Hoping to replicate the huge traffic jams, closed bridges, and 1,350 arrests San Francisco saw last Saturday, antiwar groups organized a “mass ‘die-in’” at New York’s Rockefeller Center yesterday. The ongoing effort — dubbed “No Business As Usual!” — targets major media outlets, defense contractors, automobile-manufacturing companies, and other large corporations. The organizers claim they will continue the die-ins and other forms of civil disobedience every day until the war is over.
But as protest movements go, this opening-day effort fell flat.
At 8 A.M., on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street, the disparate chants were blending into one another (“Drop Bush, not bombs,” “CBS, NBC, get out of bed with the military”). The protesters — many of whom were body-pierced — sported placards, banners, buttons, and signs. Their slogans ranged from the familiar (“No Blood for Oil”) to the banal (“Fox Sux”). Many protesters wore pink or white armbands reading “No War.”
Ten women from the group Code Pink quietly rehearsed a chant. A female priest wearing a collar led them in the chorus: “Respect the Earth, stop the slaughter.”
A middle-aged female protester passed three orthodox Jews who were observing the activities and gave them a little on-the-spot instruction: “I know you’re against the war — true Jews are!”
At 8:25 A.M., a bullhorn — meant to represent an air-raid siren — sounded, and a group of about 50 protesters knocked down the barricades and flooded into the street. They lay down, some locking arms to better resist arrest. Traffic jammed, people cheered, and the police went about their duties — arresting the “dead,” putting back the barricades, and restoring order. Within 15 minutes, one lane of Fifth Avenue was reopened; 45 minutes later it was, well, business as usual — except, perhaps, for one girl who shrieked during her arrest: “[I’m being] shut down! Shut up!”
What began with sound and fury dissipated in about an hour. At other scheduled protest locations — the Army-recruiting station in Times Square, the headquarters of Fox News and CNN, and key intersections — there was no action. One man held a placard outside Fox News, but he turned out to be protesting abortion.
When asked if he had expected greater attendance and more violence, police captain James Kline nodded vigorously: “This turned out to be a non-event. We’ve had 153 arrests so far, and the only officer injured got stepped on by a police horse. But it was his fault!” (Arrests rose to about 200 by the end of the protest.)
The protesters advanced some exotic views — which may have been part of their problem. Sarah, a spokeswoman for the protest (she would only ID herself as a New York State employee), complained that “corporate media” was misleading the American people by not showing us dead bodies and civilian casualties. When asked how she knew this was happening, since the media were not reporting it, she replied, “From Iraqi TV.” Was she concerned that Iraqi TV is state-run, and therefore a mouthpiece for the Hussein regime? No: “State-run media is no different from the U.S. corporate media.”
Another organizer stated that “Bush is no better than Osama and those 19 hijackers.” Mitchel Cohen, from Green Party U.S.A., claimed that “corporations and terrorism are the same — corporations armed Saddam Hussein.”
A few supporters of the war, many on their way to work, tried to argue with the anti-warriors. Some staged spontaneous counter-protests. One man held a makeshift sign that read “Saddam Sez: Thanks, Suckers!” He yelled at the protesters, “You are aiding and abetting Saddam Hussein!” Visibly upset, one dred-locked girl said, “That’s too provocative.” Asked if the protesters themselves were being provocative, she said, “He has a right, but we’re the majority, and the majority here is provoking a different vibration than that man is.”
As time went on, lawyers and construction workers in the vicinity began heckling the protesters. A corporate lawyer, in response to a sign reading, “No Money for War! Money for Education!” responded with “No money for education! Money for overtime New York City cops!” Others used less irony: “Get a f****** job!” One counter-protester’s sign read: “To All the Anti-War Hypocrites: Why Not Protest French Occupation of West Africa?”
So why did this protest fall flat? New York is a liberal city, and therefore more likely than most to be antiwar. But after September 2001, New Yorkers just have less patience for such things. As one onlooker put it, “My cousin was a firefighter and died at the World Trade Center. We don’t need these people wasting the time of the people who protect us.”