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Clash of Civilizations: An RNC Report

It's very difficult to write up a summary of the literally hundreds of events that took place in the run up and during the Republican National Convention (RNC) here in New York City. In many respects the mobilization exceeded my expectations-not so much in the size of the street protests but in the diversity and creativity of actions spanning all forms from poetry to banner drops to flash mobs to street theater.
It's very difficult to write up a summary of the literally hundreds of events that took place in the run up and during the Republican National Convention (RNC) here in New York City. In many respects the mobilization exceeded my expectations-not so much in the size of the street protests but in the diversity and creativity of actions spanning all forms from poetry to banner drops to flash mobs to street theater.

By the time the Republicans arrived, we had been organizing for well over a year. The city was covered with anti-Bush propaganda. Everyone it seemed was wearing some form of "no Bush" button or t-shirt. In a poll published in the run-up to the RNC, the vast majority of New Yorkers supported the protestors, even their right to conduct non-violent civil disobedience. One in ten said they planned to participate in the protest. Even in a posh part of 5th Avenue, one building hung a "No Bush" banner from its fašade.

My work began a week before the RNC with Life After Capitalism 2004, a project that a small group of activists in New York had been organizing for over a year. The conference brought together a broad range of activists from around the country, with international guests from Argentina and Canada. The conference proved that the wave of radicalism that emerged from Seattle nearly five years ago was alive and kicking but not necessarily under the same banner or with the same tactics. We also featured a number of very committed community groups who don't necessarily get the same attention as the Seattle veterans but whose work is more important in many respects.

The opening salvo of the protests came on Friday night (Aug. 27) with 5,000 Critical Mass bicyclists filling the streets of Manhattan. The New York Police Dept. (NYPD) tried to set a tone by holding the bikers strictly to traffic rules and ended up arresting 260 of them. The bike protest was a beautiful start and was in marked contrast to all the fear-mongering reports in the media and from city agencies that "anarchists"-out-of-towners to boot-were descending on the city to cause mayhem. One police official hopelessly tried to justify the crackdown on the bicyclists by saying that they were blocking ambulances but this did not get much play-it was hard to demonize a bunch of people on bikes.

Banner drops and small actions were already happening all around the city by this time. The famous Plaza Hotel on the corner of Central Park was draped with a massive banner while activists floated a balloon banner in Grand Central Station. ACT-UP activists, who carried out almost daily actions including infiltrating the convention and disrupting White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's speech, stripped naked and blocked traffic just outside Madison Square Garden to raise awareness about third world debt and the AIDS pandemic.

The much anticipated mass march on Sun. (Aug. 29) went off smoothly with minor harassment from the NYPD. The Republicans were praying for mayhem so they can portray us as unruly and irresponsible and pin it on the Democrats. But there was little or no Democratic Party or pro-Kerry sentiment-the overwhelming message throughout the protest was against the war and Bush. One group created 1,000 life-size coffins draped in U.S. flags and paraded them for hours in the streets. The brilliant Billionaires for Bush contingent numbered in the hundreds. Over half a million people of all ages and colors marched that day and as Michael Moore put it, that day we were the majority and the majority was unquestionably opposed to the war.

As if this was not enough, thousands streamed up to Central Park afterwards to assert our right (denied by the mayor) to assemble there. The NYPD kept it cool and hung back-the mood was festive. The ever intrepid Code Orange affinity group (not to be mistaken with the just as intrepid Code Pink) organized on-the-spot direct action trainings and dozens came to participate. Another group of protestors, under the name "Mouse Bloc," fanned out on Broadway to disrupt Republican delegates' first night out in the city. There were heated confrontations between protestors and delegates and, of course, more arrests.

