Why the City Should–and Will–Demostrate Against the Republican Convention

by MARK ENGLER

Like many New Yorkers, I am not native to this place. I arrived from elsewhere, and have made the city my home. My extended family lives in the Midwest. They do not understand New York. I have an uncle who labors with an iron work ethic in carpentry and flooring. He gets up every morning at 5:00 AM, and I have often seen him working, trying to finish off a floor, after 9:30 at night. My uncle tells me that he could not live in New York City. It’s "too busy," he says. I laugh, wondering how he could get any busier than he is in rural Wisconsin.

Such feelings about New York are frequently expressed by my relatives. Their judgements aren’t based on any real knowledge of the city, its rhythms or its neighborhoods. Rather, my family members use New York as a landmark. For them, it is an imaginary place. The city is some place different from where they live. It embodies a different way of life. When they express distaste for New York, they do not intend to denigrate those who live there. They merely wish to express appreciation for what they have, for the places they have settled.

I respect that. I know that there are many people in this country who feel as they do, and it does not bother me at all. Unlike some of our city’s more chauvinistic promoters — yes, they do exist — I do not regard New York as the best possible place for all people to live. Yet I will defend New York, as a city and as a way of life, when called to do so. This is a week in which we are called. The Republicans are trying to use New York to advance a social agenda that assaults the diversity and tolerance at the heart of the city, and to promote a fiscal program that starves urban centers. New Yorkers are right in refusing to provide a cheerful backdrop for the Party’s week of self-promotion.

For members of the cultural right wing in this country, New York occupies a place in the imagination very different from that pictured by my relatives. In the view of social conservatives, the city is a corrupted place. It is an immoral place. They see our city as a hive of feminism and homosexuality and illegal immigration. It is Gomorrah.

After the 9/11 attacks, televangelist Jerry Falwell said, "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’"

For New Yorkers, this ranks with the overt slander of the city offered by baseball player John Rocker. "The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners," Rocker explained in a famous Sports Illustrated interview. "You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?"

"Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark," Rocker continued, "looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids."

These statements went far beyond the pale, of course, even for staunch conservatives. Falwell was compelled to apologize. Rocker has been universally reviled. Yet I fear that their opinions tap into sentiments that are more often felt than stated openly. The vision of the city that they invoke lives on, and milder versions of their views appear regularly. Brad Stine, a popular fundamentalist comedian who makes busy rounds of Promise Keepers conventions and other right-wing events, jokes: "I thank God we’ve got a Texan in the White House… You’ll notice the terrorists didn’t attack Texas."

The audiences laugh, but I puzzle over what this is supposed to mean. What if we had a New Yorker in the White House? The terrorists did attack New York. We were attacked.

I was recently targeted in passing by conservative talk radio station which, to discredit a column I had written, simply labeled me as "another left-winger from that bastion of truth, New York City." That was all that needed to be said. The content of my views did not need to be discussed. The city, apparently, had irreparably mutated my Iowan DNA.

The New York Times editorial page reported on July 10, 2001 that "Mr. Bush has been heard to say privately that he cannot stand New York." The politics pursued by the President’s party have long reflected this dislike. Urban centers, with many people of color and few reliable Republican voters, routinely receive less in Federal support than they pay in taxes — $11.4 billion less in 2002, according to the Mayor’s office — with cuts in social services disproportionately affecting city residents. Even after 9/11, New York, an obvious target for future attacks, ranks 49th among cities in per capita anti-terrorism funds from Washington, receiving $5.87 per person, compared with $35.80 for Tom Ridge’s Pittsburgh or $52.82 for Jeb Bush’s Miami.

This week, the Republicans want to use New York to promote their militarism and their moralism. If the stage managers at their National Convention can help it, Jerry Falwell, who offered a prayer at the 2000 convention, will not be in the cameras, nor will Senator Rick Santorum. Yet these figures remain all too welcome in the Republican Party. Asked if she was worried that prominent evangelicals were going to get short shrift at the convention, Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition, told the Associated Press that she was unconcerned. "We’ll have a huge presence there," she said. "We have the president."

