Conventional Wisdom: The RNC Hits New York

All eyes in the United States were on New York city this week, as Republicans held their national convention in my hometown. While I had initially considered skipping town, I ended up staying in the city and volunteering with the New York chapter of the ACLU. Following is a quick summary of some of the experiences I’ve had during this incredible time.

Before the convention

For New Yorkers, the Republican effort started becoming visible weeks ago, as police tightened up the area. Living only a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, where conventioneers gathered, I started to realize with some level of concern that this convention had the potential of being a major annoyance. Rumors were flying high of the potential of some public transportation being shut down and, in the absence of actual information from the city (since none of the plans beyond street closures were revealed until the last minute), most New Yorkers made do with rumors.

Feeling that I needed to take a break and figuring that this might be a good time to skip town, I started planning on taking time off from work for convention week several months in advance. It then hit me that the mass hysteria stirred up by some of the more extreme newspaper (The NY Post, for example) was just media people playing around with facts that had little grounding in reality. Besides, having been through town on 9/11 and then again during last year’s blackout, I figured that New Yorkers had the guts and resolve to face any challenge. Combined with the lure of being close to a hot story, this left me with the decision to stick around.

The next question became how to best experience this. Of course, I knew that I had little chance to get into the convention itself but its perimeter seemed to offer a million interesting stories. With hundreds of thousands of protesters at the ready, it seemed to me that a potentially huge story could be developing outside the convention center, directly on the streets of Manhattan.

The First Amendment

One of the reason I love living in the United States is its constitution and attached bill of rights. Go read it, if you haven’t already. It’s quite a combo and of course, coming out of journalism, I fell deeply enamored with the first amendment and its protection of the press. However, re-reading it recently, I became more keenly aware of its other parts:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

These considerations, in an age of increasing uncertainty in the balance of civil liberties versus security, have led me to be a contributor to the American Civil Liberties Union, a group that works hard to ensure that the government lives by this promise.

As a contributor, I get to receive the newsletter for the local New York chapter and had recently learned from it that there would be a storefront established during the Republican convention as part of a wider campaign to protect the rights of protesters. This seemed like a great fit for me and I walked in there on the Saturday prior to the convention, asking if they needed volunteers. They did and I signed up to start on the following Monday, the first day of the convention.

Protesting

I am not a radical leftist. Nor am I on the right. The best way I could possibly describe myself on the political spectrum would probably be extreme centrist. I believe almost religiously in the genius of capitalism. That belief is only trumped by my belief in what I would call “Capital D Democracy”: A government of the people, by the people and for the people. Coming from Europe, I may have a different view from most Americans when it comes to social issues. I strongly believe that anyone should have access to free health care and free high grade education. Because those sit at the core of my political belief, and because I grew up politically through the Bush father administration, followed by the Clinton administration, I would probably qualify as a fairly conservative (small d) democrat in the United States.

Over the past couple of years, I must say that I’ve drifted a little further into that camp, as a direct result of what I’ve experienced and what I read. As everyone knows, September 11th was a horrible day, when many of us lost friends in the Twin Towers. Looking back at that time, I still feel that the Bush administration did a great job by going into Afghanistan to dislocate the Taliban, which had been a long-time supporter of Al-Qaeda. I know that it must have been hard to do so, as no president really wants to put soldiers in harm’s way. The Afghani mission was an important one and one that still needs more support than it gets.

However, as many New Yorkers, I felt blindsided when the administration decided to start making the case for going into Iraq. I had read a fair amount about Iraq and the middle east region in general. As far as I could tell from all the newspapers and magazine reports I was reading, Sadam Hussein was a megalomaniac who would do anything to hold on to power. After being rebuffed from Kuwait by an international coalition led by Bush pere, he had focused inland, using chemical weapons against the Kurds in order to avoid having them overthrow him. For the following decade, the United Stations enforced sanctions that contained him while looking for more information about what types of weapons he had. He kept stonewalling them on two major issues: chemical and nuclear weapons. I personally believe that this was a tactical moved aimed at dealing with internal Iraqi issues: By stonewalling the UN, he ensured that questions would be raised as to how many of those weapons he could have. If word that he held chemical weapons came back into Iraq, along with the remembrance of what he did to Kurds, people would be afraid to attempt an uprising. Similarly, if word was spread that he had a nuclear program, Iran might stay more quiet.

