The Heart of the Protest is on 10th Street

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.

‘It’s so nice to have this church, to be able to come back here
and find out what’s going on. We came here without a place to stay
too. Today I attended a voter registration training, and a Food Not
Bombs cooking class. And it’s beautiful to look up and see the
stained glass windows,’ said Michaela from Rhode Island,’ It’s
really the heart of this protest.’

Just north about fifteen blocks Fifth Avenue was spattered with
chaos. Clusters of protesters surrounded delegates, senators, and
even a U.S. sailor from the group Protest Warrior, holding a sign
that said, ‘Besides ending Fascism, Communism, and Terror — War
has never solved anything.’ Every corner was a Speaker’s Corner. A
girl raised near Ground Zero told a delegate wearing a kippah why
she thought protesters do not love Saddam Hussein. Sometimes all
that could be heard were expletives. Nearby a group of people sat
silently, holding a sign which said, ‘Hold Fast.’ The reverse side
read, ‘To Dignity.’

‘It’s to remind people not to give up and to stay out all
night,’ the maker of the sign said. And if it weren’t for the crowd
of people all in handcuffs who were just then being commanded to
sit on a street corner, you could almost hear the Church’s

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.