Streets of Rage
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."
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.
"When I started to find out what was going on, I was just amazed," he told a visitor last week. "I mean, I watched Colin Powell testify on TV at the United Nations. I loved Colin Powell. I thought he was going to be our first black president. There he was, saying, 'Look at these pictures, here are the tractor trailers with the weapons. If we don't strike soon, they are going to be moved, and we won't be able to get them.' I assumed he was telling the truth. Then, when I found out there were no weapons, that all that stuff he was saying had been hyped up, I was so mad. How could they do that to us?"
The impact of George W. Bush on America was even more striking in the presence of Michael Hoffman, 25, from the faded steel town of Allentown, Pennsylvania, marching in Sunday's heat in one of his old Marine jackets with a contingent of the one-month-old group Iraq Veterans Against the War. Hoffman's story is fodder for the films of Michael Moore, who marched at the head of Sunday's procession. His father was one of the last workers at the now demolished Bethlehem Steel plant; his mother, a Teamster, is a janitor at a local school.
A sea of coffins
photo: Willie Davis
"I bounced around for about a year and a half after high school doing odd jobs," he explained at one of many press conferences he attended last week. "The last one was as an assistant manager at a toy store. I made about $15,000 a year, your basic poverty-level job. I had a good friend who was joining up, and he kind of talked me into it. I thought that the military represented a lot of good things, was a good opportunity. When I joined in February 1999, the war in the Balkans was a big deal. I thought we were doing the right thing there, and I wanted to be a part of that."
His four-year hitch in the Marines was up when news came that the Pentagon had imposed "stop-loss orders" preventing all discharges. Instead of mustering out, he and his artillery unit were dispatched to Kuwait. "We crossed over into Iraq and pushed north up to Baghdad. We were firing 155-millimeter howitzers." About a day south of the capital, he said, he drove past a town they had blasted. "It was just entirely in flames. The people were wandering around, like in a daze."
Discharged a year ago, he found himself talking with other vets haunted by what they'd seen, along with families who had lost loved ones in the conflict. "I'm just opposed to what we are doing there; this [protesting the war] is all I'm doing now."
The war has seemed like little more than the cruelest of tricks to Fernando Suárez del Solar, who carried a photo of his son, Jesús, handsome in his lance corporal's Marine uniform, along Sunday's parade route. Originally from Tijuana, Mexico, Suárez's family had moved to Escondido, California, in 1997. Military recruiters had persuaded Jesús, who aspired to be a firefighter, that if he signed up he would obtain both a green card and valuable experience. But there wasn't time.
On March 27, 2003, Suárez learned that his son had been killed in Iraq. It wasn't even hostile fire that took his son's life. He had stepped on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb and died from his injuries. "I paid the highest price for free speech," he told a roomful of reporters at a pre-march press conference last week. "My son."
The president's invasion also turned around the life of 26-year-old Kelly Dougherty, of Colorado Springs, who spent a year in Iraq with the National Guard, part of the 220th Military Police Company. For Sunday's march she wore an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt and brown camouflage shorts, with a black armband that read, "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Now." On Friday night, she had shyly addressed the audience at a fundraising event in a hot and crowded Soho loft. Patrolling the broiling streets around Nasiriya after its capture, she said, she had seen local citizens turn from friend to foe. "When we first got there, the people would smile when they saw us, but as time went on, they started averting their eyes and scowling," she said. "I felt like we treated them like trespassers in their own country."
Cops await marchers in Columbus Circle
photo: Cary Conover
As an MP, part of her job was to respond to accidents, and she had seen a grisly one in which a U.S. truck had inadvertently run down a seven-year-old boy who had been trying to cross a desert highway with his donkey. Under standing orders, the truck driver had kept right on going, reporting it later. "I couldn't blame the Iraqis for their hostility," she said.
Marching alongside Hoffman and Dougherty was Michael McPhearson, who spent 11 years in the Army, long enough to serve in the 1991 Gulf War, and to later have severe doubts about U.S. actions in Iraq. The son of a schoolteacher and a railroad worker, McPhearson, 40, grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, next door to Fort Bragg. He had a pair of uncles and a grandfather who were veterans of the world wars, and he joined the Army the first chance he got, at the age of 17.
