Return to Ground Zero (part 1)

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Voices from the March to Nowhere
By Tom Engelhardt

Let the numbers battle begin. The first unofficial police estimate of yesterday’s mega-march in New York: 120,000. The organizers’ estimate: 400,000. The earliest news pieces used the usual vague “tens of thousands” or “more than 100,000,” but the Washington Post wrote of “more than 200,000,” and the usually march-unresponsive New York Times picked the phrase, “hundreds of thousands.” So the choice is yours.

On a boiling hot late August day, on the eve of the Republican Convention, 100,000/200,000/400,000/500,000 upset, angry, anybody-but-Bush marchers (with the odd Green Party or Naderite supporter thrown in), walked up Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, doing for small businesses — delis, corner groceries, Tasti-Freezes — what several thousand Republican delegates and the massed imperial media will do only for a few fancy hotels, posh restaurants, and theaters. There was a rush on bottled water, on in fact almost anything drinkable, and at one point when the well-branded Fuji surveillance blimp, stamped with an NYPD [New York Police Department] logo passed overhead, blocking the fierce sun and throwing a shadow on the crowd below, a cheer went up from the massed marchers on their way to nowhere in particular (having been denied a permit to rally in Central Park).

The antiwar, anti-Bush movement, which had disappeared from New York’s streets after a final massive but depressed demonstration with the war already underway in April 2003, was back — and the mood was different indeed. Gone was the carnival atmosphere of early antiwar marches. The hand-made signs were still there, and some of them were still funny or clever (“Kerry dodged bullets, Bush dodged the war, Rove calls the shots” or “Back by popular demand” next to a peace sign), but most of them caught the essence of the moment: They were angry (“Worst President Ever,” “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease”), even outraged (“War Monger, War Criminal,” “No one died when Clinton lied. F— Bush,” “How many people must die for ‘your mission’ to be accomplished” [with the quote marks as drops of blood]). And the single most omnipresent word in all its various forms on people’s lips, and on their signs, was “lie” (“lying,” “liar”) — “Bush lies, who dies?” “The war on terror is a lie,” “Liars, thieves, murderers,” “George Bush, 971 Dead and still lying” — while Bush (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Ashcroft) photos, masks, and puppets all had noses that would have made Pinocchio blush.

Given the months of intimidation — the Bush administration Code Orange alert, the endless discussions of possible terrorist acts, the hair-raising statements of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki, the highly publicized showing off of new police weaponry and tactics of a sort fit for a police state, the regular labeling of the New York Police Department as larger than all but 19 militaries in the world, the rumors that the world’s most dangerous anarchists were headed our way, and so on — given the attempts, that is, to scare protestors out of town, this was a march you had to think about. You had to make a decision to attend. You had to have a reason (or multiple reasons) for coming. When asked, marchers tended to stress the “seriousness” of the moment and to suggest a sense of being at the edge of a volcano.

It was hardly an up crowd, but it was certainly a determined one. When, right in front of Madison Square Garden where the convention was scheduled to begin the next day, a giant, papier-mâché green dragon was doused with gasoline and set on fire, perhaps by the small group that had been inside it — a dangerous and malicious act — and police on motorcycles, horses, and scooters as well as on foot with billy clubs at the ready and plastic handcuffs in quantity attached to their pants’ legs, promptly closed in, shut the march down, made a few arrests, and looked ready to end things right there, a man near me exclaimed, “This election is the end. It’s the last one. I don’t think we can survive this election!” But the marchers, who had not already passed the Garden, waited with determination until, to shouts from the sidewalks of “Whose streets! Our Streets!” the police moved aside. Then they simply marched on.

