Last week I took an activist-organized bus from Montreal down to the Republican National Convention protests in New York City. Surprisingly, everyone aboard was allowed to cross the border without even stepping off the bus. The only disruption was a border guard who asked, “Why on Earth would you want to protest? George Bush is the greatest president since Ronald Reagan and George Washington.”
Sunday’s demonstration was gigantic â€” 500 000 people according to organizers, at least that many by my estimation. While the numbers were huge, at points, the politics were wanting. Instead of chanting “peace now” at the front of the demonstration, I would have preferred “end the occupation” or “occupation is a crime from Iraq to Palestine.” (Should we be supporting vague notions of peace during a time of occupation?) Towards the end of the march an anti- imperialist people-of-colour contingent brought some clarity to the event. Their chant, “1 we are the people 2 a little bit louder 3 we want justice for the third world,” was something I could wholeheartedly endorse.
Reading the extreme right-wing New York media’s (Post, Daily News and Sun) criticism of the protesters the next day was interesting. Aside from our simplemindedness, the papers’ most common criticism was our frequenting of Starbucks (and these papers are supposed to be the defenders of corporate power!) I don’t know how many frappucinos the protesters guzzled, but I’m certain that criticism of our drinking habits fits into the U.S. right’s campaign to slander the left as a liberal elite.
Another common criticism was that the demonstrators were predominantly white, an especially odd criticism from newspapers that oppose affirmative action, use racial stereotypes to undermine welfare and demonize Arabs to justify U.S. foreign policy. Nevertheless, the criticism is not invalid, especially considering that African-Americans were the biggest opponents of the Iraq invasion and Latino(a)s weren’t far behind. The lack of colour at anti-war marches is something that some white activists are working on and need to work even harder at. A black activist I talked to said that United for Peace and Justice, the group that organized Sunday’s demonstration, does not do enough to make people of colour feel welcome within UFPJ and at their actions.
At the Still We Rise march I attended on Monday, people of colour were far more prominent. While much smaller than the previous day’s march, there was an electrifying energy to the crowd and it was empowering to be a part of that. Towards the end of the demonstration the police made a point of clarifying who was in charge. At an intersection, they cut the demonstration into blocks by erecting a fence of metal barricades. All along the march route on Sunday and during the Still We Rise action the protests were cut off from the sidewalk by these barricades. This was a tactic to increase police power over the protesters and a level of control was exercised that I have never seen before.
On Tuesday, I stood watch during a banner drop at the port authority bus terminal near Times Square. Despite the efforts of the folks dropping the banner, it got caught on a ledge and didn’t properly unfurl. Yet, all those involved were able to escape from the scurrying police officers. The same can’t be said for two people, totally unconnected to the action, who took pictures. As I made my way out of the bus terminal the police led away two young photographers who were caught snapping pictures of the banner’s descent. The photographer, now handcuffed, complained to me that it was now off limits to take photographs in New York City.
Two hours later I witnessed how demonstrations were also off limits even on the sidewalk. A block into a march starting from ground zero, the police encircled the front half of the demonstration. About 200 people were arrested after a few demonstrators walked three-by-side along the sidewalk instead of side-by-side as the police had ordered. For this offense they spent more than 24 hours in jail without seeing a judge, which is illegal in New York. By Thursday a state judge ordered the New York Police Department to release every one who hadn’t been brought in front of a judge. After the NYPD refused to comply, the judge fined the city $1000 for every protester who still hadn’t been processed. (While the protesters were held hundreds of petty thieves were released within hours of arrest.)
From ground zero, my affinity group went to the New York Public Library to join another planned protest. Just as we arrived the riot police swarmed the area pushing protesters and spectators away from the steps of the library. I later found out that about 50 people were arrested because a couple of protesters unfurled a banner they planned to march behind.
Coincidentally, the police were nowhere in sight when I bumped into a crazy Republican (is that redundant?) carrying a sign around Manhattan calling on the U.S. to invade Iran to stop that country from developing nuclear weapons. When I asked him which is the only country to ever drop a nuclear bomb, he reluctantly agreed it was the U.S. He didn’t seem to know that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen, not Tokyo â€” the obvious target â€” because these cities still had standing infrastructure unlike Tokyo where earlier bombings had already burnt everything. The Republican’s response was that the U.S. bombings â€” which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese â€” actually saved lives. It reminded me of a quote from a U.S Major serving in Vietnam who told the Associated Press “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Underlying brutal U.S. foreign policy actions is a disregard for the people in the victimized nation. Unfortunately this U.S. centric worldview also underpins much criticism of U.S. foreign policy. During the Sunday demonstration one of the most elaborate â€” and widely reported â€” actions was a procession of wooden coffins draped with U.S. flags, one for every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. For the non-U.S. dead there were 30 coffins draped with black flags. Yet at least 20,000 Iraqi civilians have died, not to mention thousands of Iraqi soldiers. I agree, as Michael Moore argues forcefully, that most U.S. soldiers join the Army for economic reasons and are therefore caught in circumstances outside their control. However, Iraqi civilians have even less control over whether they die from U.S. dropped bombs. I also have a hard time believing that those who joined the Iraqi Army had more opportunity then those who signed up in the U.S. of A.
The proponents of the coffin act would probably say that this isn’t the point. The goal of the flag draped coffins was to convince patriotic Americans that the war has been awful. According to this analysis, U.S. residents are supposed to care about their own dead, not the dead in other lands. But if is true that U.S. residents care only about U.S. deaths and U.S. deaths are what will turn them against the occupation, then should anti- occupation activists hope more U.S. soldiers return home in coffins?
On Wednesday I went to a large AFL-CIO rally. It was a good demonstration of working-class power. The crowd was diverse; many stereotypical unionists â€” large white men â€” but also the future of the Labour movement: women of colour. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. labour movement is still quite conservative.
My cue to leave the rally (and city) was the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. Still, as I write this, I maintain hope that the union movement in the U.S. will radicalize. The world needs it.
Yves Engler is a Montreal-based writer and activist.