In fall 2002, then CIA-director Tenet testified before Congress about the Iraqi thread. His belief at the time (or at least what he told senators) was that involving ourselves in Iraq would only increase the terrorist threat. Having lived through 9/11, the words increase and threat were not the ones I wanted to hear. At the time, reports from the United States and Europe also pointed out that there was no credible reports of evidence linking Iraq and Al-Qaeda. This was all public information available in late 2002 (I do read a lot on the Internet, not only by using RSS feeds but also visiting the web sites of several news sources in the United States, United Kingdom, and France). This led me to believe that the Iraqi threat was being overstated. However, trying to keep an open mind, I listen to arguments from the administration and, for every point they would make, there would be tens of rebuttal points coming from European publications.

I started to feel that people living in the US were being bamboozled so I started listening more closely to the people advocating peace. I did not agree with all of them (I believe war is sometimes necessary) but I did agree with them that this threatened conflict (at the time, the war had not started) was one that was unnecessary. I joined demonstrations, I met smart people there. Over time, I became more acquainted with the issues surrounding them. While I disagreed with the most extremist elements, I believed in their rights to free speech.

Last year on February 15, a huge march was impeded by the police, which would not let people get to the proper location of the rally and where policemen would provide misleading information to people who were trying to legally join the march. The tactics prompted an ACLU lawsuit which resulted in orders by the court for the police to alter their practices. Knowing this, I still approached the largest protest set for August 29th with a little apprehension.

It turned out that I didn’t need to. The police worked hard to keep the peace while respecting the rights of protester. Countless times, I saw police officers doing their job as they should, ensuring that things would work out and that protesters could stay safe. With half a million people taking to the streets of Manhattan and a police contingent that numbered in the thousands, it turned out to be a really great event and made me feel better about the week that was to come up. All the tension that had existed prior to the protests starting seemed to dissipate and free speech was respected, just as the founding fathers would have it.

With protesters as far as the eyes could see (45 blocks of solidly packed people were taken over by the protest), my wife and I joined the 1000 coffins group, which honored the memory of fallen American soldiers in Iraq, all the while making a powerful statement on the impact of this war on our troops.

At the end of the protest route, I had the chance to witness a crowd of hundreds of people folding American flags in a way that was both respectful and legal.

The New York Observer

On Monday, after some basic training on what to do and what to watch for, I made my first foray in the field. The police presence was strong at every event but, for the most parts, things would run OK during daylight. Once night fell, however, it seemed that the police turned into Mr. Hyde, arresting peaceful protesters rather quickly and working in an intimidating fashion otherwise. Many of the clashes I personally witnessed were at night, probably as much the result of exhaustion (I don’t know how long the police shifts were but it seems that nerves were more frayed towards the end of the day, leading me to conclude that some of the officers may have been tired).

Much of what a legal observer does is very similar to what a journalist does. Largely, the job of a journalist in the field is to sit around the location of an event and talk to people, hoping to get some juicy bit. Often, it’s just sitting around waiting for something to happen. In the case of legal monitors, the situation is similar; you sit (or stand) around, checking whether fencing is locked or not, and eventually post yourself in a location where it is likely that something would happen. You then idle around that location until something happens, and then start taking notes, observing whether policemen are doing their job properly and calling in to the main office if infractions are very serious and could lead to further trouble. Your job is, however, not as a participant but an observer.

Occasionally, you cross the line into a more active role, at the request of one of the two actors (protesters or cops) asking you to step in. For example, I was asked by a cop if I could work as a liaison to help relay an inquiry to the leader of a protest group. After putting the top officer in charge on the scene with the lead organizer in touch with each other, I watched the interaction to ensure that the police was not trying to abuse its power. The discussion between the two people was tense but cordial and an agreement was quickly struck, leading to an eventual change of location for the protester so they would not block regular pedestrian traffic and a pull-back from the police force so they would not seem as intimidating to protesters. This was an example of the two groups working together properly.

While police and protesters danced around each others, with legal monitors and observers like myself checking the scene out, other people seemed intent on disturbing this tight choreography. At ground zero, a woman looked at my ACLU T-shirt and exclaimed “the ACLU, those free speech Nazis” (emphasis is mine).

