TV News to Believers: Behave!
By Kathryn Joyce
Tuesday night, August 31st — the well-publicized A31 day of civil disobedience; when the police pre-emptively swooped down on protest groups, or what looked like protest groups, on reporters and observers and hapless shoppers passing by, arresting them before they starting protesting, reporting, watching, or shopping; when the cops’ divide-and-prevent tactics scattered hundreds of would-be activists into small groups or pairs, wandering around Times Square, not quite sure what had happened; when the official divisions and pens and street closures created pockets of solidarity as the disoriented protesters recognized their fellow-travelers by a button, a shirt, a placard, a peace sign; and when they fell back on word-of-mouth to alert sympathetic faces of a route around the barricades, to a semi-successful protest occurring ten blocks south, or another ten blocks south of that — that night, some killjoy in Union Square used the free chalk handed out by the chubby-cheeked, wholesome young activist to bring me down: Kneeling beside the other bandana’d heads earnestly tracing “Peace,” as though colorful design could make it so, the cynic had prophesied, “The excitement will end. You will go back to work.” I don’t quite know why this is still making me so angry, except that it turned out to be true.
Two days before, on Sunday I’d watched as a blandly attractive ABC correspondent fidgeted in front of his cameraman in the northeast corner of Union Square, waiting for the signal to go live. His grey suit was too heavy for the hot August afternoon, and his background kept changing: a slightly wild-eyed, unkempt man with a “Peace Now” sign who wanted to be on TV; a young blonde in pink leggings from the “Axis of Eve,” chanting “My Bush is on Fire” and “We love the NYPD”; groups of chatting women, mothers or university professors, ambling by like it was any Sunday, “Bush Out Now” signs resting on their shoulders and dangling from their hands.
It was hard to distinguish the ordinary crowd from the mass of protesters who’d been emptying off Broadway for the last hour, dumped abruptly from the United for Peace and Justice march into the small park. Protest organizers stood at 16th Street, at the top of the park, congratulating the marchers — you’re 400,000 strong! You showed them today! — before asking them to please go directly to the subways and save the rest of their ire for another day. There was to be no impromptu rally in Central Park after all, after the months of legal back and forth and newspaper speculation about civil disobedience and protesters’ rights.
Not everyone left. Savoring the surrealism of having spoken their minds to a national audience, putting off the inevitable letdown of anti-climax, they milled about the park instead, looking at each other, looking at the well-groomed ABC reporter shifting from foot to foot. Three weary photographers — middle aged men wearing shorts and polo shirts (mauve, hunter green) — sat on the curb ringing the park, watching the news spot set-up not so much out of interest, as with sense of self-protective solidarity. They were tired of protesters and shouting and the ABC correspondent was neither.
They eyed me with half-hearted skepticism as I sat down between them and a small band of Hare Krishnas. The Krishnas drummed softly and handed out flyers, wearing floating wraps of orange and gold. The photographers decide I was neither newsworthy nor a significant disruption of their rest, and looked away, lazily commenting on the Axis of Eve dancer chanting for the Park Avenue traffic five feet away, her short hair flapping as she pointed to the words on her hot-pink underwear, worn over her pink tights: “Weapon of Mass Seduction.” Everyone watched for a few minutes as she sang, rested, and began again.
“She needs you. She needs to be saved,” said the cameraman to one of the Krishnas. The Krishna nodded noncommittally and turned to offer a flyer to a passerby.
The cameraman tried again. “If this was the Taliban, she’d be wearing a burkha. If this was Afghanistan, she’d be covered up.”
The Krishna smiled and sat back down on the curb. A photographer approached and squatted, his camera level with the Krishnas’ faces. Did they mind a picture? Could they look up over that way a little, toward the sun? Could they open their mouths as though they were saying “Ahhh”?
The older Krishna opened his mouth compliantly, shut his eyes, looked beatific. His twenty-something companion, smiled and covered his mouth to mute a chuckle.
