Friday, September 17, 2004

Whose Streets?
Our Streets, Until 5 p.m.!

I haven't written about being in New York during the Republican National Convention because the city and the cops did such an effective job of making it a non-story. Thousands of people standing in place or marching from one prescribed street to another -- the kind of directionless anger that makes intelligent would-be protesters frustrated.

And of course, there were the massive, mostly preemptive arrests. New York is a police state, and that weekend was simply the most visible manifestation of that inescapable fact.

police state
A state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the people, especially by means of a secret police force.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

I disagree with that definition partially, as every Marxist worth his salt knows that repressive states stay in power through fear and explicit displays of State power every now and then. A Secret Police force is well and good, but basically useless unless people are aware of it and have some understanding of its power.

On the final night of the festivities at Madison Square Garden, I was standing on 6th Ave a couple blocks away from the convention site. 50,000 people were standing around with me, many with signs or funny costumes. Then, a couple hundred uniformed police in full riot gear stormed in from all sides. Not much happened. As George Bush accepted his nomination, 50,000 people tried to figure out if things were going to get ugly or if they should go home. The futility of the whole enterprise hung in the air, unspoken but palpable.

In the end, in four days, 1,781 protesters were arrested. That doesn't sound like that much, really -- but consider that in the same few days, only 3,620 people were arrested in all of New York City. All five fucking boroughs. And there was no real violence or destruction of property by protesters at any of the events. They even did as they were told and stayed off the Great Lawn. And the arrested protesters, as detailed partially in this article and in better detail in recent Village Voice pieces, were detained without charges for days, kept in lockdown without access to lawyers and without regard for civil liberties.

But, hey. Let's be reasonable. They were kept off the streets for a few days, out of trouble, for their own good. It wasn't that bad at Pier 57. No one was raped or abused, the food was more or less edible, and everyone agrees that a few toes must be stepped on in the name of order and keeping New York safe for tourists and others with income to be disposed of. The right of public dissent and civil disobedience is secondary to the right of the rich and powerful to be comfortable and unhassled.

Fuck. I would have preferred a repeat of Chicago '68 to the four-day self-righteous bullshit session we got. It was simply more proof that the left is perfectly happy to be marginalized and ignored as long as no waves are made. Go ahead and step on us. We may express our disapproval on a clever sign, held aloft on a Police-sanctioned cardboard tube, and marched down the street we applied to the city for permission to borrow for an afternoon. Stifle dissent, will you? Why, we may have to file a suit with the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services!

If I have a point in this post, it is this: that if we want to change the direction of this country through channels other than electoral politics or the mass media, we will have to be prepared to do a bit more than chant.

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