The New York Protest and Rally
I present my experience and my take on the news coverage I saw and read at home.
My mom's bus was to get in to Shea Stadium at 10 am. She'd left Worcester with four busloads of people at 6:30 am, just two hours after I'd finally fallen asleep after consuming most of a bottle of Pinot Grigio and writing an ambitious "things I'm gonna do as soon as I finish this work push" list. Chief among them might be finding out if anyone on the web has archived Groksoup's old content. The site has turned into an ersatz search engine, and even Google doesn't have the material cached. I started Texting in December of 1999 on Groksoup and, until the server returned more error messages than successful posts, posted there until the beginning of 2001. I left the archives up there, and, although I often reminded myself to copy them to disk, that got entangled in my plan to revamp all archives and make them searchable, which made me put off the complex task. Now it seems that hundreds of pages of my writing may be lost in cyberspace.
Anyhow, mom called at about 10:20. What I should have done the previous night was get my warm clothes and protest supplies together, as, hung over, I stood on a chair to reach a jammed storage area in which were hidden mittens, hats, and scarves. Never found 'em. Had no bottled water or kleenex. Tried three different coats (do I want puffy down, for safety and warmth, a long black wool coat for style and "look, we're not all crunchy hippies" respectability, or the shoat black city coat I wear every day? Finally went for the last, thinking that rather than create more anxiety by treating this as a scary situation, I'd act like a New Yorker who's on the streets every day and just happens, this day, to be near the U.N.) -- and in the process left my tobacco in the down coat pocket, prompting a nicotine fit later.
I walked over to Astor Place, stopping to buy some overpriced, cheaply made gloves from a St. Mark's vendor. When I got to the subway station, everything suddenly seemed real. The platform was jammed with peple, many with signs or slogan hats or buttons, a sense of subdued anticipation and solidarity. I began to feel very excited. The train was already crowded and became unbearably so as we neared Grand Central.
I got out at 51st, the plan being to meet my mom at the Waldorf Astoria's informal restaurant. The crowds were thronging, and I was fighting them walking west. Some organized groups paraded the sidewalk with drums and costumes. On Park Avenue, I passed a large Catholic church, the kind with a wide apron of marble steps. The steps were full and the sidewalk impassable as paritioners gathered, wearing lots of white and purple, carrying "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" signs and pictures of waiflike Iraqui children with the taglines "Collateral Damage?" or "What is Her lIfe Worth To You", and singing hymns. My throat tightened and I got teary.
The Waldorf is huge and I ended up having to backtrack the entire avenue inside the hotel's lobby because the restaurant is on the Lexington Avenue side. My mom wasn't there, which was weird because she'd had almost an hour to get there while I futzed around like an idiot. Now the sidewalks outside were solid with people, unbroken streams. I was circling around the restaurant again when my mom dashed in the hotel lobby door and headed for the escalator; I headed her off at the pass. She said she'd spent almost 40 minutes covering the blocks from Grand central and trying to get out of the terminal itself.
Mitsu was picking up friends of his and Sue's coming in from Princeton at Penn Station, then busing west. I figured he was long gone, but when we called his cell phone, he and the group were still stuck in the Grand Central area, which had become complete pedestrian gridlock as thousands swarmed out onto streets with no room to hold them, and the police began blocking certain exits and routing people away from where they wanted to go. My mom waited for Mitsu while I went for coffee, easier said than done in Midtown, which features blocks of solid granite buildings, and few delis or bodegas. I had to go almost over to 5th again, worried that Mom would miss Mitsu in the throngs. Then having that first sip of coffee and realizing no cigarettes. I bummed one from another person waiting in the lobby portico; turned out he also smokes roll-your-owns.
Mitsu's friends were a family with two small children. The oldest daughter had made a big cardboard sign that said "Dear Mr. Installed by the Supreme Court, Why Don't You Give Peace a Chance" and was pretty greens and pinks with a flower motif. The sign, on a folding box remnant, turned out to be very hard to manage.
