Volume 74, Number 19 | September 02 - 09 , 2004

On bikes, by bars, in graveyards and parks, doing the Bush bash

Villager photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio
As marchers passed Macy’s on 34th St., Vice President Cheney and FOX TV drew their wrath.

By Lincoln Anderson

“Methinks thou dost protest too much” was definitely not a Shakespearean line heard Downtown this week. From a “Redefeat Bush” sign in an apartment window in Silver Towers and a “Trust no Bush but your own” sign in Babes in Toyland’s store window on Rivington St. to “No to the Bush Agenda” stickers plastered on streets, lampposts, everywhere, the markers of dissent were not hard to miss. On-the-street protesting, however, concentrated at a few major locations.

Despite the early hype, Tompkins Sq. Park never turned out to be the epicenter of a Yippie “camporee” for thousands of protesters during the Republican National Convention. Young demonstrators gravitated instead to St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery on Second Ave., where they relaxed in between protests, drawn there by the offer of free food and entertainment.

Union Sq. — the gathering point for Friday night’s Critical Mass ride in which over 200 bikers were arrested and the scene of two false-alarm bomb scares — was also a center of action.

Also in the East Village, mask-wearing protesters trashed the street on Third Ave. and Seventh St. near McSorley’s on Monday night, where Governor Pataki and House Speaker Dennis Hastert attended a private party thrown by major military contractor Lockheed Martin.

For the lead up to and first day of the convention, Downtown was fairly calm, though Tuesday’s day of direct action brought a cascade of arrests, mainly in Midtown and at ground zero.

The week’s biggest protest event was the United for Peace and Justice march on Sunday, which organizers claimed had more than half a million people.

Leading the march were filmmaker Michael Moore and Reverend Jesse Jackson. Pausing at Madison Sq. Garden for 10 minutes, Moore, with an electric bullhorn, led the chant of “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!” “Bring the troops home!” Jackson shouted into the bullhorn.

Also in the lead contingent, Councilmember Margarita Lopez came prepared, with her golden City Council badge that “lets you go where they don’t want you to go.”

Among the group at the front was former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service.

“I do international development work now. So I know just how badly America is thought of all over the world,” she noted.

A contingent of Bush supporters near the Garden exchanged the finger and shouts with protesters. Showing not all Downtowners oppose the administration, Hilda Cruz, from W. 15th St. in Chelsea, was holding a “Proud of Bush” sign.

“Whether you like it or not — four more years!” she yelled at the crowd. “He has kept us secure in this country and no one can deny that,” said Cruz, originally from Cuba. “They’re dreaming. I feel bad for them,” she said of the protesters.

Rounding the corner of 34th St. where the Macy’s giant TV screen was tuned to FOX showing images of an “Afghan blast,” protesters bellowed at the top of their lungs “FOX sucks!”

A man on the sidelines on 34th St. holding a “Reelect Bush — Trust Jesus” sign was mobbed by protesters who shouted at him “Who would Jesus Bomb?!”

“It’s O.K. to help people,” explained Jeremiah Baldwin of North Carolina, the man with the sign.

Wearing a red T-shirt for Downtown for Democracy, a group mobilizing the arts community, a gay man, Dan Rothman, from 23rd St. and Ninth Ave., said his opposition is not because of one single issue.

“Yeah, he’s anti-gay,” Rothman, 32, said of Bush. “But it’s everything: the war, he stole the election, deregulation, environmental — you can’t pinpoint it to one.”

Marchers carried Smush Bush flyswatters bearing a Web site address, which they said they would check out when they got home.

“I just bought this,” said a woman from Italy, carrying a swatter. “I dislike this guy so much — I don’t care what it is.”

Afterwards, in a short rally using only an electric megaphone at the pavilion at Union Sq., Jackson urged people to “Keep hope alive.”

Leslie Cagan, U.F.P.J. national coordinator, congratulated everyone on a successful march.

“I see you all sweating out there. I bet you’re all as happy as I am that we didn’t go to the West Side Highway,” Cagan said, drawing a roar of approval.

At Union Sq., marshals wearing “Crowd Dispersal” tags asked marchers if they needed any directions or help in leaving the square.

