New York protests target 'Bush agenda,'
push election of Democrat John Kerry
BY PAUL PEDERSON
AND ANGEL LARISCY
NEW YORK—Carrying placards reading "Defend America, Dump Bush," "Bush Lies, Who Dies?" and signs with the photo of the Republican president and the inscription "Darn Good Liar," throngs of protesters filled the streets of Midtown Manhattan August 29.
"Say No to the Bush Agenda," was the theme of the march, organized to help the campaign of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry. United for Peace and Justice, a coalition that organized large peace demonstrations before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, sponsored the action. Beginning at noon, the march wound slowly to an end around 5:00 p.m. at Union Square Park, where ushers instructed demonstrators through a loudspeaker to disperse.
Organizers decided to forego a closing rally even though they had obtained a permit for one on the West Side Highway on the southern tip of Manhattan, where refurbished piers by the Hudson River provide adequate facilities for such an event. United for Peace and Justice spokespeople stated they would not organize a rally after the city administration and the courts denied their requests to hold one in Central Park.
There is a more plausible reason for their decision, however, which organizers did not touch on: the leadership of the Democratic Party did not want to have anything to do with such a rally, a stance that apparently kept well-known entertainers and all major Democratic Party figures away from the protest.
Top Democrats oppose protests
The action "has got top Democrats in a major fret," said an article in the August 28 Kansas City Star, headlined "Not Only GOP Fears New York Protests." GOP, or Grand Old Party, is a common reference to the Republicans.
"Please," said Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, "let the Republicans have a great time, let them speak, let them go to their big corporate parties. If they can link us to a bunch of lawbreakers, they think people will not pay attention to the promises they've broken." McAuliffe added that the Democratic Party had nothing to do with any of the New York demonstrations.
A press conference at the beginning of the march featured a handful of low-ranking Democrats, a few labor officials, and peace group representatives. Actor Danny Glover and actress Rosie Pérez were the only artists present. Congressmen Charles Rangel of Harlem and Major Owens of Brooklyn, Jesse Jackson, and four members of the New York City Council were the only Democratic Party politicians at the press conference.
"Wake up America," declared Major Owens. "Because if you don't Bush will be reelected, and our country will be heading to the snake pit of fascism."
While relatively few signs at the demonstration promoted the false view that the Bush administration is "fascist," a number of marchers shared the point by Owens that the majority of voters in the United States would be at fault if Bush wins a second term. "Fool America once, shame on Bush," said a placard, the theme of which was repeated in other signs. "Fool America again and again and again and again, shame on America."
The widely circulated sign "Darn good liar" carried a similar message: Bush is succeeding in fooling the majority of voters.
"We're here today because we're really happy that the Republicans have only two months left," said filmmaker Michael Moore, in a dispirited presentation. Moore's so-called documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 has been widely used to promote the Kerry campaign. "To borrow an idea from Congressman Rangel, I think we should bring back the draft," Moore told the press. "But only for the sons of politicians and of owners of the Fortune 500 corporations," he remarked, in one of his trademark attempts at being funny that fall flat for most people.
Jesse Jackson, the featured speaker, concluded the press conference. While criticizing the way the Bush administration invaded Iraq and calling for bringing back the troops, he demanded that Washington intervene in the Sudan, which he had just visited. "We have a moral obligation to use our strength," he said, calling for a U.S. arms embargo against Sudan and military intervention to "disarm the Janjaweed," a militia that has carried out bloody attacks on the civilian population in that country.
Jackson went on to criticize the Bush administration for not spending enough money on "homeland defense."
"If Bush had given millionaires an $83,000 tax cut instead of $88,000, our ports could be secured from the threat of biological attack," he said. He also said the Republican administration was not putting enough police on the streets.
American nationalism was in full display at the action. Many protesters held U.S. flags or signs that said "I am a true patriot" or "Dissent is patriotic." United for Peace and Justice sold T-shirts that read, "This is what a true patriot looks like."
One contingent at the end of the march carried nearly 1,000 coffins draped in U.S. flags, to symbolize the number of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq since the spring of 2003.
"The officers in my unit let me know it was something they didn't like," said Bryan Crowe, a Marine who spent five months in Iraq, of the reaction to his anti-war views. Crowe, a member of a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War, which had a contingent of about a dozen at the march, said he got some heat from his superiors after he spoke at an antiwar rally and was interviewed by a reporter. "Nothing really happened to me like on paper. More an intimidation thing.… I got some phone calls. I was asked to explain myself and I told them I didn't have to explain myself, it's my First Amendment right."
Crowe said it wasn't accurate to say half the U.S. troops in Iraq suffer from low morale, a statement made by two speakers at the press conference. "I don't think anyone's happy to be there, or as many people support the war as the media makes it out," Crowe said. "But even though I was against the war when I was sent there, I still had a job to do. Being miserable and not paying attention can cause you to lose your life, so I stayed on point." Crowe, a registered Green, said he wasn't sure electing Kerry will make a difference in Iraq.
Only one or two soldiers have deserted the U.S. military so far because of opposition to the Anglo-American assault on Iraq.
At several points, small groups of rightist counterdemonstrators lined side streets along the march route. At the intersection of 27th Street and 7th Avenue, the pro-Bush hecklers chanted "U.S.A!, U.S.A!" Protesters countered them by repeating the same chant, though more loudly, stealing the rightists' thunder.
'Anything to get Bush out'
"I just want to beat Bush," said Anna Odem, a psychologist from Manhattan, in a comment reflecting the views most protesters who were interviewed expressed. "Anything just to get Bush out. He's destroyed most of what we stand for as a country. It's time to get Bush out."
