Streets of Rage

How George Bush and his Republicans mobilized half a million people

All week in the host city, his name was a curse on the lips of hundreds of thousands.

It was the first word of the opening act in a week of protests, chanted singsong by 80 marchers who had trooped 250 miles from the Democratic convention in Boston to New York, arriving Thursday night. "Yo-ho, yo-ho, Bush has got to go-oh!" they cried, as they strode down Broadway under a luminous three-quarter moon and the piercing searchlight of a police helicopter.

Five thousand free-spirited bike riders flung his name into the night on Friday, screaming "No more Bush!" at the midtown canyons as they madly tried to outpedal the cops. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, an encampment of poor people from Philadelphia, a delegation without credentials here to present its grievances, set up its tents in a vacant lot off Nostrand Avenue and dubbed it "Bushville."

Sequined protester aboard Staten Island Ferry
photo: Cary Conover
Sequined protester aboard Staten Island Ferry

In Williamsburg on Saturday, diners at Fabiane's Café on Bedford Avenue stood and applauded 50 weary souls, many of whom had walked from Long Island's East End chanting "Drop Bush, not bombs." That evening, at the still-gaping open wound that was the World Trade Center, hundreds of people rang bells, saying they wanted to heal the pain of 9-11 and drown out the echoes of his administration's bombs.

Sunday, in the largest protest march seen here in 20 years, thousands of placards and banners brandished his name, as half a million people angrily denounced him. His image was depicted goateed and swathed in head scarves, dubbed "The Real Terrorist." A half-dozen presidential imitators walked the streets, one dressed in a "Mission Accomplished" flight suit, another with silver duct tape wound around him, holding this sign: "Protect America with duct tape." His face leered out of a thousand posters reading, "He Lied. They Died."

Some were more personal. "Bush lied, my son died," said the sign carried by Al Zappala, 64, of Philadelphia, who this spring buried his adopted son, Sherwood, a National Guardsman killed in Iraq.

During the week, protesters hung the president's name off the Plaza Hotel, floated it with balloons into the starry ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, and draped it across Brooklyn rooftops so that sightseeing conventioneers couldn't escape the near-universal outrage he has engendered in this, the host city. As the first contingent of Sunday's marchers neared the convention site at heavily guarded Madison Square Garden, a burst of pink taffeta, shaped into a giant woman's slip, emerged from the roof of a 20-story building. "Bush lied, fire him," it read, as demonstrators cheered and waved.

Scores of cardboard coffins draped in American flags and carried shoulder-high by marchers were backed up in the throng along Seventh Avenue. A pair of Brooklyn men, film animator Michael de Seve and designer John Lake, had created the coffins after deciding that something needed to be done.

"This is the picture they tried to suppress," said de Seve, 41, whose work includes the Beavis and Butt-head film. "People haven't been able to see the cost of this war. Here is the invoice."

The arrival of George Bush and his Republicans in New York churned the city into a frenzy of events, some zany, some dangerous, some solemn. A few, like Sunday's long-contested march organized by the coalition group United for Peace and Justice, represented an unprecedented, massive display of Bush condemnation.

All week, people have invoked his name in anger and ridicule in documentaries, art shows, poetry readings, even die-ins, all part of the convulsion of creative dissent that his presidency has unintentionally unleashed.

As George W. Bush steps forward on the red, white, and blue stage at the Garden this week to accept his party's nomination, he will claim many accomplishments for his first term in office. There is one, however, he will never mention: that fear and hatred of his regime have managed to turn even ordinary Americans into full-fledged activists committed to his ouster, while at the same time regalvanizing a progressive movement in American politics that had sputtered along for years without clear direction.

Bush in effigy
photo: Cary Conover
You didn't have to go far to see how he has changed people. It was right there in the East Village, at Fourth Avenue and 12th Street, in the windows of Gary Orioli's florist shop. For 15 years, Orioli, from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the son of a construction worker with cousins on the police force, managed to run a successful business while reviling the prevailing political climate around him.

"When 9-11 happened and there were all these kids up there at Union Square singing 'Give Peace a Chance' and lighting candles, I was so furious at them. I said, 'Look at these punks, they don't even know what's going on.' I thought it was so anti-American, I wanted to get in my van and just drive over them. My first reaction after the attacks was just, 'Let's nuke whoever did this. Just blow them all up.' "

Today, every inch of Orioli's corner shop windows is taken up by news clippings of Bush misdeeds and anti-administration stickers. The table out front where he lays his fresh roses is decorated with ads for protest marches. A color photo of Bush under the headline "Wanted for Crimes Against Humanity" occupies the center of the table. Orioli's only hesitation about joining this week's protests was his twin seven-year-old daughters, who worried he would be arrested or injured.

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