Dying to Dissent

"There's no room to die," complained a woman, surveying the crowd of several hundred antiwar protesters that by 8 a.m. Wednesday were crammed inside the metal barricades strung up by police along the perimeter of Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue. Instead of being able to flood into the plaza and stage a mass die-in to dramatize the death of innocent Iraqis, they were once again being penned in by the NYPD.

"Break it up, keep moving," a cop ordered, shoving back the protesters who spilled into 49th Street. "No war, no profits, no business as usual!" chanted the demonstrators, circling back and forth along the cordoned-off sidewalk.

"Peace faggots!" screamed a passerby. "Arrest them all!"

Then an air horn sounded and the protesters kicked down the barricades and rushed into the street—or as many as could slip by before the cops hemmed in the crowd again. Scores lay across Fifth Avenue, intertwining their arms and legs, some wrapped in gauze and splattered in red paint.

"I'm trying to alert the American public to the criminal action of this war," shouted Karen Bethany, a 57-year-old teacher, as she lay in the road. "Women and children are dying because of the war mongering of this government! We're all being put in danger because of this war!"

Traffic slowed to a crawl for more than an hour as police funnelled busses and cars down a single lane, while riot cops surrounded and then carried off the symbolically dead.

Inside the pen, another group "died" on the sidewalk, remaining solemnly silent as news cameras hovered over them.

"Tell the truth!" the crowd shouted, waving signs like "Boycott FOX" and "Embedded? or In Bed?"

But with little drama left on the street, the media zeroed in on the counterprotesters. "You're a disgrace!" shouted a man holding a sign that read, "Saddam Sez: Thanks, Suckers!"

"I'm a patriot, I served my country. Did you serve?" countered a man inside the pen, waving his own placard that read, "Don't Parrot the Rightwing Propaganda: Think 4 yourself!"

"We're slaughtering innocent people!" a woman chimed in.

"Less people will be dead at the end of this war than under one year of Saddam's rule," the counterprotester responded.

And so the debate went, as the cops dragged more than 150 people away.

Another 65 were arrested in sporadic street actions throughout midtown and Soho, including a trio of women who managed to halt traffic briefly at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street by flashing their breasts, and another group who scuffled with police outside the offices of CNN. At noon, hundreds of New York University students and faculty supporters walked out of their classes and paraded around Washington Square, swarming onto the street for an antiwar speakout.

But the rally was once again marred by the heckling of counterprotesters who accused the demonstraters of being traitors to the troops. One peace activist was arrested after refusing to back away from a man holding a U.S. flag who had threatened to "rip him open like a fucking can opener."

Though far outnumbered by the antiwar activists, the presence of these increasingly vocal critics added an edge of anger that until now has been largely absent from peace demos in New York.

The street debates yesterday indicate the difficulty the antiwar movement may have in sustaining popular support while U.S. soldiers are getting hammered abroad. A recent survey shows support for the war in New York City has jumped 10 points since the invasion began, from 37 to 47 percent. That's still far less than the 73 percent of Americans who reportedly back President Bush's decision to go to war. But Americans are also getting antsy as the battle in Iraq gets uglier and the hefty pricetag ($75 billion and counting) becomes clear.

The task of the peace movement now is to emphasize the costs of the war that is draining America's coffers, along with the country's moral and political standing abroad. Antiwarriors also need to make sure those costs don't get turned back on them by critics, who accuse demonstrators of wasting their tax dollars to pay for police.

By threatening to disrupt business as usual, the protesters caught the public's eye. But they will need to balance the urge to maximize their outrage with the awareness that a traumatized public may be difficult to "shock and awe" into dissent.

Lawyers accused police of delaying the release of the 215 antiwar demonstrators arrested on Thursday in order to discourage further protest.

According to Risa Gerson of the National Lawyers Guild, police did not begin releasing protesters until late in the evening, even though the bulk of the arrests were made before 9:30 a.m., and most were charged with relatively minor offenses like disorderly conduct.

"They've been held for more than 12 hours," Gerson said. "Our position is that's punitive."

Lawyers also complained that police refused to give them access to their clients.

At 11:17 p.m., New York Supreme Court judge Alice Schlesinger agreed to sign an order directing police to provide lawyers access to all demonstrators who had not been released by 12:30 a.m. Friday.

A police spokesperson reached Thursday night said that the delays were the result of the large number of people arrested. "You don't have a right to an attorney during booking," Detective Kevin Czartoryski added, "only if you're going to be questioned."

But demonstrators complained that they were grilled about their political affiliations and beliefs.

"They asked me whether I'd been to other demonstrations and what groups I belonged to and said that if I didn't answer those questions, I'd be there all night," said Stephen Durham, 55, an organizer for the Freedom Socialist Party who was finally sprung at 1:30 a.m. Friday, nearly 17 hours after his arrest on Thursday.

"This was a real fishing expedition to collect data on people of conscience," he said.

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