Wednesday, September 01, 2004

In the Belly of the Anti-War Beast: NYC 8-29-2004

(unpublished essay)

On August 29, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to denounce the war in Iraq, shriek about Bushitler and exercise their cherished First Amendment right to free speech. On August 29, I also went to New York to express my right to free speech, as a member of the New York chapter of the group Protest Warrior (http://www.protestwarrior.com/). I learned, however, that among some members of the Left, free speech only applies to their speech.

Some background: since early 2003, Protest Warrior has confronted leftists with witty subversions of their own slogans and truisms. The group’s very first sign set the tone: “Except for ending slavery, fascism, nazism and communism, war has never solved anything.” Through counter-demonstrations and peaceful infiltrations of anti-war marches, PW drives leftists batty with its brand of daring tactics and intellectually challenging posters (another favorite shows a woman in a head-to-toe “burkha” with a male fist holding a chain tight around her neck. The poster says, “Protect Islamic property rights against western imperialism! Say no to war!” With 7,000 members in chapters nationwide, the group is getting traction as an alternative voice in the marketplace of protest on matters of war and peace. And some people despise that kind of intellectual diversity.

Politically, I’ve always been a maverick. Childhood friends in Texas think I’m a commie hippie pinko tree-hugger. East Coast friends suspect I’m a crypto-fascist Texas gun nut. The reality lies somewhere in the middle. PW tracked my foreign-policy views, and so August 29’s “Operation Liberty Rising” marked a great chance to express a real maverick position in the belly of the anti-war beast. I had read reports on the unhinged reactions of leftists to PW, but now I could see for myself.

The night before, I carefully selected my fashion statement for the day. I considered, then rejected, my “Jdate” t-shirt, figuring it looked a bit too picnicky for the political occasion. I settled on the delightfully confrontational “These colors don’t run” t-shirt from my brother in Houston (I got it when took me to a Texas shooting range so I could, as I joke, “get in touch with my inner NRA”). The black shirt bears an American flag and also says “Jim Pruett’s Guns & Ammo: Your anti-terrorist headquarters.”

About 150 of us met Sunday morning for orientation, which stressed team formation and safety tactics. The leaders knew from past actions that leftists can become violent, so we had to prepare ourselves for a fast response. The group itself was, to use an overloaded term, “diverse,” with men, women, gays, straights, Jews, Christians, veterans, students, mild-mannered graybeards like me, and some ponytailed bad-asses who would be formidable in a tough situation. The zesty new group Communists for Kerry (http://www.communistsforkerry.com/) prepared for its march with us.

Before we stepped off, a half-dozen of us dashed down 8th Avenue for an impromptu mini-demo in front of the storefront office of the New York Civil Liberties Union. The group had made lots of noise about protecting the right to protest, so we decided to see how the NYCLU might respond to a protest outside its own hive. Own sign collection include “The ACLU: We don’t hate religion, we just hate Christianity!” PWs lined up in front of the office while I snapped photos. The response was mild rather than screechy, as one man came out to ask if we knew our rights as protestors, and to hand us brochures on the topic. Another volunteer posed with the group for a picture. So, bravo for the NYCLU members for not screaming we were fascist Zionist racist Halliburton pigs who did not support the Kyoto protocols.

With a police escort, PW began walking to 24th Street, where we would slip into the main march in groups of 15, to get maximum visibility for our signs. As we passed the MSNBC tent in Herald Square, we chanted, "Chris Matthews sucks!" While waiting to filter into the march, we gave demonstrators an aural jolt, disrupting their utopia with chants of "WE GAVE PEACE A CHANCE, WE GOT 9-11!” and "JOHN EFFIN’ KERRY, NO EFFIN’ WAY!" And as always, the PW signs often stopped them cold.

Finally we entered the parade route, swallowed by the great snaking line. For a while we marched in relative peace. A reporter from the Village Voice interviewed me, and I probably confused him by saying I had voted for Nader in 2000 and that I had attended pro-choice rallies. Asked if I was concerned about violence, I naively said that I hoped the demonstrators would show respect for PW’s First Amendment rights, which we were asserting in a flamboyant but non-hostile way.

