New York lockdown

Cops plan zero tolerance for violent protests at the GOP Convention. Militant groups plan to disrupt the city like never before. Welcome, delegates!

Published August 11, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

If you're a delegate attending the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden later this month, Jamie Moran knows where you're staying. He knows where you're eating and what Broadway musical you plan on seeing. For the past nine months, Moran has been living off savings earned as an office manager at a nonprofit and working full-time to disrupt the RNC.

His small anarchist collective,, runs a snitch line and an e-mail account where disgruntled employees of New York hotels, the Garden and the Republican Party itself can pass on information about conventioneers. So far, the collective has received dozens of phone calls and hundreds of e-mails with inside dirt on GOP activities. Recently, a woman with a polished, middle-aged sounding voice left a message saying, "For some God-unknown reason I'm on the Republican mailing list, and they sent me what they call a list of their inner-circle events." The events hadn't been publicized elsewhere, she said, and she wanted to fax the list to Moran.

Moran feeds information like this to a cadre of activists desperate to unleash four years' worth of anger at the Bush administration. By dogging the delegates wherever they go, RNC Not Welcome hopes to make the Republicans' lives hell for as long as they're in New York.

"We want to make their stay here as miserable as possible," says Moran, who has sandy hair, a snub nose and a goatee. The son of a retired Queens cop, he's 30 but looks younger. "I'd like to see all the Republican events -- teas, backslapping lunches -- disrupted. I'd like to see people from other states following their delegates, letting them know what they think about Republican policies. I'd like to see impromptu street parties and marches. I'd like to see corporations involved in the Iraq reconstruction get targeted -- anything from occupation to property destruction."

There's a showdown coming to Manhattan. Backed by the most intense security the city has ever seen, the Republicans are about to turn the blue-state bastion of New York City into the backdrop for George Bush's coronation. The RNC chose New York because it was the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which to Bush's opponents and even some ordinary New Yorkers seems a brazen provocation.

On one side are 36,000 cops -- a force that City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. calls "perhaps the world's tenth-largest standing army." On the other side are at least 250,000 protesters expected to converge on the city from all across the United States and Canada -- a demonstration six times larger than the legendary anti-globalization protests that rocked Seattle in 1999.

They're facing off at a time when police are increasingly adopting military tactics in response to protest, and protesters are responding likewise, conducting their own reconnaissance on Republican plans and plotting actions designed to hit where the cops are weakest. The police have infiltrated the protesters, but the protesters have infiltrated the convention; according to anti-RNC organizers, they have at least two moles working undercover with volunteers the city has recruited to help makes things run smoothly at Madison Square Garden.

Plans to oppose the convention are multiplying, suffusing activists with a giddy, growing tension. Marches and rallies, legal and illegal, are being planned for every day that the Republicans are in New York. There will be street theater, including a Roman-style vomitorium in the East Village a few days before the convention starts, meant to signify Republican gluttony. Cheri Honkala, an organizer from Philadelphia, is mobilizing homeless people, public housing tenants and others for a big, illegal "poor peoples' march" on Aug. 30. Activists are holding weekend workshops where direct-action novices practice street blocking, and DIY medics learn to treat victims of pepper spray and police violence.

No one knows where it's all going -- whether it will look like Chicago '68 or Seattle '99 or something altogether new. But activists see the coming conflict as history-making.

"I want to see something so gigantic that it can't be misinterpreted," says Jason Flores-Williams, a political writer at High Times Magazine, who's been playing a dual role as a journalist covering the movement and an organizer shaping it. An intense man in his 30s with a shaved head and silver earring, Flores-Williams recently published the High Times Activist Guide to the Republican National Convention, which is part primer and part call to arms. In May, eager to kick off a summer of activism, he put together a small early-morning protest near Rockefeller Center and was arrested along with two others during a traffic-blocking die-in on Fifth Avenue.

For the RNC, he dreams of "a total expression of seething hatred that will go down in history as a moment in time when people stood up to the worst administration we've ever had."

Among other things, he envisions protesters locking down the streets of New York by chaining their arms together inside metal tubes, creating what's called a sleeping dragon. "You lock your arms in," he says. "When the cops come, they have to saw through these steel tubes. You get 30 people and you lock down a street for six hours. While this is happening, it gives other protesters a great opportunity to make their statement, to be further disruptive. They can lie down with these people, they can chant at the police, they can sit down where they are and be arrested for that or block further public space. They can disrupt the normal flow of society."

