Republican National Convention Protests, New York, 2004

Sep 19, 2004

John Sinha’s report on the wide array of protests that accompanied the 2004 RNC in New York.

Thursday 26th August

I anticipated problems on arrival in New York, but I was subject to ‘profiling’ – a process whereby any single, young looking male with a slightly brown skin gets intensively checked – even before I got on the plane at Gatwick. At one point I didn’t know whether they’d let me fly at all; the security man at checkin started to scrutinise my battered old passport (which is slightly frayed at the edges as a result of having once fallen into a river) and he started to peel off the transparent plastic backing holding my passport photo, “Have you got any other ID” he asked, “…But you’ve got my passort”, I replied, and I searched through my wallet and handed over one of my credit cards. He took it away and scrutinised it carefully, “The name on your card doesn’t fully match the name on your passport… I will have to contact the airline company, they will decide whether you fly or not”. After a while, another security man then escorted me to a secure checking room, after having passed my luggage through various scanners, every item of my luggage was scrutinised carefully by the security man, and then I was body searched.

On arrival at immigration in Newark International Airport, I was expecting the worst. I responded nervously to the questions of the immigration official, “What is the purpose of your visit?”, he asked, “Tourism”, I replied, “How long are you staying?” and so on… then he asked, “Your parents, what are their nationalities?”, I replied “Italian mother and Indian father”, then he said, “That’s an unusuall combination”, I responded with a nervous smile, “Well… such things happen in London”, “Your mother, does she cook Italian food?”, what an odd question I thought, “…Yes”, I replied “…And do you like it?”, is this a trick question I thought? Will my permission to enter the US depend on whether I like my mother’s Italian cooking, “Yes”, I replied, “…And your father, does he like it too?”, “Yes, but he’s vegetarian”, I responded (the fact that he’s been dead for 18 years I though not wise to divulge), at that he smiled, stamped my passport and waved me through.

On arrival at Pennsylvania Station – which is close to Madison Square Gardens, where the Republican National Convention will be held, we saw hundreds of bored police officers standing at every corner of this enourmous subterranean station, that seemed ready to pounce on anybody they deemed suspicious. We ascended the steps and craned our necks like tourists at the line of vast skyscrapers infront of us. A little later we hailed a taxi, we struck up a conversation with the driver, “So, what do you think of this convention?”, he responded with a thick Brooklyn accent, “It’s bad, they’ll cause a lot of diruption to the city”, and then, “Those republicans, they do evil things”.

Signs for the protests are everywhere: stickers on almost every lamp-post announcing the date and time of the protest marches this weekend, newspapers and magazines producing “survival guides” for the weekend of protests, listings magazine giving out a program of the hundreds of meetings, film screenings, poetry readings, art installations and other events. It seems like the whole of the city is engaged in a massive anticapitalist fringe festival to coincide with the RNC. According to one newspaper report some 11% of New York City’s population will participate in some form of protest against the Convention: whether it be firefighters protesting against the loss of collective bargaining rights; women’s groups defending abortion rights; LGBT groups protesting against Bush’s proposal to ban gay marriages; environmental groups protesting against the his energy policy, the list goes on. But the issue which dominates all others is the war in Iraq, people feel genuinely angry, that they were lied to. Sunday’s march promises to be historic, despite the fact that the mayor has banned the marchers from rallying in New York’s Central Park, in order to “protect the grass”. Now where have we heard that excuse before?

Saturday 28th August

Thousands of cyclists took to the streets yesterday many dressed as 18th century Minute Men, announcing the Republicans are coming to the citizens in the same manner that their forebares would have announced the arrival of the British forces of King George during the war of independence. It seems that the police have decided to clamp down on all forms of dissent by arresting over two hundred of the cyclists. Today, a large and lively march organised by the Planned Parenthood Federation took place, marching over Brooklyn bridge to City Hall they shouted slogans defending abortion rights and demanding proper sex education in schools. The leadership of this organisation seem to lean towards Kerry: although a non-partisan organisation, the sub-text of many of the speeches seemed to be – “vote for Kerry to defend abortion rights”

This evening I was at the film premiere of The Forth World War, produced by the young documetary film-maker, Rick Rowley (who made This is what Democracy looks like, the famous documetary about Seattle) a documentary that attempts to show how the struggle of people fighting neoliberalism through out the world are linked, whether it be the Zapatistas in Mexico, Piqueteros and Casrerlazos in Argentina fighting the IMF, or trades unionists in South Korea fighting their government or community activists in South Africa fighting privatisation or young anti-capitalists in Quebec City fighting the FTAA. Afterwards, there was a talk by Amy Goodman a leading journalist in National Public Radio, about how things have changed radically for the better in the US, with a mushrooming of independent media all over that country that was finding a receptive new audience, often in the unlikeliest of places such as close to military bases, and how this could help the left forge new alliances.

