The war divides New York

From burned-baby posters to die-ins at Tiffany's, direct action brings the hostilities home. But many New Yorkers vent their frustrations at the protesters.

Published March 27, 2003 8:37PM (EST)

More than 100 antiwar demonstrators lay down and played dead in the intersection between 49th Street and 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan Thursday, stopping traffic for half an hour and slowing it all morning. Police officers moved among them, putting them in plastic handcuffs and dragging people into police wagons. On both sides of the avenue, throngs of supporters waved signs and shouted, "No war! No profits! No business as usual!" Around the edges of the crowd, enraged businessmen and construction workers in hard hats heckled and jeered.

The signs, the clothes and the cause are new, but there were whiffs of the '60s in the heated standoffs between the students, artists and activists on one side and the shorthaired squares on the other. Until now, antiwar protests in New York have mostly been greeted with supportive honks and peace signs. Today, though, the opposition to the opposition came out. Some said they were taking a break from work to move through the crowd hurling insults and invective. The war in Iraq has already divided America from much of the world. Thursday, you could see it start to divide the city.

The M27 Coalition, a loose alliance of activists and activist groups, planned the action. It kicked off a day of civil disobedience throughout New York, with decentralized affinity groups fanning out across the city to stage sit-ins, performance pieces and traffic blocks. According to Kim Flynn, an M27 spokesperson, by 2 p.m. at least 190 people had been arrested. Around noon, police took three women proclaiming "boobs not bombs" and flashing traffic at 42nd Street. Intersections were blocked at 28th Street and Broadway, 25th Street and 6th Avenue and downtown on Houston St. Women from the feminist antiwar group Code Pink staged a die-in in front of Tiffany's and later in front of the Plaza Hotel. Around 12:30, hundreds of students walked out of classes at NYU and marched through Washington Square Park. Later, dozens of them occupied the NYU student center. More was planned.

"We don't know what's going to happen later, but we don't think the day is over yet," Flynn said.

Before the die-in even began, four or five young protesters, a few with bandannas around their faces, were arrested for no discernible reason in front of Saks Fifth Avenue. Then, at around 8:30 a.m., dozens upon dozens of people ran from the pen the police had erected to contain the protesters and lay down in clusters in the street, refusing to speak or move. It took four policemen to carry one of the men away.

Meanwhile, there were performances. Six people in black staged a funeral march on the 5th Avenue sidewalk across the street from the mass of demonstrators. They wore black shrouds with words like "freedom" and "justice" on them. One beat a drum, another played a macabre tune on an accordion. In front of Saks, a woman in a white toga marked truth lay on the ground, while another woman dressed as a soldier and wearing a homemade skull mask posed with a boot on top of her. A woman wearing fake blood and a black gauze veil paced slowly, ringing a bell every few moments. On her back was a sign saying, "Weep, it's appropriate."

Behind it all lay a sense of outrage at both the war itself and at the nonchalant way people went about their business while American weapons kill innocents abroad. Protesters said they were determined to break through people's apathy. "People have to wake up and see what's going on," said Eric Dahl, a gaunt man with a picture of a bloodied Iraqi child hung around his neck. Bob Carpenter, a bearded man with kind, sparkling eyes who said he'd been an activist for over 40 years, echoed him. "People need to know they can't go about their normal life while we drop bombs," he said. "This is the conscience of America."

To communicate that conscience, activists pressed flyers into the hands of passersby. One man handed out color-photocopied collages of injured Iraqis, including a burned and screaming baby, juxtaposed with pictures of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. "This is what CNN won't show you!" he said.

Someone else passed around fliers featuring a quote from Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command, set against a background of sheep. "Naturally, the common people don't want war," it said. "But, after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or parliament or a communist dictatorship. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

Nazi comparisons inflamed already infuriated hecklers. A slight, middle-aged man in a tan windbreaker was holding a sign with a stars-and-stripes printed swastika and the word "shame." A skinny guy in a "USA" baseball cap charged him and a slight scuffle broke out. The police refused to arrest the attacker.

Most other confrontations were peaceful, but they were heated. "We're fucking Americans, too. Get a job," shouted a man in a dapper suit and pink shirt. Another besuited man carried a sign saying, "Send Saddam and His Towel-Headed Camel Jockeys to Hell." He said his 13-year-old daughter helped him make it. "You have it too good here," screamed a tomato-faced man with a spiky crew cut. "You're type B people, underachievers. All you want to do is bitch and moan." A ponytailed protester offered the baffling rejoinder, "Hey, dingleberry, my family's been here longer than yours."

In some cases, one sensed residual trauma from the World Trade Center attack among the counterprotesters. Several construction workers shouted, "Where were you on Sept. 11?" Another man seemed anguished as he ranted, "They knocked down two buildings! Arabs from the fucking Middle East! We should bomb them into fucking submission!"

Some people had genuine discussions about anti-Semitism here and in France, about the oppression of the Kurds, about dissent during wartime. One antiwar protester handed out bookmarks with a quote from George Orwell's 1984, "In a way, the world-view of the party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening." A pro-war woman countered with her own Orwell quote scrawled on an impromptu sign, "Pacifism is inherently pro-fascist."

Often, though, the two sides seemed to be speaking different languages, with entirely different points of reference. A clean-cut landlord rolled his eyes when a bearded minister in a long blue trench coat and pink antiwar armband told him, "Greed breeds mean deeds." Protesters got increasingly frustrated as they tried to explain to furious men that no, Saddam Hussein wasn't behind Sept. 11. Members of both camps insisted that the others don't really speak for the people.

"This doesn't represent America," sighed the man who'd been lectured by the rhyming minister, surveying the demonstrators. "People are opposed to this war," countered Erich Adamoschek, a 34-year-old Brooklynite. "Of course you get right-wing people who are undereducated ..."

Adamoschek, for one, had given up on trying to win them over. "I don't think political solutions are forthcoming," he said. "You know when somebody gets cancer and they start to change their lives? We have to realize how sick we are. The whole fabric of capitalist society has to collapse."

That will take a while. By 10 a.m., business as usual had returned to 5th Avenue as the protesters dispersed, some to regroup elsewhere in the city where cordons of cops weren't awaiting them. Photocopies of smiling Iraqis littered the sidewalks as people walked away.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Iraq War