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The Republicans in New York: preparing for an elephant stampede

About the author
Sam Howard–Spink is a writer and doctoral student at New York University.

Madison Square Garden is a hectic corner of Manhattan all year round, but the arrival of the Republican National Convention on Monday 30 August has raised the bar. A week beforehand the hotels around the coliseum–shaped venue were already adorned with tricolour decorations. Surrounding buildings sport advertisements with political twists: a cellular network will let you “make campaign promises faster”. Police vehicles and television news vans surround the garden on all sides, and National Guard soldiers patrol the labyrinthine pathways of Pennsylvania station below. From Monday, the surrounding blocks will be closed off to form a secure “safety zone” while the convention is in session.

For independent argument and commentary on the 2004 US election, read the regular openDemocracy columns of Todd Gitlin, John Hulsman, and Siva Vaidhyanathan

10,000 police officers will be involved in convention security. New equipment has been purchased, including bulletproof vans and two $30,000–apiece long–range acoustic devices that can broadcast announcements to the far reaches of huge crowds. (These speakers also come with a “shrieking feature” to disperse mobs with a high–pitched blast, although the police do not plan to use this capability at the convention.) The police and National Guard will watch over the 50,000 participants, which will include 2,500 delegates and 15,000 members of the media.

In addition, an estimated 250,000 people will arrive in Manhattan to protest the Bush administration and his party. This marks the largest throng of protesters at a major convention since Chicago 1968, which remains infamous for the violence that erupted between over–zealous police and anti–war demonstrators. Dozens of independent groups are planning events large and small, from the massive march planned for 29 August to the street–theatre of satirical group Billionaires for Bush. Some twenty permits for large gatherings have been granted by the city, but many smaller groups claim the only permit they require to express their grievances is the United States constitution’s first amendment, with its guarantee of the right of peaceable assembly. Despite the meticulous planning on all sides, no one knows quite what to expect.

The most significant unknown factor remains what to do with the quarter million people expected to attend the largest protest on Sunday, the day before the convention. On Wednesday a months–long tussle between City Hall and protest group United For Peace and Justice over where to stage the rally that will follow the already permitted march past Madison Square Garden came to an end with a state judge ruling on 25 August that no permit would be given. The mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, had insisted that a rally in Central Park would ruin the Great Lawn, which was renovated in the 1990s at a cost of millions of dollars. UFPJ said it was the people’s Constitutional right to protest that is being trampled on. The city offered the use of the West Side Highway, but UFPJ has refused citing safety risks and expense.

In light of the judge’s ruling, UFPJ has abandoned its plans for a rally altogether. Instead, it was announced late on Thursday 26 August – after an emergency meeting between UFPJ and the New York police (NYPD) – that Sunday’s march will now head back downtown to Union Square after passing the Republican convention center at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, the protest group Answer has announced its intention to hold a rally in Central Park – without a permit – on Saturday. The police have yet to say how they will respond to such unauthorised gatherings. The potential for volatile confrontations is genuine and alarming.

Yet for such a highly–charged standoff, there is less overt hostility between the parties than might be expected. Mayor Bloomberg last week launched his “Peaceful Political Activists” visitor programme, which allows “good” activists to take advantage of discounts at hotels, fast food outlets – “It’s no fun to protest on an empty stomach”, says Bloomberg – and Broadway musicals.

Meanwhile, word around the activist groups is that direct confrontation in the “black bloc” mould would be entirely counterproductive and play directly into the hands of Republican media spinners. This is no idle fear: the New York Times reported on 22 August that Republicans were already planning on “portraying protests by even independent activists as Democratic–sanctioned displays of disrespect for a sitting president”.

openDemocracy’s analysis of the issues behind the Democratic National Convention in Boston included Mark Medish’s powerful article, “Four more years for Big Brother?” (July 2004)

But the protests, and to a lesser extent to convention itself, are largely decentralised. The general strategy of the dozens of diverse groups can be summed up as “autonomous actions occurring simultaneously”, while scores of Republican events will be held at venues across the city’s five boroughs. Even the best–laid plans of all parties can do little to guarantee that all will run smoothly.

Other sinister undercurrents flow beneath the gloss and welcoming postures. The security forces guarding the convention against threats of terrorism are the same ones policing protesters and civil disobeyers. In the current political climate, all kinds of resistive activities can be labelled “unpatriotic”, which is only a short rhetorical hop from “domestic terrorism”. Reports hit the media last week of visits by the FBI to the homes of activists around the country planning to come to New York. Protest groups based in the city and further afield are fully aware of stepped up surveillance of their activities, including the use of undercover officers to infiltrate and spy on them. Depending on one’s perspective, in post–9/11 America these measures are either necessary for the protection of the homeland or part of the systematic erosion of civil liberties.

As for the New York natives, there are a variety of responses to the circus coming to town. Many locals are heading to the hills until it’s all over, although August is a time when many New Yorkers make an escape anyway. For those staying, there is plenty of dark humour to keep us amused in the face of the disruption. The Daily News reported earlier this summer that an influx of sex workers would be doing their part to make conventioneers welcome. Out–of–towners may wish to practice particularly safe sex, since the New York blogs this week buzzed with the rumour that prostitutes with STDs were being encouraged to pass them on to their Republican customers. Prizes are also on offer for digital snaps of famous conservative faces leaving houses of ill–repute.

How far does democracy extend in a world with one superpower? openDemocracy’s Letters to Americans series brings citizens of America and the world together in a series of election year dialogues.

As always, a good barometer of the city’s attitude can be found in David Letterman’s nightly Late Show monologue. On 22 August he asked his audience if there were any Republicans in the audience that evening. After a moment of hesitation followed by a smattering of applause, Dave said the Republicans were coming to New York to do two things: “To slander John Kerry and try to get laid.” The best the city can hope for is that when everyone has gone home, there will still be a funny side.

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