RNC August 31st Description
A First Hand Report of August 31st at the RNC protests in NYC
1,000 protestors were arrested during the "direct action" day of the RNC protests, yesterday August 31st. I was not one of them. Here is my first person report-back from the day. I tried to leave out the more monotonous details.
From the media articles about yesterday, and corresponding well to what I witnessed, the police had a strategy of assuming the peaceful protestors were going to be hostile - swarming locations before they arrived, and arresting them simply for congregating on public space. People were peaceful. Considering we were being treated like an out of control mob, it is shocking that I saw no property destruction, and personally witnessed no hostile behavior by protestors at all. Just people wanting to "sit in." Cops reacted aggressively before anything happened, without a sign that anything would happen. Stopping for a second for a drink of water while holding a protest sign suddenly seemed like an arrestible offense. Police escalated situations by making protestors extremely tense. How many times do you have to see them brutally grab someone who wasn't doing a thing before you realize there is nothing but luck keeping you from being grabbed?
On the other hand, I encountered no pepper spray, tear gas, less-than-lethal weapons, or those sound machines we kept hearing about - just very brutally grabbing people, throwing them around and arresting them. As one of my friends wrily said, "Well, it's not like these are Portland cops."
Things got interesting around 2pm, when I was wandering around Madison Square Gardens with a friend. Both of us had hand-painted signs clipped on with clothespins. I highly recommend clipping large pieces of paper to your clothes with close-pins. Our signs were highly visible and our hands were free. My sign read Pro-Forest; Pro-Choice; Anti-War; Anti-Empire; Anti-Bush. Because there were only two of us, we were able to get quite close to the Gardens without minimal police attention, less than a block away. We walked around that area, noticing many who were clearly associated with the convention in one form or another. I'm not sure how to identify the delegates, but I assume they were among some of the obviously Republican folks wandering the streets. There were very few other visible protestors in this area during this time (more started showing up around 4:30). We were fairly non-confrontational, just being there with our signs, but got lots of glares, and a few not-so-nice comments from occasional Republican men. I just tried to look smug, smiled, and occasionally wave. I worked to keep a - "We're here and you have to deal with us" - kind of attitude.
I was glad we choose to be there rather than attending a bigger event because we were one more reason folks just couldn't leave the Gardens and not see anyone opposing their policies. We found out later, from people who were there, that there were mass arrests at all three of the publicly advertised events we had considered being at - A Die In March at the WTC, a Shut-Up Shout-Out at Fox News Headquarters, and a rally to defend Johnny Cash's honor at a Johnny Cash salute the RNC was holding. From the people I spoke with, it sounded like the arrests were rash, without warning, and sometimes while people were following directions given by the police.
The Pro-Choice contingent had purchased most of the bus stop advertising within several blocks of the convention center. They were great ads showing the huge crowd at the March for Women's Lives that read "America is Pro-Choice. Keep it that way." There was a slightly ambiguous large add from Maker's Mark Whiskey that had a bottle of whiskey and read "Liberal." Was it a pro-liberal ad from the Whiskey company? Also an abundance of ambiguous Sex in the City adds that read "Vote Carrie" with a picture of Sarah Jessica Parker. Fox news had bought a huge massive sign next to Madison Square Gardens that read "Fox. Trusted. Independent. Powerful." The location of the sign made it appear that Fox was an unofficial sponsor of the RNC.
At one point, my friend and I stopped at a street corner next to a woman who was passing out free hand-held paper fans promoting CNN. On almost every street corner there were vendors or promoters - many for TV stations. We were briefly discussing which direction to go in when immediately there was a cop in front of us. "We respect your right to protest but you can't congregate on the corner. You are blocking foot traffic." My friend and I were congregating by stopping for a second? The woman next to me passing out CNN fans isn't blocking foot traffic, but I am? I decided not to share these thoughts with the officer. He continued "That man up the street is protesting like you, but he isn't on the corner, so you can go stand where he is." My friend and I wandered the few steps up the street, passing the man. We stopped, noticing he was surrounded by cops. Apparently, the rule wasn't just about the corner. He was an older white man in his mid-fifties, wearing a white tee-shirt and shorts. He was passing out bumper stickers that said something about getting Bush out of office. "You are blocking the side walks you need to move." The man was well off to the side of the sidewalks, directly in front of a large potted plant. The large potted plant seemed to be blocking the side walk more than he was. Plus, the street was full of people passing out advertisements who were blocking the sidewalks more than him - but they were getting no police attention. "Where do you want me to go?" the man asked. The officer started yelling at him in his face. Everything happened very quickly. At no point did the man seem out of control, but the officer was screaming "You crossed the line." He seemed to be accusing the man of touching him? The man seemed apologetic and still non-confrontational. Suddenly the cop's hand reached out and grabbed his neck throwing him backwards into the potted plant. Cops swarmed. There was a large boom as the cops threw the man from the potted plant face down into the ground and pulled his arms behind him. My companion said the loud boom I heard was actually a trash can falling. After a moment, they pulled the man to his feet and into the doorway of The New Yorker building. Later we witnessed him being put into a police van.
