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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 1, 2003

Archive Highlights