A diminutive hasidic man in a black hat and suit several sizes too large for him took a Krishna flyer and offered one of his own, “Applying the Torah to Daily Life.” He tried to give one to the ABC correspondent and was summarily rebuffed. Couldn’t the old guy see that they were about to go live? Flustered, the hasid dropped his papers and bent to pick them up as the correspondent and cameraman looked on with disgust. The crowd walking by began to stop, some sitting on the ground to watch, others gathering behind the correspondent to get in the shot.
“Why can’t you be more like them?” The cameraman demanded, gesturing to the Krishnas on the curb. “They’re quiet. They’re behaved.”
The hasid approached one of the photographers sitting on the curb. “Are you a real member of the press?” he asked. “Or are you like him?”
The photographer stood up. He was tired. He was sweaty. He’d been working all day. “You have an agenda,” he told the hasid, and the press isn’t interested in agendas. Defeated, the hasid walked away, melting into the crowd which had formed around the ABC pair.
“Tell the truth,” a woman shouted. “Tell them how many people were here today.” She sat on the ground near the correspondents’ feet, as though she would wait to make sure he did.
The correspondent smiled down at her, asked where she was from.
“Right here,” she said. “Are you going to tell the truth?”
He laughed. He looked at the cameraman. They didn’t want to be here, but they could wait, and they could out-wait us. Eventually people began to drift away.
“It’s almost as though it never happened,” writes an acquaintance, a photographer who covered the protests, who has rolls of reminder that it did, in fact happen. “On to the hurricane and the Russian situation.”
What was it though? It wasn’t just an exercise in futility (too many reporters were determined to write it off that neatly), but it wasn’t successful, either (the pre-emptive strikes of the police, which effectively stopped the later protests, will likely come into question, but too late, after the election, in the back pages). It wasn’t Chicago, ’68, but it wasn’t King’s March on Washington. (It wasn’t covered as was the March on Washington, though it was the same size, but that’s a losing argument too.)
It was something, though. It connected strangers with one another in unity or revulsion, and gave people free license to shout or mutter what they meant as they walked down the street, or join up with others uninvited, like Walter, an activist who left his party, late Wednesday night, on the corner of 33rd and 6th to walk with us to the West side protest outside an RNC party at the Copacabana nightclub. When we passed suited men or the richly-dressed women, Walter would adopt a loud conversational tone. “What is it about Republicans and genocide?” he’d ask. Later, as we neared the club and the police sized us up and made us cross the street, Walter shouted the Bible at them: “Matthew 5! Matthew 5:10!” The Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”
He wasn’t the only street preacher. Shepherded into a cramped pen one-half the width of the sidewalk, some 100 activists protesting the Coca-Cola-sponsored RNC party at the Copacabana sounded like so many fire-and-brimstone revelators. “Blood! Blood! Your hands are covered in blood!” Some sang and chanted in Spanish, some screamed. “Wretched!” cried one woman. They claimed the language of biblical authority and moral fury, borrowing from their enemies: directly when they could — “Baby killers” — and improvising when they could not. “Thou hypocrites” has some kind of religious ring.
For their part, party-going Republicans employed the vulgarity they accused protesters of.Slime, scumbag, dirty hippy, smelly cunt. This last came from a group of Danish attendees who convinced the police to let them pass through their ranks to inspect and taunt the caged protesters. The police were sympathetic to the protesters’ distress. “But there’s nothing we can do,” said a white-shirted officer. “They have press passes.”
By Thursday night, when Bush was due to accept his nomination, there was no longer a question of what the police would allow — very little — but rather how far away from Madison Square Garden they would push it.
We stopped a protester we’d seen all week, who had been a happy boy, his bare chest decorated with the crossed-out “W” and a rainbow flag tied around his neck.
You can walk six blocks before they put you in your pen,” he said, dejected and uninterested.
When the rally ended, and the sound system was cut off promptly at 10:00, when the President began his speech, the crowd turned for an orderly non-march back home. Someone played the Star Wars theme on repeat as we filed past the lines of police, but the victory march was only good for a laugh. The empire, as it were, had struck first, when they weren’t looking, and it had knocked them down.
Kathryn Joyce is managing editor of The Revealer.
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