Dearest friends! I had the most amazing day on Saturday and feel like I owe you a report to share a taste of what I experienced in my tiny corner of the world. Of course, my report is literally one story among millions who participated in this unprecedented united voice against the war in over 600 major cities across the planet. I can only speak from my tiny square foot of cold asphalt on the colorful and cruel streets of New York City. It was the largest demonstration in the U.S. that day and the largest the city has seen in recent memory. At the day’s height, my heart felt such peace and exuberance, I felt like I was witnessing the great awakening of a nation previously sleepwalking through history. At it’s low, I felt suffocated and crushed by heavy-handed police officers and witnessed the worst police brutality I have ever seen. Here is my story!
SNOWY BUS RIDE
I arrived at Union Station at 6:00 am Saturday morning to board one of at least five busses leaving from that location alone. I had never been on a “peace bus” before and didn’t know anyone else there, but I was looking forward to cozying up to the window and catching up on sleep as well as my wad of unread newspapers. It was dark and snowy as we pulled out, and I fell asleep surrounded by the cheerful hum of our motley crew settling into our five-hour bus ride. After lots of shifting in my cramped seat, it was a thrill to finally spot the Statue of Liberty and cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Our bewildered bus driver apparently got lost, and randomly dropped us off in the middle of Brooklyn. People poured out, all bundled up, some carrying signs, and before I knew it, I was in the subway station surrounded by strangers.
I soon recognized a friendly couple who had been sitting across from me on the bus and asked if I could follow them to the demonstration. For the rest of the day, Jim and Loree and I were inseparable! We crammed onto a packed subway car surrounded by chatty New Yorkers also headed for the protest. People were so gratified to hear that we came from DC to join their demonstration and we proceeded to talk politics for the next half hour, crammed body to body barely able to move. I craned my neck to talk to a small five-year-old girl protected by her mother’s small frame, squished up next to the door. She looked like a little protester version of a “Precious Moments” doll with her little plastic bag full of snacks and her hair plastered to her face from the static electricity. “She’s so cute,” I said to her mother, who was telling me about all the remarkable insights her daughter has had about the war. Apparently, that was not the right thing to say and the little girl looked at her mother and glared. “Cute! Did that lady call me cute? I HATE when people call me cute. People call me cute at school all the time.” Her mom tried to reassure her that my intentions were pure, and reminded her that as the only white kid in her class, she might be seen as a novelty sometimes. This kid was obviously wise beyond her years, and I felt bad for treating her as an accessory to her mother. At the mother’s suggestion, I tried to win her over by kneeling down amidst the thick forest of legs and talking more substantively about U.S. foreign policy. The problem is, the more she said, the cuter she was so I had to bite my lip to prevent myself from saying she was cute again.
THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
The subway finally jolted to a stop and people tumbled out like Niagra Falls. We lost our newfound friends, a dozen interesting conversations interrupted as we waved to some of them in the sea of people and headed outside. A police officer in the station made me remove the stick from my carefully crafted sign that said “‘Old Europe:’ Rein in our Cowboy.” Thankfully, he let Jim break it off at the base so I could have a little stub to carry and keep the spine of my sign. As we passed by smiling police officers outside and gradually started seeing more protesters filling the sidewalks, I remembered remarking how nice the cops seem to be here. Little did I know, that was all about to change as the wrath of the NYPD was gathering steam.
Tumbling onto the streets, we felt a burst of energy as we passed sympathetic pedestrians and fellow protesters, instantly recognizing each other with a kindred nod. There were women in fur coats with and anti-war buttons, families with children in strollers holding homemade signs, and colorful, hip New Yorkers with neon boas and big sunglasses. Mostly, we saw very typical Americans reflecting the incredible diversity of New York City and dozens of communities up and down the East Coast. Before we knew it, the sidewalks were packed body-to-body and we came to a standstill. The crowd was remarkably patient, despite the fact that we had a long way to go yet to get to the demonstration site. The streets were bare and yet the police blocked our entry that would have freed up the logjam. People were cold but in good spirits, jumping up and down to warm up. All of a sudden, a well-coifed woman paraded down the bare streets in high heels, as a herd of support staff ferried her wares from a good day of shopping. I don’t know if she had a poodle in tow or if I imagined it! It was a surreal moment as the police were protecting her right to shop and suppressing our right to walk.
