I have a conflicted opinion about protests. While one cannot dismiss the effect some -- such as the 1963 March on Washington -- have had on public perceptions and policy, the disarray of causes typical of recent political protests seems to diminish their force. The 1963 March was a visible sign of the need and demand for particular legislation, that eventually became the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a march for something, not just a protest against things.
Nonetheless, on Sunday afternoon I went to a protest against the Republican National Convention.
I didn't go as a protestor, but as a monitor for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is studying police behavior during protests. The project began after last year's anti-war rallies, particularly the February 15 action. The NYCLU also hoped that the presence of monitors would in itself deter inappropriate actions, though it didn't appear to have had that effect on Friday night, when over 100 cyclists were arrested. Unlike the National Lawyers Guild, which provided direct legal assistance to people being detained and arrested, the NYCLU monitors were tasked only with recording what happened. To put myself in an unbiased frame of mind, I even wore my best Texan clothes (Astros cap and T-shirt) to the NYCLU's storefront.
My partner and I were sent to Central Park, where demonstrators were going to assemble despite not having received a permit. I don't want to generalize what I saw onto the experiences of people who were in other places, at other times. For example, no one was arrested in my presence, but nearly 1500 people have been arrested all together since the anti-convention protests began.
At the Great Lawn, the police were visible, but probably there in no greater numbers than the press. I was there from 3:30pm until 7pm, and everything was peaceful. People were singing, playing drums and chanting, but respected the rule against loudspeaker use. The officers present were friendly and low-key, mostly assembled around the periphery of the area where protestors had gathered. The sentiment was definitely anti-Bush, but I saw more people pushing the "Kerry is just like Bush" line than I did of overt Kerry supporters. The only dubious police behavior I noted was videotaping being done of the protestors. Presumably to fill the need for extra officers, dozens and possible hundreds of personnel from the Organized Crime Control Unit had been called to patrol the protests.
When we took a break to get pizza, the NYCLU dispatcher called us to go to the Boathouse. Protestors had figured out that a delegate dinner was being held there, and had gathered outside the building. When we got there, the crowd was still small and the police relaxed. Even the private security hired by the RNC claimed that they were there not to break up any protests, just to keep things safe. However, the situation escalated as more people gathered and yelled at the Republicans assembled inside. I think that the protestors were inaudible when the doors were closed, as the guests who came outside looked surprised by the sight of them. People chanted various slogans, including "Give the cops a raise," an issue of some controversy between the nominally Republican mayor and the police and fire department unions.
Still, there wasn't much to report until one protestor allegedly (I didn't see this myself but heard it from a press member) got too confrontational with one of the delegates. The police apparently decided to move the protestors away from the Boathouse; NYPD trucks pulled up with metal barriers that began to be placed on both passages to the Boathouse. Having no desire to get arrested, I skipped over to the other side of the road and called the dispatcher.
The protestors gradually exited the area by the Boathouse, moving to the sidewalk and onto the road. This didn't please the police, however, as the mass of people was blocking the NYPD vehicles as well as the shuttles that carried delegates in and out. Also, some protestors had moved up the road to where the shuttles entered the parking lot, and were screaming obscenity-laden insults at the passengers.
Eventually it got so tense that several dozen riot police showed up, wearing hard helmets and carrying white handcuffs. But I really admire how they controlled the situation. No one was arrested, and after a long day of protesting, the people began to get tired and leave of their own will. My feet were hurting, so I wished that the police would give an order to disperse completely, but they didn't. They just kept moving people back and forth, until only 50 or so were still hanging on. At this point, I was getting bored and weary, so I went home myself.
I don't know exactly what happened in the other protest scenes that made the police think that mass arrests were a good idea. But what I saw at Central Park -- a protest that had not been given a permit, and that put the protestors almost face-to-face with their perceived enemies -- certainly gave the impression that the NYPD is capable of keeping non-violent protestors within bounds without handcuffing them.