"It's coming together," he says with enthusiasm after a June meeting of a hundred or so anti-RNC activists at an East Village church. "Part of it is going to be fun and beautiful, but part of it has to instill fear into the power structure."

That won't be easy. The last four years have given police plenty of practice in instilling fear themselves. Relationships between cops and protesters have rarely been warm, but since Sept. 11, they've grown toxic, with law enforcement routinely denying march permits and using overwhelming force against nonviolent demonstrators.

In 2000 at the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, police infiltrated activist groups and made mass preemptive arrests. The Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that year was little better. "Even protests with the city's permission have been met by legions of heavily armed police officers dressed in full riot gear," CNN reported. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of demonstrators, injuring protesters and journalists alike. "It looked like a reenactment of a Civil War battle," said Al Crespo, a photographer who was shot with a rubber bullet.

Since Sept. 11, things have only gotten worse. In the past three years, protest in America has increasingly come to resemble that in countries such as Egypt, where demonstrations are allowed only within tightly controlled spaces and riot police rush in at the first hint of spontaneity or disorder.

In April 2003, after the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center issued a bulletin about the potential for terrorist violence at an antiwar protest in Oakland, police opened fire on the peaceful crowd with wooden pellets.

It later turned out there had been no real basis for the terrorism warning. Mike Van Winkle, spokesman for the California Anti-Terrorism Information Center, told the Oakland Tribune that it was made because protest itself can be seen as a form of terrorism. "You can make an easy kind of link that, if you have a protest group protesting a war where the cause that's being fought against is international terrorism, you might have terrorism at that protest," he said. "You can almost argue that a protest against that is a terrorist act."

Something similar happened in November, when some 10,000 union members and retirees demonstrated at a free-trade summit in Miami. They were met by 2,500 cops brandishing new crowd-control weaponry, paid for in part by a little-noticed $8.5 million appropriation tacked onto the Iraqi reconstruction bill. Videos taken at the scene show nonviolent protesters being beaten with wooden clubs, shocked with Taser guns, shot in the back with rubber bullets and pepper-sprayed in the face.

"For a brief period in time, Miami lived under martial law," concluded a scathing report on police misconduct issued by a local panel charged with investigating the debacle. "Civil rights were trampled, and the sociopolitical values we hold most dear were undermined."

Since the free-trade summit protests, activists have come to refer to a militarized response to protest as the Miami model -- and it's a model that other police forces have studied. Lt. Bill Schwartz, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department, said that law enforcement officials from Georgia and New York traveled to Miami during the free-trade summit to learn tactics for dealing with upcoming protests in their cities. Georgia was getting ready for the G-8 summit in June, which brought together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. And New York, of course, was preparing for the RNC.

Upon his return from Miami, Bill Hitchens, director of Georgia's Department of Homeland Security, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "We need to do much the same as they did."

They certainly tried. In May, shortly before the G-8 economic summit was scheduled to take place on Sea Island in Georgia, the state's Republican governor declared a state of emergency, citing a danger from "unlawful assemblages." That enabled him to call out the National Guard, flooding the streets with soldiers in full camouflage. Protesters who tried to attend a candlelight peace vigil had to pass through a checkpoint manned by armed troops.

There probably won't be soldiers on the streets of New York, although, according to a February New York Daily News story, convention planners have discussed the possibility. But there will be a massive police presence, with 8,000 officers providing security around Madison Square at all times. According to Vallone, the NYPD has received $50 million in federal money to prepare for the convention, and $18 million is being used "for the latest in crowd-control devices," including nonlethal weaponry and "high-tech video surveillance devices."

Overseeing it all will be the Secret Service, which is in charge of the convention site. Under Bush, the Secret Service has proved particularly hostile to protest. They often set up "free-speech zones" to corral demonstrators far from the president, and they ask local police to arrest anyone who strays from the designated areas.

In October 2002, South Carolina activist Brett Bursey was arrested for trespassing when he waded into a crowd of Bush supporters waiting to greet the president and held up a "no war for oil" sign. On July 4 this year, police say, the Secret Service directed them to arrest a couple for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts at a presidential speech in West Virginia -- despite the fact that the speech was open to the public.

The NYPD doesn't need much encouragement to shunt protesters aside. The department has attempted to control demonstrations against the war in Iraq by using interlocking metal barriers to create pens around groups of demonstrators, making it difficult to get in or out. The New York Civil Liberties Union sued to stop the practice, but on July 19 a federal judge ruled that police can continue to use the pens as long as they make it easier for protesters to enter and exit.