Finally, the numbers were getting so large that police apparently had no choice but to allow us to spill out onto the streets. It still took over an hour to walk about two blocks, as the three of us inched along with the spirited and colorful crowd, packed body-to-body and frequently coming to a standstill. We were frequently taking pictures of the wonderful signs that said things like “Buy Bush a PlayStation,” “Mad Cowboy Disease,” and “I support Israel, therefore I am against the war.” We were feeling nervous about being late for the rally, and were trying to squeeze along as fast as we could. As we reached the corner of 53rd and 3,rd we cheerfully asked the police officers which way to the rally, and it soon became clear that there was no way out. Police had barricaded the streets and we were caught. Most people in the crowd were patient and continued to talk, chant and wait but some were demanding answers.
Five thousand police officers were on-hand for the festivities, including 1,000 that were called in at the last minute because of the “unexpected large numbers of protesters.” That’s apparently why they made us crawl through a labyrinth of closed streets and corralled us in isolated “pens” throughout midtown Manhattan. Funny the police were so overwhelmed by the numbers considering the following factors: a) New York is the largest city in the world and they should be used to moving people by now, especially after September 11th, b) we were by all accounts a very peaceful crowd who were simply exercising our First Amendment rights trying to get to a legal, permitted rally, and c) police estimated the crowd at 100,000 which was exactly the number that organizers got the permit for so what’s the surprise? Police purposely gave nebulous answers to everybody’s questions and stood shoulder to shoulder in riot gear blocking our progression. We heard interesting conversations with some people theorizing that police were purposely trying to keep us in small separate groups so we would be left out of the crowd counts and unable to gather as one united movement. Others thought police were trying to build an atmosphere of tension so some people in the crowd would get agitated and react with aggression. Some of the restless young people in the crowd started climbing on top of stalled mail trucks stuck in a sea of people and dancing. A carnival atmosphere was in the air as it became clear we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Everyone was very patient around us and peaceful chatter continued; spirits were remarkably high despite our apparent detention. The crowd continued to swell, and the police, sensing they were losing control, decided it was time to move in for the kill. The violence started when out of nowhere, a gang of six men in dark jogging suits ripped through the crowd, knocking Loree out of their path. I thought they were a bunch of hooligans, not plain clothed police officers. “Watch it!” she said as she pushed back, and the man turned on her. His face was red and he yelled at her, inches from her face. “YOU DO NOT PUSH A POLICE OFFICER! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” to which she asserted, “You don’t have to push me! All you had to do was ask nicely!” We soon found ourselves right up next to the police line with eerily empty streets pointlessly blocked off in front of us, and dangerously packed streets behind us. The police suddenly backed up at one point, giving us a bit more breathing room that was quickly filled up with more protesters. After a while, the crowd started chanting, “Let us through!” All of a sudden, the police commander yelled in his officers ears to “Move ‘em back!” and without further warning, the police line shifted again. The officers that had been smiling and joking only minutes before, were now suddenly charging us, forcibly shoving their bodies against ours into the crowd of fellow protesters, who started screaming and falling to the ground. “Move back! Move back!” the police hollered, as I felt my body being crushed and felt a panicky, claustrophobic feeling that made me start to cry. “I can’t!” I yelled at the woman officer pushing me, and she calmly said, “I know,” and then resumed her yelling to “Move back! Move back!” as people screamed and panic ensued.
People shouted back, “where do you want us to go?” to which one officer replied with a chuckle, “home!” I was so deflated by this comment but finally respond, “It’s our right to protest.” Someone else told the officers, “There are small CHILDREN in this crowd!” to which the officer replied, “There shouldn’t be.” All of a sudden, police officers mounted on horses charged the crowd, and I looked back in horror to see a horses head rearing as it knocked a terrified woman to the ground. “What are you doing!?” I screamed to the police officer on the horse, and I proceeded to scream that over and over as helpless tears streamed down my face and hers. I rarely cry, certainly not in public, and my response surprised me (though I was not the only one). The only way I can explain it is tears of rage as our rights were literally trampled on by people theoretically charged with protecting our safety and our rights! None of them looked at me, they just kept looking ahead like statues. I felt sympathy from some of them, and one young officer looked like he was about to cry, knowing that he didn’t sign up to crush his own people. I couldn’t believe the chaos that the erratic and violent police behavior had instigated as elderly people, families with children, and people in wheelchairs ducked for cover and tried to find a way out. Others retained their composure with a forlorn look on their faces, resigned to acting like the herded cattle that we apparently were to the city of New York.
