Day Two: No Rest for the Weary – RNC Protesters Can’t Call it a Day

In 2004, I returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia in time for the Republican National Convention.1 MTV News hired me to cover the spectacle. Below runs day two of my five-day diary, recently rediscovered on a long-abandoned hard drive. More: The rest of this adventure can be read here.

Monday, August 30

Rumors: members from Still We Rise are mixing it up with the police over on 28th street and 8th Avenue. It’s seven in the evening and a few hundred activists are gathered in the courtyard at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village.

They lie about, mostly tired. It looks like a collective hangover at the end of a music festival. People sit in circles, talk about the day and wait for the church’s soup kitchen to start up.

But rumors are in the air. Even though people are tired after a day in the streets, word has it that brothers and sisters in the struggle are struggling over on 28th Street. A crew heads across town to see what’s happening.

A woman in her 20’s is sitting on the ground. A friend asks if she wants to come.

“I don’t want to get arrested,” she says, “but I want to come.” You can see her thinking about this for a few moments. To go or not to go? Her friend’s in jail. Her friend needs bail. If my girl gets arrested, she’s not going to be able to raise it.

“Hey Frank,” she calls over to a sleepy dude. “Can I borrow your bike?”

Frank shrugs a lanky shrug. “Don’t got it,” he says. “Lent it to someone yesterday and they never brought it back.”

My girl sits around for a few more moments and finally gets to her feet.

“Bye, bye,” she calls out, “see you in the streets.”

With that she’s off. The struggle continues whether her friend’s in jail or not.

A parade of names spills out from a courtyard on the other side of the church. Readers step up to a microphone and read the names of Iraqi war dead. After each name, a man raps a drum.

Names are read and the microphone picks up the incessant drone of police helicopters hovering above.

“Mohammed Al Kader, 27.”

Click, buzz and hum.

“Ibrahim Al Yusuf, 12.”

Click, buzz and hum.

“Family of Metaq Ali, 29 killed.”

Click, buzz and hum.

“Khalil Jadduh Al Jumaili.”

Click, buzz and hum.

“Specialist Richard Arriaga, 20, United States Army.”

Click. Buzz. Hum.

A woman finishes reading her list of names. She sits down and cries.

The day’s had some humor to it though.

It’s late afternoon and Billionaires for Bush is holding a counter-rally at a Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Coalition demonstration at the United Nations.

“Big money, united, will never be defeated,” goes their war cry and Power to the People aside, give them props for hitting the nail on the head.

The demonstration itself is more of a gathering than anything else. PPEHRC has a crappy little PA system that distorts speakers’ voices. Everything’s a bit fuzzy if you can hear it and you can’t hear it unless you’re near it. And if you’re near it it’s fuzzy so you move away to get some perspective on the whole thing but then you can’t hear it again.

So people mill about and talk about Sunday’s march and who heard what about what, and what else might be done to get the Man out of power.

“Are you ready to struggle?” says the fuzzy voice coming through the speakers.

“Yeeeesssss!” cheer those who could hear the question in the first place.

“Cause the Democratic Party, they ain’t gonna free us either,” explains the fuzzy voice.

There’ll be a march soon. We’re in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Cops wearing riot helmets ring the place, except of course the mountain bike mounties. They just have bicycle helmets. Not as cool looking but it kind of takes the edge off.

Police monitor protestors outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Across the street the Billionaires are telling us that corporations are people too. “Tax Wages, Not Wealth,” a woman calls out. “Never in history has one man done so much for so few at the expense of so many,” a cluster chants before busting out in song.

Back down at St. Mark’s Church, Jack Buck leads a jail solidarity training session. Buck’s a bundle of energy in shorts and he talks about the rules and regulation of the game. About thirty people are sitting around him as he talks about the pros and cons of giving your name or not giving your name to the police. He talks about telling the judge you’re in solidarity with the other activists who’ve been arrested. He talks about telling the judge that you want to work out a universal plea bargain with the rest of the activists.

“The system’s designed to take away our autonomy,” he says about the “injustice system”. “It’s designed to make us feel that resistance is futile by holding psychological power over us.”

He continues talking about what it’s really like to be inside this system and how important it is for people to incarcerate themselves, collaborate and work collectively to shake it from the inside. Afterwards, he says that about 50 percent of the people he’s trained are newbies and excited by all this.

So too is the crew that’s just bolted from here. Word’s come that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is eating dinner at a restaurant off of Washington Square Park. I check my watch. It’s 10:30pm. Seems the Speaker wasn’t too interested in staying at the convention until closing time.

Another roar goes up. Seems a bunch of delegates are drinking at McSorley’s, an Irish institution of a bar on 7th Street. Another crew takes off to protest.

They can’t get at them though. Police barricades and a gaggle of cops block 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Seems drinking in solitude is part of the $10 million the police budgeted for the week.

A guy with a white tuba shuffles back and forth and blows some notes. The cops watch and traffic rolls up 2nd Ave. There’ll be no confrontation here.

The city may be spinning around the edges and churning on the inside. But on the face of it, it’s making sure that everything appears to be standing still.

Read days one through five from the 2004 Republican National Convention.

  • I’d been working as a editor and journalist based out of Jeddah, but that’s another story.back