NEW YORK—I was on my way to Madison Square Garden Monday night, lurching up Sixth Avenue in a cab, when my driver, who’d been complaining about the lack of fares, suddenly punched his brakes. This was the fourth time I had experienced that particular sensation since lunch, so I glanced back down at my watch. But the driver hadn’t seen a traffic snarl or police barricade. He’d seen a gigantic march that was ambling west along 23rd Street with hundreds of cops and thousands of protestors in tow.
I hopped out of the cab and made for the rabble-rousers, who were hemmed by a thick line of police officers on each side. Cops filming the protestors with camcorders—a common sight all week—were milling outside the crowd. The signage was standard leftist sloganeering: “Billions for War, Nothing for the Poor,” etc. The odd thing was, no mass protest was scheduled in Manhattan Monday night—no sanctioned protest, anyway. The anti-Bush demonstrators who had played by Michael Bloomberg’s rules on Sunday had now decided to ignore them. Who says nothing happens at political conventions?
Marty Bernstein, 53, from Brooklyn, was one of the stragglers near the back of the line. He had a bushy mustache and wore olive green shorts and a matching baseball cap. He had started marching at the United Nations, he said, more than 20 blocks north and several long blocks east of our present location. A group calling itself the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign had organized a rally in a park near the U.N. After the speeches, the group’s leaders led the masses in an impromptu marathon.“The police are angry, but they’re not being confrontational,” Bernstein said. I glanced at the cops walking next to us, who had been trailing the group since the U.N. rally. Sweat was dripping from their riot helmets. They didn’t look like they had the energy to be confrontational.
Walking a few steps ahead was Art Goldberg, 63, a gangly protest organizer from Los Angeles. Goldberg still had his breath, and he reported only three or four arrests along the route. “Somebody had a lot of sense to let us march,” he said, “because there would have been a pretty nasty confrontation.” Was the parade headed for a showdown with the Secret Service at Madison Square Garden? “No route was planned,” he said. “How could you plan a march when you were told you couldn’t have a march?”
As we turned north on Eighth Avenue, another bizarre sight: a beefy, middle-aged cop shouting encouragement to the protestors with his bullhorn. “Here we are at Eighth Ave.!” he yelled. “We got eight blocks to go. Good job, guys!” I asked the cop, John Codiglia, why the New York Police Department was allowing the protest to continue unabated. “This is what it’s all about,” he said between pants. “Democracy at work, whether we agree with it or not.” The parade had passed us by, and Codiglia was busy directing a few dozen police cruisers to take up positions behind the stragglers. You said eight blocks to go, I said. What’s there? “Madison Square Garden,” he replied. I suddenly had visions of the cable networks going to split screens, with John McCain on one side and me on the other.
Just south of 30th Street, the parade froze. We’d finally made it to Madison Square Garden—as close as an unsanctioned parade can get, anyway. A police negotiator was frantically gesturing and trying to find someone in charge. The man that stepped forward was a stocky African-American named Galen Tyler, who was wearing a white T-shirt and a camouflage Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap. The cop told Tyler he could he could have 20 minutes in the “free-speech zone”—the caged area in front of the police barricades—but after that he and his charges had to go home. Tyler said, “We’ll take the kids,” and a half-dozen sub-10-year-olds stepped out of the crowd. Tyler herded them into the free-speech zone.
With the kids huddled in front of TV cameras, a woman began to scream, “George Bush is responsible for the misfortune of everyone who’s disabled. … He should be charged with a citizen’s arrest for his crimes against humanity.” The children were encouraged to shout their approval, but most of them looked terrified and exhausted.
I caught up with Galen Tyler, who was resting his bulk on a metal barricade and sipping from a Poland Spring water bottle. “They kept acting like they were negotiating with us,” he said of the NYPD, “but we were doing whatever we wanted. The opening day of the Republican Convention, we were going to have a march with or without a permit.” The 20-minute time limit expired, and the kids and protestors calmly filed past the police. Only one woman remained, an old lady who was rubbing her feet. The police helped her up and sent her on her way. Tyler smiled at the cops and said, “Thank you, thank you, and thank you.” The cops nodded back.