Before long, the catcalls and screeching against us began. I had no problem with obscene chants, name calling, finger pointing, Jews screaming at the Orthodox members of my group—that's fair game. It wasn’t pretty, but it was free speech (heck, if the Jews for Jesus did that at a Salute to Israel parade, I’d act the same way). Yes, PW was provocative, even annoying, but we act strictly to stimulate debate and we did absolutely nothing to interfere with anybody’s right to protest. And we were outnumbered 1000-to-1, a batch of harmless fuzzballs, as Rush Limbaugh might say.

But many of the marchers found us so threatening, so disruptive, so unconventional that they had only one option: TO SILENCE US. Even though most of us did not respond to their taunts and simply shouldered along, the venomous protestors quickly escalated to breaking our signs' cardboard poles, and trying to tear the signs (which were laminated to prevent damage), and physical assault. Other than a single call of "Leftists, be cool," I heard nothing but screaming and threats. A bullhorn was smashed, people were spit on. For a video the captures the menace of the moment, go to http://jasonn.com/~blindpig/ While some PWs got into shoving matches, I only had my sign’s pole bent, with some minor rips in the sign itself. But the narcissistic violence that festers in the heart of many leftists became screamingly obvious, as it does at most PW events. They can’t handle opposition.

Our security plan kicked into gear. We moved to the east side of 7th Avenue and walked on the sidewalk, signs down, until we stood behind police protection on W. 28th Street. Groups called each other to check out how they were doing, and we waited, per police orders, until the march neared its end.

We patched our signs and cooled off at our protected pod, with several police officers between us and the marchers. Even away from the river of bodies, we still had impact. As the parade thinned, more people walked down W. 28th Street and saw our signs. Now we had the advantage of numbers, with the police nearby, so nobody got physical, but we still got the message across and had some heated, but civil, discussions, the First Amendment in action. We did more chants, and several PWs stood at attention as the marchers carried caskets representing U.S. servicemen killed.

Three black filmmakers came over to do interviews, saying they had talked to people on the other side and wanted to hear what we had to say. I said, “Hey, I’m a registered Democrat,” and that got their attention. I spoke about my politics, that I never vote a straight-party line, and that I even voted for Al Sharpton in the Connecticut Democratic primary. The delighted interviewer shook my hand.

After the coffins passed, the parade dribbled to an end. We could start moving again. Rather than follow at the tail end of the parade, we headed east and found a very visible position behind metal barricades in Herald Square, on W. 34th St. east of Macy's. This provided an ideal location for showing our signs at protestors who could only walk past us in the street and snarl, with no chance of attacking us across the barrier and the police along the way.

Well, some of them, swept up in the moment, just couldn't take a let's-agree-to-disagree approach. One man lunged at a sign, got a police warning, then lunged again. He moved away with the NYPD in pursuit, and somewhere in the scrum he was arrested. PWs appreciatively chanted, "NYPD, NYPD!" Finally we headed back to our secret HQ high over the streets of Gotham, with a closing chant of "NYPD" as we passed a line of police resting on the street.

That didn't end the fun. I took the train home to Stamford, Connecticut, that evening, which involved a short trip on a shuttle train from downtown Stamford to the Springdale neighborhood. I took a seat, and wouldn’t you know a demonstrator sat beside me and noticed my shirt and the “Viva Bush!” bumper sticker plastered on it. “Well, the two of us are on different sides of the issue,” he opined, as if I cared about his views. But, I recognized him from the morning commute, and we had but a short trip to my stop, so I spoke with him, and enjoyed our civil interchange.

Actually, “spoke” too kindly describes the encounter, which was one-sided litany of grievances on: environmental degradation, the war, Israel becoming an apartheid state, Ariel Sharon is a war criminal, President Bush’s inability to speak a foreign language, President Bush’s lack of travel experience, and finally back to environmental degradation. Naturally I said some things that egged him on, but not so much that he tried to strangle me. When I got off at my stop we agreed to disagree (note to self: buy Halliburton stock, keep this fellow updated on the share price).

I took several impressions away from the day. First, I saw how ugly the mob mentality can be, and how coarse political discourse, if it can be called that, has become. I saw the vitality of free speech—and also its suppression by peace-loving thugs who practice the hecklers’ veto over speech that differs from theirs. On the other hand, I gained heightened respect for PW. Call us what you want (and we’ve been called everything), but the frenzied reaction to our ideas and strategies shows the power of Protest Warrior in the marketplace of free speech. PW is becoming home for my maverick political energies. To paraphrase Mr. Karl Marx, we are the specter haunting the left at their demonstrations. Get used to it.

The Queen is Dead. Long Live the Queens.

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