by Benjamin Smith
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 03.22.04
New York City
Salim Iqbal, lean, wispy haired, missing his two front teeth, sidled out from backstage at the antiwar rally in New York Saturday. His boss at the local Pakistani American Association, Tariq Khokhar, had just finished ranting from the bandstand: "I'd like to tell the redneck to stop immediately the occupation of the people of Palestine. Stop killing in Pakistan, stop killing in Palestine, stop killing in Bosnia." Iqbal then added the finishing touch, taping a big picture of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist and nuclear proliferator, to the front of the stage.
The New York rally was called "The World Still Says No to War," and held on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but for the dozens of speakers before and after the march, Iraq ranked a clear second to the issue of Palestine, whose four-color flag was the march's dominant symbol. Indeed, the Iraq war competed for attention with an astonishing range of causes, like Khan's "heroism" (in Iqbal's estimation) and a long list of countries supposedly suffering under the American boot. A banner over the stage at the start of the rally read, "End the Occupation of Iraq, Palestine, Haiti, and Everywhere!" and each speaker added a nation: U.S. Out of Puerto Rico! The Philippines! Bolivia! Pakistan! The Balkans!
Picking out anti-American whackos on the fringe of an antiwar protest is a cheap, unsporting form of journalism, and one I hadn't planned to indulge in. But Saturday, they weren't on the fringes--they were on the podium. Of course, the antiwar movement was, in its infancy, hijacked by the hard left. And on Saturday, despite the efforts of a more traditional left-wing group, United for Peace and Justice--they sympathize with Castro, but not Milosevic--to control the stage, the group leading off, and setting the tone, was Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER). ANSWER is a remnant of a totalitarian left that it's hard to believe still exists. The group's sympathies run to Kim Jong Il, and its website says the antiwar movement "must give its unconditional support to the Iraqi anti-colonial resistance."
All of which could be safely ignored if this was just another protest. But this was also a dress rehearsal for a moment that could affect the outcome of the election in November. "This is run-through for the convention, for us and for the cops," said David Lerner, a publicist working with United for Peace and Justice. Everyone expects the demonstrations at the Republican National Convention to be far bigger--organizers are touting them as the biggest since the Vietnam War. And few expect them to be as peaceful. The Manhattan District Attorney recently presented an inflated budget request, noting that he has been told to be ready for 1,000 arrests a day during the Republican convention.
In August, New York City will be flooded with people like Teresa Gutierrez, a squat woman in a red beret and sunglasses who faced the crowd squarely to deliver an important message: "One of the corporations that we hate so much is Coca-Cola," she told the protesters. "Never ever drink Coca-Cola again. Drinking Coca-Cola is like drinking the blood of Colombian workers." If these people didn't exist, Karl Rove might have to hire actors to play them. Come August, when Bush is inside the convention, surrounded by men in suits and hugging black people, he's going to look like a pretty sane, dare one say, wise, alternative to the anti-Coca-Cola brigade.
The mass of demonstrators, who streamed in a 40-block loop around the grottier southern chunk of Midtown, weren't all as hard core as their leaders. But the crowd has changed, and shrunk, since the huge protests last spring. Last year there were more parents with children, more neatly dressed forty-somethings, more mainstream city Democratic politicians. Saturday, from Madison Square Park to Times Square, I only saw one Dean for America fleece and one Kerry button on the thousands of protesters. More common was a Star of David, connected with an "=" sign to a swastika. One woman handed a flier to a reporter I know. Then she looked at the reporter's press pass and asked, "Are you from the Daily News?" Yes. "Are you Jewish?" Yes. "Oh, that's not going to help me," the woman said, and took the flier back.
A rap trio, Movement in Motion, who began the rally waving a Palestinian flag, seemed in tune with the mood: "We're going to open this up by dedicating it to the Democrats and the Republicans and all the rich warmongers," one rapper said. "Stay the **** out of our city, Republican National Convention." Then he led a call and response: "Bush?" "No." "Kerry?" "No."
They weren't the only ones thinking about the convention. United for Peace and Justice had pre-printed blue and white signs, and two middle-aged women toward the front of the protest stood beneath one that read, "Protest the Republican National Convention; August 29, New York City." But under it, they were debating the wisdom of showing up at those protests. "I do not want to be there. I'm worried about a confrontation. I'm worried about my safety," said one, a guidance counselor in her fifties who only gave her first name, Rachel. A marcher nearby in a Jets hat and leather jacket, Chris Hansen-Nelson, 49, said he hadn't yet decided whether to go to the convention protests. The antiwar marches were his first political activism since the Reagan administration. "If they turn violent or ugly, it could push the people in favor of security, in favor of authority," he said.
A Kerry campaign official I spoke with says the campaign is already quietly worrying about the message that violent, or simply weird, convention protests could send, and even Kerry's humblest enthusiasts are concerned. On 32nd Street and Park Avenue, as the march looped back to its origin, Peter Oberlink, 53, leaned on a police barricade, holding a sign: "Hats for Kerry." "I thought I'd sell more today," said the bespectacled Oberlink, who was hawking "Stop Bush" hats for a $20 contribution to the Kerry campaign. He gestured at a passing duo both wearing Yassir Arafat's trademark keffiyeh. "I wish people would pay more attention to the bottom line," he said. "If we don't win in November, this doesn't mean much of anything."
While the less loony marchers were worrying about the August protests' effect on the contest for the presidency, ANSWER was spoiling for a fight. "A message to Mayor Bloomberg and New York police officials: Don't even try to suppress our right to protest. We'll have to liberate New York from police occupation," said ANSWER's Larry Holmes.
Somewhere between Oberlink and Holmes is Dennis Kucinich, whose supporters turned up at 9:30 a.m. to ensure that their black banner would lead the march. Kucinich counts himself as a member of the Democratic Party, but when he took the podium, hair blowing in the wind, he seemed as unconcerned as Holmes about the message that August's rallies may send. "We refuse to accept or exchange a Republican version of the war in Iraq to a Democratic version," Kucinich proclaimed. If Iqbal, Gutierrez, and Holmes are the faces of this August's mass protests, Kucinich may get his wish.
Benjamin Smith covers politics for The New York Observer.