1 million to protest at RNC
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February 23, 2004
To Greet G.O.P., Protests of Varying Volume
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
hen the Republican National Convention comes to town, the Rev. Peter Laarman hopes to greet it with a quiet, reserved defiance. He wants religious leaders to hold discussion groups on concerns about politicizing Sept. 11. He wants to have seminars to discuss lost jobs. And he wants to bring experts to New York to discuss national security.
What he does not want to do is take to the streets with huge protests. Instead, through a campaign he calls the Accountability Project, he hopes to offer a thoughtful counterpoint when the Republicans stage their nominating convention in New York, scheduled for Aug. 30 through Sept. 2.
But Mr. Laarman may find his tempered voice drowned out in what may well be a tense and angry time on the streets of Manhattan.
Though the Police Department and many protest organizers have been reluctant to predict how many people will ultimately turn out for protests, estimates have ranged from 500,000 people to a million.
Six months before any delegate is to take a seat at Madison Square Garden, it is clear that many groups are already planning strategy and activities. Labor unions, environmentalists, self-declared anarchists and others who merely label themselves as anti-Bush or anti-Republican are making plans to turn out. Barely a week passes without several planning sessions in New York, focusing on everything from housing and tactics to legal strategy and what to expect in interactions with the police.
Organizers have gathered in a private loft in SoHo, in offices owned by the United Federation of Teachers near Wall Street, in a church in the East Village, and in offices around the city. The groups have names like United for Peace and Justice and Not in Our Name, and their intentions run the gamut from wanting to shut the convention down to holding the Labor Day parade on Thursday, Sept. 2, the day President Bush is scheduled to accept his party's nomination.
There are people planning tent cities to accommodate protesters from across the country, lawyers' committees to assist those who are arrested, legal observers to monitor the police, and baby sitters, dog walkers, translators, medics, even clergy members. All are working to help protesters overwhelm the positive message Republicans are hoping their convention generates.
At the same time, some organizers, like Mr. Laarman, do not want to risk clashing with the police and are looking at alternative means to make their point. The group Billionaires for Bush, for example, plans to use humor and satire, holding up signs like "Corporations are people, too" and "More Bush, Less Taxes."
"You see that people understand the stakes, and so there is much more of a judicious view about making sure we do something that is effective, and is heard, and that gets attention, and that doesn't backfire," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which, with other labor organizations, has begun to discuss counter-convention plans.
The problem of backfiring protests is much on the minds of many protest organizers, who say that any violence would serve only to marginalize their message and strengthen Mr. Bush's appeal.
"We all can see that it works very much to the advantage of the administration if the president strikes a heroic pose in New York, identifying with the tragedy of Sept. 11 yet again, and if the people who are registering displeasure are doing so in a violent and disruptive way," said Mr. Laarman, who left his post as senior minister at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square in Greenwich Village to help plan anti-convention activities for the Accountability Project.
He added: "I am not in the business of predictions, but it is my guess a very significant number of people from New York and from around the world are going to take the position that the convention should be shut down or disrupted. There is a good likelihood of that."
Complicating things for protest organizers, the police, the Secret Service and convention planners have revealed little of their plans. The police have not said where they will allow protesters to demonstrate, though they have said that protest areas would be within "sight and sound" of the convention, a legal threshold. "We're working with protest organizers already,'' said Deputy Police Commissioner Paul J. Browne, "and we will work with them throughout. We want to give them sight and sound proximity, while allowing R.N.C. participants uninterrupted access to and from the convention.''
He added later, "We're looking to save lives, not stifle dissent.''
Nonetheless, many people planning to protest are girding themselves for encounters with the police. Ann Shirazi, 59, a social worker who lives in Manhattan, said she thought the police - in New York and across the nation - were using their powers to silence critics of the government.
"It does frighten me this can happen in my country," Ms. Shirazi said. "It will not stop me from standing on a street corner. But it is terrifying."
Ms. Shirazi, who plans to protest against the convention, was so concerned she accepted the invitation of a group calling itself the Organization to attend a "Know Your Rights" seminar. At the seminar, in a loft at Broadway and Houston Street, about 25 people whose ages ranged from 17 to 59 sat and listened recently as three lawyers gave advice and social commentary on what one lawyer called "these dark times."
"Even if you are aware of your rights, it doesn't mean they will be respected," said Debbie Hrbek, a criminal lawyer who volunteered to address the gathering. "You need to go into every situation with a police officer anticipating they won't do the right thing."
The audience accepted that as a given and then asked questions.
"Is it legal during a protest when the cops swoop in and arrest people?''
"Can the police demand to look in your bag for no reason?"
"Once arrested, how long can they hold you?"
Audience members sat quietly, many taking notes as the lawyers encouraged them not to confront the police.
"The police can do anything they want," said Bruce Bentley, co-chairman of the Mass Defense Committee of the National Lawyers Guild in New York. "Is it lawful or not? That will be decided later. That's why we are saying it is better not to mix it up with the cops."
Others, however, like Mr. Laarman, of the Accountability Project, were focusing on staying off the streets. His goal, he said, is to provide a "third narrative" to the convention - the first being the convention itself and the second direct confrontation. He said he is aiming his approach at people like his mother, whom he described as an independent voter living in Wisconsin.
Mr. Laarman and Carl Lipscombe, operating out of an office on the 24th floor at 50 Broadway, are trying to raise money and enlist help. Their goal, Mr. Laarman said, is to try to counter the convention's message without staging protests.
They plan to start later next month, when his group is the co-host of a town hall forum called "Shock and Awe in New York" - playing off the name the military gave for its opening offensive against Iraq - at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
A university brochure says, in part, that notable New Yorkers will examine the question of "what communities can do when political leaders appropriate emotionally charged icons for their own purposes."
Groups like Anarchists World Fair, Radical Teachers, Time's Up, World War III Arts-in-Action, Campaign to Demilitarize the Police and Still We Rise, to name a few, have also been meeting together and sharing information for months, operating under an umbrella called the No RNC Clearinghouse. Their meetings are drawing more than 100 people, with an abundance of body piercing, tattoos, dreadlocks and army fatigues, and are organized with the precision and language of a business meeting, including flow charts and agendas.
Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, a coalition that organized an antiwar rally in Manhattan last February that attracted crowds estimated at 100,000 to 500,000 people, said that the size and intensity of the planning were not surprising.
"All signs point to the convention becoming a magnet for protest as so many New Yorkers and others want to speak their mind about Bush policies, foreign and domestic," Mr. Dobbs said after attending the most recent Clearinghouse meeting.
Many people are talking about coming in from around the country and other parts of the world. Using the Internet as an organizing tool, they are trying to set up housing, transportation and other logistical issues.
Jays Janney, 35, a doctoral student in sociology at Indiana University, said she and about seven other graduate students were preparing to come to protest and to document the interaction between the police and protesters. The students have organized reading groups to discuss works about social movements. Next will be direct action training, or the practical aspects of participating in a large and potentially volatile protest, she said.
"One of the students asked her mom for some cash, and the mom said, 'Only if I get to go, too,' " Ms. Janney said.
For all this, the Republicans said they were not much concerned.
"We are confident that the N.Y.P.D. and U.S. Secret Service will create a security plan that will allow the Republican National Convention to conduct its business in a safe and orderly manner, while ensuring that other individuals are allowed to voice their opinions at that time in New York City," said Leslie Beyer, deputy spokeswoman for the campaign.
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