Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Protesters sing in St. Mark’s in the Bowery’s churchyard before the start of the Republican National Convention.

St. Mark’s Counter Convention ends; no grave impacts seen

By Lincoln Anderson

As the last stragglers from the Republic National Convention were leaving town this week, protesters who participated in the “Counter Convention” at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery were doing the same. During the R.N.C., the famously progressive East Village church opened its doors and its churchyard to provide a sanctuary for protesters from out of town.

During the convention, St. Mark’s, at 10th St. and Second Ave., allowed its east churchyard, which is also the city’s oldest burial ground, to be used for a free food program by Seeds for Peace. Gas tanks for cooking and serving tables filled part of the yard, while the rest was left for people to hang out. There was also nightly entertainment in the yard by musical bands.

Last Sunday afternoon, the yard was empty except for a few young protesters who looked to be cleaning things up. One group sat outside the church’s fence by Abe Lebewohl Park making plans to depart. One of them dozed on the sidewalk, in front of him a cardboard panhandler-type sign saying “I Need America.”

Asked about her protest experience or if she’d been arrested, one young woman, saying she was from Minnesota, declined comment.

“I don’t really have a sound bite,” she said.

The St. Mark’s protesters have been guarded with the media. Signs in the churchyard warned “No Press” and that photographing wasn’t permitted.

Although no one else raised the complaint, a local photographer and gallery owner said he was concerned the churchyard’s historic grave markers were taking a beating.

“Those are limestone tombstones — those are not meant to be trampled,” said Clayton Patterson last week. “I’m surprised the church is allowing it. They’ve got tables set up in there. I don’t even think anyone knows it’s a graveyard. These people are from out of town.”

However, one church official said she had been in the churchyard the Friday night before the convention and no one was dancing on the grave markers.

“This is part of our ministry and our teachings, that we are opposed to war and support peace,” said Marti Mackenzie, the church’s warden, on why they let the protesters use the church and yard.

The yard is normally open to the public for reading, tai chi and other activities.

Asked his take on the grave markers issue, Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, said he would “uncharacteristically” refrain from commenting.

St. Mark’s has a long and proud tradition of liberalism. In the 1950s, it was one of the first churches in the city to have integrated services instead of separate services for blacks and whites.
A Villager reporter who had been in the churchyard the night of Sun. Aug. 29 after the big United for Peace and Justice march and observed brass bands playing to a packed audience, returned a week later during daylight. It was clear the protesters and band would have had to have been dancing on grave markers, unless they had done a serpentine conga line around them — which they had not. The markers dot the ground about every 8 ft. Where the leader of the Infernal Noise Brigade had been singing into a megaphone in the center of the yard a week before was the Winthrop family vault, featuring a large, raised brass cross.

However, Keith Crandell, a member of St. Mark’s Church and Community Board 2, noting a relative of his is buried in one of the vaults under the yard, said he didn’t mind it being used for an anti-R.N.C. mini-Woodstock.

“Are you kidding? Not at all,” he said.

Sitting on a bench in Abe Lebewohl Park last Sunday, Sky Williamson, 42, with his wife, Patty, 37, from North Carolina, wondered about the young people leaving the churchyard.

“Do you know what’s going on in there?” he asked. “I would think St. Mark’s had set up the yard so anarchists could stay in there during the Republican National Convention. There looked to be a whole bunch of road folk in there.”

Williamson said apart from the 1,800 arrests, no strong message of social activism from the protests made it to North Carolina. A Green philosophically, Williamson said this time he’s backing John Kerry, not Ralph Nader.

“Last time I made a protest vote. This time I’m not throwing away my vote,” he said. “I’m voting for the candidate who can beat Bush.”

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