I have been protesting all my life and never have I been so afraid and so disgusted and ashamed of my hypocritical country as I was that day. As a white woman growing up in a small town, I internalized the images in children's books about nice cartoon cops in happy blue uniforms. I never harbored the fear and distrust of cops in my bones that I intellectually understood until I saw it with my own eyes on Saturday. It wasn’t the terrorists or the criminals that were putting our lives in danger. It was the NYPD and the Mayor and the Judge that denied us a permit to march and instead, created a pressure cooker trap where we were cornered and attacked.
MORE POLICE BRUTALITY
Here are some additional accounts
I found posted on Indymedia: “Hysteria broke out because there was
no where to move, we were surrounded by police, buildings and blockades
on all sides. I was standing next to an elderly man who was knocked to
the ground and trampled, his ankle sprained or broken. He was very
upset. On the other side of me, a young woman began hyperventilating.
Suddenly, several of us saw police violently throwing a few young men on
the ground, arresting them. We could not tell what had happened, but we
tried to get as close as we could to witness what was going on. The horses
burst in, and again, the police were about four layers thick so that you
could not see what they were doing to the people being arrested.
They began using pepper spray or mace on people they had already thrown
on the ground. Although we weren’t doing anything but witnessing, we were
immediately surrounded by police and horses, and had to sit down to prevent
another stampede over us. As we walked east towards 2nd and 53rd, we could
tell that there had been similar clashes on other blocks throughout the
entire area. Police on horseback were at every intersection, and it seems
that no one from the area had made it to the rally.”
And another: “I was
at the NYC protest from 11:30am until about 3:30 when I had feared for
my life, twice, and both times due to the NYPD. The horses of the
mounted officers riding through the streets kept spooking, of course (poor
animals) and at one point one horse was running down the sidewalk Third
Avenue, causing a large avalanche of people all falling to the ground.
when we started marching on times square, there were already more police
in riot gear there than I could count. They poured out of their vehicles
with night sticks raised, screaming at the crowd to get back on the sidewalks.
Similar to the incident mentioned above about the police holding groups
of people in the cold: we reached a corner in Times Square and were stopped
by a line of police officers. They were forcing the protesters back on
the sidewalks, causing a push of people onto the side. The protesters
right on the corner, myself included, were getting shoved up and crushed
against the police. We were terrified of getting trampled, and the
police would pretend it was not happening at all, and would not let us
My new friends and I were
resigned to the fact that we would never make it to the demonstration,
and were just glad to finally find an escape route. We decided to
go back to the subway to make sure we get to our bus on time, and as we
walked, I had in my mind the faces of some of the more vulnerable people
in the crowd that I saw further back in the pressure cooker coral.
The horses must be reaching them by now and we worried about them.
We got a bite to eat and walked for about a half hour looking for a subway
station that would let us in. We ended up in Time’s Square and once
again I felt invigorated by the pocket of protesters that had assembled
there, surrounded by Broadway lights, towering buildings, and enormous
billboards. It was an incredible feeling, until we were wedged into
another logjam that inched its way across the street, only to become charged
again, out of the blue, by the line of police. Once again, people
screamed and cried out in panic and pain as people were wrestled to the
ground, and we looked at each other in disbelief. Just as quickly
as they surged against us, they let us past again. We walked past
them warily, not knowing when they would strike again.
There have got to be scores of injuries since we just saw the tip of the iceberg, but no mention of anything of the sort in the New York Times. I read later that there were 257 arrests for “disorderly conduct!” In the countless protests I’ve been to in DC, there have never been more than a handful of arrests and oftentimes none! The crowd is exactly the same…peaceful, with a few “radicals” who don’t take too kindly to being pushed around. Granted, there’s more space in DC and they are more used to protests. But there is still no acceptable excuse to what happened in New York on Saturday, which has been silenced in the mainstream press, as if it didn’t happen. So, at the risk of belaboring this one aspect of the day’s events, I wanted to make sure you knew what really happened. How did the police chief classify the day’s demonstrations? I nearly choked on my breakfast when I read this in the paper Saturday morning. “I think it went well,” he said, “It was orderly.”
