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2004-09-01

Shout Heard Around the World: Nearly 1,000 Arrested in Series of RNC Protests

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More than 950 people were arrested yesterday as thousands of activists carried out a series of direct actions and civil disobedience organized by the A31 Action Coalition at locations throughout New York City yesterday. We take a comprehensive look at the protests and the police tactics to quell them. [includes rush transcript]

More than 950 people were arrested yesterday as thousands of activists carried out a series of direct actions and civil disobedience at locations throughout New York City yesterday. The protests were organized by the A31 Action Coalition, a decentralized umbrella group made up of scores of activist organizations and affinity groups. Yesterday’s arrests brought the number of arrests during the Republican National Convention to over 1500.

The groups participating in yesterday’s coordinated actions ranged from the War Resisters League to the Ruckus Society to CODE Pink to Direct Action to the San Francisco-based Stop the War. The protests targeted Republican delegates, corporate media outlets, mega corporations and government buildings, as well as other sites. A few hours before the actions kicked off, some of the groups working with the A31 Action Coalition held a press conference.

Shahid Buttar, Washington DC lawyer, speaking at the A31 Press Conference on August 31, 2004.

  • Jeremy Scahill, producer and correspondent for Democracy Now!
  • Eric LeCompte, outreach coordinator of School of the Americas Watch.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A few hours before the actions kicked off, some of the groups working with A31 Action Coalition held a news conference in front of the Gandhi statue at Union Square. Here is Washington D.C. lawyer Shahid Buttar.

SHAHID BUTTAR: Throughout this week’s coverage of the resistance to the Republican National Convention, there has been a consistent depiction of this movement of a broad swath of America as being organized by out-of-towners, lumped under the both over- and under-inclusive definition of anarchists. There could be nothing further from the truth. This is an uprising of the non-violent variety by the people of New York and their allies across the country who found ourselves moved to come here and demonstrate our convictions. We think, both at the Ruckus Society for which I am a volunteer, and the vast vast majority of the millions of individuals and the immense global movement for peace and justice, that violence is never either an appropriate or an effective means of achieving social change. Whether it’s dropping bombs on foreign countries, whether it’s funneling taxpayer money to corporate war profiteers by waging merchantilist invasions of foreign countries, or whether it’s mob violence against law enforcement. There was an incident yesterday evening of which most of you may be aware. It was an unfortunate one and among the situations in which we don’t endorse violence are those in which law enforcement belligerently instigate it, as did the police officer unfortunately last night. It is very regrettable what happened. We hope and we aspire, this is a hope that we place on the police department shoulders, that it will not happen again. It lies within their power. We seek a better world. What we are here to do is seek a world that is more peaceful and more just, a safer world. Violence does not conduce that. It is not something we endorse either within the moment broadly or within the Ruckus Society in particular. If I may speak about the Ruckus Society in particular, it has trained thousands of people in all of our communities including its most oppressed in the tactics and strategies employed by Gandhi and King. We train in a rich legacy of nonviolent resistance to injustice. Martin Luther King said that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And we all feel that very deeply or we would not be here taking the risk upon ourselves personally that we do. We are very proud of what we are here to do. We are very proud of what we were doing. The movement will not be intimidated regardless of the tactics arrayed against us. As a press that purports to be independent, a fourth branch, a check, if you will, on the American government, we plead to you to represent us fairly and accurately. If there is anything we can do in that in questions and answers, I am happy to get them.

