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Published: September 5th 2004
Tuesday, August 31st, was a day of civil disobedience entitled "A31" by activists. A31 proved to be the most active day for the NYPD as they struggled to maintain control over the city and the activists struggled to disrupt business as usual.
And while the story of civil disobedience in the streets was appealing, I was also interested in documenting the story of less risk-averse but equally motivated activists. To wit, I decided to check out "The Stroller Brigade," a march of liberal parents with babies past Madison Square Garden. The march was supposed to kick off at at Madison Square Park, but when I arrived there was nary a stroller in sight. Wandering around the park I came across a television cameraman with a similarly befuddled expression. When I asked him where teh Stroller Brigade was, he replied, "Ah man, it got cancelled because of the weather." I looked up at the blue skies, and reading my gaze he modified his statement, "They were afraid it was gonna rain." And apparently "they" was the Democratic National Campaign, or DNC. I'm sorry, but I've yet to see the anarchists cancel a march due to rain...
However, in one corner of the park I did find a family or two with anti-Bush signs lounging on a couple of park benches. I introduced mysel as a photographer with Indy Media, and immediately struck it off well with them. When they said they were from upstate New York, I replied, "Oh really?!? I grew up In Vermont across the lake from upstate New York. What part?"
"Um, Rhinebeck? Is that near Troy or Plattsburg?"
"Oh no, it's south of Albany on the Hudson River."
"Oh...you mean 'upstate' as in anything north of the Bronx."
There is an geographically inaccurate, and to some persons annoying, tendency for (Manhattanite) New Yorkers to consider anything north of New York City as "upstate," which effectively renders everything but Long Island and New York City in the southern extremities of New York State as "upstate," even though Rouse's Point (on the northern Canadian border) is a far cry and hundreds of miles from Woodstock (in the Catskills) and Buffalo (on the western tip).
Be that as it may, I had found my protest, and my protest had found their media, and off we went on our merry symbiotic way to the DNC headquarters, just up the street, all the while I asked questions of Gina, the matron of the group,
"Oh we all came down together in an SUV." Not a second passed before the twinkle of irony glinted in my eyes and a smirk twitched across my lips, the thought of a bunch of democratic activists showing up for the protest in the SUV,
"I know, isn't it terrible?" Gina confessed, " But it was completely filled!"
"It's alright," I assured Gina, "I used to own an SUV, too. And I even drove it off road." I felt like I was offering absolution to Gina, but wasn't sure if it was necessary. After all, she had filled all the seats, right?
As we walked down the street past yet another police officer, Gina promised the group, "Now if you don't get arrested I'll buy you all ice cream!" After grabbing a few shots of the group with their signs on the sidewalks of New York, I piled into the elevator with them on our way up to the DNC. As the elevator doors closed Gina began the count off with the group, telling me, "Wes, you'll be number 10, ok?" But with the excitement of the elevator doors opening and closing we never got beyond counting off to 5, and soon enough the doors opened and we were headed out. I stayed to the back of the group, hoping to slip as inconspicuously as possible into the DNC and avoid any questions of "Who are you and why are you taking pictures?"
It turned out though that the DNC staff were more than happy to have me there, and I snapped shots of Gina and family picking up signs and t-shirts emblazoned with the latest pithy liberal messages ("George Bush: Mission UNaccomplished!")
We headed back downstairs, out the door and straight towards the nearby Baskin-Robbins where Gina asked me, "Wes, what kind ice cream do you want?"
"Oh, mint chocolate chip or cookie dough would be great!"
Gina headed inside with the kids while I stayed outside and talked with her husband, Joel Tyner a county legislator from Duchess County. Joel, a Democrat, was elected on his sixth attempt, and was dedicated to a fair tax system and protecting small business from predatory big box retailers. We talked for quite a bit while Gina was inside trying to manage ten different ice cream orders, discussing the pleasures of small town life and the future of the Democratic party.