He was in a mechanized infantry division that took part in the invasion of Iraq. His unit fired armor-piercing shells composed of depleted uranium. When he returned to Iraq last December as part of a peace delegation, he visited hospitals filled with children suffering from cancer. "They believe it is from those shells we fired," he said last week. "That affected me very strongly. In Iraq, people asked me, 'If American citizens were treated the way we are being treated, would they stand for it?' I had to say, 'No, they wouldn't stand for it.' "
The war has become even more personal for McPhearson, since his own son, who is 19 and in the Navy, is expected to be deployed there soon. "I understand what soldiers there are going through," he said. "They are young, they don't speak the language, and people are shooting at you. And you're scared. But I met fathers of children who had been killed by our soldiersnot on purpose, they had just been in the line of fire. All I could do was apologize. And I said I would come back here and do whatever I could."
As they marched on Sunday, Vietnam veteran George McAnanama led them in cadence:
Bush and Cheney talk that talk
But we know they're chicken hawks.
If they think they're so damn right
Let these rich boys go and fight.
A block or two behind the vets marched a contingent decked out in pink costumes and carrying pink signs. The group calling itself Code Pink is another Bush-spurred creation, its name intended as a feminist counterpoint to the yellow, orange, and red terror alerts. In the days leading up to the convention, Code Pink's cadre provided a steady, humorous chiding to the convention's pro-war organizers. They donned Statue of Liberty crowns and draped themselves in pink gowns, standing in front of the public library on 42nd Street, holding letters spelling out "Give Bush a Pink Slip."
They were there when Mayor Bloomberg tried to take the media's focus off of his refusal to allow demonstrators to use Central Park, handing out "Peaceful Protester" buttons. The Code Pink activists unfurled a 40-foot-long banner from a nearby hotel, calling on him to yield. Bloomberg didn't appreciate the joke, and four members were arrested.
Still, the color-coded protests attracted the attention of 14-year-old Citalic Jeffers, of Queens, who found the group on the Internet and, despite her mother's worries, started participating in its events. "So many issues are bigger than 'who's sleeping with who,' " the teenager explained as she took part in her first demonstration on Thursday in Foley Square across from State Supreme Court.
There was another rookie protester in the square that afternoon, also wearing a paper pink crown. But Ann Wright had to quit her job to participate. Wright, 58, a 17-year diplomat, provided one of the early speed bumps to the president on the way to invading Iraq when she publicly resigned her position in the State Department in protest of Bush's war plans.
A former Army colonel who served in Grenada and elsewhere, Wright got a law degree and a master's in national security affairs and joined the foreign service in 1987. She held postings in Afghanistan, Somalia, Nicaragua, and Uzbekistan.
"When Bush refused to pursue diplomatic means of conflict resolution and didn't pay attention to the weapons inspectors, that was my tipping point," she explained at the protest. She flew from her home in Honolulu to give her rap to delegates at the Democratic convention, and she came here to take part in the demonstrations. In a way, she was making up for lost time since she'd long been prohibited from participating in protests. Sunday, she marched the entire 2.2-mile-long route under the broiling sun, in a Veterans for Peace T-shirt. At the end, a reporter asked if she was tired. "I'm ready to march another 30 miles," she said.
Paper dragon burns during Sundays march
photo: Shiho Fukada
When Karl Rove and Bush's other brains decided to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City, they must have hoped not only that the event would showcase their tough-guy president against a backdrop of terrorist atrocity, but that just maybe it would also inspire a Chicago '68-style maelstrom. Such a riot would hopefully be captured on national television and inextricably linked to the campaign of Democrat John Kerry.
They may still get their wish. In the days leading up to the convention, there was plenty of hot rhetoric. "There's one group that always shows up at demonstrations, committing acts of violence," shouted Dustin Langley, a member of ANSWERAct Now to Stop War and End Racismat one of dozens of press conferences held on the steps of City Hall last week. "There's one right now," he said, pointing a finger at a cop strolling the plaza. "The NYPD. Let's identify the real thugs, the real terrorists!" he shouted, to the applause of supporters on the stairs.
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 fashionpink tank tops, pink feather earrings, even hot-pink fishnet stockingsand 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.
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 blimpused by the NYPD for surveillancecircling 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.
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.
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
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.