With hovering helicopters, serried ranks of police, and visible police dogs (which, I have to admit, brought to mind Abu Ghraib), not to speak of that Fuji blimp shadowing the march from beginning to end, you could sense how blurred the distinction between dissent and terror was becoming. Dissent is now something that, by definition, should take place in penned-in locations between lines of militarized police. While many protestors were clearly driven to the march by the war in Iraq (and other Bush administration horrors), fears of loss of liberties were also a powerful motivator. Marchers — at least those I talked with — almost uniformly felt that their presence was a statement in favor of the very existence of civil liberties. I was struck as well by how many people made the decision to come in the face of a sense of intimidation and how many were willing to travel sometimes surprising distances to attend. In the course of perhaps six hours on my feet (from the first gathering moments downtown until I peeled off at 34th street and Broadway and headed for Central Park), I did my best to talk to as many people as possibly in a crowd that, though predominantly white and young, was nothing if not varied.

It was hardly an up crowd, but it was certainly a determined one. When, right in front of Madison Square Garden where the convention was scheduled to begin the next day, a giant, papier-mâché green dragon was doused with gasoline and set on fire, perhaps by the small group that had been inside it — a dangerous and malicious act — and police on motorcycles, horses, and scooters as well as on foot with billy clubs at the ready and plastic handcuffs in quantity attached to their pants’ legs, promptly closed in, shut the march down, made a few arrests, and looked ready to end things right there, a man near me exclaimed, “This election is the end. It’s the last one. I don’t think we can survive this election!” But the marchers, who had not already passed the Garden, waited with determination until, to shouts from the sidewalks of “Whose streets! Our Streets!” the police moved aside. Then they simply marched on.

Since articles on demonstrations, whether in the mainstream or the alternate press, tend to be short on the voices of the actual demonstrators — and since almost to a person those I talked to were thoughtful and articulate about their decisions to demonstrate — I thought I might offer their voices as best I could catch them, perhaps a tad telescoped by my limited ability to scribble stenographically.

Voices from the march

The Republican: When I saw his sign, “Republicans for Kerry/Edwards,” bobbing just ahead, I immediately tracked down Henry Engelbrecht, a modest looking older man in an all blue outfit topped by a Masonic cap (“Mason’s Lodge #163, Bernardsville, NJ”), marching with a group called Somerset County Voices for Peace. He was, he told me, a Merchant Marine vet from World War II. “I’m an elected Republican districtman from my district in Somerset County, New Jersey. In the last election, I worked very hard for Bush. On phone banks. I contributed financially. I persuaded people to vote. But I slowly turned against the Bush administration and particularly George Bush because of the terrible lies. The WMD lies. They all lied, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, and the rest of the cabinet, to fortify their decision to attack Iraq. We lost all those wonderful young men for those rotten lies.”

As we’re talking, we pass one of a number of homemade signs exhibiting variations on “George Bush, War Criminal.” He grabbed my arm and with excitement said, “Exactly. Were Bush and his cabinet tried under the same rules as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, they would be condemned to hang. They plotted aggressive warfare, for one thing, and that was a charge at Nuremberg.”

“Why did we attack Iraq? Why did we tell all those lies about Iraq? For all that oil in Iraq. Vice President Cheney has stock in Halliburton which has gained at least two times its value due to the billions of dollars awarded to the company with no competitive bidding. He handed it to them on a silver platter!”

He is, he tells me, just three months short of 80 years old, and when I compliment him for his fitness, he responds, “It just depends on how much Scotch you consume.”

High School Student: She’s wearing an orange tank top and carrying a sign that catches something of the mood of the moment for at least part of this crowd. It reads on one side, “Peacekeeping,” and on the other “Kerry-Edwards, They suck less.” She’s a 17 year-old from Teaneck, New Jersey, part of a group of high-school age friends, one of whom made the sign she’s carrying. When I ask if she has similar feelings, she says, “Exactly the same. He’s my friend,” as if I were a complete idiot. “I am protesting Bush,” she tells me, “and I’m for peace.” She belongs to and the Teaneck Peace Coalition.