After eating ice cream together we headed up the street to Madison Square Garden for a quick photo shoot, and then went our separate ways, promising to meet up later in the afternoon at the Johnny Cash rally in front of Sotheby's auction house.
While I knew that there were numerous die-ins and chain-ups and blocking-traffic events happening around the city, I was really more interested in the more unusually expressive protests, like a tribute to the Man in Black.
While Johnny Cash may have become a rich, popular icon, the songs he wrote always spoke of solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. If any political party could be affiliated with Johnny Cash's lyrics, it would not be the Republicans. When was the last time a Republican visited a maximum security prison and wrote songs of solidarity with the inmates, let alone defined his or her career in such a manner?
Johnny Cash wore black before brown or grey or even black was the fashionable new black, and he even wrote a song about it...
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.
Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.
And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.
Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.
So it was quite perplexing when Sotheby's announced that it would be auctioning off the June Carter and Johnny Cash estate, and was inviting the GOP to come check out the goodies.
In protest, the Man in Black Bloc was called up to defend the memory of Johnny. At least a hundred fans of Johnny showed up, many with guitars and lyric sheets for a sing-along tribute in the face of crass capitalism.
The New York Police Department was kind enough to provide a protest pen diagonally across the intersection from Sotheby's, far enough away that Johnny's fans would cause no embarrassment to Johnny's bidders. But the 10x30 foot pen was soon filled up, and another section was added to it. But that too proved insufficient, and soon protesters began to spill over across the street to the sidewalk in front of Sotheby's. Told by the police that they could not block pedestrian traffic by remaining in one spot, an ad hoc group of protesting cheerleaders began to march back in forth of Sotheby's chanting, among other things, "Whose Cash? Our Cash!" And in a reference to the entertainment lineup at the RNC, "Give Us Johnny Cash, You Can Have Your Brooks & Dunne!"
Such actions were simply intolerable, and a gentleman in a suit with a miniscule, indecipherable badge on his lapel informed me that we couldn't "take pictures of showing the front of the building."
"Because it's a federal facility."
We all kept straight faces until he'd turned his back to confront the cheerleaders, at which point we began laughing, asking each other, "A federal facility? SOTHEBY'S is a federal facility? Under what law? The Patriot Act?"
"...Um, yeah, I think that is allowed under the Patriot Act."
But we continued to take our pictures, defying whatever authority the suit might have.
Only a few moments later a Ryder rental truck pulled up in front of Sotheby's, and plainclothes police officers began to unload sectional barriers. The front door to the auction house was cordoned off, and then for good measure the front windows were blocked, all the better to allay the consciences of the RNC delegates who were beginning to arrive. More than a few of them arrived in outfits more suited for Dallas or Nashville than the Big Apple, what with western belt buckles, rhinestones and cowboy boots. Cries of "Shame, Shame!" and "Johnny Would Be Turning In His Grave!" were shouted their way as they exited from the limousines and tour buses, and one of the delegates even had the courage to say, "I like Johnny Cash, too!" His comment seemed oxymoronic, but no more oxymoronic than the contradiction of Norfolk Southern Railroad's country/western company band "The Lawmen" (originally composed of railroad police) singing songs extolling the romanticism of the hobo life, while Norfolk Southern actively prosecutes the slightest act of trespass on railroad property. (Yeah, I realize that's a long aside, but dang, I've been waiting a long time to write that.)
Charles, in a jacket emblazoned with the legend, "Johnny Cash Died for Our Sins," described himself as being in front of Sotheby's "to speak up for the man who no longer speaks for the poor. So much of Johnny’s lyrics has to do with the poor, oppressed an underprivileged. For a party like the GOP to exploit Johnny is disingenuous."
After the number of arriving delegates slowed to a trickle, and I staged a photo shoot of a Missile D**k Chick next to a police officer, I decided to eave while I was I could. I figured I had done my work, and Johnny's remains may be up for sale to the highest bidder, but his spirit remains with the people.
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