If you don't have a permit to speak, you may be under arrest
NEW YORK -- 'This march has made a statement about peace, poverty, and justice,' said Bob Edgars, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S. 'It's one step in the right direction.'
The tail end of the march was nearly a thousand pall bearers carrying flag draped coffins representing the American dead, and coffins draped with black cloths representing civilian dead. 'This march,' said Amy Goodman, 'makes clear who is concerned about killing innocent civilians and who is killing innocent civilians.'
'The poor are dying,' yelled Jesse Jackson, into a bullhorn after the march, 'and the rich are lying. We need a plan to end the war in Iraq. We've lost the war, we've lost our money, and we've lost our national allies.'
These are the issues that brought so many into the streets. From the war in Iraq, to education, the environment, and social services, people went into the streets to say no to the Bush agenda.
There was, not surprisingly, no response from anyone in the Bush Administration. Some protesters have, in response, taken the protest directly to them.
After the march, hundreds of activists went to Times Square to give delegates attending Broadway shows an unwelcome mat. Dozens of people were eventually arrested. In a problematic conflation of different protests, both the New York Times and Washington Post showed pictures of direct actions taken by protesters in Times Square alongside photos from the march.
More problematic is the fact that freedom of speech is only being honored when it is done in settings that have been officially permitted by the city. The blanket term, 'disorderly conduct' is being used to arrest people and silence dissent.
I arrived in Times Square to the sound of sirens. Dozens of people were penned in behind an orange fence and surrounding by police in riot gear. When I approached the fencing to interview people inside, I was roughly pushed away by a police officer. As police created a buffer zone between gawkers and randomly selected arrestees, we were told that we could be arrested or turn and walk.
Dozens of legal observers, wearing bright green hats, took down information and attempted to get the names of people being arrested. No one was allowed in or out of the fenced in area until the paddy wagon was backed up and people loaded in.
We, the press, took photos. I saw Amy Goodman recording sound clips. Reuters and AP reporters blustered about, frustrated that their press passes meant nothing.
'People aren't arrested by accident,' said one tourist, Ed Hunt 'Some people just can't handle their freedom.'
Unfortunately, as I later saw, many people were actually arrested by accident.
As the paddy wagons were loaded on one corner, a line of police pushed down the block. Tourists, press, and activists were all turned back. This created a bottleneck at the corner where police were attempting to get traffic through the light. People built up and then spilled into the street as police pushed them from behind. The line of police then crossed the intersection diagonally, bunching people on the far corner.
Suddenly a policeman yelled through his bullhorn, 'You are not allowed to congregate. If you do not clear the sidewalk you will be subject to arrest.'
Everyone panicked and began to run as police advanced towards us carrying a plastic orange fence. Police then quickly wrapped the fencing around dozens of people, including random tourists and journalists. Everyone inside was quickly handcuffed and pushed to the ground.
These scare tactics have been being used throughout the weekend and are expected to continue through the week.
On Saturday, 25,000 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge for women's rights. On my way towards the front of the march I encountered a woman, Paulet Rothenburg, sitting on a bench, a policeman was telling her to move.
'If you do not start walking then we will have to arrest you for trespassing,' he said.
'I'm tired, it's ninety degrees out, I need a rest,' she responded.
As I started asking questions and someone began videotaping the encounter, the policeman rode off on his bike. 'I don't see why,' said Rothenburg, 'when I need to sit, I can't.' He soon returned with other police who convinced her to get on her way.
Later, I stopped on the bridge for a moment. A police woman, Officer Hernandez, told me that if I didn't move then I would be arrested. 'I don't agree with the legality of that statement,' I said. To which she responded, 'I don't either, but I have a job to do.'
In Times Square, I saw Officer Hernandez again, and she smiled, saying 'You gave me a hard time yesterday.' I apologized. It was important to see the humanity in Officer Hernandez and recognize the difficulty police are having in keeping order. But, I reminded her, my job is to act as a watchdog for her actions.
When I asked Medea Benjamin what the theme of the Republican National Convention would be this year, she simply responded, 'fear.'
Police are trying to instill fear by making these arrests. John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge instill fear with each unfounded terror alert. Fear resulted when FBI members visited protest organizers in their homes before the protests.
When hundreds of thousands marched yesterday, when hundreds exercised their freedom of speech in Times Square, they were battling fear by using their rights.
The number of people taking to the streets during this convention is a hopeful sign that Americans remain vigilant. It is good to see so many people who care. As Jesse Jackson yelled over the bullhorn: 'Help is on the way! Hope is in the air!'
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