Streets of Rage

How George Bush and his Republicans mobilized half a million people

The mainstream media had already highlighted a handful of alleged anarchists in town to spark mayhem, and they appeared hungry for more. The cameras were pulled, magnet-like, to scenes like the fiery papier-mâché dragon that briefly marred Sunday's march, allegedly torched by an anarchist group. But the bigger news story for a nation in the midst of a bitter electoral battle may have been the overwhelming number of events in New York, sparked by a righteous anger at Bush's administration.

On Saturday morning, 25,000 people streamed across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of a march organized by women's groups to protest Bush's anti-abortion policies. The protesters brought a sense of fashion—pink tank tops, pink feather earrings, even hot-pink fishnet stockings—and a sense of history. Brooklyn residents Sherryann Simon and Juliet Wilson walked alongside their five- and seven-year-old nieces, Tatyana and Kayan. "I don't know if they're old enough to understand this now," said Simon, "but in the future, we might have a conversation with them about women's rights and say, 'Remember walking over the Brooklyn Bridge that hot day?' "

That afternoon, another group of people marched elsewhere in Brooklyn. A cluster of tired walkers from Long Island arrived at McCarren Park in Greenpoint, then headed to Continental Army Plaza in Williamsburg. This march had started August 20 in Montauk and would go on for 120 miles. Marcher Dan Steiger, 55, of Sag Harbor, described a lifetime of marching for causes. He had burned his draft card to protest the Vietnam War, and served 30 days in jail in Puerto Rico after being arrested in a demonstration against U.S. Navy bombings of Vieques. Now, he'd marched nine days in his leather gardening boots to demonstrate once more.

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

On Saturday night, at St. Mary's Church on 126th Street in Harlem, a 1,400-pound granite tombstone rested on a wagon outside. The stone had been hauled by hand from Boston, by a group calling itself September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, made up of 130 people who lost loved ones on 9-11. The tombstone, which stopped at many churches on the way to its ultimate resting place at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, honors the civilians who have been killed in Iraq.

That sort of creative nonviolent protest is also the hallmark of the 81-year-old War Resisters League and one of its leaders, Frida Berrigan. Her father was the late radical ex-priest Philip Berrigan, who, along with his brother Daniel, became a full-time FBI surveillance project in the 1960s because of their unceasing acts of civil disobedience. At a press conference last week, Frida, 40, vowed to be arrested along with some 50 others who plan to lie down in the streets outside the Garden.

The Bush administration has also become a full-time target for Matthew Roth, 27, who was raised on a communal farm in northeastern Nevada. Roth moved to New York five years ago and helped start a group called Time's Up. The group promotes bicycle use and takes part in late night ride-ins in which hundreds of bicyclists gleefully take over the streets on the last Friday of the month, pedaling en masse through bridges and tunnels and intersections. Such events have been going on for years here, drawing crowds of 100 or more, many of them simply bike lovers thrilled to have the streets largely to themselves.

At the anti-globalization protests in Miami last November, Roth said he was shot five times in the back with rubber bullets, some of them laced with pepper spray that ground its way into his skin. Video footage of the clashes shows people shot directly in the face, even though regulations prohibit shooters from aiming above the waist. Roth calls the video "protest porn" and shows it often to the young activists who gather at the East Houston Street storefront that is his group's temporary headquarters.

Spurred by Bush's impending arrival, the group upped the ante last Friday, tying its event to the Republican convention. It moved its starting time up several hours to increase the turnout. No police permits are ever sought or issued for the rides, but everyone understood that this one, widely advertised to the anti-Bush protesters, would be taken by the police as a challenge to the public order.

By 7 p.m., thousands of bicyclists had crammed into Union Square, many of them pointing to the police helicopters and Fuji blimp—used by the NYPD for surveillance—circling overhead. The crowd whooped and roared several times before taking off down the east side of the park. It took several minutes for the lead contingent to break through the traffic on 14th Street, but then they were off, pedaling down Broadway, whistling and hooting, the most daring ones thrusting both arms in the air as they rode.

Red lights were ignored, as lead bikers placed themselves in front of cars at the intersections, preventing them from moving forward, a practice known as "corking." Some drivers waited patiently, while others leaned on their horns. A few tried to charge forward into the street, nearly striking bicyclists who were pedaling along and ignoring traffic signals.

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