'The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming!" was the warning cry heard across the streets of Manhattan last week as thousands of protesters from across the country arrived in New York City to counter the $166 million pep rally for the reinstallment of George W. Bush.The delegates barely had a chance to unpack their flag lapel pins on Sunday before they were met with over an estimated 400,000 protesters marching for six straight hours down the streets of Manhattan chanting "No More Bush!" Despite the orange alerts and tabloid fear-mongering during the past weeks, the protest, organized by umbrella group United for Peace and Justice, was overwhelmingly peaceful and festive. Grandmothers mingled with college activists, veterans chanted alongside immigrants, and the only anarchists present — at least the only ones vaunting the standard circle-A anarchist symbol — were dressed in pink tutus and performing dance routines. The oft-demonized Black Bloc — the black-clad anarchist contingent whose tactics sometimes include the destruction of property — was nowhere to be seen.
"I came here to be a part of history," said Eddie Reynolds, a 46-year-old union stagehand who traveled from Tampa to New York 36 hours via Amtrak to take part in the protests. "I believe that mass demonstrations do affect politics and historically they help to create change." Asked what specific policies he opposes, Reynolds replied, "Take your pick. Bush has damaged the environment, sacked the economy, attacked labor laws, launched an unjust war that has killed thousands and then stifled dissent when people have something to say about it. Enough is enough."
That sentiment was a major theme among the miles-long sea of anti-Bush and anti-Republican signs and banners snaking through midtown Manhattan on Sunday. A group of elderly women from Queens, two dozen strong, held a large sign reading "Every New Day With Bush Is Another Nightmare."
"We don't like the war, we don't like him taking jobs overseas, we hate his position on women's rights, in fact, there is nothing about the man that I like," said Connie Browning. "I'm 79 years old and this is the worst presidency I've seen in my whole life."
Many in the crowd were relatively new to activism. Mike, aka Neon, a brawny 21-year-old veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq, had never been to a protest before in his life when he decided to walk the entire distance from his home town of Willamette, Conn., to New York City with a group called DNC2RNC that began its march in Boston at the completion of the Democratic convention.
"I'm completely disgusted with this administration," he said. "I'm wounded for life now, and I have to live the rest of my life knowing that I've killed another innocent human being for a lie. This war is fucking bullshit."
Despite the furious anti-Bush vibe of the march, opinions as to whether Senator John Kerry would do a better job in the White House were often cynical. "I don't really care for Kerry either, but I don't have the luxury of voting for a third-party candidate cuz I'm from a swing state," said Ohio native Eric Mueller. "We have to defeat Bush — again."
"The truth is that Bush and Kerry are two sides of the same coin," said Rebecca, a visual artist from Brooklyn. "They both represent the same U.S. corporate empire that exploits the world's resources and keeps the Third World enslaved. We need to change the whole system and neither party represents that."
As the march wound down in the early evening Sunday, groups of demonstrators peeled off to greet the GOP delegates in Times Square for the Mouse Bloc actions. The idea was simple: As the delegates showed up to attend various Disney-fied Broadway plays, creative displays of resistance would be staged outside the theaters to make it very clear to the Republicans that their presence in New York City was not appreciated. For several hours, small groups of clowns, fairies, anarchists, and mock billionaires harassed and heckled delegates as they scurried from hotels to theaters and restaurants. Spontaneous debates and shouting matches broke out, and at times the NYPD intervened to escort bedraggled Republicans to safe havens.
Several blocks north in Central Park, where protesters were earlier denied a permit to gather after the march, several hundred people committed civil disobedience by singing, dancing and celebrating a successful day of democratic resistance as the sun set over the New York skyline. Police looked on and made no moves as the percussion bands and bagpipes played, closing what is already being called the largest protest at a political convention in the history of the United States. Now let's just wait and see how they spin it.
Kelly Benjamin is a Tampa-based freelance writer. Respond to Kelly's column at [email protected].