Monday (Aug. 30) brought out two sizeable and militant demonstrations by poor people of color. The Still We Rise Coalition, which was abandoned at the last minute by the now shady and unpredictable Russell Simmons (he had agreed to put on a star-studded hip hop summit only to pull out at the last minute citing the MTV Awards ceremony as his excuse), brought together many of New York's dedicated community and immigrant groups like Critical Resistance, Make the Road by Walking, Housing Works, DRUM, and many more. The Poor People's March, put on by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KRWU), started later in the day and was unpermitted, yet incredibly managed to march from the United Nations building on the Eastside to Madison Sq. Garden in the west. The cops attacked the tail end of the march arresting a handful of people.

Tuesday (Aug. 31) was the designated day of direct action and was remarkably successful given the difficulties direct action activists have faced at recent mobilizations. Because of the NYPD's complete disregard for any of our rights and all the scare-mongering, I was skeptical that many would respond to the direct action call. But by the time I came within earshot of Herald Square, the focal point of the actions just a block from the convention site, the scene was mobbed and chaotic.

Despite reports of police and FBI infiltration and surveillance of the movement, the authorities clearly had no idea what was going to happen. Many groups staged sit-ins in the streets disrupting buses of delegates trying to enter the fortress-like convention area while the rest of us taunted them from the sidewalks. I was amazed at the number and diversity of people who responded to the call for direct action. As I made my way down to Union Square, the whole city was at a standstill-stores were closed, several blocks of Broadway were totally shut down by a die-in of several pacifist groups. At Union Sq., the police were trying to round up several hundred protestors who had launched a street party along the square.

That day somewhere around 1,000 were arrested, many for doing nothing more that observing from the sidewalk or following conflicting orders from the police. The early arrestees were already reporting hazardous conditions at the pier facility that the city used to jail protestors. And after hearing the New York District Attorney Robert Morgentheau repeat for months that the city expected and was fully prepared to process 1,000 arrests a day, the NYPD was now saying the system was overwhelmed, keeping many protestors in jail for 30 or 40 hours. An army of lawyers and legal observers had been mobilized by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the National Lawyers Guild and the People's Law Collective ready to take on any heavy-handed behavior by the police and got a judge to fine the city heavily for detaining protestors for long periods of time (this was later retracted but it did eventually empty the pier).

Despite keeping many protestors in jail as late as Thursday (the day of Bush's, gag, acceptance speech), the protests continued. On Wednesday, a pink slip line of 5,000 people stood shoulder to shoulder for many blocks holding pink sheets of paper to represent the millions of unemployed in the US. Disruptions continue on the convention floor as more Code Pink and ACT UP activists broke into chants, even during Bush's speech. Several Billionaires for Bush (often mistaken by the press and bystanders as genuine supporters of Bush) went to get their shoes shined at Grand Central with the NYPD looking on, not knowing what to do. There were also two large protests against the media (the anti-Fox "Shut-Up-Athon" made a big splash) and an attempt to reclaim Johnny Cash from the Republican Tennessee delegation which held a reception in his honor. Anti-Coke activists picketed a Coke-sponsored party for Latino delegates and the Missouri delegation was dogged at every turn by queer activists for passing a gay marriage ban in their state.

At the center of all this was NYC Indymedia and a text-messaging communication network that fed us instantaneous information on what was happening. The Indymedia site posted a minute-by-minute account of what was happening through all types of media-pictures, audio, video, you name it. The Indypendent, the print newspaper of NYC Indymedia, managed to publish three times during the mobilization, distributing hundreds of thousands of copies for free.

What was achieved?

The New York Times, after generally favorable coverage than I had expected, predictably wrote an analysis that at the end of the day the protest failed to disrupt or "change the course" of the convention in any way and that the cops succeed in keeping us at bay (as if NYT reporters had the slightest clue about our intentions). Even the most radical activists knew that shutting down or seriously disrupting the convention was going to be difficult, if not impossible-alternative tactics, such targeting their parties for example, would be necessary. Many of us were also quite aware that our messaging was too important to get lost in confrontations with the police, and from what I've described above, we managed to highlight the most important issues to us-from the war in Iraq to the domestic assault on the social and economic fronts (not electing Kerry)-in imaginative ways backed with almost daily press briefings. We were so effective, that it was virtually impossible after the protests for the media to berate and demonize us as they did in the run up to the RNC.

