A Good Day for Dissent

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August 31st 2004
Published: August 31st 2004
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Standing in front of the police barricade across Eight Avenue, Grace, Margarita and Alanna, all of New York City, flash the peace sign and, unintentionally, a British obscenity.
Monday was a day for another march, this time unpermitted. I joined the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign for a permitted rally at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza across from the United Nations. The rally started off with promise and vigor, with each speaker taking no more than a minute at the microphone. But it was at some point after Nicole from the Deaf and Blind Committee for Human Rights "spoke" through an interpreter (don't ask me how Nicole was able to see her hands in order to speak in sign language) that I realized that brevity in speakers could easily be overcome by quantity of speakers. After the tenth speaker took to the stage, the press started to drift out of their pit in front of the podium, and headed to the back of the plaza, where they traded jokes with each other and the cops, who were ringing the plaza in riot gear and with bicycles. The cops seemed more prepared for violence than they had been before. Whereas the cops on the weekend had been content to carry their riot helmets, the cops around the plaza were wearing them. I figured that if they started to don their gas masks as well, I was getting out of there in a hurry. A photographer that I had met in DC at the 1999 WTO/IMF had brought back memories of the tear gas and pepper spray on that day, and I had no desire to repeat my asthmatic reaction to either one again.

So the press heeded the call of gravity and began to lounge against the potted plants and on the benches in the plaza, occasionally getting up to take pictures of the “Missile D**k Chicks,” and every once in a while interviewing each other. A kid from Louisville, Kentucky even came over to me with his microphone, introducing himself as a reporter for the public radio station there, and asking for my thoughts on working as an accredited Independent Media journalist. ("Well, an Indy Media badge doesn't mean much when the billy club hits the skull.")

Before I had even been able to enter the plaza earlier, a college-aged woman with a video camera and an Indy Media badge had told me, "The police aren't letting in the Indy Media." I nodded and told her, "Thanks," and proceeded to walk to the end of the police line and around it under the philosophy that if you don't ask permission, it can't be denied.

The fluorescent green-hatted Legal Guild observers told me a similar story about the police. One said that the police weren't respecting any of the media, but they were particularly disrespectful of the Indy Media. Over the weekend the police had even arrested a reporter for Newsday, the most conservative newspaper in New York. "If they're arresting Newsday reporters, you know the Indy Media are screwed."

So I was a little apprehensive about how things would go during the unpermitted march. Would I end up sitting in the police holding pen at Pier 57 with the very protestors I had been trying to photograph? What would happen to my cameras? All these questions and more swirled through my head as I listened to the hoarse rantings of an off-duty surgeon in his lime green scrubs pacing about in plastic Birkenstocks, "Let's get this f**king march started people, 'cause the revolution is gonna pass you by!"

When the police line started to move down the streets & helicopters began to orbit overhead we knew that the speeches had ceased & the march was beginning. A white-shirted police officer with a bullhorn barked instructions to the media, "Alright folks, accredited media to the front! Come on, keep it moving! You'll all get your pictures! Pick it up, people; we've got a march here!" And so we the media tramped along in front of the marchers, not at all slowing down the march, encumbered though we were with cameras, microphones, backpacks and shoulder bags, because the marchers were the proverbial deaf, dumb, blind and lame. The wheelchair brigade at the front of the march was considerably slower than us.

The media constantly outpaced the marchers, and periodically we would realize that the march was half a block or more behind us, and a large roar was erupting. Fearful that we had missed the inevitable first arrest we would reverse course and run back to the front of the march, only to find that the marchers had stopped to wave back at the cheering supporters hanging out of apartment windows and storefront doors, which in turn would cause the police to issue instructions with their bullhorns, "Get this march going folks! Move it, people!" And that in turn would incite the media to turn around and run right back into the police, who would then tell the media, "The march is in the other direction! You're going the wrong way! YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!"

We were led down the streets in our unpermitted march by two paddy wagons filled with police officers, and flanked by a thin blue line of officers on scooters and bicycles. Every time we got to an intersection and I saw a line of empty tour buses sitting at the curb I thought to myself, "This is it. They're gonna stop the march right here, arrest everybody and load them onto those buses." But each time the march would move past the intersection and waiting buses without incident.

That pattern repeated itself for probably 30 blocks. I was paying more attention to the march and the police than I was the street signs, but somewhere around 20th Street we turned east until we came to Eighth Avenue, where we headed north towards Madison Square Garden and the GOP convention. The sun had already set, and the dark blue uniforms of the police were beginning to blend into the shadows, punctuated only by the bandoliers of white plastic handcuffs they carried on their thighs. I was staying no more than ten yards away from the lead marchers in their white "Peacekeeper" t-shirts, and started to get nervous when I looked ahead and saw a line of barricades ahead of us. The police had set up a pen of metal barricades on three sides of the block, and we the media, like the Judas goat at a slaughterhouse, were leading the marchers right into a trap. For a few minutes I stayed with another photographer and veteran for peace, hoping that his experience would be of some benefit to me. When I asked him for advice, he replied, "You got long legs too, right? Then use 'em. Jump the barricade and run."

