A Beautiful March and an Ugly Police Action

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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