Notes From the RNC - The 8/31 Experience
The shock of what happened on August 31 is still wearing off for those of us unfortunate enough to be caught up in what can only be described as a desperate act by law enforcement. It seems silly to say that these were traumatizing events when there's so much more going on in the world - and in our own backyards - that's far worse. We were lucky, after all. We had the whole world watching and we had our friends outside who never stopped trying to get us out. We had the National Lawyers Guild working around the clock. And of course, we had lots of company since there were so many of us stuck together in one place. But despite all of this - and I think I speak for the majority here - what we went through shook us to the core and will take quite a bit of time to get out of our systems. If you were there then you probably already understand this. If you weren't, then this is an opportunity to share one perspective of what happened.
Now when I say August 31, I refer to the date that 1200 or so people were swept off the streets of Manhattan by the police, myself included. There were many others who were snatched on other days (the total being 1821 at last count) but August 31 has come to represent the enormity of the operation so that's how I'll always refer to it.
This was two days after the massive march through the streets of New York where up to half a million people walked past Madison Square Garden in opposition to the Republican National Convention (or, more specifically, to George W. Bush). Oddly enough, the city had managed to turn what everyone had understood was to be a peaceful event into some sort of confrontation by refusing to allow a rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park. But it all worked out for the most part: The march was a great success and lots of people came to the park to rally anyway since that's one of those rights many people believe they still have. But the park turnout was nothing like the numbers that would have shown up if there wasn't the cloud of potential trouble hanging overhead.
There were all kinds of demonstrations, marches, and acts of civil disobedience in New York throughout the week. You would think that al Qaeda was behind them all with the heavy artillery and military presence that was brought into the city. This alone was enough to shake up a lot of people and make them seriously reconsider standing out in any way. Which I suppose was the purpose. After all, not one of the tens of thousands of armed cops and commandoes could have stopped a plane from flying into a building or prevented a hidden bomb from blowing up. What they could and did do was send a powerful message that this city was now an armed camp and that those with the arms would do as they pleased and the rest of us would just have to deal with it. For many New Yorkers, it was like living under occupation.
But the message didn't get through to everyone. Especially not down at Union Square Park, where people insisted on being themselves despite all the warnings not to. They held rallies, stood on boxes shouting out to whoever would listen, got into passionate arguments with others, meditated, played music, sold literature, signed people up to vote, and never stopped. This was the place where New Yorkers gathered after September 11 to remember the victims and pray for the future without all the rhetoric and flag waving. It was the place you didn't see on television. In moments of crisis, people just tend to gravitate here.
August 31 was one of those days. The park was full. I remember watching one really heated exchange between some right wing religious people (who seemed to be saying that George W. Bush was the son of God) and just about everybody else in the park. I had to give these religious types credit for speaking their minds, even though I was convinced they had left them behind somewhere. And what was striking here was that despite the passion and emotion, everyone was able to handle it. Nobody was chased away, nobody got physical. The cops, for some reason, stayed far away from the arguments. But they were everywhere else... watching, filming, planning something. It made everyone who was aware of them uneasy. Which again was probably the purpose.
I was there to document the history that was being made. I had a mini-DV video camera, a Marantz tape deck that was strapped around my neck, and a digital camera that could also make thirty second movies. I was getting some good stuff too, not counting all the arguing. There was a tension growing in the crowd as police started implementing strange policies, like lining one of the exits with dozens of cops and forcing everyone coming and going to walk between them and not around them. One man got into an argument with a captain who told him to get moving. When the man asked for the captain's shield number, he was arrested. Just like that. The uneasy truce was definitely beginning to crumble. And, as any decent reporter will tell you, that's a situation you don't walk away from.
The police continued with this tactic for a while longer, telling people they had to move in one direction or another for no reason in particular. One of the many musicians was threatened with arrest for being in a spot that was supposedly too close to the pathway that somebody might have to walk down to get to the subway (which is almost exactly how the officer phrased it). It was complete nonsense as that was the exact spot that people play in every day. But the musician defused the situation and packed up his stuff. He wasn't the only one. I saw a guy who was distributing anti-Bush literature quickly throwing it all into a box and scurrying away after being threatened with arrest. It was weird seeing this kind of thing right in front of you and not on a TV program about some distant land where freedom is merely a concept. And it also showed me that the people here were not in any way looking for trouble. Unfair as these "orders" were, they just kept on complying.
But then the marching band started to play. And when a marching band starts to play, you naturally gravitate over to it. And that's what many people did, myself included. They sounded great and festive. So I filmed them for a while and then went off to look for something else. After a few minutes I saw that the marching band had actually started to march! They were heading north at Union Square East and apparently the police hadn't stopped them. It was hard to imagine how they could have gotten through so many cops without simply being allowed through. People naturally began to join the march. I started filming, not knowing what this was all about but it most definitely had a positive vibe to it.