Bank audit manager: Dark-haired and wearing sunglasses, in shorts and a checked shirt, Orlando Torres, 44 years old, is using a small hand-held video camera to take pictures of several flag-covered caskets piled up on a side street, part of a thousand-casket march being organized to honor the American dead in Iraq ( He has, he tells me, just flown in all alone from Puerto Rico to attend the demonstration.

“I hate Bush, that’s why. There are so many reasons. First of all I started disliking him when the Supreme Court stole the election for him. If Bush was not president, maybe 9/11 might not have happened. He’s just created such hate around the world.

“I was just watching television and debating whether to come or not when I saw Bush one more time and I thought, for my piece of mind, I better come. I don’t know whether the demonstration will make any difference though. It depends so much on how the media covers it. I live in Puerto Rico, so I don’t vote. But I’m pissed off anyway. I work in a bank as an audit manager. I understand the corruption of Cheney and Halliburton. Most people haven’t had economics. They don’t know about audits. I do. If it wasn’t for the war I wouldn’t be here because I don’t think I would be that mad. I see the coffins down there in Puerto Rico too. The Republicans are so Christian, so high and mighty with moral values. I don’t get it. Where’s the heart?”

Marshal: Like Torres, she’s flown in for the event. Blond, dressed in black with a black armband of mourning tied around one arm, Joanna Wyndham has flair. She attracts interviewers. She’s 55, in public relations, and has arrived from Dallas, Texas — “Bush’s backyard,” she tells me mockingly — to be a marshal for the dramatic march of the 1000 caskets. (“We were gluing them together in Brooklyn for the last week. At the end, we have black caskets to honor the Iraqi dead.”):

“I’m so angry and frustrated about this administration’s lies and secrets. If the American people could only see the cost of the war, more than two caskets at a time but all of this has been suppressed. When do you remember our treating our military dead this way? I’m just an outraged citizen — and by the way, Bush is not a Texan, in case you didn’t know.

“If this administration were Democratic, I would be going out of my mind trying to get them out of office. It’s not that I’m anti-Republican. I’m anti-George Bush, anti-Dick Cheney, anti-Ashcroft. And do you really think that our presence in Iraq is making us any safer? The transfer of government really needs to be put into effect and we need to leave. But have we ever done that anywhere once we arrived?”

North Dakota for Peace: Michael Page is tall and young — 22 he tells me — and his homemade T-shirt says “Support all Troops” on one side and “North Dakota for Peace” on the other. He’s going to be a senior at Amherst College this fall and he’s driven down from Massachusetts with a group of friends whose T-shirts indicate that they represent California, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. He was originally a Kucinich supporter. We begin talking about the printed up sign he’s carrying that calls for the end of the American occupation in Iraq.

“Iraq is the rallying point. And I’m just here to be another number and support the dissenting movement. I know that’s very important, but a lot of other things will be in trouble and important too if Bush is reelected. People are making decisions on the sexy but superficial issues of character right now, but I’m here because I care about getting the real issues out.

“I am a Kerry supporter, although like many people I disagree with a number of his positions. I have a lot of problems with his pro-Israel position, for instance, but I feel we may be pleased with what he actually does in the next four years as opposed to what he’s saying now. I’d rather have a manipulative Kerry elected than go for someone who supports my views but never gets anywhere. Kerry is a good choice in the end.

“I come from Fargo, North Dakota and the state is basically a farming community which traditionally supports a lot of Republican agricultural policies, but I’m hoping for change. My grandfather, for instance, who has never voted in a presidential election says he’s going out to vote against Bush. He’s a patriotic man and things like the Abu Ghraib issue embarrassed him.”

Puppeteer: He’s hoisted an enormous papier-mâché Bush face on a poll and strains under its weight. His name is Greg Kline and he identifies himself as a “programmer for a newspaper.” This is his first puppet. It has an enormous tongue (a huge loop of material) that emerges from the mouth covered with the repeated words, “Lies, Fear, Hate.”

