September 08, 2004 News & Opinion » Featured story

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To the streets: scenes from the protests 

Anyone physically close to the Rochester crew that marched through New York City last week knows how determination smells --- musty and rank, like a high-school locker room.

            While many of the 5,000 delegates to the Republican convention stayed in swanky hotels, ate at posh buffets, and saw a Broadway show, many more people -- perhaps more than 100 times as many --- gathered in New York to protest. They slept on friends' pull-out couches and strangers' floors. Among them was a group of 14 from Rochester, who slept in a tent city in Brooklyn, forgoing baths for days to protest the Iraq war and the policies of the Bush administration.

            Comfortable beds and showers weren't the only luxuries the protesters gave up. Many lost their freedom, spending hours or days in jail. By Friday, more than 1,800 people had been arrested.

            The marches and other activities sometimes turned chaotic, and there were angry confrontations. Police on scooters rushed tightly packed crowds. They pushed, hit people with batons, and used pepper spray. At times, the fear and tension created by such interventions made the air feel electric.

            Chris Powers of Rochestersays a police officer pushed him off his bike during a Bike Block protest Monday and pepper sprayed him while he was on the ground. Powers, 30, suffered a broken collarbone from the fall and was detained for two days. He was handcuffed nearly the entire time he was in the hospital despite the pain, he says. And when he asked for Tylenol to dull the pain at the Post-Arrest Screening Site, he says, he was refused.

            Controversy had surrounded many of the protests from beginning to end. Just days before the event, organizers of Sunday's March for Peace and Justice were in court trying to get permission to hold a post-march rally. Their request was denied, but thousands of people gathered in Central Park after the march despite the ruling, many lying down in the moist grass after a long day of walking, singing, and shouting.

Overall, the major protests were peaceful --- so much so that New York officials congratulated leaders of United for Peace and Justice, the organizers of Sunday's march, for their efforts. The marchers came from all over America and the world, not just to protest President Bush and his administration but to support third-party candidates, talk about the environment, teach others about Falun Gong, make colorful posters, and sell inflatable Bush dolls. Sunday's March for Peace and Justice drew the most participants of any march in New York in the past two decades: organizers estimated the total at 500,000.

            The streets were a carnival of creativity. Marching on Sunday were Women for Peace, a half-serious group called Men Who Love Women for Peace, the Men Without Pants for Peace, and a dead-serious group called Women Who Support Men Without Pants for Peace (check them out;  they have a website.)

            While many groups flexed their First Amendment muscle through humor, many others chose music. The Raging Grannies of Rochester were a big hit that day with the media and marchers alike. The group of conservatively dressed older women impressed passers-by with witty lyrics as they stood in choir formation on a Seventh Avenue sidewalk.

            Denise Gaines had joined the group that morning after being recruited on the bus. Gaines, who lives in Rochester's Maplewood neighborhood, says she went to the march because she dislikes the Bush Administration's treatment of the middle class, the ballooning budget deficit, and the way America is viewed in the world.

            "No more lies from Dick and Georgie," she and other Grannies sang to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. "We deplore their wartime orgy."

            The beats on the street that day came from Middle Eastern drums, metal pot lids, and the occasional unidentifiable piece of material energetically thwacked by a guy wielding a stick. "No war, no Abu Ghraib, no fascist USA," two women chanted to the tune of dunun and dumbek beats coming from a group called the DC Rhythm Workers Union.

            Another musical group, Ukuleles for Sanity, wielded their tiny four-stringed instruments with a pride that enticed other marchers to participate. Jonathan Nemzer, 27, had never played a ukulele before. But he joined Ukes for Sanity on the spot after a Ukes member loaned him an instrument and taught him three simple chords.

Monday's March for Our Lives also had its musical groups, chanters, and singers. It drew an estimated 10,000 people, among them members of Rochester's Poor People United and Metro Justice, who'd stayed in the Brooklyn Bushville.

            The route snaked from a park near the United Nations building past New York institutions like the Gap and New York Sports Club. Several people on treadmills watched the march process by the Club's glass windows, prompting one marcher to comment, "They ain't poor; they don't care."

            The Monday march was spearheaded by the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, whose national coordinator, Cheri Honkala, marched with her two children. The Poor People's group had applied for a permit to march and been denied, but chose to march anyway. They'd also marched illegally during the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, where they were the only activist group to be denied a permit, Honkala said.

            That such a hodgepodge group would risk arrest together --- children, the elderly, people with disabilities --- sends a signal that "something must really be wrong," said Honkala.

            Also in Monday's march was South Wedge resident David Cox (who, when asked what he does for a living, said he's a "professional survivor"). Cox was protesting because of his concern about racial and economic divisions in the country, he said. Poverty, he said, is a direct result of the United States' racist past.

            "We never gonna have peace in this country if we don't have justice in this country," said Cox. "That's not just rhetoric. That's real. We've got to confront white racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. It doesn't work."

            Metro Justice organizer Jon Greenbaum, who had been sleeping in the Bushville tent city for several days, said the March for Our Lives was less about protesting the Republicans' presence in town and more about arguing for basic human rights.

            "Victory is not Kerry," said Greenbaum. "Victory is health care for all, access to education for all, affordable housing for all, and services that allow you to stay alive. We've got people who are dying because of the paucity of services."

            If Kerry wins, "we're going to have to work even harder to make sure he doesn't sell us out like Clinton did on welfare reform, NAFTA, and deregulation of the media," he said.

            Greenbaum talked at length during the march about what he considers the Bush administration's dismal record on poverty. He cited the Census Bureau report released a few days before the protest march, stating that the number of people in poverty rose by 1.3 million between 2002 and 2003.

            Things have been especially bad in MonroeCounty, said Greenbaum. Job-interview requirements for social-services aid are punitively high, he said. In addition, he said, the county has taken such a tough stand on assistance that Monroe has one of the state's highest rates of challenges brought by people who feel they've been unfairly denied services.

            "I'm hoping Maggie Brooks can undo some of the culture of punishment left over from the Doyle Administration," he said.

            Despite a scratchy-sandpaper voice, Greenbaum suddenly shouted, "Do you guys know 'Rich Man's House'?"

            "Yeah!" the people around him shouted back.

            Pleased that his fellow marchers knew this Civil Rights-era song, he began to sing:

            "Well, I went down to the rich man's house and I took back what he stole from me/ Took back my dignity/ Took back my humanity/ And now he's under my feet, under my feet, under my feet/ Ain't no system gonna walk all over me."

Read more on the Republicans in Manhattan in the following stories

Are we fit to vote? here!

'Bush is leading us toward facism' here!

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