3:00 AM, 3/24/03
BBC radio is on the air, debka
is open in another window. Make sure you always read buzzflash
March 22: I stepped out of the 14th Street stop at Union Square and into the anti-war march sponsored by United for Peace and Justice, heading south from 42nd Street. "No war for oil! No war for oil! No war for oil!" I was half-hungover, tired, I had to pee, and I swept up in procession that filled Broadway. "No war for oil! No war for oil!" We were 6 blocks from the rally point at Washington Square. It was just the beginning of a long afternoon.
As we rounded the corner onto Washington Square, a police van with loudspeakers mounted on its roof delivered a recorded message. "You have reached the end of the march. The march is now over. Please leave the area in an orderly fashion, so that your fellow marchers may end their march as well." The procession however had achieved critical mass. The organizers shouted that we had reached 1,000,000 people that day, referring to the march from its root at 42nd Street. I had missed that, but what we had here had at the very least taken over the entire square, in the park, on the sidewalk and packing the street. People continued to pile into the block, and we were stopped on MacDougall Street by a garrison of police officers standing at the corner of Washington Place. The people tried to push through, but the cops held the line. I was standing behind the low iron fence that surrounds the outer perimeter of the park, moving from the grass to the crowd in the street, taking as many photos as I could. People were tense, energized, and confrontational. Many prepared for civil disobedience, and the mood was getting tense. They were chanting, screaming. "This is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like!" "Let us through! Let us through! Let us...""NYPD We know you, We remember Amadou..." and at the first thrust by the police "SHAME!" SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!"
The police began an aggressive push north up Macdougal, forming clusters in the street like soldiers in Viet Nam movies, forcing protestors onto the sidewalks. Suddenly, there was a push from the cops on the curbs into the crowd lining the park. I dived over the fence face-first to avoid getting grabbed. I was able to get some good shots then-- the view of the police forcing their way through the crowd was perfect.
Then, "Let 'im through, let him through!" and a kid shrieking and holding his eyes fell through the crowd as his friends began pouring water in his eyes. Was it pepper spray? Mace? And who sprayed it? I had spotted him in the crowd earlier, and now there was some kind of film all over his cheeks, and his eyes were tearing up. Two or three people flushed his eyes from their water bottles, as another held his eyes open. About 10 of us were crowding in snapping photos. Suddenly he stood up and smiled broadly. "Dude, are you ok?" I asked him, and he said, "Yup, holy shit!" and then he ran off into the crowd whooping.
I took photographs of a kid no older than 16thrown to the ground by plainclothesmen, and hauled off, and another half dozen arrested for civil disobedience. Another protestor doused with pepper spray or mace. People were getting angry, and I began to seriously worry that there might be a riot. "41 SHOTS 41 SHOTS 41 SHOTS 41 SHOTS KNOW YOU WE REMEMBER AMADOU NYPD WE KNOW YOU WE REMEMBER AMODOU NYPD" and then ominously, "FUCK THE PIGS FUCK THE PIGS FUCK THE PIGS FUCK THE 41 SHOTS 41..." A water bottle flew into the crowd of police and protestors confronting on the street, and then another, followed a sign.
The police again surged up Macdougall, and the protestors were pushed back as someone committed another act of civil disobedience. Cameras flashed as men and women of all ages were led away by the police. "SHAME SHAME SHAME SHAME."
I continued on my path, winding in and out of the street, the sidewalk and the park. The noise was overwhelming, like thunder reverberating off the stone faces of the browstones. and it as hard to express this intensity in writing as it was to take it all in. The police were slowly but surely taking over the street, this was clear, forcing everyone onto the sidewalk and into the park, but for the moment we had them outnumbered and surrounded them on all sides. "Attention Police!" someone deadpanned into a bullhorn. "You are surrounded... with love. Lay down your weapons and you prepare to be hugged!" Not for long. From the south and the west more and more cops piled up MacDougall.
