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Protest? What Protest?
Published on Wednesday, September 1, 2004 by In These Times
Protest? What Protest?
by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

Amid crystal chandeliers and filet mignon appetizers, South Carolina's delegates munched and mingled just hours after hundreds of thousands of protestors demonstrated against their presence in New York's hot summer streets.

"I spent all day trying to find the protestors," said one delegate in a phone interview earlier in the day. "I think they've overestimated the numbers." The organizers, he predicted, are going to be "disappointed."

When asked about the march, some delegates looked puzzled, saying they only saw a few protestors. A California delegate said in a phone interview that most of the demonstrators "are just here to see what's going on..There aren't necessarily here to protest."

The protestors' idealism is "completely wrong," said another South Carolina delegate. "What do you do when a madman kills 3000 Americans?" he said.

Denial clearly runs deep in the Bush camp.

The Guardian reported 250,000 people attended Sunday's march. Protestors stretched for two miles, according to The New York Times. One officer, they reported, said it looked like half a million people.

No matter what the exact number -- this is clearly not a group of a few extremists, as some delegates tried to convince themselves. Protestors were grandparents, teachers, teenagers, gay rights advocates, 9/11 victims and union organizers. A large contingent of veterans marched along with Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out, an anti-war group for military families. As the chant goes: This is what democracy looks like.

"For a couple hours, the streets were ours," one demonstrator told me.

While the protest was ultimately successful, the city and activists fought for months about where the protest was to be held. At first United for Peace and Justice agreed to march along the West Side Highway. Then they fought to have a rally in Central Park. Finally a compromise was reached and protestors were permitted to march on a route that took them right by the delegates' hotels, ending in Union Square. Despite a tense build-up and rumors that thousands would be arrested, city officials, protestors and delegates agreed the day had been peaceful.

Four years ago the demonstrators were not as well received in Philadelphia. The police preemptively swept up demonstrators at the RNC. Along with hundreds of other peaceful protestors, I was arrested and detained until the convention was over. Thankfully this year the overwhelming majority of protestors were allowed to demonstrate. (About 200 people were arrested.) In fact several delegates said the protest hadn't bothered them, with the exception of some name calling on Sunday when they left a Broadway show.

Most delegates and alternates I met this week said they respected the protestors' right to rally. The California delegate I spoke with said he had to walk a few blocks out of the way. A minor inconvenience for preserving the demonstrators' freedom of speech, he said.

A delegate from Missouri said he watched "Billionaires for Bush" perform and found it entertaining. He thought it was "neat" and "catchy." However, he said, the protestors are "uninformed."

"There's a lot of democrats with a lot of free time over the next few days [who will] hang out and try to cause trouble," a Bush supporter said. "We won't let a few malcontents spoil our good time."

Another delegate said she saw the march from her hotel room window, which looks out on Central Park. The protestors looked "very harmless."

No matter how loud we scream, the Bush camp only hears a murmur. But we don't march for them.

We march to show the world our president doesn't represent us. We march to tell our soldiers we want them home now. We march to tell our veterans we want our government to take care of them, not slash their benefits. We march to tell our young people we don't want their lives sacrificed at the almighty altar of oil. We march to tell ourselves that even though Bush doesn't listen, voters do.

The author is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism working on a book about military families and veterans who oppose the Iraq war.

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© 2004 In These Times


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