Streets of Rage

How George Bush and his Republicans mobilized half a million people

The riders swung west on Houston Street to Sixth Avenue and rode up to midtown. They traded chants back and forth as they rode. "More Bikes, Less Bush," they shouted, and a favorite, "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" In front of Radio City Music Hall, tourists stared in uncomprehending silence. A cab sat in the street, immobilized, as the cyclists swarmed around it like a school of fish. At the park, the mass turned west and then south, past the Garden and the giant electronic bulletin board welcoming the delegates. The crowd roared, "Fuck you, RNC!"

Police officers were invisible for most of the ride. But at West 13th Street they appeared in riot gear, standing 10 abreast, preventing riders from cycling the wrong way down the side streets. The ride continued, many still shouting ebulliently into the night. A post-ride party had been planned at St. Mark's Church, and the lead bikers headed in that direction around 9:30 p.m. But at Second Avenue, everything ground to a halt. A helicopter, its rotors pulsing overhead, threw its searchlight onto the riders. Police began moving in on foot, arresting dozens of people unlucky enough to be blocked in the street. A water bottle sailed toward the cops, flung by someone standing on the sidelines. "Fuck the police," the crowd chanted. "Let them go!"

Some 260 cyclists were arrested, most becoming the first occupants at Pier 57 on West Street at West 14th Street, which was set aside for mass arrests during the convention. There, men and women were separated, and they were kept in holding pens made of high chain-link fences capped with razor wire. They were held overnight in pens with 30 to 40 others, with nothing to sleep on.

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

In the morning there was a tiny box of cereal and a small container of milk for the prisoners. They were carted across town to central booking to be fingerprinted, photographed, and late in the afternoon, arraigned at criminal court on Centre Street. Most were charged with disorderly conduct and obstructing government administration. "It was a power trip," said Jessica Shiller, 32, after her release at 4 p.m. Saturday. "They're trying to show who's boss."

George W. Bush's signature moment, the one he hopes is enshrined in the memories of voters, was the moment when he stood atop a heap of ruble at ground zero, gripping the shoulder of a firefighter and shouting through a bullhorn. The ones who did this will be heard from, he vowed.

And yet, shortly after Osama bin Laden disappeared into the mountains of Afghanistan, evading American troops, little was heard about him from the Bush White House. Instead, the generic term of terrorist, along with the country's military might and attention, was shifted to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Megan Bartlett, an emergency medical technician who worked at ground zero, recalled Bush's visit that terrible week. "I remember Bush coming down and vowing he would avenge on our behalf," said Bartlett, who now coordinates a group called Ground Zero for Peace that took part in the protests this week. "My hope for this week is that I'd really like someone in government to know that there are people from ground zero that don't want to be seen in a campaign ad behind President Bush. Even three years later, we are still a community in grieving."

With special reporting by Danial Adkison, Douglas Gillison, Anya Kamenetz, Christine Lagorio, and Laura Sinagra

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