election rhetoric mass actions reveal divides
by Joshua Skolnik
New York--Throughout a week of protests against the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August and September, the streets were flooded with the voices, bodies and bicycles of the second America demanding an end to the Bush administration. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors from as far away as California and Puerto Rico called for ousting Bush through means ranging from the election of John Kerry, to impeachment, to social revolution.
While many signs and buttons simply proclaimed, “Anyone But Bush” or impugned his competence, many demonstrators are challenging U.S. society on a deeper level, demanding its radical reorganization. Moreover they do so with a clear idea that the situation will not be ameliorated simply by the election of a Democrat to office. For example, feminist groups like Code Pink linked women’s rights to peace, and African-American neighborhood organizations linked racism, lack of housing, police brutality and the deficiency of AIDS treatment.
CITY WORTHY OF MASS PROTEST
The popular sympathies of New Yorkers were clearly with the protesters, evident at the Sunday, Aug. 29 march of nearly half a million people. Bystanders went to their workplaces on a Sunday to cheer from their windows and hang signs and banners in support of the passing marchers. One sign proclaimed, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam,” while another conveyed a philosophic dimension, stating, “The Light of Reason is Fading.” According to some polls, the vast majority of city residents, 80% by one account, opposed the Republicans’ presence, with around 10% planning to participate in events.
City officials were not about to let the unpopularity of the Republican Party get in the way of the smooth running of the convention, and attempted at every corner to keep protests to a minimum. Organizers of the Sunday march had to fight for months over permits and ended up suing unsuccessfully over rallying points. The area around the convention was cordoned off and the police had announced expectations of a thousand arrests per day.
The endless scare tactics by the media, which tried to
alarm viewers about anarchists and recently released Weather Underground people
descending on the city to cause havoc, deliberately painted protesters in a
shade just shy of terrorist. The siege atmosphere created by police, beginning
days in advance, by deploying their helicopters with searchlights, barricading
streets, and flying their menacing surveillance blimp, undoubtedly intimidated
people from venturing into the city or out of their apartments.
Despite this campaign of fear, the weekend before the
convention brought the two largest marches, beginning with a 25,000-strong March
for Women’s Lives across the Brooklyn Bridge with a rally near City Hall,
which was organized by NARAL and Planned Parenthood. The title echoed the march
on Washington this past April. Both called for women’s rights to health care,
including the right to abortion (See Feminists bash
The following day’s large march, on Sunday, Aug. 29,
past Madison Square Garden (MSG) on the eve of the convention, went off with
only a few incidents. Heavily covered by the major media outlets, this event
came close in numbers to the half a million people who came out to oppose the
then-pending war in Iraq on Feb. 15, 2003. It’s difficult to describe the
character of an event so big and diverse, but it evoked the feel of the recent
large anti-war and anti-occupation demonstrations, as most signs and banners
condemned the war in Iraq. Afterward many protesters made their way to Central
Park, which the mayor had declared off-limits ostensibly to protect the grass
from being trampled. What was, in fact, trampled upon that week were
protesters’ civil rights.
POOR, PEOPLE OF COLOR MARCH
While authorities tolerated the weekend events, other
events organized by the poor and people of color, as well as by those intending
acts of civil disobedience, evoked a harsher response. When the media turned its
attention from mass protests to the convention proper on Monday, that tolerance
seemed to vanish as police made sure, once the convention was actually in
session, to forbid access to the area around MSG.
In an obvious attempt to send an early message to
potential protesters, police, usually tolerant of Critical Mass, the monthly
direct action bike ride meant to reclaim the streets from cars, cracked down on
the event which occurred the Friday before the convention, and notably drew
5,000 bikers. Police arbitrarily arrested over 260, including passersby. Most
people’s bikes were returned only after nearly a month.
Monday brought two important events led by poor people
and people of color. The Still We Rise coalition, consisting of more than 50
local neighborhood, housing, immigrant, homeless and AIDS grassroots
organizations, conducted a march which drew about 10,000 people, starting in
Union Square and going to MSG. They highlighted the huge and growing inequality
in American society, especially in the areas of housing, healthcare and HIV
services, as well as those caught in the machinery of the courts and prison
This highlights the conditions that could worsen as Bush
threatens to slash nearly all the funding for Section 8 federal housing
subsidies. "In Bushwick, Brooklyn," one young participant complained,
“half the population lives below the poverty level," adding, "We
don’t have college recruiters in our school, but we have military
Also Monday, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights
Campaign, which had set up a tent city in Brooklyn, held a rally at the UN,
organized by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and then proceeded on an
unplanned march to MSG. Towards the
end of this event, police, who had negotiated with demonstrators over the route,
created mass confusion while trying illegally to pen marchers in. They met with
some resistance, whereupon they drove motor scooters directly into the crowd and
began to disperse people, making several arrests.
The major crackdown occurred the next day. Tuesday’s
day of non-violent civil disobedience and direct action ended with further
indiscriminate arrests--nearly 1,200 people, many of whom were held more than
two days before being processed by the court system. Police rounded up entire
demonstrations with orange netting and seized whole blocks of people, miles away
from the convention site, before they were able to even begin marching.
