Protesters Give Peace a Chance

Kim Phillips-Fein

Pol­i­tics, pun­dits and even the weath­er report seemed to be con­spir­ing against a mas­sive turnout at Sunday’s New York City demon­stra­tion against the Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion. Thanks to the city’s refusal to allow a ral­ly in Cen­tral Park, no one knew until days ear­li­er where the march would go or what would hap­pen when it got there. Lib­er­al com­men­ta­tors like Todd Gitlin and James Traub, trapped in night­mar­ish flash­backs of Chica­go 1968, issued vague yet dire warn­ings about clash­es with police. On top of it all, it seemed like it might thunderstorm.

But in the end, more than 500,000 peo­ple marched past Madi­son Square Gar­den on a swel­ter­ing, sun­ny August after­noon. Unit­ed for Peace and Jus­tice, the group orga­niz­ing the march, want­ed to build a tru­ly mas­sive protest appro­pri­ate for par­tic­i­pants from kids to senior cit­i­zens, show­cas­ing the breadth of oppo­si­tion to the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s social and eco­nom­ic poli­cies, that con­trast­ed with the small­er, more con­fronta­tion­al demon­stra­tions planned for lat­er in the week. They suc­ceed­ed — build­ing one of the largest protests in New York City his­to­ry and the biggest ever at a polit­i­cal con­ven­tion. Fox News reports of tens of thou­sands” under­es­ti­mat­ed by a few hun­dred thou­sand, and not even the NYPD con­test­ed orga­niz­ers’ claims that half a mil­lion peo­ple were there. 

The giant, most­ly peace­ful demon­stra­tion will frame the many actions lat­er in the week, mak­ing it clear that pro­test­ers reflect the beliefs of mil­lions, not the rad­i­cal fringe. What’s more, the fact that so many New York­ers were will­ing to take to the streets against the lies, greed and unleashed cor­po­rate aggres­sion the Bush admin­is­tra­tion stands for will make it very hard for his cam­paign to use the city as a pas­sive back­drop for the glo­ry of the com­man­der in chief.

Sunday’s protest was tes­ta­ment to philoso­pher Carl Schmitt’s dic­tum that all pol­i­tics needs an ene­my. Irrev­er­ent, mock­ing hatred of Bush was the uni­fy­ing theme of the day. Some­where in Texas there’s a vil­lage miss­ing an ass,” read one sign, while anoth­er ordered, Bush, Cheney: Take a Swift Boat Out­ta New York!” Peo­ple car­ried fly­swat­ters bear­ing W’s vis­age, and there were count­less dirty jokes to the effect of My Bush Knows Bet­ter” and Bush + Dick = Screwed.” Bush was not the only tar­get: When con­front­ed with a giant Fox News bill­board at the cor­ner of 34th Street and Sev­enth Avenue, thou­sands joined in the chant, Fox News Lies!”

The excite­ment of express­ing polit­i­cal rage gave the protest the fes­tive vibe of an urban street par­ty. Peo­ple were packed so tight­ly that it took six hours for the march to com­plete its route past Madi­son Square Gar­den. The Code Pink brigade, decked out in magen­ta boas and pas­tel gowns, danced to the rau­cous sound of bells and drums. Bil­lion­aires for Bush, wear­ing the top hats of the 19th Cen­tu­ry indus­tri­al­ists and the smok­ing jack­ets of the 1920s nou­veau riche, thanked passers-by for sub­si­diz­ing their gen­er­ous tax cuts. Ban Repub­li­can Mar­riage,” one poster urged, while a Sub­ur­ban Mom for Régime Change” car­ried a poster depict­ing a steam­ing apple pie. Despite the out­pour­ing of anger at Bush, the Ker­ry cam­paign should take note: This was unam­bigu­ous­ly an anti­war march, and far more marchers pro­claimed hatred for Bush than sup­port for Ker­ry (although I did see one ban­ner pro­claim­ing, I Love JFK”). 

After dis­pers­ing at Union Square, thou­sands of demon­stra­tors head­ed uptown to Cen­tral Park’s Great Lawn. Although the lawn was ringed with police, it quick­ly filled up with pro­test­ers relax­ing on the soft green grass. There was no sound sys­tem at the park, and hence no speech­es, but it was hard to feel like any­body missed them all that much. The only bit of unpleas­ant­ness came when one Upper East Side matron on Park Avenue — per­haps a real-life Bil­lion­aire for Bush — shout­ed at this reporter, Stay out of our park!”

Under­ly­ing the thrill of con­fronting the Repub­li­can Par­ty head-on was a core of sad­ness and des­per­a­tion about the war’s bar­barism, which no one quite knows what it will take to stop. Many pro­tes­tors car­ried signs bear­ing the images of hood­ed pris­on­ers from Abu Ghraib. Paus­ing in front of a hotel across the street from the Gar­den, decked with ban­ners wel­com­ing the Repub­li­cans, one young man shout­ed, Tor­tur­ers! Get out of our city!” Hun­dreds of pall­bear­ers car­ried flag-draped coffins, rep­re­sent­ing the troops killed in Iraq, their coffins brought back in secret. At one cor­ner, two Viet­nam vet­er­ans held a ban­ner for Vet­er­ans for Peace. We’ve got a big enough mon­u­ment of our own with 58,000 names on it,” said one. We just hope that the mon­u­ment for this war will only have a thou­sand or 1,500.”

Lib­er­als argue that mass protest is self-defeat­ing in elec­toral pol­i­tics: In 1968, after all, Richard Nixon used the images of angry long­hairs to vault him­self into office. In 2004, they warn, Bush will gal­va­nize sup­port through can­ny footage of unruly rad­i­cals. But there are many dif­fer­ences between New York City 2004 and Chica­go 1968 (and even in 1968, sup­port for Hubert Humphrey con­tin­ued to build in the month before the elec­tion — even after the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­ven­tion where police beat up unarmed pro­test­ers). The war in Iraq is far less pop­u­lar at a far ear­li­er stage than Viet­nam was in 1968. Even if police try to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between Sunday’s good” pro­test­ers and the bad” scruffy anar­chists, the peo­ple block­ing traf­fic, get­ting arrest­ed and oth­er­wise pre­vent­ing busi­ness from pro­ceed­ing as usu­al have the vocal polit­i­cal sup­port of a far larg­er group.

But most of all, Sunday’s protest will make it far hard­er for the Repub­li­cans to set the terms of the debate for the rest of the week. It under­cut the image of George Bush at Ground Zero, telling peo­ple across the coun­try that even in New York City there are mas­sive num­bers of peo­ple who have not been fright­ened into sup­port­ing this ter­ri­ble war. Far from being the prag­mat­ic or rea­son­able thing to do, the alter­na­tive — stay­ing home — would have meant cer­tain polit­i­cal defeat.

Kim Phillips-Fein is a writer in New York City and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor to In These Times. She is work­ing on a book about the busi­ness back­lash against the New Deal.
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