However, at the south end of the square, Geoffrey Blank of the No Police State Coalition, in his usual spot, was speaking into an electric megaphone without a sound permit. Blank and his group are philosophically opposed to getting sound permits and permits to march in the street. In a well-choreographed maneuver, a police supervising officer in a white shirt moved in, plucked the microphone out of Blank’s hands and handcuffed him, after which they were quickly surrounded by a wall of 10-20 police in riot helmets, who ushered Blank to a waiting police wagon at the square’s southeast corner.

They were trailed by an angry crowd shouting “No Police State!” After a tense standoff, during which protesters and police aimed video cameras at each other, the tension defused.

Meanwhile, thousands of protesters from the U.F.P.J. march next made their way up to Central Park’s Great Lawn, for which the city had denied U.F.P.J. a permit for a rally.

Lopez, too, said she planned to go to the Lawn to “exercise my First Amendment rights.”

Among those trekking from the 1/9 subway stop at Broadway across 79th St. to the park were filmmaker Nancy Cohen and cartoonist Stefan Calabrese. Cohen, of 10th St. and Avenue A, who made a documentary on Abbie Hoffman, was stopping at an apartment building to pick up members of the Abbie Hoffman Brigade, including Hoffman’s wife, Johanna Lawrenson, and others who participated with Hoffman in the Chicago ’68 Democratic Convention protests. Cohen was carrying a “No More Bush” poster, featuring a woman shaving her private parts, her larger version of which had hung at Art Around on the Park at the HOWL! Festival in Tompkins Sq. the previous weekend.

“Unfortunately, the people I’m going with are thinking of going to the Bramble because it’s not shady over there,” she said of the Lawn.

At first there were only a few protesters at the southeast corner of the Great Lawn. Others, tired from the march and hike up to the park, crashed out on the perimeter under shade trees and had picnics. But soon the crowd in the corner began to spread. “Four more months!” they chanted, and “Whose park? Our park!” Carrying their ant-Bush and peace signs, people began streaming across the grass, feeding the growing protest amoeba. At its height, the protesters blanketed the southern half of the Lawn, with the number of protesters becoming more scattered the farther north one went.

Performance artist Reverend Billy Talen was officiating over “First Amendment marriages” on the edge of Belvedere Lake. Talen had the crowd repeat the First Amendment after him, and, repeat the words of former Judge Louis Brandeis on the amendment: “Liberty is the secret of happiness and courage is the secret of liberty.”

“The First Amendment is not that solid. It gets attacked by power — it fades,” Billy said, referring to times in America’s past when habeas corpus was suspended.

Jenna Passutino, a graphic artist, and Avra Cohen, a cabinetmaker, from Perry St., on bicycles, said they had wanted to join up with a Time’s Up! bike bloc, but couldn’t find them and then thought better of it.

“We were looking for the bike group, but a guy at Seventh Ave. on a recombinant bike told us 40 of them had been arrested today,” said Passutino, who looked to be fiftyish and said she has participated in Critical Mass rides in the past. After the mass arrests of the Critical Mass on Friday night, though, she said she’d have to think twice about participating in the rides in the future.

Although there was no soundstage or formal rally, several people said they didn’t want to hear “boring speeches” anyway and that there were so many issues that the rally would have been too diffused. People seemed to have no problem entertaining themselves and finding things to do. Providing a focal point was the East Village’s Hungry March Band, a brass ensemble from the East Village, around which dancers spun. Nearby masked members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade made pronouncements against the system. Someone started the idea of forming a “No Bush” sign in “people letters” on the north end of the Lawn, “for the helicopters.” But by the time the idea reached execution, it had become a peace sign and there were no longer any helicopters in sight. Thurston Howell, IV, a Billionaire for Bush traipsing by, offered the sort of sardonic comment for which the street-theater group is known.

“People here don’t realize we’re going to privatize the park,” he said. “It’s nice to see them enjoying their last few moments.”

As darkness fell, protesters gradually left the Lawn, police putting metal gates in position to block them from returning.