We joined the throngs flowing north on Lexington, and within a block, were off the sidewalk and in the street, solid crowds from building to building on either side and as far as one could see north or south. We were allowed to go east to 3rd within a few blocks north, but were trapped on third for several more blocks before being allowed to go east on the next unblocked cross street, to 2nd Avenue, where we spent the bulk of the afternoon.
At first, on Lex and Third, we'd be pushed to the sidewalk by blocs of traffic, still trying to get through at a snail's pace. But by 55th Street and for all of our journey north on 2nd Avenue, the sea of humanity was far too dense to allow vehicle traffic, and we passed cars that had been caught up in the crowds, some with drivers inside or sitting on their hoods, some abandoned where they'd been trapped. The crowd would flow around them like liquid. The very very few police this far west were desperately blocking the cross streets east; some had wooden barriers, others just had personnel. It was only about the mid-50s that we saw police in riot gear. On the avenues, maybe one or two policemen every block had been given crowd control, and either simply stood still like the vehicles while thousands passed, or shouted futilely to "get on the sidewalks!" (which were absolutely full already), or just collected wooden sticks (prohibeted) from signs.
I was fortunate to have arrived early enough to both be able to reach the meetingplace with my mom (others were divided by barricades from their parties) and to be situated in the main flow of people toward the demonstration, the flow that would actually reach the First Avenue blocks earmarked for the rally, albeit three hours later. Other groups, coming from west, north, and south, hit cul-de-sacs of barricaded cross streets. The way it worked was like a staircase. The further south you were, the further west the cross streets were barricaded, to prevent the sideflow crowds from crushing the full avenues. However, since the police had not figured any of this out in advance, barricade rigidity became situational. Also, police were unable to say where one *would* be able to access the protest, since there was no traffic flow plan. This meant that protesters at Fifth or Park or Lex Avenues shouted and agitated at barricades on cross streets rather than simply being told to go further north until the next open cross street east. Almost all of the clashes with police were due to this simple communication/logistics breakdown. The police simply hadn't been paying attention to the grassroots news. March permit or no, how were several hundred thousand people, coming from every direction, going to access one location (given as First Avenue and 51st)? Inevitibly, streams would converge into rivers and would become gridlocks and solid, stationary masses, unable to get in. The protesters should have been told to stay on subway trains until the late 60s or so, where some cross streets were open to First Avenue. The barricade cops should have had walkie-talkes so that instead of pointless argy-bargy, they could have said, go up five blocks north and then cross east. Very very bad planning.
That said, the protest was fantastic. It took awhile before it coalesced in the sense that for perhaps half an hour, we all thought we'd soon be on First Avenue, facing the podium, all gathered as one group and one energetic body, where we'd sing and chant and cheer. During that time, we all felt like commuters at rush hour who were waiting for a temporary bottleneck to ease, and the mood was sort of like waiting in line for a popular movie or something. Grumbling, silly songs of "let us though," and massive energy and sign-waving and puppets all held in abeyance for the "real" protest.
But it soon became apparant that this WAS the "real protest." That we were the protesters, every bit as "real" as the First Avenue rally, and that this was the time we had, where we were. There was sort of an energetic change then, as we resigned ourselves to walking north indefinitely, "away" from, and parallel to the rally. People who had portable radios turned the speeches up loud, and you'd hear several minutes before the amoebalike crowd carried you away from them. Staying connected to ones group was hard, it was easy to be cut off and then drift in a different pattern, lose visual contact.
People were very, very funny. It was an intelligent and very upbeat crowd, which was reflected in both the overheard snatches of conversation ("Oh, yeah, this'll be on the news 'several protesters gathered.' 'In other news, a handful of radicals mad life hard for motorists today in Midtown'), and in the signs, which were terrific. Although there were "No Blood for Oil" and "Impeach Bush" signs, as well as some signs for peripheral issues, most were not polemical, but presupposed a commonality of purpose and hopeful-but-slightly-cynical tone with puns and humor.
