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For four days beginning on 30 August 2004, Republican delegates from across the country gathered at Madison Square Garden, New York for the Republican National Convention. A massive security operation, unprecedented in its scale, swept down over the city. The convention site was heavily guarded by tactical units, soldiers and the secret service, and surrounded by metal barricades. Many streets in the neighbourhood were closed.
Even though NYC resembled a police state, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Bush and the Republican administration. Smaller acts of civil disobedience were carried out earlier in the week, before the convention started. Protesters managed to hang a large anti-Bush banner on the front of the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Central Park. A small group of Aids activists stood nude near the convention site with slogans painted on their bodies to protest the administration’s stance on Aids education and third world debt. They were quickly ushered into police vans and arrested.
Large, organised protests kicked off on Friday 27 August with a ‘Critical Mass’ bike ride. Thousands of bicycle riders, taking their pro-environment stance to the streets, wound their way around the city for several hours, creating traffic chaos at many locations, including Herald Square, just north of the convention site, and Times Square. Police ended up arresting more than 200 riders for obstructing traffic.
The next day, activists marched across Brooklyn Bridge to a rally at City Hall in a ‘March for Women’s Lives’ organised by Planned Parenthood of NYC, a pro-choice advocate, and other women’s groups. Tens of thousands participated to express their opposition to Bush’s stance on reproductive health issues.
The largest demonstration, a march organised by United for Peace and Justice (UPJ), took place on the Sunday (29 August). Estimates put the crowd at 150,000 to 500,000. The day began with a morning rally in Chelsea attended by Michael Moore and Jesse Jackson. With several helicopters and a NYPD blimp watching overhead, the diverse and colourful crowd streamed north towards the convention. The mood was upbeat as the march began, but the chants grew louder and angrier as the marchers neared Madison Square Garden. Although united against Bush, the groups marching were as diverse as the city itself. Parents marching with young children and strollers; labour unionists; army veterans; university students; senior citizens; anarchists; peace activists.
For several hours, protesters snaked down Seventh Ave and passed Madison Square Garden. The protest route, packed with marchers, stretched for several miles. As marchers reached the convention site, many paused in front of the metal barricades to stare at the lines of security and voice their displeasure at the Republicans. Protesters waved their homemade placards, shouted slogans and jeered at the police. Impromptu concerts broke out as protesters banged on the metal barricades with drumsticks. One group marched with mock coffins draped with US flags, which represented soldiers killed in action. The ‘Missile-Dick Chicks,’ a group of about 20 women wearing wigs, red, white and blue outfits, and mini-skirts adorned with a large missile-like phallus, performed a skit in front of the Garden. The Korean American Alliance for Peace and Justice, staged a traditional Korean dance, with elaborately costumed dancers, loudspeakers and a large group of musicians.
Things took a dramatic turn later in the afternoon. Around 3pm, marchers carrying a large papier-maché green dragon arrived at the Garden. Soon afterwards, they poured gasoline onto the large puppet and it went up in flames. Police jumped into action: large units of officers moved in and pushed onlookers away. The fire was quickly extinguished, but not before a large cloud of black smoke rose up in front of the convention site. Scuffles broke out when police went into the crowd to snatch the purported instigators of the fire and arrested them. The march was penned in at Herald Square for about a half hour before it was allowed to continue.
The rest of the afternoon proceeded without incident as the march wound its way south around the convention site and headed towards Union Square; the last of the marchers reached the square around 5pm. The protests didn’t end there. Despite the city’s refusal to grant a rally permit for Central Park, thousands of marchers headed uptown for the park. The scene was mellow and calm at the park as police and journalists looked on while thousands of tired marchers picnicked, played music and relaxed on the grass. As dusk fell on an unprecedented, largely peaceful day of protests, tired protesters trickled out of Central Park.
Though Sunday, UPJ march was the largest day of action, activist held a myriad of events throughout the week. Marches by advocates for social issues and poor people, and anti-war groups were held on Monday and Tuesday. More than 1,000 were arrested on Tuesday (31 August) alone, the designated day of direct action. Hundreds were held for more than 40 hours in a warehouse on the banks of the Hudson river without being arraigned, informed of their rights, given access to an attorney or adequate food, water or sleeping facilities.
Despite the heavy-handed policing, protests continued for the duration of the convention. A symbolic unemployment line formed by protesters holding pink slips stretched several miles down Broadway from Wall Street to Midtown on Wednesday morning. A candlelight vigil to commemorate victims of the ‘War on Terror’ was held on Thursday night as Bush formally accepted his nomination.
As the convention drew to a close on Thursday night, a collective sigh of relief could be heard. Terrorist attacks, launches of chemical and biological weapons did not materialise. The city returned to normal as trucks rolled through the streets to collect metal crowd control barriers and heavily armed officers disappeared from street corners. There was the usual post-demonstration rhetoric: the mayor heaping praise on the police for their ‘benevolent’ handling of protesters; protesters claiming victory and groups filing civil right complaints against the city. The New York Times called the week’s protests ‘the largest in the history of political conventions’. Hopefully, the resounding message of opposition to the Bush agenda will carry through to Election Day on 2 November 2004.