Those who will be on stage are exactly the type of Republicans that the hard right has all but boxed out of the Party. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — being pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-gun control, not to mention a noted adulterer — would be viciously attacked and marginalized in party primaries across the country. On the national scene, New York’s vision of Rockefeller Republicanism is all but dead.

I can accept the reality of short-changed funding from Washington. I can stomach the dislike from cultural conservatives. Those on the right can say what it will about New York. But they cannot both revile our city and then claim it as a launching pad for their political ambition. They cannot have it both ways. We will not let them.

In early August, the local ABC news affiliate reported that "a Manhattan public relations firm found 83 percent of those polled do not want the Republican convention in town." It is likely that demonstrators on Manhattan’s streets, outraged by the Party’s extremism, will outnumber the convention delegates by more than 50 to one.

The question, then, is whether New Yorkers are wise to protest. Some liberal critics, most notably ex-1960s activist Todd Gitlin, have arguing in the past weeks that protests outside the Convention are liable to play into Bush’s hands. They cite Chicago 1968 as an ominous comparison. Some have even suggested that the Republicans chose to have their convention in New York as a deliberate provocation, with party leaders believing that they would benefit from unruly demonstrations. While the commentators deny it, one might judge from the tenor of their argument that they would prefer that there were no protests at all. Whatever their intention, their actions have the effect of discouraging attendance.

In some measure, I am scared to go on the streets. I am not scared of the few activists, who do indeed exist, who have an exaggerated sense of what vandalism can accomplish. I am scared because the authorities have emphasized the risk of terrorism and advertised the new weaponry they will use to control demonstrations. I am scared because the tabloids and the police have trumpeted the danger of "violent anarchists" — an image that has been repeatedly used to justify the militarization of police responses to peaceful crowds, and that has little actual correlation to any marginal acts of property destruction. I am scared because I have seen pre-emptive arrests and unprovoked assaults first hand. I do not relish a clash in the streets.

Nevertheless, I will go. I will go with the belief that a large protest is better than a small one. I have no doubt that the Republicans will try to spin any protests to their advantage. And I have no doubt that the protests will not poll well. They never do. Even the most stately processions of the Civil Rights movement drew criticism for "going too fast," and for operating outside bureaucratic channels for change. But this does not mean that the demonstrations cannot be effective.

The Republican Convention is meant to be a tightly choreographed pageant. It is meant to be a sunny, week-long advertisement for the Party. Republicans didn’t choose New York to provoke a battle in the streets. They chose New York so that they could wrap their convention in images of 9/11. They chose New York so that they could take our city’s grief and use it to advance their agenda. They wanted to take the memory of those days when we mourned together, honored our public workers, and asserted that our diversity was a source of strength, and use it as the backdrop for their pageant. They chose New York because they thought they could get away with it.

Already there is indication that, as they have before in their planning, those in the Bush administration may have miscalculated. Their Party is not receiving a triumphant, welcoming reception, nor does it seem that many in the city will cooperate in producing scenes of pliable nostalgia. It is always preferable, the convention managers know, to stay on message, to keep attention trained on the stage show. Protesters are making this difficult. They are proposing a different message. They are telling a different story, one not carefully crafted to ensure reelection. The great majority of those who will protest this week have thought hard about fashioning creative and dignified expressions of their beliefs. And the great majority of those who protest will be New Yorkers. What neither the police nor the liberal commentators have said is that the more residents who pick up signs during the week and refuse to be extras in the Republican’s advertisement, the richer our dissent will become. The more New Yorkers who exercise their liberties, the better it is for our democracy.

After all of their scolding, revulsion, and fiscal slights, the Republicans want to claim New York City as their own. This week, New Yorkers are telling them that they can’t have it.

MARK ENGLER, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com.

Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.

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