The street theatre opposing New York’s Republican Convention lacks a punchline.
The build-up to the Republican Party Convention in New York’s Madison Square Gardens (MSG) has been almost as drawn out as the run-up to the presidential election itself. With journalists and pundits debating whether there will be a terrorist attack, or if Central Park should be used for a protest rally, political ideas and contesting viewpoints are sadly off the agenda.
I stumbled across a makeshift ‘happening’ on Eighty-second Street and Central Park by the ‘Yippies’, a ram-shackle group of around 20 people looking uncomfortable, with a hippy with a guitar encouraging a sing-along against Mayor Bloomberg (1). With both plain-clothed and uniformed police officers filming everyone – and more lawyers than protesters taking notes – this had more in common with a satirical off-Broadway parody than anything that might have been defined as politics.
From the recent Ginsberg-style ‘Howl Festival’ (2) to the series of events planned to demonstrate against the Republican Convention, all of these groups and meetings have failed to present any coherent arguments about political problems of today, or about political alternatives.
‘Not in my name’ has become the rallying call of the anti-Bush protesters. On the evening of 27 August, 250 cyclists were arrested around East Ninth Street for not having permits for their ongoing monthly cycle protest about green issues. Some revellers in the East Village chanted ‘Shame’ and ‘The world is watching you’. We are left wondering, apart from misbehaving a little, what actually is the purpose of all this?
The New York press has joined the furore. While the New Yorker ran a ‘Welcome Conventioneers’ sketchbook with a false map of locations and silly jokes aimed at attendees (3), Time Out New York provides a 12-step programme, referring to the Republican Convention under the headline ‘This Too Shall Pass’ (4).
There is a recurring idea that perhaps New Yorkers should flee – to the hills, to the Hamptons – to avoid the terrorists (or the large Texans). One poll found that over 70 per cent of people believed that terrorism is a real threat during the convention (5). Here we see a shaky desire to hide away from it all.
When I ask people handing out leaflets about the aim of next Sunday’s anti-Bush demonstration, there only ever seems to be one clear answer. To protest against Bush. Okay, fine. What are the aims, though? What kind of demands or arguments are being presented? I had hoped to hear some compelling reasons to attend the demonstration – unfortunately, the prevailing sentiment seems to be akin to kids at school complaining about an unpopular teacher. A common theme is how unfair ‘it’ all is and how uncompassionate Bush and co are. For the protesters, it is a badge of honour that there are so many different groups representing different views – making it an all-inclusive multicultural carnival.
This inclusiveness and respect for all views exists under a coalition of dislike for the way things are. This is only likely to consolidate cynicism and a sense of despair. So while we have an appearance of people who seem to be radical and challenging authority, the reality is far more conservative. This new all-encompassing ‘collective’ is often no more progressive than the out-of-touch and moribund establishment.
The organisation United for Peace and Justice has spent weeks arguing in the press and courts to have the anti-Bush rally end in Central Park. Of course, New York City’s argument that the demo will ‘spoil the lawns’ is ridiculous, given the size of crowds that attend rock concerts in the park. The key thing that seems to be lacking in this discussion is why people should march and demonstrate. Without some clear positions, the march will end up being just a group of disaffected individuals, united only in their atomisation and sense of despair.
The New York Sun made the point that ‘It is not Mr Bush or Republicans whom they oppose, but capitalism and the use of American military power’ (6). But it is not ‘capitalism’ they object to, so much as authority in general. In a recent New York magazine interview, the novelist and essayist Norman Mailer described Bush as extremely arrogant. Arrogance is the gravest offence these days. This is a petulant view that is at once moaning, and yet resigned to the ‘inevitability of it all’. A bit like the miserablism of many of the mid-1980s pop bands – life is terrible, then we die.…
One protest, Ed Hedemann’s ‘die-in’, encourages people to lie down outside MSG. ‘If the police are being aggressive, it can be quite scary, and so I understand if people don’t want to lie down and die’, says Hedemann (7). Unfortunately, this is what it seems our generation is promoting: rather than searching for ideas that can challenge and inspire, it is instead lying down and dying. Then we have the ‘Peaceful Tomorrows’ memorial stone being carried from Boston to New York, for families of civilians lost to war everywhere.
Some have attempted comparisons with Chicago in 1968, when troops turned on crowds demonstrating outside the Democratic Convention. New York 2004 is a different world though – the establishment is just as disoriented and squeamish as its opposition. While the demonstrators just seem to criticise George W for being embarrassing and stupid, the dominant view within the establishment is one of caution, risk and fear.
While the presidential election race has become a debacle of competing war credentials and talking up terror, the ‘opposition’ shares many of the same assumptions (see State of emergency, by Alex Gourevitch). This charade needs to be exposed – and we need to engage in something altogether more positive than juvenile antics. When Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters drove around America, chronicled by Tom Wolfe, declaring ‘you are either on the bus or off the bus…’, little did we know that this would become the template for disaffection a few decades later (8). It will take a great deal more than agit-prop theatricals to enable us to move ahead in the right direction.
(1) Sunday 21 August 2004 – one many protests, this one in the evening, opposing Bloomberg, supporting Cannabis and wanting to congregate in the park
(2) See the Howl Festival website
(3) The New Yorker, 23 August 2004
(4) ‘The Barbarian Invasions’, Time Out New York, issue 465
(5) New York Sun, 27-29 August 2004
(6) New York Sun, editorial
(7) TONY, The Protesters, p17
(8) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe, Bantam, 1999
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