NEW YORK -- In Manhattan's East Village, where I live, the approach of the Republican convention could be gauged in the increasing number of residents wearing anti-Bush T-shirts, buttons, and the like. The neighborhood has long been known for radical activism, and Bush voters are about as common as common sense.
Being an East Villager, I didn't feel a great need to see the Left's protest march to Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. That's because I knew I'd get enough of the event's flavor without having to tread uptown. So I walked a few blocks west to Union Square, traditional home of radical activists, and took in some of the sights.
The remarkable thing about the Left is that the character and form of their demonstrations never really change. There are certain things you can almost always count on at these gatherings.
You can count, first of all, on drums. The Left loves drums, possibly because they conjure up tribal, Third World associations, but also, I suspect, because of their paramilitary aspect. And drums are noisy, too, which increases the likelihood that they will annoy others and disturb the peace. A Leftist demo without drums is like a boxing match without blood.
You can usually count on puppet shows or some other form of performance art. Many of the folks on the radical left are frustrated artists, and this is their chance to shine. The puppet show I saw at Union Square Sunday had something to do with Bush, God, and the creation of the universe, but it was so incoherent even by the standards I use to judge these things that I did not stay to watch the end. Instead, I moved off to some of the vending tables.
You can always count on vendors selling buttons, T-shirts, books, and the like. You can count on the prices being exorbitant, and you can count on overhearing some young innocent complain while walking away, "Isn't it capitalist to sell these things, even if the cause is just?"
You can count on political incoherence, like the table set up to gather signatures against H.R. bill 163 and Senate bill 89, to reinstate the draft. This was the bill introduced nearly two years ago by Congressmen Charles Rangel of Harlem. Nothing has been done on it since it was introduced in January of 2003, and nothing will be. But the man at the table talked about it as if it were an imminent threat. I wonder if he knew that the bill's co-sponsors include such Lefty stalwarts as Nydia Velasquez, John Conyers, and Sheila Jackson-Lee?
You can count on crude messages conveyed in t-shirts and signs. Most of them on Sunday were from the Whoopi Goldberg school of Bush wordplay. As witless as they were, they were more irritating than offensive. The same could not be said of the most repulsive sign of the day: "Send the Swift Boat Vets to Najaf." For the sake of the sign's owner, I was glad that my brother, a Marine reserve, was not with me.
You can count on the purveyors of cognitive dissonance, those venerable Lefties who live in a parallel universe. Having been examined and found lacking by history, they have discarded history, and who can blame them? These are the revolutionary socialists, the Worker's World Party, and the assorted anarchists passing around Kropotkin tracts. On Sunday, their ilk was best summed up in the sign with Mao Tse-tung's likeness and the motto: "Mao More Than Ever." I thought that one was pretty funny.
ALL IN ALL, THE LEFT'S day in the hot sun was a pretty subdued affair. For this I am grateful, and can only hope things remain calm. The way the weekend started on Friday night, I wasn't so sure.
Friday night was a biking protest. Up First Avenue in great waves came a few thousand bicyclists, making the streets impassable for cars. "Whose streets? Our streets!" many of them chanted. After hearing a few women wearing "Champion Love" T-shirts chant, "We don't want their phony election, we believe it's time for insurrection," I began shouting, "Re-elect Bush!" A slight man in a "Peace Now" T-shirt shouted back, "F-you."
Things looked like they might get ugly when an SUV came roaring up First Avenue and very nearly mowed down one of the protesting cyclists. The rider got off the bike just in time, but his bike did not survive. It was an ugly moment, and it seemed to augur an increase in tension. Eventually the police made over 200 arrests when the bikers began blocking intersections near Madison Square Garden. I went home with a feeling of foreboding about what lay ahead.
There's still plenty of time for trouble, and no doubt there are those out there eager to make it. But after Sunday, I feel a bit more optimistic, and more inclined to second the views of one of the police officers I spoke with at Union Square.
"These are people whose parents didn't show them enough attention when they were kids. Look at the monster they created!"
He said this as a ragtag group of revolutionaries of some persuasion or other marched into the park and began hectoring the crowd from behind an enormous banner. It was true, they did not look like people on whom tenderness had been lavished.
My curiosity got the better of me and I walked over to read the banner. Sure enough, it was illegible.
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