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The Streets Belong to the People

by RON JACOBS

 

Gee, I certainly felt free. Two days before the big antiwar rally in NewYork City, I received an email from a contact in Brooklyn telling me that the mayor of that fair city was banning all buses carrying protestors from entering the city. Of course, the reason provided had nothing to do with the truth. That reason was that this was for our own security–the same reason given for the denial of the permit to march. Anybody but the most naive knows the real reason. The warmongers in Washington do not want anyone who opposes their plans to have a forum that might encourage quieter citizens to join them. In short, the democratic process is still on hold. It’s a good thing that the Iraqis are going to get this democracy delivered to them via cruise missile express. Otherwise, they would have no idea what freedom they are missing.

The freedom to be denied the right to march. The freedom to not carry a megaphone. The freedom to not be allowed access to what is arguably the United States’ most recognizable city to speak out against a foolish and bloodthirsty policy. The freedom to be terrorized by one’s own government. The freedom to be searched at will at air, rail, and bus stations. What’s next? Gassing their own people? Roundup of government opponents? Gee, tell me again how this is so different from Iraq? At least Saddam Hussein actually won the popular vote in his country. Sure, perhaps he stuffed the ballot boxes, but at least he had the numbers. Dubya needed electoral “irregularities” and the nation’s highest court to pull of his electoral scam.

With these concerns in mind, I woke up early on the morning of the 15th and got dressed. The northeast has been in a cold snap for the past few weeks, with temperatures barely reaching 10 degrees Fahrenheit most days. Saturday was no exception. My outside thermometer read 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. As I quietly layered on clothing my friend’s 8 year-old daughter came out to say goodbye and wish me luck. For a moment, I thought of staying right where I was, but then I reminded myself that a big reason this war must be stopped was so that the children of the world might have a future. I gave her a hug, sent her back to bed and finished my coffee. Then, I headed into the frozen night.

By the time I actually boarded the bus Saturday morning before dawn, the city had opened back up to out-of-town charter buses. There was no permit for a march yet, though. After helping the local organizers make certain that everyone who had signed up for a bus ride to New York was on a bus, we gave the drivers the go ahead and headed south from Burlington. Not certain of what might happen once we got there, I wrote the phone numbers of a lawyer, the indymedia services, and a local contact person on my arm–just in case I got busted. This time around, Burlington had sent nine buses to the protest. A pretty good showing for a town with fewer than 50,000 people.

It had been decided the night before that the buses would park in Queens at Shea Stadium. Just in case the Mayor and Police department did decide to prevent charter bus traffic in Manhattan. When our bus arrived at the stadium around 10:45 AM, the lot was beginning to fill up with protestors from many points north and west of New York. There was a line to get on the subway that was several thousand people long. By the time I actually made it to the fare booth to buy a token, the subway officials had decided to let us all on for free. This expedited the process and actually raised out hopes that the city might back off in its refusal to let us march, also. Spirits amongst the protestors were high. This thing already looked like it was going to be big.

The Streets Belong to the People

Our destination was the Grand Central Station subway stop. When we disembarked all we could see were people opposed to the war. Young and old and of every skin tone known to humanity. Punks, longhairs, families, nuns, rastas, frat boys–you name it and they were there. This was the United States saying no to this war. There were so many people it was almost impossible to move. After making it out to 42nd Street, the foot traffic was even more crowded. A large group of puppeteers were slowly proceeding east towards First Avenue. This was the street where the stage was located. One of the puppeteers had a sound system that was blaring “Picking Up the Pieces”–a funk classic from the 1970s. Protestors and street people alike were dancing to the beat as they moved along. Cops on the corners were attempting to control the crowds and were asking those carrying signs to remove the sticks that were attached. New York is one of those cities where carrying signs on sticks is illegal. The police department considers those sticks as potential weapons.

