The RNC in NYC: The Un-Convention in the Streets
by Mariva H. Aviram
Friday, September 3, 2004
Welcome to New York
I should have expected them; it just hadn't occurred to me that they'd be at the airport to greet us. There they were, gathered around the incoming flights, around all the areas we'd be passing or waiting in: the corridors outside the security checkpoints, the escalators, the baggage carousel. They comprised an impressive mix of types: some white, a few of South Asian descent, a bunch of college-age men, one woman who looked like a Midwestern suburbanite. They seemed mildly hopeful while scoping the crowd from the just-deplaned flight, as if looking for a dance partner at the junior high sock-hop. They wandered around, a little bereft after a while. If they'd read the overhead computer screen displaying that our flight had just arrived from San Francisco -- one of the few cities even more liberal than New York -- they might have realized that they weren't going to find their people among us. When our luggage finally arrived, we wheeled our suitcases nonchalantly past these lonely, ignored wallflowers, steadfastly holding their red, white and blue invitations to dance: "Republican National Convention: Welcome Delegates."
We'd arrived just in time for the heat wave, a massive, city-wide sauna as we navigated a labyrinth of public transit terminals, transferring here and there, awkwardly blocking aisles with our luggage, unable to catch a taxi from Penn Station (located right next to Madison Square Garden, the location of the RNC). Spoiled by the year-round mild climate of San Francisco, we weren't used to this heat and humidity, rivulets of sweat dripping down our faces while our fellow passengers somehow managed to appear cool and dry.
Despite carrying our suitcases up and down escalators, over thresholds of subways, stopping in the middle of rush-hour foot traffic to figure out where to go next, I was astounded by the politeness and patience of those around us: strangers striking up friendly conversations, unsolicited offers to help us decipher the color-coded subway map and find our way, stressed out commuters quickly and quietly getting over their annoyance with our slowness. How did New Yorkers ever develop a reputation for being rude? I've seen a lot more rudeness in the SUV-congested traffic of suburbs than I have here in one of the densest cities in the world.
Three Jews and a Black Guy
It's a little bizarre how a place can seem exotic after a long absence. I grew up in Goldens Bridge, a small town in Northern Westchester County, within commuter-train distance of the city. I've lived in San Francisco since 1989 and, for various reasons, haven't been back to New York in fourteen years. Because San Francisco is a city of transplants (I've heard that nine out of ten people are from somewhere else), the longer you live in San Francisco, the more of a native you become. After fifteen years, I've become a fixture. I'm used to the neighborhoods, the ethnic populations, the food, the culture, the unspoken rules of behavior.
I'm about to say something that I know will make me sound as if I'm from Podunkville, but I'll say it anyway. Perhaps one of the best, most amazing things about New York is the sheer number of black people here. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed seeing black people before I arrived. During the mid- to late-90s, San Francisco underwent a socioeconomic upheaval because of the dot-com boom. Droves of hopeful dot-commers moved to the Bay Area, which sent the cost of housing skyrocketing. The populations that make a city vital -- people of color, the working class, families who'd been there for generations, young people, students, artists -- were gentrified out in just a few years. The African American population plummeted from a sizable number on par with other major U.S. cities to about seven percent. Many of the remaining African Americans live in Bayview-Hunter's Point, a forgotten corner of San Francisco (portrayed eloquently by Kevin Epps's anthropological documentary, Straight Outta Hunter's Point), which is economically and geographically isolated from the rest of the city.
During the years of these dramatic social changes, K Chronicles cartoonist and Marginal Prophets hip hop artist Keith Knight performed a goofy social experiment. He posted flyers around town advertising black-people rental services, so that rich white trendy types could hip up their parties with some color. (The bottom of the flyer said, "We have Latinos, too!") The phone number on the tear-off sheet went to a voicemail box, from which Knight said that he listened to an unpredictable variety of messages from callers: people sharing their appreciation for the biting satire, the media looking to report an interesting story, confused people who were angry or didn't understand the point. The saddest thing of all, said Knight, was that black people called in, looking for work.