Throughout the period we were walking around the city, the police grew more hostile towards my friend and I. My backpack was searched, as we walked through what we were informed was a "check point." When I asked the cop why he was searching my bag he responded with hostility, "Because they told me to." I got a creepy feeling from the way he looked at me, that if I said another word, I'd end up arrested. It looked like he glanced at my id, inside my wallet, as he was going through my bag. He looked up and asked me where I was from. They were certain streets they were letting everyone walk down but my friend and I were told "you can only go straight." I knew if I didn't have a big anti-bush signed clipped to my chest, I would have been allowed to turn with the rest of the pedestrian traffic.
The other interesting thing was the number of other protestors who came up to my friend and I asking where certain rallies and protests were. Our signs marked as us visible friendlies. Many folks were wandering looking to meet up with the School of the Americas Watch/War Resisters League march from the WTC to Madison Square Gardens. My friend and I were also keeping an eye out for them. None of us knew yet that the march had been arrested within blocks of its start after getting police permission to proceed. The police had told the protestors they could march if they didn't block the sidewalks. The march started out, and got only a couple of blocks before the cops penned in the first hundred people and began arresting them.
NY Public Library: My unofficial affinity group was standing on the steps of the Public Library, along with hundreds of other protestors. An "orientation" was supposed to occur there. The Public Library is a public space but the riot police moved in quickly and pushed us back. There were several arrests. I was too short to see really what was happening but the man next to me kept exclaiming "That cop has really lost control." At one point a man in his mid-fifties was arrested. The very young crowd started chanting "Let the Old Man Go." My friends and I exchanged glances. Older Man yes... Old Man... no. Although the man probably appreciated the support, I bet he's telling the story of hundreds of young protestors chanting "Let the Old Man Go" to his friends - hopefully with amusement rather than anger. After forcibly pushing the crowd off the steps into the crowded space of the sidewalk - the police announced we were blocking the sidewalk and would be arrested!
What was amazing is that the crowd kept growing. Lines of protestors from other locations swept in. These added lines of protestors improved the age diversity of the crowd greatly. My friends and I moved to the outside of the library, on the sidewalk but kept a close eye on the folks amassing. We were surrounded by protestors on all sides. At some point I saw motorcades of cops go by, followed by a rapidly moving marching riot cops. The situation was tense, and we knew our next meet up location. As the crowd seemed to be dispersing, we decided to move on. There were enough people willing to get arrested. Of the three of us, one had a plane to catch the next morning, and one had the first day of classes. We were all mildly arrestible, but didn't think this was the best time or place for that. I found out later from indymedia that the folks who remained were arrested shortly after we dispersed.
We made it to Herald Square, dispersing directions along the way (we had a New Yorker in our affinity group of 3). When we got there, people were already sitting in Herald Square (it was about 6:30). We gathered on a dense corner filled with protestors, until my claustrophobia got too intense and I had to back away a bit. I couldn't really see, and my group of protestors weren't chanting, but the people in the square were. "This is what a police state looks like." "This is what democracy looks like." A large "NO W" Balloon floated overhead. Also overhead was the Fujifilm Blimp that the NYPD had rented "for security." We stayed at Herald Square for a little over two hours. Herald Square is in the middle of an intersection, so there were blocks all around. We didn't get all the way around it because we heard one block was blocked off due the arrival of critical mass (couldn't visually confirm - again, height problem, relied on the word of other taller protestors). The street we were on had delegate busses on them. They had to drive through police lines and see the streets lined with protestors.
Around 8:15, we decided to take off and head home, catching the 9pm train As we were leaving there seemed to be more and more delegates on the street. We saw two women with signs that read "Four More Years." We assumed that the cops would stay there hassling us until it got late enough that most of the folks went home, and then they would arrest the remaining hundreds of protestors without witnesses. Again, I found out on indymedia that shortly after we wandered off, there was a mass arrest.
Low Points: On one street corner, a woman leading a group of what looked like middle school students on a school trip tried to get out of the arrest area. They kids were very nicely dress and wearing diverse political buttons from vote, to election 2004 to one young fellow proudly carrying a "Mission Not Accomplished" Anti-Bush sign. Some in the crowd reacted as if these young kids were the delegates hissing and booing them. This was obviously upsetting and scary to the kids and their chaperon who was trying to hussle them out of there. Yet I didn't see any pro-Bush signs with them, and think they may have been just a school group there to observe. One of the kids was black and a white woman was over-heard saying "Look at the black kid. Can you believe someone black would be a republican?" One of the friends I was with was so disgusted by the racism of the woman's statement and the booing of the apparently non-partisan children, that she went from considering being arrested by joining the sit-in to deciding to just go home.
I was impressed by the organization on the street. Maps were handed out, people knew where to go, the jail support number was visibly written on many people's bodies, etc. Several times lines of protestors streamed in as back-up from I don't know where as the situation got more intense. I was easily able to find out everything I needed to know to comfortably participate. It was clear to me that folks had done an impressive job laying the ground work for this protest.
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