Pyrning in a widening gyre, invoking my ire, began at 42nd street and 3rd and three hours later wound up on 72nd and 1st, finally. First avenue was our destination all along. Every few blocks or so the cops would say “just a few more blocks then you can turn on to first, ” etc. until the whole parade of us – silly authorities: by prohibiting a march they created one – wound up on 72nd street, where I had the privilege of listening to Angela Davis speak – on the radio.
“Where is she? Where are the speakers?” I asked.
“Fifty-first street,” said an angry woman. “Welcome to the new technology of crowd control.”
Magic Mountain at Disneyland. Log Flume at Great Adventure. Not so new, I thought. I’d waited on many such lines as a kid. At least this one was free. And unlike the teenagers working at Disney and Great Adventure, the NYPD representatives were very polite – unless you misbehaved. Unless you were a naughty ‘protester.” An unruly child. Then you got what was coming to you.
Like the couple who tried to push their baby carriage, complete with baby, across 49th or 50th street. I forget. Silly me. I was too dumfounded, awestruck, outraged, mad to the bone, to write all the details in my notepad. True, it was a stupid thing to do, confronting the thugs with your baby as a battering ram, but the four sturdy male cops and two equally buff females could have easily prevented the couple from going down the “illegal” street by, well, blocking them from going down the street. Instead, the Sergeant grabbed the father and tossed him to three alpha-males who pounded the guy into the pavement while another cop grabbed the baby carriage and the two female cops tried to restrain the woman who cried, “Give me my baby! That’s my baby!”
A crowd of about a hundred dropped from the march toward nowhere for a while to bear witness and plead with these baby-bashing, family-wrecking brutes who live off our tax money but not in our neighborhoods (dial area code 516 for Long Island, 201 for New Jersey) to do the right thing, the decent thing, and let the couple and their baby go.
Question: Why did such a large crowd allow half a dozen ruffians to get away with such an outrage? Easy. Because the men and women in blue, our ‘heroes,’ were armed. You think we stood there like hushed puppies before the attack dogs because we respected their “authority?” Authority to do what, beat up a family for trying to do what everyone assumed we all had the right to do anyway (especially since this was not a “march” but a “rally” meeting around 50th and first), just cross over from third to first down any damn street instead of marching thirty blocks with our little signs and banners? If they were merely rent-a-cops with guns we would have done the same thing. On the other hand, if they were “New York’s Finest” without guns, we would have rescued the couple and their baby, grabbed the thugs and brought them to the, well, the POLICE!
Which brings up an interesting point. This whole affair seemed to me to be less about citizens asserting their right of free speech in a democracy than pleading with a police state to show themselves and their families in public and listen to some keynote speakers, even if it meant walking through a maze of police barricades to do so. The only authority the cops had came from the pistols in their holsters. How else would half a dozen “officers of the law” on each street hold back thousands of marchers? And we’re not talking crazed “radical” elements, but students, elderly women, families and assorted peace-loving others. Never again will I nod my head in assent when someone brings up that old, “how can only three guards with machine guns hold back three thousand prisoners in Auschwitz?” Same way five or six cops with Glock 9mms on each street kept away thousands of protesters in NYC, Saturday, February 15, 2003.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to walk their own streets,” a man said.
“It’s just one long line,” a cop answered.
“To where?” I asked.
The cop, smirking, shrugged.
Every street from 42nd to 72nd connecting third to first was closed by 5 or 6 cops with guns. “We own the streets” all the nice people cried. No you don’t, THEY do, I said, to myself. If you owned the streets, you’d be on them.
But it was a nice march, a nice family affair.
Why would anyone bring a kid to a march unless they were sure that the cops would keep everything safe? Of course, they could have believed the march would be safe because this is America the Democracy and NYC the cultural hub of what-have-you. It was safe because this is America, the most heavily armed Empire in history, and this is NYC, the most policed city in the Empire.
Maybe I’m alone in the opinion that, to paraphrase Malcolm X about the march on Washington, “they wanted all of those people outta town by sundown, and sure enough all of those people were out of town by sundown.” Or maybe the cerebral subtleties of the protest went right over my lizard brain. Cause lizard brain was what I was “thinking” with as I walked past all these armed cops. Fear. Rage. Desire for – what? Freedom? Power? Revenge? “No blood for oil,” the placards said. I couldn’t agree more. But no blood for freedom? Impossible.
Silly me. Still under the romantic delusion I’d been under since I first started marching in these staged events at 20, thinking of the movements of the 1960s and 1930s, that protest meant taking the streets, not borrowing them from THE MAN and agreeing to all terms of the temporary license or face nullity and void. Saturday I realized, finally, that this isn’t about peace at all, but power. THE MAN has the power to bomb, humiliate, control. We The People are more or less powerless to stop him. Occasionally HE throws us a bone or a rally to make us think we’re doing the democratic thing. As long as we’re “outta town by sundown.”
The most prevalent figures on the marchers’ placards, besides the ridiculous, odious George Bush, were heroes of the 1960s: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon. Photos of Malcolm X and MLK, and quotations from Lennon, plus that “Who Would Jesus Bomb” thing. Now, what did these men have in common? They got killed for opening their mouths. True, Lennon, though a great artist/entertainer, was not a religious figure like Jesus, or a moral/political leader of Malcolm X or MLK’s stature, but he did open his mouth to say “Give Peace a chance” as well as a bunch of other stuff that got him on Nixon’s shit list, and he did project himself as a rebel against THE MAN. After all, nobody ever took a shot at Paul or Ringo. What all of these men had in common was that they meant business, and people who mean business are never safe.
Angela Davis said something to the effect that Saturday’s march was the greatest outpouring of public protest since a million people marched to express their displeasure with America’s obscenely huge nuclear arms stash in 1982. A million people marching up and down with signs and chanting slogans is an impressive number. More impressive however, is the amount of time, money, energy and evil cunning that went into improving and increasing the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 21 years. I don’t know how many people were at the rally Saturday. A lot. Thousands, perhaps many, many thousands. I’m sure was it was empowering for people, which is nice.
But I never felt so powerless and humiliated. Like every thug from Bush down to officer Buttcheeks of the NYPD was laughing at me, at us, at the whole show. And they’re gonna have their damn war anyway.
I suppose it’s good for people to march like this so they can let themselves be heard. Express themselves. But it seems to me like we’re in an emergency situation. Something that calls for more than taking the family out for a day of waving signs and chanting rhymes (“One two three four, we don’t want your oily war,” etc. along with many old 60s standbys), then back to The Life on Monday.
No matter how many people turned out, the entire event was merely that, an event, choreographed by THE MAN to frustrate, exhaust, and humiliate the majority of participants. Rallies are great to get people out together, show them that they’re not alone, create a sense of spirit and energy, like the old pep rallies in high school.
But real change is probably going to mean changing the way we live. And real protest is going to be dangerous and frightening. Rated ‘X’ or ‘R’ at least. Not something for the kiddies.
Maybe it’s just me. I’m not really into crowds or marching or shouting pre-fab sing-songy slogans. If I want to express myself I’ll write a poem, or a letter to Dear Abby. I used to go to ‘events’ like these because I thought they were necessary, something that had to be done. Maybe they’re not. Unless we, the alleged protesters, mean business. If giving peace a chance means not killing people who’ve never done me any harm, I’m all for it. But if it means knuckling under to irresponsible, merciless, armed authority, we might want to consider other chances.
I went to the rally thinking of the horrible fate of the Iraqi people and wondering if anything could be done to change it. I came away thinking of the horrible fate of the American people, and wondering if anything can be done to change it.
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org