The other population I hadn't seen in a while was my own people. Sure, San Francisco has a few Jews here and there -- and a handful of synagogues, including Sha'ar Zahav, the gay synagogue -- but we blend in pretty well, rushing around on Saturdays and eating chazerai with the rest of the goyim. But here in Jew York, members of the bagel tribe practically run the place. My partner, a semi-professional photographer, was eager to make a pilgrimage to B&H Photo, which is considered the best and most renowned source for photography, video and audio gear, lighting equipment and lenses. With careful planning on Saturday afternoon, we assumed it'd be open by the time we got there and that there'd be plenty of time to browse. But it was closed when we arrived, and we were baffled. Since it was near Penn Station, we thought it might be closed because of the massive police presence around Madison Square Garden, the barricades set up all over the streets and the general chaos created by the RNC in New York. I looked at the hours of operation and saw that the store was closed on Friday afternoons starting at 2 PM and all day on Saturdays and were open on Sundays. Then it dawned on me: the people who run this place were Jews, and not your garden variety knish-eating, Seinfeld-watching ones; these were hard-core Yids who were closed for business on the busiest shopping day of the week in order to observe the Sabbath.
I've always been proud of the ethnic diversity of San Francisco, especially compared to an exceedingly white city like Seattle. (Someone told me that Seattle hadn't allowed Jews and Blacks to be buried within city limits until just a few decades ago, but I can't find verification of this.) The Mission District is famous for its Latino population, with immigrants and their descendants mostly from Mexico and Central America. The city has a wide variety of Asian ethnicities, including those from many areas of China as well as from Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. There's also a impressive number of Palestinian refugees. But in New York, I'm seeing such a diversity of Blacks and Jews: everyone from preppy students congregating around the many kosher delis to bearded black-coat-and-tallis-clad Hassidim to black teenagers wearing baggy hip hop clothes and speaking Spanish. I walked past three young men wearing kipot who were engaged in a lively conversation with an African American guy about the same age. They might have been talking about the RNC. "Isn't that amazing?!" I exclaimed to my partner. "I just saw three Jews talking to a black guy! They're talking politics!"
We hit the ground running. By the time we'd arrived in New York, the anti-RNC activities were underway. All week long there were so many marches, demonstrations and protests, theatre performances, poetry readings, lectures and discussions, art exhibits, political documentary screenings and concerts that it's been hard to choose what to attend. There's also the tiredness factor: the combination of the heat and marching all over the city leaves us so exhausted that it's only the excitement of the marvelous events of this historic week that keeps us going to one thing after another.
During the pro-choice march organized by Planned Parenthood on Saturday, a large group of mostly women carried "I <heart> Pro-Choice NY" signs across the wooden pedestrian ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge from Cadman Plaza to City Hall, passing views of downtown Manhattan, Governors and Ellis Islands and the Statue of Liberty. In the middle of the bridge, on the border between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan, stood a locally famous politician, dubbed the Mayor of Brooklyn. "Aftah this point, you ah no longah in Brooklyn," he informed us. "You wanna leave? Fuhgeddaboudit!"
When we got to City Hall, we all crowded onto the sidewalk for the pro-choice rally. The grassy park around City Hall was surrounded by a fence, and a long-time New Yorker told me that people are no longer allowed to congregate on the grass. This reminded me of Mayor Bloomberg's excuse not to allow the peace march to converge at Central Park for the final rally because of the recently planted grass. "What's with the grass fetish in this city?" I asked. The New Yorker laughed and said that Bloomberg was an "environmentalist."
Set a Course for Democracy
Besides the ubiquitous hot dog and pretzel vendors and newspaper kiosks, one of the most famous icons of New York is the complex subway system, which can take you anywhere you want to go, anytime, planned or on a whim. I've heard it likened to the transportation of Star Trek: "Computer, set a course for Union Square." Waiting on the platforms is like hanging around in a convection oven, but the trains usually arrive impressively quickly, and the car interiors are air-conditioned. If you have some money, a place to stay and an unlimited Metro pass, the world is your oyster.