I moved over to the north side of the park, where the action was getting heavy. The police made another push into the crowd ahead of them, and there were more civil disobedience arrests. At the northwest corner of the park, three protestors were watching the action from high in a tree. "What do you see?" I called up. "They're bringing in mounted police from the south, I can see 'em coming!" In front of the advancing police was someone claiming to be a parade organizer with a bullhorn. "We have had a great march! One million of you have come! We have showed them what we are made of, but now it is time to leave! Please go before we are arrested." Someone ran out from the crowd and confronted him. "Who the hell do you think you are? Stop telling people to leave, these people want to be arrested and want to make their point! Stop discouraging them!" I began to wonder if the guy with the bullhorn was a police plant. The cops were advancing quickly now, so I hopped over the fence, and back onto the sidewalk, where I was face to face with a line of police in riot gear. Some looked really angry, scary burly caveman types, while others took a more easygoing approach, talking with the protestors during what could hardly be called lulls. One, Officer Coppola was gamely getting berated by a protestor. "Oh right, right," he said in deep Brooklynese. "So you think I'm ugly. Hey guess, what? I know I'm ugly. Tell me something I didn't know." He was taking the abuse with good humor. "Hey, this rally was supposed to be over an hour ago. All I want to do is go home and watch the game." "You know, this is taking away necessary resources. What if an old lady has a heart attack or something? You people oughta think about that. I mean, it doesn't matter if I have a heart attack, I know all you will give me CPR, right?" "Sure, officer, we'll help you. We'll drag you over to the hospital around the corner." "See?" said Copolla, with a sardonic grin, "we can be friends. Hoorah!"
I found myself, in a moment of relative calm, face to face with Officer MacDougall, who looked like comedian Ben Stein if Ben Stein was a 6' 5" cop armed to the teeth in full riot gear. "I know you have a job to do, officer," I said. "And I know this protest is a pain in your ass, and that things are extreme right now. But I want you to remember one thing. In 2004, when the vote comes again, I want you to remember who's cutting your budget. I read the New York Times, and you and I both know that Mr. Bush has made no provision for you 'first responders'. If, God forbid, there is another terrorist attack in NY, you and your colleagues in the fire department will be the ones rushing in to save lives, and Bush has provided you with none of the resources you need. The mayor is in Washington pleading for money, and nothing's coming. So remember: we protestors may be a pain in the ass, but the administration is stabbing you in the back just as badly as he's stabbing us. We have different jobs to do, but we are all in the same boat here at the end of the day. Just remember that in 2004 when you vote."
I continued east up the street, where I came to the intersection of Washington Square North and 5th Avenue, where the marchers were still standing off to the civil affairs officers. A huge crowd had gathered around them, and behind the line of police and the line of marchers, many people had sat down in the middle of the street. "A little old lady is holding off the cops, you gotta see this!" I pushed my way into crowd, and there she was, a tiny little woman with white hair that matched her sweatshirt and thick glasses, shaking her finger angrily at the police. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but it was clear that the police were getting a good scolding. "Think she'll get arrested?" someone asked. "Naah, I think the cops know that dragging that old lady off would make some people really angry." This comment set off a volley of "leave that old lady alone! leave that old lady alone!" The loudspeaker van pulled up behind the police. "The march is over. Leave now or you will be arrested. You may gather in the park if you like. The march is over..." From the east, another group of police on horseback were making their way up the street. A cop with a bullhorn repeated the demand: disperse or face arrest. Behind me, a group of hippies were dancing and singing, playing drums, buckets, and anything else they could get their hands on, chanting peace slogans. A cop began to push us backwards into the crowd, "You have to get off the streets, and get off NOW, but we were packed together and no one could move. "Officer," I said, "I'd like to move, but there's a disco dance going on behind me, there's only so much I can do." The cop looked up at the writhing hippies and chuckled. "Yeah, alright alright. But you guys have to start clearing the street. Come on now!" That's when I noticed that all egress paths were blocked by a wall of blue. Someone said "They did this in Seattle, they corralled everyone and told the protestors to leave, but packed them so tight that no one could escape and everyone was arrested." I took advantage of my small size again, and wormed my way through the crowd so I would be far enough from the police to avoid arrest, but not so far as to miss any photo opportunities. The old woman scolding the police was finally allowed to leave, escorted by the press and legal observers. The crowd of people sitting in the street began to grow. The police began closing in further. The recording on the speaker truck changed. "The rally is over. Leave now or you WILL be arrested." I skirted the contingent sitting in the street to the north side, where I met more police, but also a potential escape route.
I watched from the sidelines as the paddy wagon pulled in. A line of police followed, wielding zip-strips and batons. the arrests were going to begin any minute. Behind me, police. In front of me, police. At all sides, police, and Washington Square filled with angry demonstrators.
It was then truly over. As the two groups of police finally met we were herded out of the Square, choking the streets in our wake. We turned right at the first intersection, where police on mopeds blocked all but one sidewalk. Someone began singing "Send In the Clowns" as the cops buzzed up the street, and bit by bit, the crowd disappeared into the night. We had held up the city for 3 hours longer than they'd expected.
I wrote this article because I believe that in general the news has not given the protests the attention they deserve. While you often get the insider's view of what it's like to be inside the Bush administration or with the troops, the news tends to present the protestors as outsiders.