However, at times, there were failures. I witnessed such a failure at ground zero on Tuesday when police worked with a group called the War Resisters League decided to start a march from ground zero to Madison Square Garden. The police worked out what seemed like an agreement to let protesters go through their march without a permit and then, a few minutes later, changed its mind and arrested a number of people. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of such incident can be considered fairly worrisome and a true threat to democracy.

Republicans in the Square, Dancers in Elephant country

Fortunately, the real spirit of democracy could also be felt this week and it came for a bi-partisan effort to work together. On Tuesday night, a group of about half a dozen Republicans skipped their attendance at the convention and headed down to Union Square, where many of the protesters were gathering. A dizzying array of discussions ensued as people from the complete political spectrum engage in debate for most of the evening. Groups gathered to listen in, sometimes throwing extra discussion points into the flow. Conversations covered such a wide range of issues such as the recent success/failure of the war in Iraq, the economy, educational reform, job programs, environmental issues, general foreign policy, etc… Kudos to those republicans for having the guts to enter their enemies’ territory and be willing to engage into longer discussion on policy matters. If such thing were happening more frequently, we would be better off as a country.

Sadly, however, the current tenor of the political dialogue seem to be far from such matters. When discussion surrounding candidates are limited to “George Bush is a baby-killer” or “John Kerry is a flip-flopper”, the system needs fixing and it is incumbent on everyone to get involved in creating that fix. There are approximately two months between now and the US presidential election so I would urge all my readers in the United States to do the following: find someone you disagree with politically, and agree to go out to lunch at least once a week to discuss political matters. Similarly, put pressure on politicians to discuss issues of substance. Whether John Kerry should have received two or three purple hearts in Vietnam, or whether George Bush did not tend to his national guards duties during the same era will have little relevance on the future of the country. What does, however, is how they see the future of the country. There are substantial differences in how the different candidates view the world. Dig in, get informed, and go out and get other people to do the same. It’s part of the homework required to make a democracy work.

And remember that it can all be fun. While there is some homework, there are occasional recesses and sometimes some out and out silliness. John Perry Barlow put together some Dance Flash Mobs which were quite a blast to follow. Imagine a basic street crowd. People are walking around, traffic is busy. All of sudden, someone turns on a boom box. Three quarters of the crowd start swerving, slowly; building, building, and then, all of the sudden, it’s a street party, with 15 to 20 people out in the street, dancing their hearts out. One has to admit that it is a very effective form of protest. A sudden derivation from the norm by a large group of “normal looking” people can create quite a disconnect. If you’re a New Yorker, you find such variations generally amusing, part of the great thing about living in the city. Based on my observation at one of the event, that may not be the case if you’re from out of town. They’re is something a little crazy that feel a little threatening. Your reality gets shaken for a moment, you pause, not sure of how to react and by the time you realize what happened, the crowd has moved on.

Protest Tech

Of course, I couldn’t resist going a whole post without sticking in some thoughts on technology. For the most part, technology at these events was more interesting because of its pervasiveness, rather than any single technologies being of interest. I’ve learned that the police did use some cameras with head mounted displays for monitoring but I do see any. What I did see, however, was heavy use of technologies like text-messaging and push-to-talk telephones to coordinate protest efforts. It’s interesting to me that those are now part of the protester’s arsenal as they provide with quick ways to deploy small to medium sized groups across a grid. When flash mobs happened last year as a summer diversion, I did not imagine the potential they could have in the political world. Witnessing events this week, I’ve come to realize that flash mobs can have a tremendous power in reshaping political dialogue by quickly creating and disbanding protest groups. This will probably be a challenge for law enforcement officials wanting to control such thing as they might have difficulties to locate such events in the future. One could consider those to be essentially guerrilla tactics empowered by technology and they can represent of fairly powerful component of new protests.

The other bit of surprise, to me, was to importance blogs have taken for some people. At one of the events, I was chatting with one of the observers, waiting for a group of conspiracy theorist (yes, their theories are protected by the first amendment too) to wrap up their protest so I could move on to something more interesting. Some guy seemed to be getting a lot of media so I asked the observer if he knew what the deal was with that guy. “He’s a major star. You should check out his website at…” I don’t remember the guys name but did check out his site. Basically, it was a badly designed conspiracy theory site run by a guy who seems to have his own online streaming show. When upper middle class people (the observer is actually a lawyer for a big firm) look at people as big stars because they have a website and a radio stream, you know the Internet has become pretty pervasive.

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