Many of the demonstrators were from the middle classes, like Odem. A good portion were students or other youth.
A number of signs peddled conspiracy theories blaming Bush and the "neoconservative cabal" around him for covering up the truth about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. "Expose the 9-11 coverup" was a sign held by many demonstrators. A group held a large banner reading "The Bush regime engineered 9-11." Protesters from that contingent passed out leaflets claiming that the Bush administration knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and helped orchestrate them.
Low-level, personalized attacks on Bush, including the false assertion that he is "stupid," were not uncommon, reflecting the coarsening discourse of bourgeois politics. "A village in Texas is missing its idiot; send him home," said a placard, for example, held by a number of protesters.
Estimates of the march size varied. The free dailies Metro and AM New York, and an unofficial police count reported by the Daily News, put the figure at more than 120,000. Organizers said that about 400,000 took part. The New York Times said reports of half a million protesters were "at best, a rough estimate."
The action was largely peaceful. Protesters marched slowly and patiently. While there was a heavy police presence around Madison Square Garden, site of the Republican convention, and along the demonstration route, relatively few arrests were made. According to the Daily News, cops arrested about 240 people that day, including 50 bikers who allegedly tried to crash the parade. Arrests were also made when a group called Black Bloc, self-described as anarchist, torched a papier-mâché dragon's head mounted on a rickshaw in front of Madison Square Garden.
Many more people were arrested the next two days, after the Republican convention started. About 1,000 people were arrested August 31, most while trying to block traffic. About 200 supporters of the War Resisters League were rounded up and arrested that day for a march up a sidewalk toward Madison Square Garden, for which the pacifist group said it had obtained a permit. Cops also arrested about 150 people gathered on sidewalks near the convention site who refused to heed police orders to disperse. According to the Washington Post, this brought to 1,600 the total number of those apprehended since August 26 during protest activities.
Little enthusiasm for Kerry
A relatively small number of marchers wore buttons and T-shirts endorsing Kerry. The only pro-Kerry chant Militant reporters heard was "Bush is scary, vote Kerry." Not much enthusiasm for Kerry was on display, especially among younger protesters, a number of whom told Militant reporters they dislike the Democratic nominee's pro-war record and considered the action a peace rally.
"I don't think it's appropriate to wear John Kerry buttons to this rally since this is an antiwar march and Kerry is not opposed to the war," said Gil Wasserman, for example, 17, a high school student from Brooklyn. Wasserman said, however, he felt Kerry is the only realistic alternative to Bush in the elections.
Santiago Santos, a maintenance worker in a building in Queens who is a member of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, was marching with a sign that said Bush, with an arrow pointed in one direction, and verdad (truth, in Spanish) with an arrow pointed in the other. "I hope Kerry will be better for the economy," said Santos. "It's a choice between a bad one and a halfway bad one. A little less bad."
The demonstration was billed in part as a peace march. Organizers distributed a large number of signs held by demonstrators calling for Washington to bring the troops home from Iraq. But relatively few chants expressed opposition to the war in Iraq, although this was the view held by all protesters the Militant interviewed.
Partly because of this reality, the Democratic Party cannot claim many of the protesters as its own or be assured they will even go to the polls to cast a vote for Kerry. Militant reporters observed a number of activists with Democratic National Committee T-shirts trying to sign up volunteers to help the Kerry campaign at the end of the march and getting the cold shoulder from most protesters.
Bourgeois 'third' party campaigns
Supporters of the "third-party" campaigns of the Greens and Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo also took part in the march. While presenting themselves as "independent" alternatives to the two-party system of American capitalism, the banners of these contingents and comments by participants made it clear these are pro-capitalist campaigns aimed at pressuring the Democratic Party and attempting to nudge it a little to the left.
Green Party supporters marched with signs for their presidential candidates, David Cobb and Patricia LaMarche.
Cobb and LaMarche "believe very much that George Bush is an enormous threat to the United States," said Lynn Serpe, a New Yorker who was marching with the Greens contingent. "So the Greens are offering an alternative to the two-party system.… But, in swing states we say to Green supporters: if you can't vote Green, we understand, it's a tough election year."
Another contingent marched in support of the Nader/Camejo ticket behind a large banner that read "Impeach Bush/Cheney." A few hundred people marching with the campus-based group International Socialist Organization also carried placards supporting the Nader/Camejo ticket.
"I was a petitioner in Maryland," said Joe Schroeder, 20, a student at the Baltimore Community College who supports the Nader campaign. "We are 500 signatures short so I'm going through the list to find the valid ones. "It was tough," Schroeder said of the petitioning effort. He said that a Nader petitioner was attacked and three Republican supporters came out and defended him. "There are a lot of Democratic Party supporters in Baltimore."
Supporters of the Socialist Workers Party 2004 presidential ticket of Róger Calero for president and Arrin Hawkins for vice president, marched behind a banner reading, "It's not who you're against; it's what you're for. Vote Socialist Workers in 2004!" Many teams of SWP campaigners worked the crowd.
"People take this campaign very seriously," said Raúl, a worker at a meatpacking plant in San Francisco who was campaigning with the socialists at Union Square Park. "Some say it is utopian for Róger to run. 'He's Nicaraguan, not born in the United States,' they say. But when I explain that the campaign is part of organizing a working-class movement, for a working-class alternative to the parties of capitalism that goes beyond the elections, many people began to understand and appreciate it."
The socialists held a forum featuring SWP candidates the night before the August 29 march and an open house at their Garment District SWP campaign center, just a few blocks from the march route, after the demonstration. About two dozen people who first met the socialists at the protests took part in these campaign activities.