There were actions at Republican functions at the park’s Boathouse and at Lincoln Center, but many young people returned to St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, where tired from protesting they got free food from Seeds for Peace (beef ravioli, potatoes, vegetables and cabbage) and crashed out on the ground in the church’s east churchyard. Inside the church, there was another First Amendment sermon by Reverend Billy — after which free copies of the Constitution were handed out, followed by the entertainment of the Infernal Noise Bridge, a futuristic Brazilian brass band from Seattle, in the east churchyard. Inside, a housing placement service was finding last-minute lodgings for out-of-town protesters, though a volunteer at the table said by then the people coming in were mainly just “crusties,” or homeless drifter punks. A detox tent in the church’s other, or west, courtyard has been set up for protesters to wash off mace or tear gas, if needed.

Sarah Croteau, a young teacher sitting in Abe Lebewohl Park outside the church, said she was waiting to pick up two protesters from Alabama.

“It’s for a good cause, so I don’t mind,” she said.

For several months, the church has been a center of organizing against the R.N.C., including monthly No R.N.C. Clearinghouse meetings at which assorted protest groups, from Time’s Up! bikers to Ringout, met and shared their plans. Leading up to and during the R.N.C., the historic church has been the site of the “Ten Days of Celebration and Sanctuary,” including events from a discussion on anarchy to a drum circle by the Radical Faeries to on Sept. 2 a talk by former “Chicago 7” member Tom Hayden.

Last Sunday night, a knot of undercover police stood on the corner of 11th St. outside the church, their new, unmarked Italian mopeds parked at the curb.

“We feel we’re providing a sanctuary, especially to the out-of-town protesters and the protesters who need resources this week,” said Marti Mackenzie, the church’s warden, or number two minister, noting that promoting peace is part of the church’s spiritual mission.

However, Clayton Patterson, a Lower East Side photographer, disapproved of the churchyard’s use for cooking and dancing, noting it is a burial ground, with historic grave markers, under which Peter Stuyvesant himself is buried. The church is on the site of the original Stuyvesant family chapel and is the city’s oldest burial ground, and as such the city’s oldest religious site.

But Mackenzie said when she was there Friday night, the protesters were not dancing on the grave markers. Most of the activity is happening in two dirt-covered spaces in the yard, she said. The protesters have to leave the church at 11 p.m. at night and cannot sleep in the yard, which opens again in the mornings.

Associate Pastor Michael Relyea noted that the burial vaults are deep underground.

“We feel that since this is one of the few open spaces in the neighborhood that we have to allow it to be used,” said Relyea. “We don’t think it’s inappropriate to have the space open for the public. This is a special situation that’s only going to last a few days.”

While St. Mark’s has been a hub of activity, Tompkins Sq. Park has been calm, so calm, in fact, that last Sunday night around 11 p.m. one could hear a pin drop inside the empty park. The only person “camping out” was a homeless man slumped outside the fence on Seventh St. near Avenue A, who probably wasn’t following the R.N.C. goings-on too closely.

“What happened is St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery allowed a soup kitchen. There’s nothing happening in Tompkins Sq.,” said John Penley, who with Aron Kay, “The Yippie Pie Man,” had applied for a camping permit for 2,500 people for the park, but was denied.

“Every night that place gets packed,” Penley said of the church. “The park has been totally quiet — way too quiet for my taste.”

It’s possible some of the St. Mark’s group may have participated in the trashing of Third Ave. before the Lockheed Martin party at McSorley’s. Benjamin Treuhaft, 56, a piano tuner who lives by the bar, said he had noticed the place set up for the party and had mentioned it to a young man passing by who said he was from the group hanging out at the church. Soon afterward, a crowd materialized on Third Ave. making a tremendous din until police chased them off. Treuhaft himself grabbed a “Bush Lies” sign he found in his hallway and joined the protest. “Someone left it — it seemed appropriate,” he said.

The party didn’t start until after the convention, and apparently the G.O.P.’ers throroughly enjoyed McSorely’s, as the party reportedly went on till 3 a.m. Sounding tired, a man who answered the phone at the historic tavern Tuesday confirmed it had been a “long” night.

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