“I got an image in my head for this. I came down to a few projects I would do to get rid of the darkest administration of my lifetime and this is one of them.”

Laura Perry — “he’s my fiancé” — marches in front of the giant head. She’s an “administrative assistant,” though for today she’s the official “tongue-puller.” She lives in upstate New York, but had no hesitation about coming down to fortress Big Apple. “There are certain things you just know are bullshit and you’re just going to do what you want to do.”

Kids in strollers, a strolling dog, and a son (not in attendance)

It was a measure of this march that children in strollers, a mark of so many prewar marches, were few and far between. There’s probably no better barometer of the sense of embattlement, of danger people felt, even when deciding to make the march.

Designer family: Laura Freedman, 40, a blond designer and artist was accompanied by her husband, Gerhard Schlanzky, 52, an exhibition designer wearing a homemade T-shirt that said, “Family values, 3 generations against Bush.” Their daughter Anna, 6, sits calmly in her stroller, all of us squeezed against a store window, chatting while the crowd surges past. (“My father’s here too,” Laura says, accounting for the third generation, “but we lost him in the crowd.”)

“Why are we here?” she begins unasked. “Let me count the ways.” And she begins to tick them off. She talks in succinct headlines. “No reason for war. Escalating deficit. Tax breaks for the rich. Bad diplomacy.”

Gerhard puts in, “But Iraq is emblematic of everything.”

Laura: “I find this whole thing very shocking. Another thing I find shocking is Florida. The intimidation of African-American voters. I’m very nervous about the fairness of the election.”

As for their daughter, she simply says, “It’s important for her to see what’s going on. She really, really wanted to stay up to see Kerry’s speech. And she was watching so intensely, waving her American flag”

Gerhard adds: “We have family values and we’re not going to be afraid.”

They carry their own family designer poster, headlined “Flip W Flop,” which offers a listing of various Bush flips and flops (Iraq WMDs, No WMDs; No child left behind, Children left behind; and so on).

Problem solvers: Rasha, 28, is a teacher in Harlem. She’s here with her sister, her mother (who reminds us that Rasha first attended a demonstration when she was three years old), her husband, and Jibreel, 2 ½ , in a stroller. “He comes with us to all demonstrations. I grew up at demonstrations. I started early.” She points to her mother. “If it weren’t for her political activism, I wouldn’t have been here and neither would he. I’m against the Convention. The war. Lack of dollars for education. Oppression of people of color. Everything connected to this administration. Not just the war in Iraq but the ongoing war in Palestine-Israel and the wars we’ve been perpetuating around the world. I’m half Sudanese Muslim and half Jewish, and,” she waves at her son, “he’s half me and half Puerto Rican. What I’m against, it’s the same thing I teach kids in the classroom, the same thing I teach him. We don’t solve problems by fighting.”

Labradoodle: Abby is light brown, stands on all fours, and sports a sign that says, “Dogs for Peace” on one side, and “I pee on Bushes + Shrubs” on the other. Her owners, Randy and Amy Crafton, perhaps in their 30s, are musicians who own a recording studio. They live in New Jersey with their lab-poodle cross (“They call them labradoodles,” Amy tells me.) They get emails from, but this is their first protest march — and, Randy adds, “Abby’s first walk in Manhattan.” Randy says, “We were finally fed up. Too many bad ideas from this administration, the last of which was holding a convention in New York.” Of this demonstration he says proudly: “Something like this is too big for the media to overlook.” Amy adds, “Abby says it’s all about love.”

Anesthesiologist: Eric, 58, is an anesthesiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He carries a small sign — made on his computer, he tells me — that says, “Doctor for Kerry” on one side and “Former Republican for Kerry” on the other, though he admits that he last voted Republican “a number of elections back.” He wears glasses, a paisley tie, pulled slightly open at the neck, a white shirt and slacks, and a Club Med cap (“the only thing I could find in the closet”). This is his first demonstration.

