NEW YORK - St. Mark's Episcopal Church at 10th Street and 2nd Ave. was a
vibrant, bustling hive of activity during the Republican National Convention.
Originally billed as the Wellness Center -- a space for injured or exhausted
protesters to relax and receive medical attention -- it became an ad-hoc
convergence center, a place for organizers and protesters to meet, be fed,
attend workshops and generally lounge about.
I arrived to the jaunty strains of "Baraat,'' the theme tune from
"Monsoon Wed-ding.'' The Rude Mechanical Orchestra was banging away
rhythmically at their instruments, oblivious to the choppers grinding above,
to the cops eyeing them from the plaza's edge. Who in turn were being eyed by
green-capped National Lawyers' Guild observers.
"It's an important part of our ministry to welcome strangers," says Jerry
Long, who sits on St. Mark's Board of Directors. "We haven't taken a position
on any of the issues, but we sympathize with the struggle to improve the lot
of all peoples, especially the poor and oppressed."
Tens of thousands of protesters descended upon New York City last week
from all over the country for a final opportunity to demonstrate opposition to
the policies of the Bush administration -- policies which, as one placard
from Sunday's march said, "Leave no millionaire behind."
I came to New York from the Bay Area with my 20-person affinity group.
The affinity group forms the fundamental unit for organizing street-based
direct action, and we prepared for months to protest the Republican Convention.
New Yorkers' response was overwhelmingly warm -- we were repeatedly
thanked while marching, and even while sitting on the subway flanked by
What most impressed me, however, was the range of distinctly New York-
flavored expression. Picture guerrilla street theater, poetry slams, bike
workshops, Green festivals, yoga, Billionaires for Bush, and a Fox News Shut-
up-a-thon (take that, Bill O'Reilly!). The profound creativity of these
protests was a constructive response to the Bush-engendered general
disenfranchisement felt among progressives -- the majority of the U.S.
population that opposes the war in Iraq, which Bush called a "focus group,"
for example. The wide range of issues addressed by various protests --
preemptive war and the continuing occupation in Iraq, civil liberties, health
care, reproductive rights, the environment, unchecked corporate growth --
reflected the breadth of the Bush administration's attacks upon hard-won
The office of Homeland Security classified the convention a "national
security event," the Secret Service superseded the NYPD in taking charge of
the effort, and a total of 75 government agencies were enlisted for security
purposes. It was a response that blurred the boundaries between terror and
dissent. Helicopters, "frozen zones" (vast no-go areas), barricades and
undercover cops made for some very surreal moments in the Big Apple.
On Tuesday, I watched as the steps of the New York public library were
occupied by police warding off protesters -- and effectively trampling First
Amendment rights. I found myself warding off a grinning, eerily stereotypical
buzz-cut and sunglasses-bedecked Secret Service agent who spotted my notebook
and decided to preemptively question me.
"Do you know who organized this protest? Are you an organizer? Are you a
writer? Who are you writing for?"
I extricated myself and headed south to Herald Square, site of mass
action on what organizers dubbed "A31," a day for exercising the democratic
right of nonviolent civil disobedience in protest of the injustices of the
Bush administration. I could barely shoulder my way through. The streets were
packed with chanting protesters, and the police had effectively penned in
protesters and bemused New Yorkers alike with orange netting.
I watched as two Republican delegates wielding Starbucks coffees inched
uncomfortably through the crowd, getting heckled and -- not uncourageously -
- heckling right back. A smiling protester flung rose petals in their faces.
When I finally reconnected with my affinity group, I heard that six
members were arrested mere minutes after sitting down in the street, and were
handled roughly by police. Despite not resisting arrest, one woman was dragged
by the arm, another flung down on her chest.
We moved south, chanting as delegates drove past in massive chauffeured
SUVs: "Bush lies, thousands die. Are your kids fighting? Are your kids dying?"
A couple of convention attendees walking past ignored us. One woman,
flawlessly groomed, berated us mildly with a, "But this is so silly!" as she
passed. We must have looked less silly, I reflected, to the parents of the
nearly 1,000 American soldiers killed in Iraq. By evening's end, nearly that
many protestors would be placed under arrest.
Exhausted, we headed to Union Square, where consensus decision was
ceremoniously reached to go for a beer. We converged upon a bar in the East
Village, and called family and friends to touch base and assure them of our
"There are 25 people gathered in a small bar in Homer, Alaska," announced
my friend Dan. "They're watching on TV, and every time someone gets arrested,
they drink!" We laughed uproariously, and toasted those who were brave enough
to put their bodies on the line in defense of our collective rights.
The week was hugely inspiring. From the thousands marching through
Sunday's sweltering heat to the many smaller, assiduously-organized events all
over the city, the week served to carve out a space for grassroots democracy.
And this was in direct response to the convention of a party in power that has
consistently attempted to silence dissent as unpatriotic.
The week restored my faith in the power and imagination of this country's
grassroots. I leave New York inspired -- and ready to keep building.
Marisa Handler is writer, activist and musician who lives in San Francisco.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle