Nuns & Baptists Die-In, Balloons Fall From Heaven

Two visions of “compassion”

By Jason Boog

After reading 30-pages of pre-packaged speeches inside the press palace that the Republicans built near Madison Square Garden, I’d learned too much about the Convention’s “People of Compassion” theme for the day. So I left.

I shoved my way down 34th St. in the sticky dusk. Waving my press pass like a cereal box prize, I slipped past thickets of reporters and police. I was looking for activists from the Washington D.C.-based movement, School of Americas Watch (SOAW). They planned to stage a funeral march past the convention and a mass “die-in” to block convention busses.

But the protesters never arrived.

Battalions of officers stood at parade rest at Herald Square, with their blue helmets balanced on top of black riot-gear bundles. A maze of orange mesh, sawhorses, and metal barricades broke civilians and protesters into harmless clusters.

I watched four tour buses whoosh past the security checkpoint. Behind softly tinted windows, one bearded delegate made the letter “W” with his fingers.

***

Christy Pardew is the communications director at SOAW, an activist group working to end U.S. military trainings and occupations in foreign countries. They had brought together many Christian anti-war groups for this August 31 protest.

Earlier that afternoon, her group held a half-hour vigil at Ground Zero. In a phone interview, Pardew explained that they followed police directions while marching up Fulton Street. The 27-year-old organizer thought she would just observe the march and talk with reporters during the demonstration.

The march moved for a couple blocks, but then the police sealed up the sidewalk with orange webbing. Pardew was arrested along with 300 protesters inside that security net. The NYPD took her to a dilapidated brown brick warehouse on Pier 57, the city’s temporary detention center for protesters. Pardew ended up in a holding cell with 90 other women from the protest.

She wasn’t released for another 48 hours. “I’ve never been in such a toxic place,” she said. “The walls were fencing with cyclone wire on top. There were diesel and oil spills all over the floor.”

Pardew grew up in a Southern Baptist church, but she shed the politically conservative values of her childhood in college. “I realized that when Jesus told us to share everything we own, he really meant it,” she said.

Today, she attends an Episcopalian church, still “compelled by selflessness” to follow that biblical mandate.

“There was a 60-year-old woman in the cell with us at Pier 57. She told us stories all night about civil rights protests in the Sixties. She calmed everybody down. Mutual aid, caring for the people around you — that’s compassion,” Pardew told me.

***

The Knight-Ridder newsroom took up 100 square feet inside the convention media center. Cheap curtains divided the media companies into squares, cramming every major paper in the world into the second-floor of the Farley Building Post Office. The company stocked the workspace with 48 telephones, 17 televisions, and 80 DSL Internet jacks — each cable routed through a grid that the GOP wired for the press.

During the prime-time speeches, about 10 reporters stuck around the newsroom. We followed along with the live speeches on the pre-printed press transcripts. “What a greeting! This is like winning an Oscar!” read the Arnold Schwarzenegger script, not even allowing the actor an improvised opening.

Schwarzenegger was born to stand behind podiums, looming with his tough-guy grip on the wooden edges. “The President didn’t go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. Leadership isn’t about polls,” he said. “It’s about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions.”

His voice boomed out over every television in the media center. From the ritzy New York Timesworkspace all the way down to the AP booth, his voice stuttered and echoed with microseconds of digital delay.

***

After police arrested Pardew, Eric LeCompte kept marching with the remaining SOAW protesters — carrying his infant son the whole time.

“I saw all these nuns, Baptist ministers, parents and children keep going, even though they knew the risks were higher,” he told me.

When the unexpected arrests downtown took most of the group’s leaders, LeCompte helped lead 700 people towards the convention. Through text messages and phone calls, they managed to avoid more mass arrests at the Public Library and Union Square.

At 28th and Broadway, 50 activists lay down in the street, wearing the names of civilian casualties from conflicts in Iraq and Colombia. “We covered that intersection. It took them three hours to clear us away,” said LeCompte.

“I want my son to grow up seeing this. So many politicians use compassion as word to justify wars against the poor, at home and abroad. Compassionate people go to places where people are struggling, and they walk with them.”

***

Standing in a corner aisle on the convention floor, I listened while Laura Bush described her husband’s compassion in a calm, poised narrative. Inside their quiet home, she watched her husband choose war: “I was there when my husband had to decide. Once again, as in our parents’ generation, America had to make the tough choices, the hard decisions, and lead the world toward greater security and freedom,” she said.

Although it’s not the most ingenious metaphor, the whole night seemed like a television show. Producers kept the protesters safely out of the cameras, and the delegate-extras celebrated like game-show contestants. The director converted party politics into heady drama.

The script masterfully linked the lead actors, and everybody made climactic tributes to brave, unwavering President Bush. Senator Elizabeth Dole reminded us of Reagan’s fight against “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union, Schwarzenegger admitted that he feared communists would seize his father in Austria, and Laura Bush remembered huddling under her school desk during nuclear attack drills.

Every speech conjured up a tangible, primal version of fear — but they all concluded that George W. Bush was brave enough save us.

These tales mirrored grisly news outside the convention: a bus bomb in Israel, subway explosions in Russia, and child hostages in North Ossetia. While other countries grappled with the consequences of military occupation, the Republicans united around wartime policies. Just like the frustrated protests outside, these events lurked like a gloomy echo that nobody acknowledged.

The final speaker that night was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, a Holocaust survivor. She recited Psalm 23, placing the president uncomfortably close to that image of a gentle shepherd-God.

Jungreis read the psalm in English, and then in Hebrew. One phrase harmonized with the other speeches, swelling like a soundtrack theme: “I fear no evil.”

She asked for a moment of silent prayer for the soldiers in Iraq, but hundreds of security guards, interns and delegates still scurried around the floor — preparing the set for the closing act. Above our heads, thousands of red, white and blue balloons hung in loose netting, poised to bury the convention after the pre-ordained nomination.

***

All those balloons fell from heaven on Thursday night, right on schedule. On television, it looked like a spontaneous piece of political magic. Hundreds of thousands of protesters couldn’t stop that prime-time television show.

After the convention closed that night, I helped pack up the Knight-Ridder workspace. Around 5 a.m., I switched on the television that I used to watch Governor Schwarzenegger’s speech, tuning in just as the Russian army stormed that schoolhouse in North Ossetia. While hundreds of Garden employees dismantled the temporary media capital of the world, that footage proved that no journalist could ever explain these new kinds of disaster.

I spent a month in southern Russia this summer, living a couple hundred miles away from that school. I was scared for my friends in Russia, for my draft-aged little brothers, for all the deaths in the world that week and all the madness that still hasn’t happened. The convention’s intricate illusion of safety unraveled as those children stumbled through that exploded courtyard.

I curled up under a blanket, trying to sleep. On the convention floor, workers cleaned broken balloons and snow-drifts of confetti.

Jason Boog is a writer in New York.

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