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The record march of up to half a million anti-Bush, anti-war demonstrators here on Sunday, on the eve or the Republican National Convention, was an astonishing victory of ordinary people over cynical political manipulation and intimidation.
For weeks, the Republican mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, apparently acting at the behest of the Bush campaign, had sown confusion about how police would handle protesters, and had sought to make a successful march impossible.
The big issue had been what to do with hundreds of thousands of people once they had finished walking. There are few open spaces in Manhattan large enough to accommodate the kinds of numbers protest organizers were expecting and hoping to attract, and the mayor, cynically professing concern about the well-being of the park’s grass, was blocking access to the one obvious assembly place that could handle, and that in the past has easily accommodated, over half a million people-Central Park’s Great Lawn.
Leaders of the group United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella organization that organized Sunday’s protest demonstration, made what appeared to have been a tactical error in caving in to Bloomberg’s pressure by agreeing two months ago to an alternative assembly permit to use the lower stretch of the West Side Highway running along Manhattan’s west side, but pressure from constituent organizations and rank-and-file protesters eventually led UFPJ to backtrack and tell the city that the West Side Highway location was unacceptable-as it would have been.
In the end, with no rally permit at all, the official plan was for the march to go ahead anyway, running from 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, up to Madison Square Garden, site of the GOP Convention, across to Fifth Avenue, and back down Fifth Ave. to Union Square at 14th Street, with no concluding rally. But in announcing these last-minute arrangements, organizers and other groups all added, with a wink, that they hoped demonstrators would then make their way independently up to Central Park and the Great Lawn for an informal gathering.
All the while, the city administration and police kept announcing that they planned to have 37,000 police on duty, along with many other law enforcement personnel from Postal Inspectors to State Police and federal officials, in reserve. Announcements were also made that police would be armed with rolls of plastic handcuffs, as well as a newly purchased 150-decibel sound generator designed to disable protesters.
The intention of all this information, as well as Bloomberg’s adamant refusal to offer a realistic and reasonable assembly point for marchers, was to sow fear and anxiety among potential protesters to keep attendance at Sunday’s event as low as possible.
The strategy was a massive failure, as even the New York Times, normally dismissive of protests and quick to diminish the numbers of attendees in its reports, estimated that half a million people marched, making this New York City’s largest political rally in the last two decades, and the largest protest at a political convention in history. Indeed, conversations with random demonstrators suggested that as many or more may have turned out for the march because of the mayor’s challenge to the important First Amendment right of freedom of assembly, as were scared off by fear of disorder and arrest.
It was clear early Sunday morning that Bloomberg’s threats against protesters regarding use of the park had been bluster. A beefy police sergeant, eating breakfast before heading for the march route, asked what would happen if marchers headed for the Great Lawn, smiled and said, "Nothing. It was stupid for the mayor to say the lawn would be closed. There’s no way even with 37,000 police that we could keep people from getting into the park, and we’re not going to try." Adding that the grass would survive, he smiled, "Keep it peaceful!"
In the end, despite having endured hours of trudging along the hot asphalt pavement over a three-mile march route in 90-degree temperatures, thousands of demonstrators made their way to the Great Lawn for a celebratory thumb-in-the-eye rally against the mayor. There, protesters hunted out shady spots, while the more intrepid among them gathered on the grass that the mayor had expressed such concern over to spell out a big "NO"-leaving it to imagination what was being rejected.
Republican campaign committee hopes of a riot and thousands of arrests were dashed as police and demonstrators alike behaved in a restrained manner. (The arrests during the day of some 100 people virtually all involved incidents unrelated to the march, police said.)
That didn’t stop some in the media from continuing a campaign of distortion. Immediately following the conclusion of the march, Fox TV was focusing on demonstrators who the network said had "gone to Central Park where they are not allowed to be"-a blatant falsehood–while CNN was reporting that "tens of thousands" had marched. Even ostensibly "alternative" NPR, the following day, in a report filed from New York by correspondent Mara Liasson, put march attendendance at a ludicrously low 100,000.
In the end though, besides making the mayor look like an idiot, this massive, peaceful anti-war march in the city where 9-11 happened undermined two central themes that the Bush campaign had hoped to project at the convention-of the president as a unifier, and of his opponents as a nihilistic rabble.
A golden-haired pit-bull, sporting a cape with the hand-lettered sign "Pit Bulls for Peace," epitomized the way this dramatic and disciplined march had defied mayoral and media stereotypes. "She’s all love," said her owner, as the square-jawed dog gently licked any proffered hand.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org