The city's security plan provides for a "designated protest area" on the southwest corner of Madison Square Garden. Those who want to protest the convention legally will be confined to this corner and probably sealed off in pens flanked by deep walls of men in blue. All of this has alarmed local Democratic politicians, many of whom are planning to take to the streets with the demonstrators.

"I am very concerned that activities during the Republican Convention will be silenced or pushed out of the way, supposedly for the 'comfort' of those participating at the convention," State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried said in a statement. "Our civil rights cannot be sacrificed for political purposes."

Meanwhile, as protesters themselves feel squeezed, their urge to rampage grows greater. "I think people will fight back if they're provoked," Moran says. "Usually a riot is an explosion of energy and anger at a situation. The cops create a situation where peoples' desires are completely foiled, so they lash out. I don't think that's unhealthy."

The city's reluctance to issue protest permits has engendered especial bitterness. Groups that applied for permits to hold legal marches during the convention were stalled for so long -- sometimes more than a year -- that the Democrat-dominated City Council held hearings to investigate whether the mayor and the police department were deliberately stifling free speech. In July, the cops finally relented and issued a few permits, but by then many activists had given up on the system and resolved to break the law.

"In the last couple of months, the conversations have started shifting toward direct action," Moran says. "People are like, 'We've voted, we've asked for permits, we've played nice.'"

The targets, Moran says, should be far from Madison Square Garden. "Don't go where they're strongest," he says. "There's going to be a ton of people who are going to want to go to Madison Square Garden, they're going to want to yell at the building even though it's two avenues away." The activists' strength, he says, "is our ability to be creative and act in surprising ways."

Vallone concedes that with so many police deployed around the convention, the force will be stretched thin in the rest of the city. "There will be a drain of police officers from other areas," he says. "It will be difficult. But we have the best police force in the world to deal with it."

And what, exactly, will they be dealing with? Moran bristles when asked for specifics about the kind of actions New York is likely to see. "There's such an over-concentration on that question," he says, irritably. "It's really problematic. I don't want to be predictive."

Part of this is simple evasion. But Moran really doesn't know what people are going to do with his group's information. Indeed, not knowing is inherent in his anarchist model, which relies on decentralized cells or "affinity groups" of five to 20 people who dream up and carry out autonomous actions. When larger numbers are called for, affinity groups temporarily team up, forming larger units called "clusters," and then disband when the deed is done.

RNC Not Welcome gives them tools -- links to maps showing the location of "war profiteers'" offices and delegates' hotels, schedules of Republican events, instructions on protecting oneself from pepper spray and tear gas, directions for occupying rooftops and recipes for tofu cream pies to be thrown in the faces of ideological enemies. The collective sends out e-mail bulletins whenever they learn something new about the Republicans' plans. What people do with it all is up to them.

"We're trying to provide some sort of structure for people who are only coming in for five days to plug into," Moran says.

Moran hasn't always been a radical. His introduction to activism was as conventional as it gets. As a student at SUNY Buffalo surviving on student loans, he joined student government and fought against cuts in state funding for education. He got involved in militant politics somewhat by accident, when he wandered drunk out of the infamous Lower East Side nightclub Save the Robots and into Blackout Books, an anarchist bookshop. He picked up a free copy of Earth First! magazine and was intrigued enough by its combative environmentalism to go to an Earth First! meeting a few weeks later. That led to a 1997 trip to an Earth First! gathering in Wisconsin. Afterward, he was arrested while protesting a proposed mine in northern Wisconsin and spent five nights in jail. It was the first of many arrests, including one for throwing a pie in the face of a biotech CEO in Berkeley.

Moran calls himself an anarchist but is weary of the subcultural poses adopted by so many of his young black-clad comrades. Recently, he and the four other members of RNC Not Welcome put out a "position paper" urging radicals to leave their black balaclavas and facial piercings behind, and instead attempt to blend into crowds.

"Outside of marches, all-black clothing is rather conspicuous, so our dress code should be 'business casual," they wrote. "Sunglasses are suggested, the bigger the hipper. And hats are always in. Would you make the small sacrifice to cut your hair or take out your septum ring to stay out of jail? Racial and political profiling are commonly practiced here and we need you in the streets!"

Some are already adopting social camouflage. Upon learning that RNC CEO Bill Harris was scheduled to woo local Hispanic business leaders at a Harlem restaurant on June 22, two activists donned white shirts, ties and slacks and sneaked in. They went unnoticed as they replaced the Bush-Cheney stickers, posters and pamphlets with their own agitprop and covered the bathroom in anti-RNC stickers.