SHOUTING MATCH (WITH A PRO-WAR GRANDMOTHER)
As we walked along the streets mixed with protesters and pedestrians, happily chatting away, we came upon three generations of pro-war women who were itching for a fight. It was the matriarch who started it, turning around to tell us, “You all should take the next boat leaving that harbor and go live in Iraq.” Why would we want to do that, I asked her. We can’t protest there! “That’s the point” she said, and I still don’t get her point. I told her we were just exercising our freedoms and my friends said, “You want us to be more like Iraq and not be able to protest?” Things proceeded to get ugly and before we knew it, I was asking her if she was Christian and suggested she read her Bible. They yelled back that I better read mine, and we parted ways, still worked up and wishing we had handled the whole confrontation differently. This was definitely not our moment to shine. We were tired, we were agitated, before we knew it, we were yelling at a grandmother who was picking a fight with us. Then, two blocks later, we spotted them again. Too late to shift course, we went decided to finish the job and proceeded to yell Bible verses at them. “Thou Shalt Not Kill!” I shouted. “Love your enemy as yourself!” Loree called out, as peaceful Bible verses filled the streets of New York. This is one moment when it really comes in handy to be a child of a minister, which I found out Jim is too! He was fueling lines to us, having more integrity than to join in the shouting match. We repented later but that doesn’t mean we can’t still laugh about it.
THE LONG RIDE HOME
The bus ride home was one of the highlights of the day. Jim and I started talking about how alone we felt in our thoughts and approach to progressive politics, and one by one we were joined by the thoughtful passengers around us who felt exactly the same way. For the next four hours, we talked about how to reawaken the progressive movement for social justice in this country, and in the process, found it reawakening in ourselves. We found we had a lot in common, including a resentment/annoyance of the radical factions of the peace movement that generate such bad press and alienate newcomers from feeling welcome in the movement. We have the same level of frustration with the “good democrats” who sit on their hands and don’t speak out or act. Where do we fit in? What can we do? What will it take to ignite this movement short of another Martin Luther King who so brilliantly wove together causes and inspired people to organize? We exchanged e-mail addresses and decided at the very least, we should get together on a regular basis to share our ideas and support each other. Our only conclusion was that we had better become the leaders we seek. Pretty bold conclusions for people who consider themselves “otherwise shy!”
Exhausted but happy, I slipped into slumber with peace music playing softly on the tape player and a dozen quiet conversations in the dark bus. People were calling loved ones on their cell phones and reports spread like wildfire of over a million marching in London, and rumors of a half a million in New York. As beautiful images of the day flashed before my mind, I wondered how the actual rally was. I had done an informal poll on the bus earlier and only one person I talked to had made it there, having to sneak through restaurants, eluding police barricades. Replaying the images of the kaleidoscope of emotions, I didn’t feel like I missed out too much. After all, how often does someone (who's not on drugs) one feel battered and empowered, euphoric and inspired, cold and warm from one minute to the next? I felt proud to be an American, I felt ashamed to be an American, but always grateful that I was there, just trying to re-shape history, surrounded by such good souls.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Jim took some great pictures (including one of me and my sign) which can be found at: http://www.yellowstonemagic.com/februarypeace. He also wrote an extensive, detailed account of the day’s events and some more good stories about the adventures with his wife Loree and I which you can find at: http://www.yellowstonemagic.com/februarypeace/februarypeace.html
Here’s an excerpt: “In the middle of all the tension, all the pushing and shoving, namecalling and division, somewhere in the middle of all of that, I also felt the rebirth of the soul of the left. It might have been hard to notice, especially if you were in New Jersey looking out across at a placid skyline. And, of course, the birth of a soul is never easy to see, but let me tell you about what I have seen happen in these last minutes to midnight...”
For pictures and more personal accounts of the police brutality, as well as number estimates of the crowds around the world, see http://www.indymedia.org/ (I don’t like their crass references to the police officers or praising of some of the anarchists causing trouble, but it’s a very interesting site with some good alternative accounts of the day you won’t find in the mainstream media). For a pretty good overall article on this historic day of worldwide protests (including some moving quotes from the mother of a firefigher who died on 9/11) see this article from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/02/15/sprj.irq.protests.europe/index.html
SNOWSTORMS FOR PEACE
Mother Nature has followed suit and I am delighted to see that “people in the streets” and “snow in the streets” are eclipsing any headlines for war. Shortly after our bus pulled into DC at 11:00 pm on Saturday night, the snowstorm began and it didn’t stop until just a few minutes ago (Monday morning), covering the city in an 18-inch blanket of heavy white snow. This has GOT to interfere with some of the war effort. I mean, really; Can you see Donald Rumsfeld commuting to work in a snowmobile? I look out from my perch on East Capitol Street and the only traffic on the street is a parade of cross-country skiers. I am aching for my skis and imagine myself carrying a protest sign skiing through the snowy streets in celebration. WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!
Peace out, Jamila