Gotham rebels

While platitudes ring out at the GOP Garden party, protesters -- from Iraq Veterans Against the War to activists in Bill O'Reilly masks -- fan out across the city. Police crack down with handcuffs, nets and mass arrests.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published September 1, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

As darkness fell on Tuesday and Arnold Schwarzenegger prepared to take the stage at Madison Square Garden, a sea of riot cops faced off with hundreds of shouting demonstrators a few blocks away. After a day of standoffs and skirmishes with police, protesters converged on Herald Square, a shopping neighborhood two avenues east of the Republican Convention. Police forced them off the streets, penning them up on various corners. Yet several clusters broke away and locked themselves together in the middle of the road, blocking traffic and Republican delegate buses. One protester ran onto the set of Chris Matthews' MSNBC show "Hardball" as he broadcast live from the area, while others taunted GOP delegates who walked by. With columns of helmeted officers marching in formation, screaming at people everywhere, and helicopters hovering overhead, Manhattan felt like a foreign country. By 10 p.m., protest organizers reported that over 1,000 people had been arrested.

A group calling itself the A31 Coalition had called for a day of "direct action" -- autonomous, un-permitted protests against the Republican National Convention and "war profiteers." At 1:30 p.m., they gave a press conference in front of the Gandhi statue in Union Square, where they handed out press kits outlining a schedule of some of the day's anti-RNC events. Speaker Shahid Buttar, a lawyer from Washington, affirmed the various groups' commitment to nonviolence but promised, "the movement will not be intimidated, regardless of the forces arrayed against them."

Those forces turned out to be unlike anything New York has ever seen.

Things started off fairly calmly. At 3 p.m., hundreds gathered at ground zero to march with the pacifist War Resisters League, who planned a die-in near the convention site. Among them were four members of the newly formed Iraq Veterans Against the War, who wore peace buttons on their desert camouflage. Alex Ryabov, a 21-year-old ex-Marine, returned from Iraq last May after taking part in the initial invasion of Baghdad, driving up from Kuwait and fighting his way north to Tikrit. Having been in the military since he was 17, he found it jarring to be at the center of the activist subculture, but he said, Most of these people share the same ideas I have against the war in Iraq. They have more in common with me than the leaders of the military who are supposedly for the troops but who keep sending more of them over there.

As the 1,000 or so people at ground zero lined up and prepared to march, another group of several hundred gathered outside the Fox News building in midtown near Times Square. A bus, decorated with posters for Robert Greenwald's documentary "Outfoxed," drove by, while a monitor on the bus's side showed clips from the movie. As a few bemused Fox employees stood outside and gawked, the crowd chanted "Shut Up! Shut Up!" à la Bill O'Reilly. A group of male cheerleaders wearing skirts and O'Reilly and Sean Hannity masks danced around.

Reporters who were still at ground zero called to say that police, after letting the War Resisters League march a few blocks on the sidewalk, had surrounded them with orange netting and declared them all under arrest. At the same time, column after column of riot cops marched toward the Fox protest, penning people in. At one point Medea Benjamin, the founder of the women's antiwar group Code Pink, was detained; she was then let go. For a while, the police let people stand on the sidewalk and yell, but eventually, the plastic handcuffs came out and they started making arrests.

Other small groups had fanned out throughout the city. Calling themselves employees of "Halli-bacon," one cluster donned pig snouts and wallowed in stacks of fake money outside the Marriott where the Texas delegation is bivouacked. A "man-in-black bloc" headed to Sotheby's auction house, where the Tennessee delegation was having a "celebration" of the country singer, an event that struck Johnny Cash's fans as blasphemous given his antiauthoritarianism and advocacy for the downtrodden.

The day's plan called for demonstrators to regroup on the steps of the New York Public Library at 6 p.m. and then to head toward Madison Square Garden for another wave of protest. People had just started to arrive, though, when a phalanx of cops moved in and ordered everyone off the steps and sidewalk in front of the library. One officer issued orders to the others, saying, "If they don't move, lock 'em up." Once people were on the sidewalks, police forced them to disperse, marching in formation into the crowds and chanting, "Move, move, move." Several scruffy demonstrators responded, "Oink. Oink. Oink." A few screamed, "Fucking fascist!" A skinny girl danced around singing, "We all live in a military state" to the tune of "Yellow Submarine."

Calls and text messages buzzed across the city. The word was that people were meeting up in Herald Square, near Madison Square Garden, and in Union Square downtown. On Sixth Avenue, led by an elderly couple -- the man wearing a dark pinstriped suit and a snowy white beard -- a few hundred people started marching and chanting against the war. Other contingents marched from other directions, all converging on the intersections around 34th and Broadway. Before long, pens and orange netting went up, trapping protesters on the sidewalks while hundreds of cops took the streets. At one point, a soignée Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, walked by and was loudly and vigorously booed by thousands.

It was extremely difficult to move around. Most of Herald Square was locked down, and even those who had nothing to do with the protests couldn't cross Sixth Avenue. But a few groups were able to break out of the pens. Some quickly sat in the streets and chained their arms together, forcing the police to saw the chains apart before loading the protesters into paddy wagons. A spokesman for the A31 coalition reported that 100 teenagers from the youth bloc broke off and started running down Madison Avenue, forcing police to chase them. Another group moved onto 33rd Street to heckle groups of delegates returning to the convention from dinner. According to the New York Times, protesters set fire to a pile of trash on 27th and Madison near the Carlton Hotel.

All over midtown, Republicans walked in small groups with police escorts, and as they went by the protesters booed and hissed and shouted "shame." A man held aloft a sign with a pale W and the words, "I can't believe how terrible he is and how many Americans don't see it."

While hundreds of protesters were being arrested in midtown, others were being arrested downtown. In Union Square, the police cracked down on an impromptu anti-RNC block party, turning East 16th Street into what one local news channel called "one huge holding cell."

At 10:30, mass arrests were still underway. Some people trapped inside police cordons spoke only Spanish or Chinese and weren't quite sure what was going on. At one point, the cops were persuaded to release a Hassidic mother and her daughters who'd been penned up in front of Macy's. Without enough room in police vans, the cops used city buses to take all the arrested to jail.

How were the Republican delegates taking in New York? On Tuesday afternoon, Ray Ergenbright, 56-year-old vice chairman of the Sixth Congressional District in Virginia, rode the subway uptown with his wife. Her puffy hair, hot pink nails and white T-shirt adorned with an American flag and flowers gave them away as out-of-towners. But both said they'd felt nothing but welcome in New York -- although it took them a day to work up the nerve to ride the subway. They left their convention passes in their hotel rooms in order to blend in.

Still, aspects of the city mystified Ergenbright, especially the antipathy toward George Bush. "I don't understand it," he said. "Why, when he reacted the way any rational person would react to Sept. 11?"

Ergenbright was a friendly, kind man -- but he inhabits a different universe than the one most New Yorkers live in. Speaking of gay marriage, he said, "My Christian upbringing teaches me that it is not an acceptable lifestyle. But I can't cast judgment because I don't understand it." About people in the blue states, he said, "I don't think our values are different so much as our cultures are different."

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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