"The point was to let them know that yes, we are out there, and yes, they are not welcome in our city," one of them wrote in an e-mail account of the action.

For Moran, dressing like a moderate isn't to be confused with acting like one. He has an almost Zen-like attitude toward the possibility that property-destroying protesters could spark a brutal police backlash, saying, "There's a certain empowerment that happens when you shed your fear."

Most activists believe that if violence does break out, the city is to blame. Mayor Bloomberg and the cops are "flirting with or inviting chaos, says Bill Dobbs, the spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, New Yorks largest antiwar organizing group.

There's pressure on UFPJ, as the most established of the anti-RNC organizers, to condemn the tactics of activists like Moran, especially when it comes to property destruction. Journalists, says Dobbs, constantly call him and fish for negative quotes about radicals planning illegal actions, seeking to create what he calls a "good protester/bad protester" dichotomy. But right now, activists from all parts of the movement are presenting a united front. A memorandum is even circulating in which different types of organizers -- mainstream and radical, those working within the law and outside it -- promise not to undercut each other.

"We've each got our own approaches," Dobbs says. "We can still support and stand in solidarity with each other generally amidst individual differences in tactics." Moran, for his part, says, "We're not dissing anyone for applying for permits."

As police pressure is ratcheted up, the lines between Dobbs' approach and Moran's are starting to blur. On the evening of June 11, over 100 people gathered at Saint Marks Church for one of the monthly No RNC Clearinghouse meetings, in which organizers plot strategy and apprise each other of their progress. The room was stifling and the meeting tedious until a strikingly pretty dark-haired woman stood up and electrified the crowd with her call to civil disobedience.

"The Republicans are coming," she began. "In a shameless effort to exploit the tragedy of 9/11, they will craft an agenda that erodes the very freedoms they claim to fight for.

"This is where we step in," she continued. "On Tuesday, Aug. 31, a day of nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action will commence." It will start, she says, with a shout. "As clocks strike 11 a.m., two days before the renomination of George W. Bush, the people of the world will shout 'no' with one voice. From Brooklyn to Baghdad to London to Lisbon, from Selma to Sao Paulo, we'll raise our voices in this global expression of outrage ... Here in New York we will converge on Madison Square Garden. We will sit down in the streets and refuse to move ... We want more than speeches and protest pens. We want change!"

The crowd erupted in cheers, whistles and applause.

It's telling that this woman was frustrated with protests as usual because she's a colleague of Dobbs' at United for Peace and Justice, a group whose raison d'etre is big, traditional marches. UFPJ has nothing to do with the call to action issued at the meeting. Indeed, it's premised on the notion that old-school demonstrations are increasingly insufficient.

Few blame this on United for Peace and Justice, a group headed by veteran organizer Leslie Cagan, a squat woman with short silver hair who helped bring more than half a million people to Central Park in 1982 for a record-setting disarmament rally. Cagan is a radical, but she's also a professional, the kind of person who knows her way around the permitting process and is willing to work with police and city officials. Over the past year, though, the NYPD has done much to undermine her and UFPJ.

United for Peace and Justice is planning another huge march on Aug. 29, the day before the convention begins. Cagan wanted to have the protest culminate at Central Park's Great Lawn, but the Parks Department refused to allow it on the grounds that attendees might destroy the lawn's newly planted grass. UFPJ offered to put up a bond to pay for potential damages, but the city hasn't relented. At one point, a city official suggested that UFPJ hold the rally in Queens instead. "The Parks Department slammed the door in our face," she says.

In June, Cagan told a City Hall hearing that the NYPD was "creating the potential for chaos" by refusing to let demonstrators use the park. Bill Perkins, the Cty Council's deputy majority leader, had convened the hearing to investigate the city's response to convention protest plans. He was worried, he said, that "overzealous antiterrorism policing is creating an unnecessary burden on New Yorkers' rights to assemble." The city's refusal to let protesters use the Great Lawn left him angry and incredulous. "I am very concerned," he said at the hearing, "that we have such high regard for the rights of grass."

So far, the rights of grass have prevailed. On July 21, UFPJ reluctantly accepted the city's offer to allow a rally on the West Side Highway, far from shops and foot traffic. UFPJ was told that it had no other choice -- the city wouldn't negotiate. "This was not a happy decision to make," says UFPJ spokesman Dobbs. "It reflects the bullying of Republican Mayor Bloomberg."