Only half the march had made it into the pen, within sight of Madison Square Garden, when chaos ensued at the intersection. A scrum of marchers, media, police and legal observers were piling up onto each other, with two helicopters circling overhead sirens blaring and police radio squawking. I moved towards the frenzy, hoping that maybe I could get at least one half-decent shot. But my path was blocked by officers in riot helmets who were shoving people back with steel barricades, our three-sided pen had just become a four-sided cage,

The cops screamed at the marchers, and the marchers tried in vain to reason with them,

"Get back! Get Back! GET BACK!"
"We can't get back! There's no where to go!"
"Back!BACK!BACK! Get BACK!!!"
"How are we supposed to leave when we can't get out?"

Marchers were panicking, looking for an exit as police officers dropped down the face shield s on there helmets and started smacking nightsticks against gloved palms. Blinding circles of light danced across the street from the helicopters overhead. The thudding bark of rotor blades was a massive wall of white noise that eliminated any chance of understanding, let alone obeying the orders of the police bullhorns. Every third person was screaming into a cell phone some variation of, "We're at 23rd & 8th & all hell's breaking loose. A sharp vinegary smell wafted through the air, perhaps pepper spray, perhaps fear, and I started to think about my own escape route. Behind me lay the police-blocked entrance to the Garden, and the street was hemmed in by buildings, not an alleyway in sight. But about a hundred yards back from the intersection the barricade was missing several 10-foot long sections. I slipped through, unnoticed by any officers, and walked along the sidewalk, on the other of the barricade to the intersection where I looked around, saw that I could still make it east and away from the chaos, and then ignored the little voice that said, "Run!" in favor of the adrenaline-saturated hunch that said, "There's gonna be some great pictures back there!"

So I turned around and headed back into the cage, looking for the great shot. The marchers and media were clustered around one corner of the barricades, where a Persian Gulf vet I met the day before was screaming at the police, his spittle dripping down their face shields,

"Menendez, you f**kin' pig, yer a f**kin' childbeater! Yer a f**kin' childbeatin' pig! I saw what you f**kin' did to that kid in the wheelchair! How the f**k could you push him like that, huh? How does it f**kin' feel to club a crippled kid, Menendez?"

I took a couple of pictures of the confrontation, but then felt called to step over the line from observer to participant, "Dude," I told the screaming vet, "You need to calm down. You're taking it too far, man. Chill out."

"F**k you man, I fought for my rights!"

"I know you did, and I did too. I'm a veteran as well, and you need to calm down."

I decided to leave before he got his head cracked open, and headed back towards the police line in front of the Garden, where I saw my fellow vet & photographer again & told him,

"You're buddy's down at the barricade calling the cops 'childbeaters,' you might want to go talk to him before he gets his head beat in."

"He is? Where?"

"Down there where the crowd is."

"Oh man, he always does that. He only pushes it so far, then he backs down."

At which point our invective friend came striding towards us, carrying his sign on a pole that called for an end to police brutality, apparently satisfied that he had spoken enough profanity-laden truth to power for one night.

In short order everything de-escalated. The police pulled back their barrier, allowing the crowd to disperse, the stalwarts stayed at the line, mugging for the cameras. Television talking heads stared into klieg lights with "live reports from the scene of a confrontation between subversive, violent anarchists and the New York's finest." I stayed for a few more minutes for a couple of final shots before heading south on 8th Avenue towards a subway station.

As I was passing a pizza joint, a guy about my age called out to me, "Hey man, do ya want some dinner? I've got an extra piece of pizza."

It took my glucose-deprived brain a few seconds to register his question and reply, "Um, yeah...That, that would be great!" I headed inside and sat down to a wide slice of New York pizza, still steaming and dripping grease onto a paper plate.

Chris and I talked between mouthfuls, and found out that we had both been to the rallies at Fort Benning over the years to protest the School of the Americas. While I had wanted to witness and/or participate in the Critical Mass bike ride on Friday, Chris had been there. Chris had flown up from Houston, Texas, where he often traveled to Crawford to witness for peace outside the president's ranch. While eating dinner with Chris I realized, "This is what it's all about. We speak truth to power and share our food with each other."

A couple of cops came in and sat down in the booth next to us just as Chris & I were talking about how restrained and professional the NYPD had been. In contrast to the FTAA meeting in Miami last year, the NYPD were not emptying clips of plastic bullets into the crowds, lobbing canister after canister of tear gas at unarmed protesters, clubbing kids like they were baby seals, or shocking protester after protester with taser guns. The NYPD was allowing dissent to be voice, and without a permit.

It was, in other words, a good day for the First Amendment in America.


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