It was a lot like a Johnny Cash song.
On one side of the street, wearing their suits and gowns, were the rich and powerful celebrating the renominations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
On the other side of the street, dressed in black, were the not-so-rich and not-so-powerful folks who didn't see much to celebrate in the news from this week's Republican National Convention.
There was a partisan divide, to be sure, outside the Sotheby's auction house Tuesday. But the real divide was over the legacy of Cash, the legendary country singer who died last year at the age of 71.
Protesters outside a reception for Tennessee Republicans celebrating the late Johnny Cash at Sotheby's in New York Tuesday August 31, 2004. The protesters objected to Johnny Cash being used for political purposes by the Republicans. Sotheby's will be having an auction of Johnny Cash memorabilia in late September. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
The American Gas Association and the Nissan Motor Co. had arranged a swank party to honor Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and his state's delegation to the Republican convention. And, since the event was being held at Sotheby's, which will be auctioning Cash memorabilia in mid-September, it was decided to make the event a "tribute" to the singer.
To a lot of Cash fans, however, that sounded like claiming that the Man in Black was a Republican.
And those were fighting words for folks who recall that it was Cash who sang: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/ Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he's a victim of his times."
The notion that the man who wrote those words would be used to promote the reelection of a Republican president did not sit well with Erin Siegel, a 22-year-old art student from Brooklyn, who urged Cash fans to gather across from Sotheby's Tuesday afternoon. "A lot of his political songs really represented issues the Republicans don't really seem to care about very much," she explained.
"I find this really offensive, for his name or his memory to be used like this," Siegel added.
Cash's daughter, singer Rosanne Cash, seemed to agree. She issued a statement declaring that the family wanted everyone to know that the event should "NOT be seen as a show of support for the Republican agenda."
Siegel and Rosanne Cash were not alone. Urged on by the www.defendjohnnycash.org website--with a manifesto declaring, "Johnny Cash spoke for the poor and under-represented. This administration speaks for the rich," and "The RNC has no right to tarnish the memory of Johnny Cash. We will rise up to defend an American hero"--hundreds of Cash fans showed up to protest outside Sotheby's.
They wore black and they carried guitars, a sea of New York cowboys and cowgirls singing, "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" and, of course, "Man In Black."
The Republican delegates attending the Sotheby's event were unimpressed. They hustled quickly into the auction house, some of them scowling at the critics--especially when the crowd in black started chanting "graverobbers" and "Bush out of NYC. Cash hated prisons and so do we."
As it happened, protest outside Sotheby's did not grow the prison population much. While hundreds of activists were arrested Tuesday as part of direct action protests against the Republicans, the men and women in black tended more toward loud recitations of Cash's anti-Vietnam war lines from "Man in Black," as well as the singer's observation that "things need changin' everywhere you go."
So which side of the street would Cash have chosen?
New Yorker Sander Hicks, a book publisher who wore his black with pride, had no doubt.
"Johnny Cash knew which side he was on," said Hicks, a fierce Bush critic. "So do we."
Copyright © 2004 The Nation