Don’t Take Me to the River


Successful organizing is a delicate mix of tactics and democracy, and for weeks the group seeking to turn out a massive protest on the Sunday before the Republican National Convention has been wrestling to find the right formula.

Rebuffed in its application for a permit to rally in Central Park on Sunday, August 29, the leadership of United for Peace and Justice, the group organizing the event, reluctantly bowed last month to City Hall’s insistence that it be held along a winding strip of West Street along the Hudson River on the lower West Side. It did so, organizers said, out of concern that delegations around the country assembling for the protest needed to get down to the business of mobilizing for the event.

To that end, it held a press conference on July 21 to tell the world, as Leslie Cagan, the group’s national coordinator said, “The clock is ticking. We need to move on.”

But that was then.

This week, the group reversed itself, saying that the West Side site was untenable, that it would leave tens of thousands of elderly protesters unsheltered from a potentially blazing late summer sun, and that the costs of reaching an estimated 250,000 demonstrators with a sound system at that site was prohibitively expensive. Instead, leaders said, they will reapply for a permit to assemble in the park, a move sure to run smack into the same objections already voiced by City Hall.

The sudden switch came after a wrenching, weeklong debate amongst members of the group’s 41-person steering committee. It also came after other groups announced their intentions to assemble in the park regardless of permits.

It came as well after a long and often tumultuous public meeting of UFPJ, as its members call it, held last week at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in the East Village.

The meeting, held on the night of August 3, was the first public assembly of supporters of the march since the group’s leadership had announced its intention to accept the mayor’s rally location. The decision had sparked anger among militants, who argued that the organization had caved in on a crucial issue: the right of free assembly. It also came after a Quinnipiac University poll released on July 20 found that 75 percent of New Yorkers backed Central Park demonstrations in general.

At the church’s entrance, those against the UFPJ’s decision had positioned a large blowup of a flyer they were distributing condemning the move. “Since when is a public political assembly held in the middle of a freeway? . . . NYPD and Bloomberg: Take your filthy Nazi fantasy and go to hell.”

Inside, it only got hotter.

Some 300 people had taken all the available seats and were crowded on benches along the sides. Others stood in the rear. A single floor fan moved the air, but did little good. As stifling as it was over the next two hours, however, no one complained, as a most remarkable debate ensued about the issues before them.

It began on a high note. George Martin, an African American peace activist from Milwaukee and a member of the steering committee, stepped to the microphone and launched the crowd in a rhythmic chant of “No War.”

There were to be no PowerPoint presentations here. Wearing a snap-brim straw hat, Leslie Kauffman, a writer and organizer, held up an agenda for the meeting, handwritten in black marker on large poster paper. Ashwini Hardikar, a student leader from Michigan, spoke first. Defying the mayor meant arrests, she said, and for immigrants being urged to attend, arrest could mean detention, even deportation. “It’s a shitty situation. Our rights have been violated. But we must now move on to the organizing,” she said.

The crowd clapped loudly when she was through, the first poll of where they stood on the matter. But when the applause receded, a shout came from a young man in shorts standing in the back: “One lie after another. I wouldn’t applaud for that.”

A few people asked him to keep quiet, but the dissident moved around the room, explaining that he had spent that afternoon on West Street at the location where the rally was to be held. “It was a furnace,” he said over and over.

Next up to the mic was Judith Le Blanc, another march organizer, who asked the crowd to reflect on a simple question: How does it happen that hundreds of thousands of people turn out for a march? “It’s not an immaculate conception,” she said. “We have to organize, organize, organize.”

The catcalls continued from the rear, picked up by a few scattered voices around the room. But there was no confrontation, and the speakers continued. Andrea Buffa, an organizer from the activist group called Global Exchange, stepped up. In May, Buffa was one of five activists arrested for protests at Halliburton’s annual shareholders meeting in Houston.

It’s true the mayor’s decision could be challenged legally, Buffa said. But lawyers for UFPJ had warned them that the city’s concession to allow the march to file past the convention site at Madison Square Garden meant that a claim of a denial of Constitutional rights would be difficult to make. “But this was coming from Washington,” she said. “Even if we fought to the very end, we didn’t know if we could win. People needed to make plans, to rent buses, to organize their contingents.”

The opposition weighed in next: “This is about dignity,” said a tall man with glasses. “We are citizens of this city; we have the right to hold events in our own public parks. UFPJ can fight this.”

There were cheers for this position as well, and a voice in the crowd shouted something about being stuck behind barricades. These are not the wooden sawhorses of demonstrations past, but metal, interlocking pens now used by police. As some of those attending the huge pre-Iraq war rally on February 15, 2003, learned, they can also be picked up and used to herd and squeeze demonstrators.

At the mention of barricades, Cagan, a short, stout woman, rose from her seat for the first time. Cagan, 57, has been putting together demonstrations since 1967, when, as an organizer for the Student Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, she helped lead the march on the Pentagon.

Her remarks contained hints of the turn-about that the UFPJ was already contemplating, despite the arguments presented by its organizers that evening.

“I want you to know we take all these issues very seriously,” Cagan told the crowd at the church. “We are totally opposed to the use of barricades; we do not want to see people penned in.” The police, she said, had thus far refused to reveal their intentions. “All they tell us is that they are in charge of security in New York City.”

As she spoke, a man sitting in front of her continuously heckled. Cagan patiently kept talking. When she was done, she walked outside, where several of the dissenters had gathered, to talk with them some more.

Hany Khalil, the group’s coordinator of organizing, stepped forward to move the agenda along. The son of Egyptian immigrants, Khalil is a former hotel workers’ organizer. A few days after 9-11, he spoke with an aunt in Egypt who expressed fear that the U.S. would make the entire Middle East pay for the acts of a few. “She told me, ‘We don’t feel like we can do anything. We’re counting on you over in the U.S. to do it.’ ”

At the mic, Khalil said, “From the committee, and from this body, my sense is that many more people in this room want to start building this demonstration.” There was a roar of assent, and he began the business of setting up the inevitable committees—security, leafleting, publicity, outreach.

The crowd scattered into small groups around the room and in the courtyard outside. In the back, Dawn Peterson, yet another organizer, stacked chairs. Her brother Davin, a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished in the World Trade Center collapse. A year later she joined a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which consists of relatives of people who perished in the 9-11 attacks.

“I don’t want to see those attacks perpetrated on anyone else,” she said. “But I don’t understand how cracking down on civil liberties, and bombing other nations unilaterally avoids that.” So many other innocent victims have died since the attacks, she said. “My brother didn’t die so Bush could get re-elected,” she said.