After making it to the corner of 42nd and 3rd Avenue, the crowd I was part of were instructed to turn left onto 3rd Avenue. We were further instructed to stay on the sidewalk. That instruction was not to be. There were just too many people. Despite Bloomberg and Bush’s intentions, there was a march and it was huge! Cops were attempting to force people onto the sidewalks but were overwhelmed. After hastily retreating from intersection after intersection, I overheard one patrolman tell another, “We lost this one. We might as well go sit in the vans and stay warm.” I snuck past police lines to get over to 2nd Avenue where a similar scenario was taking place. As for the actual rally site- -1st Avenue–there was no access to that street at all. Cops were not even allowing residents of apartments on that avenue to go home.

I spent the next couple hours slowly making my way uptown to a cross street where I could gain access to 1st Avenue and catch some of the rally. There were tens of thousands of other protestors doing the same. Cops on horses were alternately charging people and clearing various intersections which were then held by members of the tactical unit only to be relinquished moments later to the people that just kept coming. Occasionally confrontations broke out between the cops in riot gear and various groups of demonstrators who were penned into intersections or on street corners with no where to go but away from the protest. I heard one older woman tell a cop she was going to make it to the damn rally no matter what he did. She hadn’t come all the way from Ohio to stand on a street corner because the cops’ boss refused to give us a march. The cop muttered back that a permit sure would have made his job easier. Finally, around 3:00 PM, I made it over to 1st Avenue. The police had finally opened access to the rally street at 71st Street. This was 39 blocks north of where I began and 20 blocks north of the rally stage. To get an idea of how many people there were at this time, picture this: three avenues were virtually filled with people for twenty blocks. That’s 60 city blocks full of people, not to mention the thousands of others who had decided to hold mini-protests of their own on street corners all around the east side of midtown Manhattan because they were frustrated with the police efforts to keep them from attending the official rally.

The scene on 1st Avenue was mixed. In order to remain at the rally, one was forced into a protest pen. For those readers who have not seen these, let me explain how they work. The authorities place movable steel barriers on the perimeters of each block of the street, creating an enclosed rectangle of steel. When they decide to let people into the rectangle (or pen), they open up one side of the rectangle. This allows people to move into the pen, much like steers being corralled. When the pen fills to what the police perceive to be a manageable number, they close the pen up and repeat the process on the next block. Once inside, one can leave but not return to his/her original pen. I was not in the mood to be penned, so I went back over to 3rd Avenue and headed back downtown. The cat-and-mouse game was continuing at several intersections. Cops would clear the streets and then relinquish them. There was one particularly aggressive confrontation at 53rd and 3rd which resulted in the arrests of a dozen protestors. The cops seemed rather brutal in this instance and provoked a good deal of taunting and chanting until even more police arrived and chased those chanting away.

It was possible to hear the speeches and music from the rally via a live broadcast on WBAI. While wandering around 2nd and 3rd Avenue, I caught bits and pieces of their report. It was around 4:30 PM that I finally made my way to the rally site. It was almost over. Despite this, there were still thousands of people streaming onto 1st Avenue to catch whatever remained of the music and speeches. The hip-hop group Mos Def was playing when I arrived. Their horns and words sounded great and people were dancing. A member of Veterans for Peace called on people to heighten their resistance to the war and get the soldiers who have been sent to fight this war home before it begins. Other speakers urged people to converge on the White House on March 1st and surround the place. Everyone who I heard speak encouraged those listening to bring their message back to their local communities and organize people to not go to school and work on March 5th–no business as usual–to protest the madness of this war. All these speakers were met with loud cheers that one hopes translate into action.

As rally organizer Leslie Cagan thanked everyone and urged us to continue our opposition, I headed towards Times Square, where a militant protest was being called by a number of radical organizations. On the way there, I stopped for some pizza and a beer. There were protestors everywhere. By the time I made it to Times Square, the police had closed off two city blocks to traffic and were pushing people around. I went into the subway station to catch a train back to Shea. I got to talking with four college students on the train who just happened to attend St. Michael’s college–a small liberal arts institution about six miles from where I live. It was their first demonstration, but definitely not their last. Two things struck them about the day, they told me: the diversity of the protestors and the aggressiveness of the police in refusing to allow people to protest.

After arriving at Shea and telling them goodbye, I thought that those were pretty good lessons to learn from your first exercise in dissent.

RON JACOBS lives in Burlington, VT. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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