Yesterday I attended the large antiwar demonstration in Manhattan, timed to coincide with the opening of the Republican convention. I arrived at 14th street and 7th Avenue at 10 a.m. and was immediately filled with nostalgia, as always, when I saw the placards and t-shirts, people giving away stickers and posters, and soliciting recruits to help carry 1,000 cardboard coffins at the end of the march.
I attended my first antiwar demonstration in 1969, when a friend's father, a journalist for the New York Post, took us to Washington for the day. I was fifteen, now I am fifty. That's 35 years. I am proud to form part of a continuity of dissent in this country, of people who are not professional protesters (a decade at a time may go by between demonstrations for me) but who are ready to turn out in all weathers to protest a senseless war.
The one thing that stood out for me, even as the crowd milled about waiting for the march to begin, is that the average age of the demonstrators is a lot higher than it was in 1969. I was far from being the only person there who had been at the national protests of the '60's and '70's, or was old enough to have been. In addition to the physically radical young people--tattoos, piercings, t-shirts with statements like "I fucked your girlfriend" (worn by a woman)--there were thousands of people who looked.....just like me. Lots of grey hair, unremarkable weekend clothing, and a sense that the American political process has so far hopped the track that its time to come out and make a noise.
I stood for a while by a man in his thirties who was giving away stickers: "Ignorant Elephant," "God told me to vote for Kerry," "Fundamentalism plus Foreign Policy Equals Quagmire." A radio reporter for an NPR affiliate in Florida came up and interviewed me and I said something like the following:
"Campaign finance is legalized bribery, and the system no longer selects candidates who are truly presidential, able to take an overview, strong, compassionate or good leaders. Instead, those who know how to manipulate the reins of power, or whose handlers do, take the prize today. Due to the tight control of the money interests, the two party system presents a rapidly narrowing set of choices. That said, I regard John Kerry as being at least the minimally better choice. I am speaking as someone who voted for Ralph Nader in the last two elections." "So did I," said the reporter, smiling ruefully.
Amidst the crowd was one lone crazy, holding up a bible and a sign: "The winds of the end time are blowing." Always a useful reminder. Someone passed by and gave me a small hand-out from the NYCLU, with good advice about what to do if confronted, or arrested by, the police. "Keep Your hands where the police can see them. Don't run. Don't touch any police officer." Thirty-five years ago, we were very frightened of something called the Tactical Patrol Force, police thugs who came to demonstrations, put tape over their name badges, then waded in with batons and tear gas. Yesterday, the cops were extremely calm and well-behaved, present in large numbers but immobile and unresponsive to the occassional provocation.
Some of the organizers were handing out signs to people who hadn't brought their own. I considered carrying one that said "No War For Empire" but on the back it said we should be out of Afghanistan, a proposition I don't agree with. Some of the free speech related slogans were appealing: "Free Speech Needs No Permit," and variations on the theme of "Free Speech Zone," including a man with that slogan on a helmet with barbed wire surrrounding his head. In the back of everyone's mind was the city's denial of a permit for a post-march rally on the Great Lawn in Central Park, where many were planning to go afterwards regardless of the lack of a permit.
Mayor Bloomberg, who at times seems to be from another universe, had suggested that in the future protestors could rally in the new stadium he is promoting for upper Manhattan. Is the man totally unaware of the symbolism of stadiums in times of protest? They were used in Chile after Pinochet's coup to round up, torture and kill dissidents. At the May Day demonstrations in Washington, D.C. a stadium was also used to hold the protestors detained in a massive illegal police action. I doubt he was thinking how easy the police's job would be if you could get protestors to rally in a surrounding that could also be used to detain them, but the suggestion had bizarre and violent over-tones.
"Democracy was nice while it lasted." I go to demonstrations because a vote for a very narrowly diverging set of choices is no longer anywhere near a sufficient expression of belief. Demonstrations, properly handled, exert a gravitational force on the political process, pulling it away from the money. In the Vietnam era, I believe the turning point came when the money people, what the Village Voice used to call the "permanent government", concluded, partly as a result of the chaos in the streets, that the war was no longer good for business. Business does not require democracy (Chile was proof of that) but it does require order.
"Fear More Years", "No More Years". We started moving at nearly noontime, walking up Seventh Avenue. I posted myself near the front of the march, with the labor union contingent and the war veterans. To my right, two very elderly and infirm men, in high spirits, held a banner: "Abraham Lincoln Brigade": American veterans of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930's, who had defended Spanish democracy against Franco. Talk about the continuity of dissent. "Channel 7, this is a great photo op," one of them called out to the horde of cameras which followed us everywhere. We were led by two Native American women in traditional dress, dancing and whirling ahead of the marchers.
In front of them were twenty orange-shirted marshalls from United for Peace and Justice, the march organizers. They walked with arms linked, forming a fence between us and the press and police ahead. When they needed us to stop, they knelt in a circle, arms still linked, forming a waist-high fence to the cameramen ahead.
"I wasn't using my civil rights anyway." A woman to my right who identified herself as a filmmaker told a reporter about her documentary on the theft of the 2000 election. Ahead of me were the gray-haired Vietnam vets. "His kid" (a picture of Jenna Bush) "Your kid" (military coffins).
No Uncle Sam on stilts, but there were a few paper mache globes rolling down the street and people in George Bush masks. One sign held by someone very young: "Karl Rove = Voldemort. George Bush = Wormtail." A lot of the people walking around me were even older than I am. There was, as there always is, a happy wired energy in the air, but very restrained, no sense of danger at all, no desire in the people surrounding me for anything to get out of hand.
A reggae singer, walking with the Native American women, turned around and sang a refrain which the crowd picked up: "Resist the occupation....Change the situation."
The crowd was always chanting, and some of the chants haven't changed in 35 years, such as the venerable, "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!"
When we got up to Madison Square Garden the police presence got very intense, but still well-behaved. We began to see cops in body armor and with riot shields, and from unfamiliar units such as DCPI and TARU. The TARU cops were all videotaping the protest, something I find rather sinister. There were cops on horseback and cops with dogs, also secret service and men with no visible markings but the electronic buds in their ears. Lots more press, craning over every barricade to take our picture. The press, everybody's friend, the medium in which everybody's issues swim or sink on their way to the public mind.
We stopped in front of the empty Madison Square Garden and were addressed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a man who has wasted a tremendous opportunity for leadership. He led the crowd in a chant: "Hope is in the air...Help is on the way."
We made a right turn on Thirty-Fourth street and passed in front of the only counter-demonstrators I saw, ten people holding up a remarkable poster which combined references to Jesus and Bush with detailed silhouettes of warplanes and bombs. Sometimes, as everyone knows, people are their own best parody. They were chanting, "Shame on you!" and our crowd started chanting the words back to them, then switched to "Who would Jesus bomb?" Some men wearing "Re-Elect Bush" t-shirts vaulted the barricades and ran into the crowd, but seemed to evaporate like rain on a hot sidewalk.
"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." When the march started back sounth to Union Square, I peeled off, ate lunch in a deserted Subway's on the underpopulated Madison Avenue a block away from the crowds, then made my way uptown to the park, curious to see what was happening there. At the Great Lawn, there were fewer than thirty permitless demonstrators, about the same number of cops, and fifty or sixty reporters waiting for a story. The most lively thing going on was a Libertarian Party rally: "Drop taxes not bombs". I left the park and went home to Brooklyn on the subway, tired but contented to have been one of the estimated half million people who were out there yesterday registering their profound discontent with the people in charge.