“The way I see it, there are ways to get despotic rulers like Saddam Hussein out without invading a country that never invaded us, and I’m against an administration that has converted us from a nation that had trillions of dollars of excess to a $7 trillion deficit that my son and his children are going to have to pay for. But I’m mainly here for civil rights. I’m really here to demonstrate that my First Amendment rights have not been taken away from me.

“I went to services this morning, then got into our car and came down here from upstate. It doesn’t matter to me how large this demonstration is. I’m here representing myself and my wife and sixteen year-old son. He didn’t come. There were a lot of concerns about safety. Do I think that the Republicans have put instigators here? You better believe it. I’m a child of the sixties.

“If I can represent a more somber mood here, I’m glad to do it. I want to say that you can be a person who looks like a Republican and still doesn’t have neoconservative values.

“We can’t be intimidated. It’s still the greatest country in the world, even though we have a president I strongly disagree with.”

The Message is the Man

Vet: Seventy-three year-old, Gil Gleit, retired from the chemical industry, lets me know right away that he’s a vet. Korean War and on a disability (“not that it matters”). He enlisted in 1948. (“I was only 17. What did I know?”) He’s angry about the city’s denial of a permit for a rally in Central Park: “I think it’s a right I have to go to this park. Freedom is more important than grass. [The excuse for denying the permit was damage to the park’s grass.] And I’ve been there with huge crowds at Simon and Garfunkel concerts. One of the reasons they denied the park is that they didn’t want to show the huge swell of people who are anti-Bush.

“It’s horrendous the lies, the wrecking of the environment, the denial of civil liberties. This is not the America I fought for and my grandchildren are going to have to pay for all this.”

John Kerry, he believes, will “bring in change.” “This is the first time I’ve given to a political cause. I’ve never donated. But now I’ve given to and to Kerry. It’s an investment in my grandchildren, so they won’t have to pay.”

Lawyer: Lowell Willinger, 62, is perhaps the only man at the rally on this blistering day of shorts and T-shirts, who is wearing a grey suit and tie. He’s a lawyer and a lifetime Democrat who lives in New Jersey.

“Why am I dressed in jacket and tie? Because of the seriousness of the occasion. I want to add to that and I wish everybody treated it that way. I always remember as well that Martin Luther King wore a jacket and tie to every occasion and I think he did it for a similar reason. Bush’s policies are not conservative, but radical. I want a more conservative approach to solving our problems. I would take the same position if the person in charge were a Democrat.

“The jacket and the approach were important to me except that I leaned on a wall and got red paint on the jacket. But that’s a small price to pay.”

Defense industry worker: He’s American-born but of Indian background, in his twenties, an engineer for a large defense company. “For war profiteers,” he says. (“It’s not like the 90s any more. I don’t like it, but these are the only jobs you can find.”) He’s tall, friendly, and adamant.

“I’m against W. Just wholeheartedly. I’m not a liberal, not a radical. I’m such a centrist. I’m into balanced budgets. When W was elected, I was somewhat relieved and excited. Maybe he wouldn’t meddle so much in the world. He had promised no nation-building. But it was all lies, lies, lies.

He voted for Nader in 2000. “I probably would have voted for Bush otherwise. Bush had promised to get us out of conflicts all over the world. But instead he’s taken over two nations. After 9/11, when you’re attacked, you support your chief. But he used 9/11 to push his own agenda without any opposition. Now I’m an anybody-but-Bush supporter. I want to love Kerry, but I wish he had a more charismatic quality as a leader. He’s a little too rehearsed, but I support him.”

