At first blush, Wednesday afternoon's rally to oppose the nomination of John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court -- sponsored by NARAL and Planned Parenthood of New York along with the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Code Pink, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and the National Lawyers' Guild -- looked as though it might be a little weak.
It had been called for 5 p.m. in e-mails that zinged across New York just hours before people were to assemble. At 5:10, the crowd was thin, almost indistinguishable from the throngs of people coming from the Union Square greenmarket, or those huddled around prayer stations and T-shirt booths that ring the Manhattan park. Also, the reporter-to-protester ratio was suspiciously high. And there were, as my 15-year-old companion noted as soon as we arrived, "a lot of old people."
And yet, there was a sense of something -- if not hope, then certainly resolve and energy -- emanating from the crowd, small as it was. The coming together of even a few hundred people in unimaginable urban heat less than a day after George Bush's nomination of a judge who has already picked up the endorsement of Operation Rescue seemed an indication that those who were there knew this was urgent and vital.
Vital enough that they stood uncomplaining in 100-degree heat, a circumstance that was not lost on the sun-baked rally leaders. "It's a hot political climate," began Carla Goldstein, of Planned Parenthood of NYC, invoking the first usage of a metaphor that was to be repeated many times during the next hour. She also relied heavily on the slightly limp sentiment that "It is not OK" to nominate a candidate who does not represent the majority of Americans in their support of a woman's right to control her own reproductive choices.
Next to me, 24-year-old Joey Steel was handing out fliers, wearing a T-shirt that read "Somebody in Transylvania Loves Me." Was he an organizer? "No, I'm with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade," said Steel, adding, "I'm from Cleveland." Steel said he recently moved to New York to stay until Nov. 2. That's the anniversary of Bush's reelection, and a day on which Steel and his "comrades," as he calls them, are planning massive demonstrations and what they hope will be an overthrow of the administration. "Spain has done it; Ukraine has done it; Bolivia has done it twice," he said. "Look at what we get for sitting around and waiting for the Democrats to do it. We get the appointment of this cat," -- here Steel nodded toward the podium as if Roberts were standing there -- "who believes that abortion should be illegal." Asked if he thinks Roberts will be confirmed, Steel said, "Yes. I think he'll be confirmed."
At the podium, NARAL Pro-Choice New York director Kelli Conlin, looking extremely sunburned, was speaking, calling Roberts' nomination "a momentous occasion," in which the president was responsible for filling the shoes of retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "Wait a minute," said protester Dan Jacoby, a political essayist who was standing next to me. "I just had a vision of John Roberts filling Sandra Day O'Connor's shoes. I'm liking this image."
"This nominee does not pass muster," Conlin was shouting, and the louder responses indicated that the crowd around us was growing. She urged everyone to send a message to Roberts and the Bush administration: "You are not the mainstream; you will not succeed." Then, somewhat wanly, Conlin added, "no matter how many odds are stacked against us."
When Planned Parenthood of New York City CEO Joan Malin got up and began to talk about escorting women to clinics, one lone man began to walk through the crowd, yelling, "Yeah, this guy don't condone murder!" The swelling rally made room for him to pass and he did.
Public advocate Betsy Gotbaum took the podium and pointed out the knot of young men who had been standing near her holding signs since the beginning of the rally. "Look at those young boys. They know that this might be their sisters, it might be our children and our grandchildren" whose rights are at stake. Gotbaum also said pointedly that "we need to get Senator Clinton" -- who has not yet made a statement about Roberts' nomination, though her senior colleague Sen. Charles Schumer has -- "on this case!"
This drew a particularly loud cheer.
Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields said she was "thrilled to see this impressive turnout on such short notice." It was definitely approaching impressive, though wasn't quite there yet. "Little did we know," Fields continued, "when we marched together by the thousands in Washington last year that we'd be standing here so soon. But what we learned then and what we learned today is that we can organize on short notice." Fields continued that now was the time to do so, because "if we lose ground on Roe v. Wade, we can lose ground on so many other of the civil rights that we have marched for and gone to jail for."
At this, a woman behind us asked my teenage friend, who was not waving her NARAL sign, if she could borrow it and hold it aloft. She did.
When Dick Gottfried, chairman of the New York State Assembly health committee, spoke, he had a specific goal in mind, and it echoed Betsy Gotbaum's. "When Hillary Clinton walks into a room, people stand up and cheer wildly," he said. "The reason that millions and millions of Americans revere her is because they feel that in her heart she is a moral leader." According to Gottfried, "Hillary Clinton has been given a gift; the gift of moral authority. But with that gift comes moral assignment." Gottfried suggested that it is Clinton's responsibility "to use that gift when it counts. This is one of those moments. Hillary Clinton must step forward on this moral issue to protect all of America and the Supreme Court from John Roberts."
The ever-growing, seriously sweating doughnut of protesters applauded mightily.
State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick suggested that in the Bush administration, "the Rove propaganda machine is at full-tilt boogie," and that Roberts "is a bad guy" and "an ideologue. She also coined the most successful -- if slightly queasy -- phrase of the rally: "We've got to Bork Roberts!"
Hey, it was better than state Assemblyman Jonathan Bing's, who lamely announced that while he grew up watching "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS, we have to make sure that "the United States Supreme Court doesn't become Mr. Roberts' neighborhood."
"Good one," said my companion very, very dryly, shooting me an unenthusiastic thumbs-up.
At the edge of the now rather impressive crowd, Judith Bendewald, 64, was standing with a 19-year-old friend, Hong Zheng, her former student from I.S. 131 in Chinatown. "I was around before Roe v. Wade," said Bendewald. "I lost an aunt in the 20s or 30s -- I didn't know her -- but she had an illegal abortion. She was even married! But they didn't have any money, and she got an infection and died."
Zheng, now a student at SUNY New Paltz, said that this was one of the first rallies she'd ever been to. When asked why she was here, she replied, "Ms. Bendewald tells me that it was really hard to get what we have today and we have to fight to keep it. All I know is that I'm going to do what I can to keep him out of the Supreme Court."