Pictures at a Demonstration

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BUSH CULTURE REVIEW. Ditching Bush is the barebones prerequisite for slowing our disastrous trajectory. But if that comes to pass, will we seize that breathing space to go on the offensive toward a radical overhaul of our political and economic structures and social relations, or will we revert to complacency?

Maia Ramnath

Part One

Those who compose visual images are keenly aware of the messages in each detail. No component of the RNC's televised spectacular was random, from the color scheme (navy and tomato), to the spatial layout (including the continual reminder that the convention center lay "only a few miles from Ground Zero"), to the line-up of performers. Strength, simplicity. No ambiguity or nuance. Bold and bright. Downhome. America.

Not to be confused with that wonderland of glitz and consumption, this was the "New York" offered up to the delegates. Aside from their nightly prime-time TV spot, their taxing schedule consisted of a whirl of luncheons, dinners, golf games, Broadway shows, shopping sprees and soirees, hosted by the likes of Citibank, AT&T, TimeWarner, Coke, Pepsi, Pfizer, Rand. Yet even in that alternate NYC -- the one where the overwhelming majority of residents polled didn't oppose the RNC -- they couldn't escape persistent images of dissent in the form of ubiquitous street theater. Like the silver-phallused Missile-Dick Chicks in Times Square; or the charismatic preaching of Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping; or the cowboy-hatted Man In Black Bloc "defending the honor of Johnny Cash," as an icon of principled non-conformism usurped by the right. ("No Cash for the Rich!")

None of these images, extracted from its context, isolated, reproduced, captioned, can convey a rounded picture of the cascade of demonstrations on August 26-September 2. It would take thousands of pointillistic snapshots to approximate the reality. Either that or the panoramic view from the ever-present blimp cruising among the towers of mid-town, brought to you by Fuji Film and the NYPD. Yet all I have to offer, one pair of eyes among a multitude, is a handful of snapshots to be read.

Click: 10pm, Friday, August 27. 2nd Avenue and 9th Street. After 5000 bicycles roll through the heart of Manhattan, Critical Mass meets mass arrest. A crowd of onlookers has gathered for the first big show of the weekend. A bearded man hails me, concerned for the safety of the bikers. "Excuse me, are you an activist or a journalist? How long will they be held?" "I'm guessing they'll get processed right away," I speculate, "but that could still take at least 24 hours. The way the system works--" "Oh, I know something about the system!" he declares. "I was taken after 9/11. My mother and I both. I was in prison for 2 1/2 months, in Middlesex." I guess he does know something about the system. "I was in solitary confinement for, oh, a couple of weeks? No outside communication. They froze us in cold cells. My mother's heart has not been healthy since. We're Saudi." He makes wry jokes about his experience, coupled with astute political comments; a delightful conversation, until in the confusion I'm called aside. Rows of forlorn bicycles are piled on a flatbed truck and driven away. I've forgotten to ask him his name.

Click: 2pm, Sunday, August 29. 7th Avenue and 21st Street. Inside the human river of the United for Peace and Justice march you can't tell how long it is; just that there are densely packed bodies as far as you can see. Cops and organizers concur around the figure of half a million. I'm surrounded by the loose Anti-Imperialist Cluster, which includes the banner of APOC (Anarchist/Anti-authoritarian People of Color), the East Bay's Siafu coalition, a large Palestine solidarity contingent, and smaller contingents supporting Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico and other regions subject to hard or soft colonization. "Ain't no power like the power of the people 'cause the power of the people don't stop, say what?" "I can't do this chant," admits a woman next to me. "I hate to say it but I just don't believe that shit anymore. I've gotten too cynical." I suggest an alternative: "How about, I've gotten too cynical to believe this shit, but I'm still never gonna give up, say what?"

Click: 3pm, 6th Avenue and 34th Street. Waiting in front of Macy's, right-wing counter-protesters await. Their slick signs loom above the crowd, with slogans like "Trust in God and the Republican Party." "I love Bush and Jesus Christ" inscribed above stark silhouettes of tanks, missiles and M-16s. There you have it.

Click: 4pm, 5th Avenue and 32nd Street. Relentless sun beats down on the homestretch. The front of the march has reached the end while the tail hasn't even stepped out. Some seek relief at a deli along the route. Whether out of conviction or entrepreneurship, the gleeful proprietor shouts "Down with Bush!" each time he rings up a cold drink for a sweaty demonstrator.