Protesters often received contradictory instructions
from the officers with whom they negotiated, and were not given a chance to
disperse before being arrested. Such sweeps, which also caught a number of
random bystanders, occurred at several locations throughout the city. The
processing of these detainees was illegally dragged out to insure that as few as
possible would be back out on the streets when Bush made his acceptance speech
Thursday night. One detainee held by police for 49 hours reported that they were
constantly harassed and repeatedly told they had no rights. Authorities even
inexplicably asked her what she knew about terrorism. Some tried to make the
protesters feel guilty for dissenting by evoking the 9/11 terrorist attacks that
traumatized the city.
The detainees suffered not only from being kept in limbo
and incommunicado, but also from the deplorable conditions in which they were
held. The repressive measures provoked by the outpouring of “unsanctioned”
dissent came to be symbolized by Pier 57, the makeshift detention camp housed on
a pier on the Hudson River that was leased by the NYPD to handle the expected
influx of arrestees.
Most of the nearly 2,000 people apprehended over the
course of the week were taken to Pier 57 initially after arrest and usually
spent the night in its toxic conditions. The ground of the pier, formerly used
as a bus depot, was saturated with oil, antifreeze, and other hazardous
chemicals on which people were forced to sit and lie down due to insufficient
seating. The facility was quickly dubbed “Guantanamo on the Hudson” because
detainees were held without being charged in chain-link cages topped with razor
wire. As people were later released, they emerged from the courthouse with
visible cuts, rashes and chemical burns. A number of class action lawsuits are
currently being planned over the myriad wrongs committed by the city.
DISSENT GROWS, SO DOES REACTION
While big events were obvious targets, also taking place
throughout the city were hundreds of smaller spontaneous demos. Many made it
clear to delegates that New York did not welcome them. There was a demonstration
in solidarity with immigrant workers. On Wednesday, 8,000 people stood in a
symbolic unemployment line that stretched the three miles between Wall Street
and MSG, holding pink slips to highlight the joblessness of this “recovery.”
And despite the overwhelming security detail, a few courageous people did make
it into the stadium to disrupt speeches.
Members of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP were able to
gain entrance to the convention to disrupt one talk. Code Pink ("Code Pink
Women for Peace") activists also managed to sneak in on more than one
occasion to heckle speakers, while two of their activists managed to stop
Bush’s acceptance speech for a few minutes before being hauled off the
convention floor. Importantly Code Pink has also announced that they will now
travel to Florida to warn out that state’s looming election fraud and
disenfranchisement of Black voters.
As dissent grows, police tactics have escalated against
protesters from 1999 to the present. And the national coordination of
surveillance results in not so subtle ways our freedom to dissent is being
choked by the state, recalling the infiltration practices of the FBI in the
1960s. Police called their “rapid-response” tactics, such as arresting
people on the mere pretense of disorderly conduct, the “Kelly Doctrine,”
after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. His policy of overwhelming and preemptive
force mirrors the Bush Doctrine. The parallels between the tactics employed to
stifle protest in New York and those employed in the war on terror are chilling.
Indeed stifling voices of protest makes sense in the
context of the ruling class’s overall campaign against the forces of
revolution nationwide, indeed, worldwide. Relentless attacks on workers’
power, rampant police brutality, the deeply racist criminal injustice system,
and attacks on women’s freedoms are all aspects of the class impulse to grind
down the passions and forces that can overthrow this society and to limit the
horizon of our thought and the idea that we can build a new, human society.
A WINDOW ON THE FUTURE
The continuing economic crises, which serve as the basis
for the Iraqi war and occupation and the U.S. drive for single world domination,
as well as the attendant crises in American political, military and ideological
power, have made it necessary to take such measures in an attempt to impose
consensus at home. They are also testing how much they can get away with.
No matter who wins the election, conditions of life will
not substantially change. The TENDENCY for the rich to get richer and the poor
to approach Third World conditions inevitably results from the way capital
works. The drive for world domination, inherent in the logic of the capitalist
system that both major parties serve, is a decidedly bipartisan endeavor.
Although there is currently a split in the ruling class
over the war and occupation and its threat to stability at home and elsewhere in
the world, the Democrats continue to take the ground of the Right. While perhaps
capable of giving back some rights to women and minorities, they have been
unable or unwilling to tap into the dissatisfaction with the current
administration or even to pose much of an alternative. Only belatedly and
reluctantly has Kerry distinguished himself from Bush.
While there were enormous amounts of creativity on
display at the anti-RNC events, it’s important to note that organizing around
the RNC, which took up most of the movement’s time for the last year, still
amounts to being defined by the very limited scope of electoral politics.
In the end, it also must be acknowledged that police
choreographed the week’s events. In their show, what was permitted, happened,
and what was not, did not.
Although there has been some ebb and flow, protests have
tended to get bigger over the last several years. The unprecedented ease of
international coordination and a near instantaneous communication of struggles
across the globe promise even more international dialogue and solidarity. This
spread of ideas that can contribute to the overthrow of this society, the ruling
class wants to suppress.
There is also a growing sense from certain quarters of the movement that, rather than simply resting on the conclusion that another world is possible, we must begin seriously talking about and concretizing an alternative vision for a new society free from the capitalist order. Only this kind of reasoned self-activity can break through the false absolute of capital that declares no possible alternative and halt capital’s totalizing impulse.
Published by News and Letters Committees