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Breaking Through the Panic

by BENJAMIN SHEPARD

As the week before Feb. 15th march progressed, things only got weirder. The Bush Administration sent attorneys from the Justice Department to file a friend of the court brief backing the City of New York’s case that the march represented a security threat. After the Office of Homeland Security put the country on “orange” full terrorist alert, the New York Dailey News ran a headline with an ominous black cover with the words, “SHOW OF FORCE, Officials warn of stepped-up security will jam city streets, crossings, subways,” on February 10th,. By Tuesday, the New York Times’ cover showed a picture of police officers with automatic riffles in Times Square (where activists planned to converge during the march) with the headline, “Alert on Terror.” The paper reported that courts had rejected United for Peace and Justice’s appeal for a permit, arguing, a “Stationary Rally Poses Less Risk.” The same edition published the administration’s guide to preparedness for a chemical attack: duck tape, plastic sheeting, and fresh water, in a message which seemed reminiscent of the cold war warnings for school children to hide under their desks if attacked by an atomic bomb. In the years before, such warnings had been considered a nonsensical joke. The following day, papers showed long lines of people stockpiling duck tape, as hysteria took hold nationwide. In the meantime, FOX news ran “Homeland Security: Terror Alert High” graphics during evening programming about the new Bin Laden tape broadcast around the world; silly putty in his hands.

As the week progressed, news became more and more Orwellian, “You’re not afraid during an a code orange. Ok, how about a code red? Now are you scared?” the news programs seemed to taunt after the codes were pushed up again. “Better not go to the protest.” Protestors at the rally responded to the sentiment. “We’re already at War with Iraq. We’ve always been at war with Iraq. War is Peace!” one placard read. Riffing on1984, another stated, “Support the Military Tribunals. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” Countless others played on the duck tape warnings. It was clear that in the interstices between the warmongering, a backlash was unfolding. The Saturday march offered its culmination. By Saturday, the administration was acknowledging that the information they had about the immenent attack was not quite as solid as first thought and was back peddling that it didn’t really wanted people to start ducking tape their homes, just yet.

The day of the rally, the City of New York had withheld permits, cut off the UFPJ’s phones, escalated terror alerts to discourage marchers, and shut down trains and transportation routs from Brooklyn to Manhattan and throughout the city–all contributing to a climate of panic. Despite the state imposed barriers, activists from all walks of life descended on city. The day of the march, the police sent horses to break up the marches, sought to separate crowds from each other, pushed marchers off sidewalks with batons, and tear gassed those in the streets. My father, a 66-year-old retired pastor, who was in town over the weekend observed, “We started out at 51st St, then 57th, then 62nd, and then 68th up 2nd Avenue. At 68th Street, we realized we were being pushed out of town. Every time we’d try to turn down to go to the rally, the police would push us up away from the rally. It was perfectly clear that was what they were trying to do. It was crowded like a VE day. They brought out batons to push us and we chanted, ‘Let us through!!! Let us through!!!’ Every time it would calm down, the police would try with to stop us, yet most of us broke through anyway. I was just a citizen trying to gather with other citizens to have a conversation with the President. I was trying to communicate how I felt about this. I’m a citizen. I pay for this war. My friends are going to go get shot for it. I’d like to have a say so. I don’t want to have my head patted or told what to think, being told my opinion doesn’t count. Being told to pay attention to people who know what they are doing like Kenny Boy and Dick Cheney, the important people. We’re going to war. Bush says, Trust me. I’ve got a memory long enough to remember the last time a president said, trust me, I have a secret plan. Nixon’s secret plan to get us out of Vietnam was to invade Cambodia. All Saturday, it was quite clear they were running the marchers out of the streets, like a defense used to run Tony Dorsett out of bounds. They were running people away from the rally.” By the end of the day, this 66-year-old retired pastor had engaged in direct action, working with a crowd to push up through a police line to get past police to get to the rally. And he was not alone.

Over a half a million marched through the streets of New York, in coordination with protests held around the world; 700,000 mobilized in London, one million in Rome. All weekend long, the protests were the top news story. Many described the day as the largest day of simultaneous peaceful protest in world history. Two days later, the New York Times cover story compared the weekend’s mobilization with the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the Revolutions of 1848. “The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion. In his campaign to disarm Iraq, by war if necessary, President Bush appears to be eyeball to eyeball with a tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities…”

Chills run through my body as I think about the possibility that the weekend created. Seattle is no longer the baseline for protest. Out of the ashes of an extraordinary backlash, we have created a new organizational possibility for a global peace and justice movement.

BENJAMIN SHEPARD is co-editor of From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Verso, 2002) and author of White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (Cassell, 1997). He can be reached at benshepard@mindspring.com.

 

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