First person I talked to when I got to New York was a cop in the Shea Stadium parking lot. He was standing next to a police-owned SUV while watching people disembark from the various buses on their way to the train that would bring them to the big protest march.
“Hey, you.” He said, pointing at me.
I looked up from the leaflet somebody had just handed me and asked him if he meant me.
“Yes, sir. Come here.”
Oh shit, I thought. Not even here five minutes and already the cops are hassling me. I walked slowly over.
“What are you protesting about?” He asked. “Union stuff, the war, what?”
“Mostly the war and the attack on our rights.” I replied, relaxing a bit.”
“Just like my sister-in-law.” He shook his head.
“I’m just taking a little survey of my own. I’m a big fan of Bush’s and I’m trying to figure out why so many people hate him. Have a good day.”
“Thanks.” I replied. “You too.”
Then I headed up the stairs to catch the train.
Forty minutes I was standing at Union Square surrounded by thousands of people. It was a Manhattan crowd. Flamboyant, rambunctious, and large. Rally marshals were yelling over their megaphones at people. Please go to Seventh and Fifteenth. Please make sure you have some water. Please donate some change. Please be patient. After ten minutes or so, there calls became part the background drone-subways running underneath, cars driving down Fourteenth Street, cop whistles blowing, sirens sounding, vanguardist left groups hawking their papers.
Stopped in a store to get a sandwich and made my way to Seventh Avenue. A street theatre group had made 974 faux coffins and covered them with flags. One for each US GI killed in Iraq. Members of the troupe were enlisting people to serve as pallbearers. A group of young people beat out a series of rhythms on their drums and danced. They were joined by a couple of elderly women with smiles on their faces. We stood in the street for at least an hour watching the crowd grow. By the time the police finally sealed off 14th Street to traffic at the intersection of 14th and 7th Avenue, the crowd stretched from 11th Street up to 23rd. Around 1:15 PM, we began to move up the Avenue.
Judging from the pins people wore, the chants they were shouting, and the literature being passed out, the overriding message of the crowd was: Get George Bush and his band of fascist crooks out of the White House and Get the US military out of Iraq. A substantial minority was wearing John Kerry pins, a smaller number had Nader or Cobb paraphernalia pinned on their clothing. The majority seemed to claim no candidate. As the marched slowly progressed, I walked back towards its beginning point. People were streaming in at what appeared to be greater numbers than before.
Cops were out in force and their helicopters flew overhead, but they were noticeably low key. People were allowed to stand on mailboxes and move the metal barriers along the street if they needed to get through to the sidewalk. This had not been the case on February 15, 2003 during the last big antiwar protest in the city. As we approached Madison Square Garden, however, things tightened up. The entire area from 30th Street on was blocked off by metal barriers with lines of cops behind them. These cops were wearing riot gear and included many members of the Tactical Force.
Each segment of the crowd stopped in front of the Garden to raise their voices in anger. Across from the Garden was a huge banner advertising Fox News. This aroused the crowd even more. Fox News sucks, Fox News sucks was the most popular version of this expression. Besides the news cameras, one couldn’t help but notice the various surveillance hardware employed by law enforcement around the Garden. There were video cameras on booms manned by men without uniforms and hidden faces, uniformed cops on the roofs of nearby buildings snapping photos with still cameras that were equipped with very long zoom lenses, and an unusual piece of equipment that stood on a tripod above the crowd snapping rapid-fire pictures of the crowd with it dozen cameras arranged in a circle. Business as usual in the land of the free.
On the corner of Macy’s on 34th Street is a giant television screen. It was broadcasting Fox News. Even their ticker was stating that at least 250, 000 people were in the streets of Manhattan protesting Bush and his policies. This was at 3 PM. I turned the corner onto Broadway and sat down to watch the crowd go by. While I was sitting there I struck up a conversation with some street medics who had been watching the march since 12:30. They told me that the latest estimates they had heard from the police and the press put the numbers of the crowd between 300, 000 and 400, 000. As we talked, a news photographer from France stopped and commented that Bush certainly didn’t look very popular from his vantage point.
The medics went off to attend to an older man who had overheated and I sat down with my back against a building. I wanted to soak up the crowd. A Korean group snakedanced by playing a steady beat on their drums and carrying a long green flag that fluttered and dipped in the air. Three Iranian-American teenage women in black chador walked by chanting El pueblo unida, hermas sera vencida. I smiled at them and they gave me a bumper sticker that read Iranian-Americans Against the Occupation, US Out of Iraq! The sound of drums increased as a group calling itself the Rhythm Workers Union marched by dancing and smiling. Anarchist youth carrying a bucket of fruit stopped and gave me a banana and a leaflet about direct action on Tuesday. A young woman walked by selling t-shirts that read Buck Fush. Two guys walked by carrying a sign that read Frat Boys Against Bush. A Nader supporter argued with a Kerry supporter about Nader. Another fellow interjected that no matter who won, we needed to stay active. Elections, he said, are just a fuckin’ diversion. A press photographer wearing at least twenty Bush-Cheney pins walked by. You look objective, I remarked. Fuck you, loser was his reply. Same to you, I thought.
After watching the march go by for a half hour, I rejoined it and headed south on Broadway back towards Union Square. I got there about forty-five minutes later. Union Square was full people catching their breath, selling political t-shirts, books and pins, and marshals urging people to move on. A friend went up to Central Park to see what was happening. Because of a change in plans, I had to go back to Vermont Sunday night and did not plan to go to the park. I found a barbeque joint and replenished my body with some chicken and a beer, then went back to Union Square. The crowd continued to pour in. Meanwhile, people were still leaving the point of origin. I called my friend in Central Park and she told me that people were coming into the park but nothing was really going on. After hanging up, I ran into an anarchist buddy of mine with a camera. He planned to be in NYC the entire week. After arranging with him to send me pictures and reports of the action, we parted ways. I watched the Billionaires for Bush stage a mock rally demanding that Central Park be privatized, then headed to the subway stop.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org