I'd wanted to carry a sign on a stick, but abandoned the idea when told no sticks. I forgot about cardboard tubes, which many people used to hold their signs. I couldn't decide between "No War No How"; "Ask Me Why I March" (a segue to handing out my list, which I had about 30 copies of but didn't hand out because it was silly; everyone WAS marching, couldn't stop and read, and were all packed in like sardines); or "Mark Shields for President!" Now I wish I'd put duct tape all over my slothes, worn plastic sheeting as a shawl, and carried a sign saying "Am I Safe Yet?"
Great signs included a gorgeous felt applique peace banner with doves (no space to march with it unfurled to be seen, though), pretty silkscreened scrims of the earth from space, "Draft the Bush Twins," "Got Tape?" (takeoff of the milk campaing with a pic of Bush with duct tape over his mouth); "Asses of Evil" (picture of Bush administration bigwigs), "Regime Change Begins at Home," "Not in Our Name," and, my mom's favorite "Let's Not Elect Bush (Again)."
At one point we heard the crowd estimates for protests in Rome and Berlin and London and everyone cheered. We heard snatches of a very informal and funny speaker from Harlem who was like "You can stick Colin Powell or Condileeza Rice in your Cabinet and we stil;l aren't fooled! Those people do not represent us! We're not gonna die in your war! If you hate Saddam so much, Mr. Bush, why don't you take a plane over there and punch himn in the nose!" They announced PeteSeeger but then I was out of range, which was sad.
Further north, we passed the "Glamericans," my favorite agit-prop theme of the day, they were glammed out in sort of goth/drag with sequins and lots of fake fur and feathers and high heels, with pink, white, and black signs in glitter on faux fur saying "Peace is Glamorous!" "War is a Bore" and other silly fabulous things.
There were big puppets of peace doves with wings on sticks flying over the crowd. People would start localized chants, from the good-oldies "a people united will never be defeated!" and "we shall overcome" to "I-2-3-4 We don't want your stupid war! 5-6-7-8- No More Duct Tape!" to silly situation-specific chants like "Onward to 59th!" Some young people made a sort of grunge rap from old chants, We caught up with the Psychiatric Profesionals For Peace carrying their "Peace of Mind" banner and looking sensible and calm as is their wont.
We all came to realize that, by denying a permit and a march route, the city had created a march, a march to the protest. And that, with all the concerns for "safety," this unanticipated march was completely unpoliced or regulated, with all the barricades and crowd control and sharpshooters over on First Avenue. And that we were in a completely self-regulated crowd, organically marching, and it was somehow beautiful. And a huge cheer would arise from behind us, massive and unified, a tonal "ooooh!" that traveled forward in a sound wave like the visual waves organized at large sporting events, but completely spontaneously, forming a shape, an aural energetic wave of solidarity and assent. It was very very powerful, like an "ohm," and it also seemed transpersonal, global.
"We got our march!" people said. "Yeah, we're marching." There was no intent to defy the law; this wasn't a rebellion against the rally; it was the people marching TO the rally. Mitsu said, "It looks like the decision to forbid the march was like dividing the baby in half." Somewhere in the early 60s, the family from Princeton peeled off to go home, with two exhausted and overwhelmed kids.
This is why crowd estimates on this particular protest are very misleading. Lots of people never got to the rally and staged side-street rallies; other got freaked by the crowds; some went all the way west and protested not having been able to get to First Ave at the Javitz Center. And thousands, like our friends, came a long way, joined in, but never made it to First Avenue to be counted although they marched for hours. Even as we marched north, exhausted protesters who'd been standing in the cold since 10am were coming west, out from the cross treets that were blocked from our direction. We stopped at the first deli we came to (really, 2nd Ave needs more delis in the 60s!!) and it was packed solic with hungry protesters. Restaurants as far away as 5th Avenue were slammed. Midtown was like the West Village right after the Gay Pride parade winds up and tens of thousands fan out into every locale. Some protesters stopped in elevated corporate building stairs or aprons to take video, watch the parade, or try to find the people they'd lost.