Three women

Woman of Justice: “I’m a Latino, a woman of color, and a short person,” Maria Luna tells me emphatically and with great good humor as she walks with a friend in front of a large “Paz + Justice” banner. It’s her organization. (“We promote peace all over.”) “I was one of the first supporters Kerry had here in New York. Although he voted for the war in the beginning, I’m sure he was misled, just as we were. I look for someone with seriousness, not just a politician. And one more thing, he’s married to an immigrant and she’s a power of her own!” At 64, in a wide-brimmed blue hat, carrying a small American flag and decked out with numerous “Women vote Kerry” buttons, she is a retired accountant. “I’ve been to many, many demonstrations all over. I feel the sense of unity here. Young people, old people walking around wanting to make peace. What we need, though, is to respect other people all over the world, so that they can respect us. There is no reason to sacrifice so many young people for the benefit of so few.”

Sister of Charity: Joanne Ward, a small, kindly looking, grey-haired lady, is walking behind a huge “Christians for Peace” banner. When asked her age, she smiles. “You can say, seventy-five-plus.” Behind her a friend says to me, “and she’s a Sister of Charity too.” She speaks quietly and calmly.

“What we’re concerned about is peace, jobs, health insurance, all the things we see people needing all the time with all the money that’s going into destructive acts. We are in an age when you can’t have war. The weapons are so destructive. It’s not like a gun against a gun anymore. We have such an arsenal against people who don’t have them. It doesn’t add up. Force just doesn’t work any more. We take “Christianity” and “Christian” as labels, and then we adopt them to our use. I don’t see how war can be considered a Christian undertaking. But we use force for our own ends and then we label those ends Christian.”

Outreach: Katherine Kline, “longtime New Yorker,” is 58 and teaches English as a second language to adult immigrants. A former Wesley Clark supporter (“I’m still Clark in my heart”), she’s handing out palm-sized flyers for American Coming Together (ACT) that promise “New Yorkers can help beat George W. Bush,” and offer “swing state phone banking” as well as “regular outreach trips to Pennsylvania.” She’s typical of a number of people working the crowd, offering ways, after such a demonstration, not to go home.

“I’ve gone twice to Pennsylvania with ACT to register new voters. Because I live thankfully in a Democratic city, there’s a frustration with not enough to do. We figured there are a lot of people energized and let down after an event like this. I think one reason people don’t vote is because they don’t believe their actions make a difference. That’s where we come in. People are so grateful we’re here.”

On Iraq, she just adds, “A great mistake. I was once a diplomat and I’ll tell you we have done everything the British did wrong.”

Last words

At about 4 in the afternoon, finding myself on the other side of Madison Square Garden, I descended into the subway and like many other demonstrators made my way alone up to the Great Lawn in Central Park where the demonstration was denied its rally. Demonstrators are streaming in when I arrive and it’s like a vast Sunday picnic/carnival on the lawn with political theater, music, baseball and assorted souls just stretched out on the grass in the still blazing sun. Overhead, as has been true all day, the Fuji blimp-cum-police-surveillance-craft floats in a blue sky. When exhaustion gets the better of me, I head for home. On the way out of the park, I meet David Kogelman, 55, a lawyer. He has a green “legal observer” card dangling around his neck. His is the last word:

“I was a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild. Our function was to be neutral observers and take notes on any arrests, make a record of anything we saw. My personal estimate is that the march was at least a million people. Of course, you’ll never read that anywhere. We got to 23rd street at 1:15. The parade had already been going for more than an hour. The tail end of the parade didn’t come by until 3:15. Basically it was a 2 ½ mile long march and it was simply packed. It was also peaceful. It was an atmosphere of people peaceably assembling to express their displeasure — their extreme displeasure — over what’s being done to the country. It was definitely not a celebratory mood.

“There was a moment at 2:15 when a fire truck came up to the crowd and the marchers were so orderly that the march stopped on its own to let the truck through, though it didn’t end up going. It was significant that the crowd was so well-behaved, orderly, and determined. But I just wonder to what degree the demonstration will be heard, given that the media is so controlled.”

[Note for Tomdispatchers: I’ll be attending the Republican Convention later in the week and hope to report back from there in part 2 of Return to Ground Zero.]