Among other problems, the West Side Highway site lacks shade and access to places to buy drinking water. Because the site is so long and narrow, the rally would have stretched along dozens of city blocks, making projecting sound a challenge.

UFPJ's compromise enraged many activists. Posters on anarchist sites like condemned the group and promised to rally in Central Park regardless. "Who asked UFP&J to play hall monitor?" an activist from Philadelphia wrote.

"I'm almost glad the City has decided to deny us a permit for Central Park and that UFPJ caved," wrote another. "Now, we will take the Park in defiance of both the capitalist bosses and the self-appointed leaders of the 'movement.'"

The reaction was so negative, in fact, that Tuesday UFPJ abandoned its agreement with the city and announced that it will continue to fight for the use of the park. "Part of organizing is listening to what people are saying," says Dobbs. "We are indeed marching by Madison Square Garden, and we are not, not going to that dreadful West Side Highway."

UFPJ has reapplied for a permit to use the park but it seems unlikely that the city will grant it. If denied, Dobbs says his group might sue. And after that? "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Some are urging UFPJ to schedule the rally in the park without waiting for a permit. "Note to UFPJ," said one Indymedia poster. "If you abandon West Side Highway, and declare your intention to rally in Central Park with or without a permit, you will regain much of your credibility with the rank and file."

Right now, though, UFPJ isn't going that far, though Dobbs acknowledges that many people will try to take the park regardless. "The mayor has set up this volatility," he says.

Such volatility is good news for people like Flores-Williams, who are eager to see widespread confrontations with police. "There comes a time when you have to have an appropriate response," he says. "If nothing happens and it's a gentle response, that's going to be used as a sign of complicity and acceptance of the Republicans' presence here."

Flores-Williams seems like he's been waiting for this moment all his life. He was an expat in Prague in the early '90s, and after that a writer of polymorphously perverse, William Vollmann-style fiction in San Francisco. Now he talks as if he's standing on the precipice of a new era. "I like what happened in Seattle. But the real vision I have is what happened in Paris in 1968," he says, referring to the student uprising and general strike that convulsed the city. "In my opinion, chaos serves to energize the human spirit. I've seen it. I lived in Eastern Europe when the walls were coming down. It was a beautiful period when art flourished. It was like the blinders came off."

Yes, the cops will be out in force. "But there will be so many protests," he says, snapping his fingers. "Here 5,000, here 500. Popping off in all these different places. The cops will be stretched thin. Tempers will rise. All hell will break loose. That's what everybody wants -- they just won't admit it."

That's not entirely true. Plenty of Bush opponents worry about what this grand carnival of rejection, while cathartic for some, will actually mean. There was nothing liberating, after all, about the welts and bruises protesters sustained in Miami last fall. "Stark brutality can paralyze people with fear," says Moran. "Miami hangs like a black cloud."

So does the Chicago Democratic National Convention of 1968, where Mayor Richard Daley took a hard line against demonstrations and the cops clashed with protesters on the streets around the convention center. Few doubt that the police, if provoked enough, will respond with equal force this year.

This terrifies Bush opponents, who worry that violence on the streets of New York will help the Republicans by making them look like Middle American moderates besieged by nutty radicals. They note that the Chicago '68 debacle helped cement Richard Nixon's reputation as the law-and-order candidate.

"The wilder and more disreputable the demonstrators look, the better for the Republicans," says Paul Berman, a former student organizer and author of "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968. "At the height of the antiwar movement, Nixon specifically directed his motorcade to go through the middle of an antiwar riot in California in order to have people throw rocks at him or shout obscenities so that the TV would pose the question that night to the American public: 'Whom do you prefer, President Nixon, or a dope-smoking hippie communist rock thrower?' And the country had no doubt. This was just genius on his part. If Bush ends up winning the election, it will be because of this kind of tactic."

Thirty-five years ago, Berman's generation was notorious for its scornful dismissal of older, cautious liberals. Today, Moran sounds like their rightful descendant, insisting that Berman's lesson doesn't apply. Rather than being alienated by upheavals in Manhattan's streets, he believes ordinary people will join in.

"I've heard some old-timers say, 'If you people riot it will hand Bush the presidency,'" he says. "I think that's just lazy thinking. Any situation where we are joined by regular New Yorkers in the streets is a positive thing."

Besides, it's too late to hold back the protests now. "The last four years definitely created a lot of rage in people," Moran says. "People may decide to unleash that rage on war profiteers. Our collective isn't going to condemn that. It's not our objective."

What is their objective? The Republicans should leave New York, he says. "It was a really bad mistake to come here."

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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