’t walk on the bridge.” The walkers ignored him. With a laugh that sounded both exasperated and resigned, he asked his companion, “What can you do?” It was clearly a rhetorical question.
As the march headed east along 59th, the mood was festive. Members of THAW (Theatre Against War) and the Bread and Puppet collective paraded in colorful costumes and carried dramatic puppets. A brass band played “Freedom Time” and “A Love Supreme,” while a rhythm section on wheels set a driving beat. Marchers chanted slogans and held banners and signs, many of which used humor to lampoon the Bush Administration. Among them were “Old Europe we thank you” and “Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld: Axis of Weasel.”
There had been a fair degree of uncertainty about how the day would unfold as the city had granted permission for a rally only at 49th Street and First Avenue rather than for the march and rally that organizers had requested. However, by early afternoon, the massive turnout overwhelmed the police, who could not contain the sea of people flowing into the streets. On WBAI a police officer was quoted as saying that the marchers had won control of the streets; it was then that the cavalry was called in, with squads of police officers on horseback riding up Second Avenue to move the protesters back. They rode into the advancing march, preventing most from reaching the rally in front of the United Nations. Dozens of marchers were arrested. The police actions were in obvious contrast to the joyful spirit of the marchers and served as a reminder of the official crackdown on dissent occurring coast to coast. But, though the march was disrupted, the cry for peace and justice had already gotten out.
Choruses of whoops and hollers rippled across the crowd, starting with one person or one group and quickly spreading out to the thousands that packed the streets farther than the eye could see. The buildings themselves echoed back, a megaphone for the masses.
On 60th Street between Second and Third Avenues, a powerful duo led a chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” “We are what democracy looks like!” The cheer has been popular at demonstrations since the WTO protests in Seattle in December 1999.
When demonstrators reached the avenues, police forced them onto sidewalks too narrow to hold the wave of people. On Second Avenue the protesters spilled onto the street, yelling, “Whose streets!” “Our streets!”
A line of mounted police stopped protesters at each intersection to prevent marchers from crossing the avenues. In response, the protesters put their voices together to chant, “Let us through!”
The police held their ground and without warning the crowd heaved as the police pushed forward with their horses and pressed people back onto the sidewalks. Several demonstrators were hit, inciting a passionate call by the demonstrators. “Shame on you!”
Barricades sectioned off a path through First Avenue, but the protesters who were meant to gather in those makeshift corrals had spilled onto the sidewalks and streets. It was the police who stood in the otherwise empty pens, eyeing a crowd that cheered speakers whom we could not see. Nearly twelve blocks from the stage, I stood, with thousands of others, within earshot of a radio to hear the speeches. I was unable to glimpse much–the helicopters circling the sky, an overpass to the Queensboro Bridge and the surrounding buildings. Yet the crowd–hardly visible to this one man standing in the midst of it–stood out, not so much for its vast size but because of the individuals nearby: a drag queen held a sign reading “Make Up Not War,” a scruffy-faced college kid carried one saying “Peace Rocks” and several parents shouldering their children.
Some at Saturday’s antiwar rally chose to capitalize upon a Valentine’s Day theme, with pictures of George W. in the arms of various world leaders, making love (not war). “Dear George,” one placard offered, “your daddy will still love you if you don’t bomb Iraq.” But satire aside, the mood on Second Avenue soon became tense, rather than festive. As mounted police divided the crowds and pushed them towards the sidewalks, a group of black-clad protesters carried a large plywood coffin, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” Others expressed their frustration by covering their mouths with duct tape and marching mutely through the streets. Certainly many felt as though they had been silenced, as horses and police barricades directed them north, south, and west–every direction but toward the official site of the demonstration.
The Unitarian Choir was popular. Stationed at the corner of 60th Street and Second Avenue, the group of eight (four men, four women) came from Pennsylvania that day to sing hymns and traditional songs in the spirit of peace. Their performing semicircle, surrounded by a larger arc of the impromptu audience, offered a warm refuge to the march taking place just over our shoulders. “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” was predictably popular. And the crowd of onlookers grew appreciably during “Imagine.” But I liked best the old spirituals, many of whose names I regrettably don’t know.
PETER ROTHBERG (ex-intern)