New Yorkers also walk all over the place, and they walk fast -- at a rate of about a street block per minute (avenue blocks are two and a half times as long as street blocks). Because everyone walks so much, and so quickly, there doesn't seem to be an obesity problem in the city -- something that hadn't occurred to me until I saw Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's documentary about fast food. Most people look trim and fit, and even the chubby folks seem to be in good shape.
In the evening, I took the 1/9 red line uptown to 116th Street at Columbia University and walked a few blocks northeast to the historic Riverside Church to attend the Code Pink concert, featuring Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler, Global Exchange and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin, Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman and hip hop performance poet Aya De Leon. Code Pink awarded Pink Badges of Courage to various peace activists, including Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son Jesus was the fifth soldier to die in the Iraq war, and Kelly Dougherty, a young Iraq War veteran who co-founded the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. I was moved to tears by del Solar's speech, and when I met him later in the lobby, I shook his hand and said that I was inspired by his bravery and compassion, and that his son will never be forgotten. (View photos -- scroll down a bit -- of del Solar comforting a young woman in Union Square who was looking at a pair of boots worn by a soldier killed in Iraq.)
The Un-Convention in the Streets
On Sunday, while Boo was taking photos of Michael Moore and Jesse Jackson at the front of the gigantic United for Peace and Justice march, I met up with San Francisco-based agitprop street theatre troupe Insane Reagan at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street. I donned an alien costume, and along with another alien, displayed a sign that said "The aliens abducted the weapons of mass destruction." Marchers stopped to laugh and take pictures of us, and I felt like an anonymous celebrity. It was fun for about five minutes. The broiling heat and endless river of people made me want to move on.
As I made my way with the crowd along Seventh Avenue at a tortoise's pace, stopping to listen to a colorful New Orleans-style jazz band playing danceable peace songs and admire the vast creativity of the signs and t-shirts (everything from "Abu Gareff," Bush's infamous mispronunciation of Abu Ghraib, to "Brooklyn out of Palestine" to "George Bush: Worse than Rod Stewart"), I ran into a twenty-something music teacher I'd met at the Code Pink concert. I tagged along with her and her friends, marching with the 100,000+ crowd up Seventh Avenue until we arrived at Madison Square Garden, which was surrounded by police behind barricades. (The marquee above the entrance said "Welcome," which seemed a bit ironic to say the least.) The crowd chanted, "Go home, Bush!" despite the fact that Bush would only be in town for a few hours on Thursday evening for his convention speech. Boo later called to tell me that he'd seen a long mock funeral procession of faux coffins covered with American flags and had taken some photos of a big dragon being set on fire in front of the entrance. (Despite sketchy eyewitness reports of the dragon fire incident, the police arrested a young man named Josh Banno; the bail was set at $200,000.)
Because the vast majority of marchers were peaceful and the police officers were mellow and even friendly to some extent, the major conflict in the streets wasn't between the protesters and the police as had been predicted: it was between the Kerry supporters and the deluded Naderites. My new friends and I, all Kerry supporters, found ourselves walking behind a big throng of scruffy-looking Naderites, and we couldn't resist getting into ridiculous arguments with them. They were echoing the same rhetoric from the 2000 election, and while some of it was valid then, they weren't at all taking into consideration the dramatic political changes of the past four years. I heard later that there were many such arguments all day long.
"Let's get away from these Nader people!" said Angela, a fashionably dressed Korean-American twenty-something. She led us to Wonjo, one of her favorite restaurants in Koreatown, a place that only a New Yorker would know about. We ducked into the air-conditioned relief and, with the help of Angela's nearly fluent Korean, ordered a variety of spicy dishes that seemed like an amalgam of Chinese and Japanese food.
The marching continued all around Midtown until evening, when many people did end up going to Central Park despite Mayor Bloomberg's successful effort to deny a rally permit to United for Peace and Justice. News and police helicopters were buzzing overhead, just as they did during the major antiwar marches in San Francisco in 2003. I've heard estimates of between 100,000 to 400,000 people in the streets -- the largest protest of a political convention in history.
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The John Lennon "Imagine" memorial, a circular mosaic embedded in a footpath in Strawberry Fields on the western 1, 2