The Heart of the Protest is on 10th Street

The East Village's St. Mark's Church is a sanctuary for RNC Protesters


| September 2004


The old church had never looked so full or been so happy. Volunteers from Food Not Bombs, an organization that cooks and serves free vegetarian food that would otherwise be thrown away, were cooking practically around the clock, standing on land in a churchyard that once held graves. 'Maybe that's why it seems like we're blessed by the spirits here,' said Tzadik Greenberg, who had made the trek from Arizona to protest the RNC. He held his recycled plate of warm rice and beans, custard cakes, and bananas. The night was ending around 1:00am, and the last thing left to do was the communal washing of dishes. Adam Berger, one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers, seemed a little less tired than usual. 'We only served about two thousand meals today.' Since the protesters began convening from all around the country at St. Marks Church on 10th and 2nd Avenue, they had been serving between five thousand and six thousand meals each day.

And Food Not Bombs is only one of the thousands of organizations and individuals that have come together to give spiritual, material, and organizational support to one another during what feels like a siege by police in a city so large it is hard to know just where to go, and when. St. Mark's Church has become the hub of these efforts. Since last Saturday, the Church has been serving as a sanctuary, where activists and protesters of all ages and stripes, can come together to organize the direct actions and the die-ins, the vigils beside the jails, attend workshops, find housing, information about upcoming protests, and which of their friends has been arrested -- in an overused but undeniably apt word, community. And this writer is convinced that these two forces -- tension on the streets and solidarity behind the walls where the police don't go -- are inversely related.

'I live in the neighborhood and I'm used to this space being dead and empty, said John Grady, a local musician who took a break from drumming to talk to me. 'I've come here and sat on the cobblestones before, and besides a few homeless people, I am usually the only one. Now I'm seeing this place come alive and be respected and cared for, which is probably as close to what the Church's original design was as has ever been.' In front of him, around forty people were dancing to the music of this spontaneous band of musicians. This wild 'happening,' began as a ritual, a circle of people holding hands and praying silently for peace in the courtyard. Soon some curious East Village dancers had joined. Others sat in clusters talking, or leaned on their bikes since the bike rack had no more space. Some shared stories of the day.

'At the Still We Rise March there was this old lady -- she could have been my Jewish grandma -- and this crusty punk girl. They started a conversation and the next time I looked they were marching together with their arms around one another,' said Adam Chase, who came from Michigan and was sitting with his ragtag group of friends from home, friends of friends from Olympia, Washington who had given him a ride, and a Dominican boy from Inwood whose mother was kind enough to house all of them in their apartment.

A few hours later, Mark McGuire and others also stood on the ghosts in a circle of about sixty people, acting as temporary facilitators. The phone numbers of the Lawyer's Alliance were written in permanent marker on everyone's arms and on a piece of paper at the center. He asked if the 'empowered spokes' could give their reports. 'Unfortunately, most of the empowered spokes have been arrested,' said a man in the crowd, without a touch of irony in his voice. 'It's OK, the empowered spokes that are left can speak, and after that we'll go around and hear from anyone who wants to share something.' One girl raised her hand immediately. She said that because of the events of the day (800-1,000 arrests had just been announced) she wanted to hear from everyone, even if it took more time. The facilitators bit their lips as others made silent cheers or nodded. So this is what democracy looks like, in all its tedium, in all its glory.

Throughout the evening, people praised the church, looking at the grounds as a space for needed renewal. 'I was so depressed after the Critical Mass when my bike got taken and so many people got arrested and our marches got penned in.' said Katy from Brooklyn. 'But now . . .' her voice trailed as she looked at her friends, a bittersweet smile on her face.