Beyond this, our achievements were many:

First, the mega Aug. 29 protest completely overshadowed the opening day of the RNC, at least in the local press. Even the screeching tabloids had to publish dazzling bird's eye pictures of the march on their covers on the very day that the RNC opened up. More importantly, Bush could not even get near the site of the 9/11 attacks (known as "Ground Zero") and instead met with a bunch of firemen in a social club way out in Queens. This is critical as this was the main reason New York was chosen as a convention site for the first time in the Republican Party's 150 year history-imagine if there were no protests and Bush could stage-manage an outdoor event among New Yorkers waving flags near Ground Zero. Instead, they were left to bleat obscenities at Kerry from inside the convention hall (they might as well have been in Houston or Pluto for that matter). State delegations were dogged wherever they went and I'm certain that those who drove past us in their buses got a very clear idea (from our hand signals) of how we felt about them.

Second, this was an incredible and rare opportunity for progressive and grassroots activists who tend to be completely marginalized in the run up to Election Day as the two major parties and a parroting mass media increasingly dominate the political scene. Given the importance of this election combined with the dismal prospects of getting any real change through the ballot box, many of us were desperate for activist approaches to having a say in the elections-the RNC was in a sense our election day and we made good use of it. Activist even managed to hold educational and networking conferences (there were around 4 by my count) to meet each other, strategize, and discuss long-term organizing. None of this would have happened, certainly not among activists from all over the country who came to town for the protests, had it not been for the RNC.

Third, the day of direct action reversed a pattern, arguably stretching back to 9-11, where the police got the best of us before we could take any effective action. Predictions that what happened in Miami during the FTAA protests would be repeated in New York failed to materialize. There were in fact many arrests that day and jailed protestor were held for too long in miserable conditions but the police could not run wild as they did in Miami where undercover cops indiscriminately used tazer guns against protestor and roamed the city like death squads.

Chemical weapons like tear gas and pepper spray were rarely used and there were no serious beatings of protesters-this was largely due to organizing by police-monitoring groups months in advance and an unprecedented mobilization by groups like the NYCLU and other civil liberties groups who deployed hundreds of lawyers and legal observers at every action. They had been hammering away at the NYPD since they botched the February 15 demonstration last year, extracting a number of concessions on searching activists to the use of barricades. The watchful lens of hundreds of media activists during the protests also helped restrain the police. The result is that despite difficult conditions, we managed to open up a space for direct action that has been closed for quite some time.

It's unlikely that our protest will change the course of the elections-we simply don't have the means or the numbers at the moment to influence the views of millions of people. If anything we threw some obstacles in the way and perhaps robbed Bush of a bigger bounce out of the convention. Early polls, now dismissed, suggested a huge (in one case, 11-point) bounce on Kerry-most polls now show a much smaller spread of 4-6 points. Bush had a 2-point edge after the Republicans slanderous Swift Boat ads against Kerry before the convention started-that leaves a paltry 2-4 point bounce from the convention.

We should not judge the success of our actions at the RNC based on the outcome of the elections-there are too many mediating factors such as Kerry's performance (which has dismal so far), external events in Iraq or Afghanistan, not to mention a profoundly undemocratic electoral system stacked in favor of the rich and powerful. The re-election of Bush will no doubt be a painful experience for many of us, but the events of last week give me hope that there are hundreds of thousands of righteous and creative people ready to continue their struggle for a just and peaceful regardless of which shade of empire occupies the White House come January.


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DNC2RNC arrival march 18.Sep.2004 10:28


The "opening salvo" (if you want to call it that) was on Thursday when 1,100 marched down Broadway as part of the DNC2RNC arrival march.