Click: 6:30pm, Tuesday, August 31. South end of Union Square. When the text message appears on our cell phones for the fifteen-minute warning, we know where to go. Once the crowd has gathered to its boiling point, the street party erupts with uncompromisingly defiant exuberance. "Fuck Bush!" we shout with joyous abandon, dancing between two marching bands: Seattle's Infernal Noise Brigade in orange and silver reflective stripes, and the NY-based Rude Mechanical Orchestra in lime green and black, rocking the Monsoon Wedding theme. It doesn't last long. Such a carnival is threateningly unpredictable to the guardians of Law and Order; it must be stopped. The cops hurl a young man to the pavement. The band keeps playing. The cops encircle us, then methodically prod us inward with their sticks held lengthwise as if sweeping up trash. We stumble together, 200 bodies in a writhing heap. When the cops grab a few from the edge, we glom on to their arms and legs, grappling to keep them with us. We are then informed that we are all under arrest, and if we continue to resist, we'll be held three extra days. Later, when we're sitting in the road in handcuffs under a baleful floodlight, New York's Finest escort an elderly couple to their apartment within the blocked area. "Are you all proud of yourselves?" scolds the woman. "I'm proud of myself for standing up for my beliefs, ma'am," I call after her, feeling cheesy.

Part Two

Click: 11pm, Tuesday, August 31. Pier 57. Pens of chainlink and razor wire enclose a concrete floor where hundreds of people spend the night, soaked in motor oil and chemical residue. You've probably seen these pictures already. But as this set of images circulates, accumulating drama as it goes, I feel compelled to insist that public outrage should recognize wretched jail conditions as a norm, not an aberration.

Cue rant: The use of pre-emptive mass arrest to curtail free speech is a troubling attack on civil rights, one not to be taken lightly. Especially since inquiries by a mother in Hawaii trying to track down her arrested daughter reveal that this holding space may have been reserved and pre-paid by the RNC. But as far as "human rights" abuses go, the problem is not that the realities of incarceration were applied temporarily to the 1,800-plus people arrested at the RNC -- "normal people," in one arrestee's privilege-blinded lament -- but that these and far worse conditions are applied to anyone at all, routinely, long-term. OK. Fade out rant...and cut.

Click: 5pm, Wednesday, September 1. The Tombs, 100 Center street. Another row of holding cells; these have TVs caged high on the wall. We gather around, hungry for outside news, even through the corporate media filter. When the Health Gap/Act Up posse who went undercover as Young Republicans appears on the screen, being seized and carried out bodily from Madison Square Garden by the Secret Service, we whoop and applaud. Soon enough the heroes of the evening join us in custody, charged with felony assault and incitement to riot. According to an intelligent and personable Columbia student and AIDS activist, one of my cellmates for the night, what happened was that a minute into White House spokesperson Andrew Card's policy speech, they stood on on their chairs with signs to shout their message. At which point the Young Republicans went ballistic: hitting, flailing and clawing at their clothes to pull them down. "What I'd like to know," asks another curious cellmate, as the story unfolds, "is what in the world did you and the Young Republicans talk about before you revealed yourselves?" "Beer," she answers.

Click: 9pm, Thursday, September 2. 7th Avenue and 15th Street. Knots of heavily armed cops mass on every street corner. Helicopters roar overhead. Dubya has touched down for a whistle-stop acceptance speech. Freshly liberated, I've joined the multitudes perched like birds in windows and fire escapes, waving and cheering as a final burst of protesters streams below, until the tail-end police escort has disappeared around the corner. Now I can't see them, but I can hear them: they still have freedom of speech, even if qualified and truncated. But does anyone else hear when we speak? If a voice bears no substantive weight in public discourse, how real is its freedom?

I'm left with a fanned stack of mental snapshots and that tenacious fake tattoo from the People's Law Collective on my arm. But I'm also left with a series of questions. Like, what's next?

Cue next rant: Despite the popular upsurge against this administration's deplorable domestic agenda and suicidal foreign policies, Bush's numbers have risen in the polls since the convention. If he wins, will there be riots? If the election is clearly fraudulent, as in his first term, I'd almost guarantee it. And if he wins by an apparently legitimate margin? Must I fear democracy in a far-right state, just as the imperial administration fears democracy in the countries it occupies, lest the popular majority defy its wishes? Elections alone won't save us: majority support does not make inequity or imperialism acceptable.

And if Kerry wins? Will we then be content to settle for a neoliberal program of softer imperialism and slower decline? Ditching Bush is the barebones prerequisite for slowing our disastrous trajectory. But if that comes to pass, will we seize that breathing space to go on the offensive toward a radical overhaul of our political and economic structures and social relations, or will we revert to complacency?

Maia Ramnath is a graduate student at University of California - Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2004 by Maia Ramnath. All rights reserved.

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