At some point we asked a barricade cop how far north we'd have to go and he said "72nd," but it was 69th that north of us was blocked and we swung right, the energy surging again, 2:30 p.m. and we were "almost there." More singing and euphoria now, and we hit First Avenue, both north and south blocked now, penned in btween 68th and 9th. "We're here," said Mitsu "We weren't here before, but now we are."
The rally was slightly anticlimactic, as we were frozen, tired, overstimulated, far from the podium, and no longer moving. I truly think it would have been safer, easier on traffic and law enforcement, and more satisfying for the protesters, to have marched on a route. As it was, we took over streets unintentionally, didn't know where to go, marched anyway, but with no protection or room to spread out banners and represent groups, and never got that satisfaction, the coming together of everyone at once, in one direction, energetically forward, channeling energy and sharing a common experience. By the time we got to First, the pens in front of us had thinned out as people went for food or toilets (no port-a-potties, "for security"), or had left after being there 5 hours. So we starte a leapfrog game of waiting at a pen for ten minutes or so until the crowd pressure from those still streaming on from 2nd (we began walking at about 11:30, so think of the people who had yet even to arrive for the rally scheduled at 12!), forced the cops to swing to partitions open and we'd suge forward to the next block. However, sidewalks were being kept open for passersby, so people were climbing the barricades over and bypassing the pens via the sidewalks. Barriers were fallen over, which was dangerous, and bottlenecks around one small opening forced much more jostling and crushing than before. We could see space ahead of us, which made the crush seem pointless.
At one point, trapped much longer than usual in one pen, the crowd surched left to the sidewalk, climbing the barricade and really crushing. I lost my party and then they swung ther barrier in the center open and I was carried forward very fast. I went over to the left and hoped to see my mom come by. If she didn't she could be anywhere. But there they were. It was probably on that block that, trying the sidewalk again, dangerous with ice and utility poles and postboxes and debris, I was caught between a tree on my right, and a crowd on my left, when a young guy with a huge backpack tried to sort of swing me open like a door, pushing by very hard and knocking me sideways. I thought, time to stop, this is getting dangerous. I stood in front of the tree for shelter, we all paused there, and now, finally, we could see the huge video screen of the podium and hear the speeches (sound trucks with loudspeakers were positioned every block on 1st).
Just a not for rally organizers: Fewer speakers. More variety in tone and message of speakers. More songs and humor, less shrill, endless preaching. And for the speakers:: speak slowly, keep your pitch low, enunciate clearly, use short sentences, and don't think you can go on and on really fast and shrill and then end with a rallying cry and expect spontaneous chanting!! Pace your delivery with several mini-crescendos of humor or exortation, let the crowd cheer and laugh, leave then wanting more, and end with a very catchy phrase. They'll chant it then.
Saw Danny Gover and one articulate woman, then one of those "Pink Lady" protesters I later saw profiled on the national news (Code Pink for Peace!" just didn't quite catch on), missed Seger and Tutu, and realized my muscles were spasming and my teeth were chattering and it was time to go.
It was almost as hard to leave as to arrive, with subways blocked off, streets thronged, avenues blocked, and no bistros or open restaurants. Mom and I, exhasted, meandered down as far as 59th and over almost to 5th before a shopkeeper put us on to a small second-story Irish pub, which, even at this remove, was packed with protesters (which they were not prepared for, with one waitress). I'd seen a friend from yoga class amid the huge 2nd avenue crowd; here, the couple at whose house I'd celebrated New Years' walked in. I had to walk all the way over to Columbus Circle for an accessible subway and, after seeing mom off for her bus, ran into a guy I'd worked side-by-side with at the post-9/11 Clarkson relief station.
All in all, the protest was exhilerating, powerful, life-affirming, joyful, a mess logistically, but beautifully handled by the protesters. I can se how mobs work though. If this were a slightly more repressive country, if people had been a tad less good-natured and funny, and angrier, I could see how sheer energy and size could create a mob, I could see plate glass smashed and those stranded cars overturned. I think we should thank one another and give much props for the peace and camaraderie.