Must go to be now – it’s getting late and I need to be up early for tomorrow’s march.

Tuesday 31st August

Fox News shut-upathon

This was one of the most theatrical events of the week. Named so on account one of their most right-wing interviewers, a certain Bill O’Reilly, who has the bad habit of rudely interrupting his guests whenever he disagrees with them. A few hundred people picket their HQ in lower Manhattan shouting, “Fox News shut up!”

Direct action
Groups of protestors converge on Herald Square, MSNBC are doing a live show from the green that is enclosed by barriers and police. This doesn’t stop the audience from chanting slogans that interrupt the live broadcast – the fact that there is also a police helicopter hovering overhead couldn’t have helped them either. As usual, we were pushed back by the police.

1st September
Labour rally

AFL-CIO sponsored rally. I notice the rally is a lot more patriotic, the national flag being prominent, this would hardly ever occur at a similar event in Britain. Also, the rally started off with a rendition of the anthem. I notice the police are a lot more respectful to burly construction workers and Teamsters than the usual protestors or students.

Later, I spoke to a group of airline workers; one worker from New Jersey explained to me how working conditions had worsened in the last four years, the vast majority of worker s are looking to Kerry being elected in order to improve their lot, “The government is spending all that money occupying Iraq, when we don’t have decent health care, education or jobs here” he said, “The government is spending money giving the Iraqis free healthcare That’s something we don’t get here” another said.
I ask one construction worker if Kerry going to be all that different to Bush? He responds, “Well Kerry supports the right to organise I’ve never heard Bush say that”. Well, he hasn’t done anything to help them much either I thought as I listened to the speeches on the big screen.

2nd September
Iraqi Veterans against the War
At the veterans ‘ vigil in Union Square, I met with veterans from every war the US has fought since 1945. I spoke to veterans from the 2nd World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the last Iraqi war. The most moving speech was given by a Mexican immigrant whose son had died in Iraq whilst serving in the Marines, “My son died only because Bush lied 985 soldier died because Bush lied ,and over 10,000 Iraqis died only because Bush lied No more lies!” I and much of the audience, including the journalists, were reduced to tears.
At the edge of the square a couple of fund-raisers from the Democratic National Committee were tried to get subscribers – rather unsuccessfully it seemed – as they approached a middle aged woman, “I’ve been giving time and money to the DNC where the hell are they?” and later, ” Kerry has been horrible he’d better get better people?” I struck up a conversation with them; they had nothing interesting to say. But they moaned about the presence of the vigil hurting their fundraising “We don’t want to be associated with these radicals” one said, and so totally disassociated themselves from the event. If I had any illusions about the Democrats being any different to the Republicans, and I don’t – then this little incident summed up why for me.

Bush’s coronation night
On Bush’s coronation night we tried to get as close to Madison Square Garden as possible (the area being closed off by perimeter pens and police lines). Because of the massive police presence, it was difficult for people to congregate at any point, so we milled around the pavement and kept crossing the road in a circuit. The Republican delegates, clearly identifiable with their delegates badges, were easy to spot from the distance, the men, clean-cut, wearing cheesy looking suites and the women likewise with dressses and stilletto heels had to walk through the gauntlet with people shouting, “Republicans go home!” This continued for about and hour until there were a few thousand people on the block. Whilst walking towards the steps to 34th Street station directly under Madison Square Garden holding my trusty video camera. A pair of plain-clothes officers immediately stopped me, “Where are you going?” “Home”, I replied, “What are you filming?” one of them asked, I switched my camera to playback mode, “Nothing” I replied, “Do you have any ID?” I showed him my Indymedia press pass. He wasn’t very impressed. “Have you got any other ID? A passport?” “No, I left it at home” I replied, “Who are you working for?” “Nobody just a website” “What is it called?” “Resist” I replied, “Is it a protest site?” pretending not to understand the question I replied with a nervous smile, “What do you mean?” “Is it radical?” “Where are you staying?” he asked, “12th Street, Brooklyn” I replied, “We may have to detain you to check your identity” “Well ,if you do that I may miss my flight back to London.” After a while they let me go.

The police getting wise to what was going on, decided to push us back a block further down. As he crowd stuck together, this only made it more difficult for the Republican delegates to get through the crowds
After a while, some of us retreated to an Irish bar nearby. On the plasma screen Bush was giving his acceptance speech; the partisan crowd in the Bar bewed after each sentence. Every once in a while the camera would pan (for a split-second) to a protestor who had managed to get into the convention centre – I think they were mostly Code Pink women, you could just make out a little feminine head being bundled away by burly Secret Service agents. Perhaps giving the slightest hint to the viewers of the major protests going on outside for most of the week. The crowd would yell and give applause.


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