Welcome To New York

by Eli Beckerman

September 6, 2004   


"New York City cops, they ain't too smart."
—Julian Casablancas of the Strokes

(Swans - September 6, 2004)   In October of 2001, the Strokes were set to play Boston's Avalon, partially through their fall tour. Up to this point, they had suspended their playing of "New York City Cops" out of respect to the NYPD after September 11th. The crowd was very eager to see the Strokes return to Boston after an extremely successful summer had catapulted them to fame. Perhaps music was saved. And after a few high energy songs, they decided right then and there that they'd play it. Julian announced, "We weren't gonna play this, but fuck it!" And Avalon erupted with delight.

And it's acts like that -- like The Onion deciding to call us all out on our extreme myopia when the September 11th wounds were still fresh, like Barbara Lee casting the lone vote against war in Afghanistan and drawing calls of treason, and Michael Moore refusing to rewrite his devastating Stupid White Men because George W. Bush was now our Commander In Chief and not an unelected President -- that today give me solace. They all said, when it was tough to say it, that they were not going to lay down and be steamrolled by illogical conventional wisdom. Instead, they held up a mirror and tried to show us our irrational fears. If only more people had the guts to look, we would be in a much better place today.

But the conventional wisdom remains askew. Nearly half of the voting public sees strong leadership in a man the other half sees plainly as a fool. Nearly half the voting public wants to change our nation's course, seeing the extreme misdirection of this Administration, by voting for a man who is largely responsible for the misdirection. No, Kerry wasn't at the helm of Bush's foreign policy disasters and the attacks on our civil liberties, but he echoed the phony rationales for both and voted in favor of these policies. No, Kerry would not have the neocons in charge of policy making in his Administration, but he would have the neoliberals pushing for a more "sensitive" empire.

But there I was, back home in New York City to take part in the massive protests planned to "Say No to the Bush Agenda." It was great to be back, seeing for the first time in my life a city fully bathed in political dissent. "Stop Bush" spray painted on everything that would show the paint, small groups of protestors amassed in every little nook and cranny the city had to offer them, and countless varieties of anti-Bush t-shirts on countless varieties of people. And this was the day before the big antiwar march. During the big pre-war march in New York on February 15, 2003, the City seemed confused about its role in the war debate. Many New Yorkers opposed invading Iraq but lacked the self-assurance to protest it. Many others saw merit in the war's rationale and supported the Bush drive to war even though they did not support Bush himself. Even the NYPD had some clear antiwar leanings, but their job was to keep order first, and to keep us quiet, second. Yes, the NYPD was used as a political silencer on February 15, 2003. The Republican Mayor Bloomberg did not want us to have our day in the debate. So they denied a permit to march, they brought out the metal barricades to pen us in wherever they pleased, and they used horses and police vehicles and pepper spray to keep us at bay. Underestimates of the number of marchers followed, and underestimates of our message and vision did too. But once it was clear that the world did indeed say no to war that day, our voices from that day were ultimately heard.

Now I was back in New York, and the buzz was different. Friends who have never before marched at one of these events were pretty intent on showing up. And this was despite the widely reported threats of violence and unruliness. On Saturday, I made it over to Washington Square Park for a Green Party festival called "A Green World Is Possible." Here the alternative laid out by the Greens for a peaceful world based on global solidarity was much more palatable to me than the John Kerry alternative. Lefty tables lined the square, and folks were selling buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, AWOL Bush dolls, baked goods, and even water to support the Green Party. Greens running for local office took to the stage, mixed with performers, activists, along with Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and Ralph Nader's running mate Peter Camejo. But my pleasure turned to confusion and disgust when Cobb took the stage. Camejo has spoken just before him, putting him down. When Cobb tried to speak, his words were met with boos, and a supposed Nader supporter threw water and a pie at the candidate. Cobb was trying to respond to Camejo's style of trashing the Green Party's presidential primary struggle and Cobb's eventual victory in Milwaukee by pointing out that on the issues, there are few differences between Cobb/LaMarche and Nader/Camejo. But only one campaign was committed to growing the Green Party and building a genuine opposition party to the neo-liberal consensus. Unfortunately, there are some people whose focus is so disfigured at the moment that their venom is reserved for this fledgling grassroots campaign.

Sunday morning I decided to link up with the Green Party contingent to the United for Peace and Justice march. With our Cobb/LaMarche signs, the 40 or so Greens that marched together were a separate bunch from the Nader/Camejo group that marched. While I didn't see the Nader supporters march, I was told they had slightly bigger numbers than us. And all together, the supporters of these two presidential campaigns represented a tiny blip of those folks who decided to march against Bush that day. Far more visible were Kerry voters, and those people who didn't want to associate themselves with a candidate or political party. And it was the first time I can remember fearing a wave of sectarianism could bring down whatever political opposition exists today. Torn between getting out the name of an unknown candidate who could sway voters if he ever got their attention, and wishing I was there to oppose the Bush agenda on my own, simply as a human being, I went with the Cobb/LaMarche sign.

After witnessing the police state up close and personal in Boston during the Democratic National Convention, it was a welcome surprise to find very relaxed NYPD officers lining the streets of the march. But just like the DNC, once protesters lit a papier mâché dragon, the police were transformed. After a little bit of chaos with people running away from the flames and the march getting divided, the police started barricading protesters in -- whether or not they had anything to do with the dragon or the commotion. I overheard one nearby officer call for "arrest squads" on his cell phone, and as I went over to tell a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer what I heard, I got cut off from my group. 34th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues was being closed in by metal barricades and the police were about to start making arrests. I had decided I was not going to get arrested, so I tried to talk my way out of the area, telling them I was cut off from my group. That was met with "Shut the fuck up!" and "Get over there!" Ah, after a few years with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in office, once again it was Giuliani Time! Luckily for me, there was some sort of disturbance further up 34th Street and the cops ran away and I crossed 6th Avenue back to my group. Nobody knew whether or not to participate in resisting the police who were performing blanket arrests, and we stood at the perimeter shouting that the "whole world is watching," possibly the least effective thing I've ever done. I thought about sitting in front of the van carrying away those arrested, thought about comparisons with Rachel Corrie, with Tiananmen Square, with those protesters putting flowers in the barrels of rifles and tank guns back in the '60s. And I realized I couldn't possibly be worthy of such comparisons, that this movement today is too immature and unfocused, that it would have been an act of fantasy and ego rather than social change.

And once again, I left a big protest feeling that I wish the world today were up to the tasks that faced it. And I find solace in small acts of courage, like those who got arrested on Tuesday before they were allowed to even practice non-violent civil disobedience, like MSNBC's Chris Matthews standing firm when Zell Miller questioned his objectivity, and like the Code Pink activists successfully disrupting the RNC three days in a row. I also find comfort in the extraordinary diversity of actions large and small, cultural and political, that were creatively put together to "welcome" the Republicans to New York. None of this is enough to change our present course, but I hope we can get there soon.

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Eli Beckerman is a Green Party activist.

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Published September 6, 2004
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