AMY GOODMAN: Shahid Buttar, he is a Washington D.C. lawyer, and he was one of those who spoke at the A31 Action Coalition, that’s the August 31 Action Coalition news conference that took place in Union Square yesterday about 1:30 in the afternoon.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we’re going to take a comprehensive look at the series of protests that took place yesterday. As we heard today, some of the reports from other news networks talking about 'several hundred' or 'hundreds' of people protesting. We are talking about thousands of people throughout the city yesterday taking to the streets, freezing off whole areas near Madison Square Garden, and then the police moving in. We’re joined by Eric LeCompte, outreach coordinator of School of the Americas Watch, engaged in one of the first actions yesterday. And Jeremy Scahill, producer and correspondent for "Democracy Now!" As we traveled through the day yesterday, Jeremy, give us a summary of what was taking place.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well this was really an incredible day of action. It was billed as the 'shout heard around the world,' and it was organized by the A31 Coalition, which is a loose group of a number of organizations who were sub-organized into affinity groups that were going to be participating or carrying out direct actions and civil disobedience yesterday. The day kicked off actually on Wall Street. There was a protest to — an attempt to shut down Wall Street. More than a dozen people were arrested there. And then a half a dozen people were followed by New York City police as they got onto a subway train at Union Square and made their way uptown. They got off at 125th and Martin Luther King in Harlem and were arrested by the police who had followed them onto the train; and they were arrested for the very dangerous act of wearing bandanas or masks on their face. So that was how the day kicked off. No one really knew what was going to happen yesterday, including many of the people who were involved in the actions, because of the decentralized nature of the A31 Action Coalition. People were divided into affinity groups that were going to carry out their own sub-actions around the city. So it wasn’t until people’s phones started beeping and getting text messages that they actually knew some of the actions that were going on. There were three or four main areas of confrontation around the city as the day developed. One, which Eric will talk about, was at ground zero. Another was at Union Square, and the area or blocks immediately surrounding Union Square. Another was near Madison Square Garden and the Herald Square Area (Amy, where I know you spent a good deal of time yesterday). At Union Square you had people from the Infernal Noise Brigade who are — it’s sort of a guerilla marching band of sorts — who attempted to lead a march out of Union Square and make their way north in Manhattan. They did not make it far out of the park at all. One of the things that people were doing was trying to get out of the park by walking just in groups of two. Because if you walk in groups of two on the sidewalk, sometimes you can make it past, because technically the police will say that that’s legal. And so as soon as someone even slightly veers off the path, the police then start to move in. But they didn’t make it more than a block on the east side of the park before the police started to move in; and they were using the tactics — law enforcement were using the tactics that we’ve seen throughout the week, and that is to immediately and quickly move in to divide the crowd. Sometimes they’ve used motorcycles or mopeds; other times they’ve used bikes. Other times they’ve brought in riot cops who then bring in these big metal barriers. They divide up the march right in half. They then cordon off the streets on both sides. Those people that are pushed to one side of it are told that they have to be up on the sidewalk or face arrest. Those people who are unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle are generally arrested. And so the showdown that began in Union Square went on for hours and hours through the day. It began around 4:00 in the afternoon with hundreds of people amassing in Union Square, and then resulted in quite significant violence in the streets. We understand there were a number of injuries and there were more than a hundred arrests in that Union Square area.

AMY GOODMAN: And even as that was happening, up at Fox, at around 48th and Avenue of the Americas, where Fox news is across the street, there was the Infernal Noise Brigade before they went down to Union Square, and soon a crowd that really grew to thousands outside of Fox news protesting.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But the police there were a lot — even though the crowd was fairly large, blocking the sidewalks for the most part — because they were apparently so many cameras there, and so many reporters — pretty much let the demonstration go on for quite a while.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, did you see Fox covering this?

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t watch Fox very often Amy, so I couldn’t tell.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just looking for some Fox cameras, but maybe they were pointing out from the Newscorp building.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I was traveling around a lot yesterday with Rick Rowley of Big Noise Tactical Media. We were — we thought that we were the only people who were always one step behind everything. We would arrive on a scene, and then the police would be arresting people. But then we saw a bunch of our colleagues from the Independent Media Center, and everyone was in the same thing. You know, you’d be standing there with a group of people trying to figure out where to go next and then, all of a sudden, everybody’s phones would start beeping, and you’d get a text message: ’Police are amassing on 27th and Eighth. Police are amassing — ’

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that for a second. You get a text message. Talk about the whole text mob phenomenon.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, there’s this web site, Text Mob, which is txtmob.com. And there are — if you go on to that there are a number of groups — It’s like listservs when you use e-mail. And so you sign up for alerts. And there are a number of them. The Independent Media Center has one. There’s a central communications dispatch one. There is Riots at textmob.com. And so, depending on the groups you sign up for, you get updates from those various groups. Some of them are more accurate than others, but in general, I have been really surprised at how on-target these text messages are. And yesterday, the affinity group would say we are doing this right now and then within moments, the text message would be sent out and so you really can end up in a sort of game of cat and mouse chasing around the city. The police were in the same ball park as journalists, in terms of trying to figure out exactly where the action was.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just going to my phone for a random hit from Text Mob. "Message from" and it says "Text Mob, cop mass seemingly preparing to arrest civilians and protesters en masse, Herald Square, people refusing to disperse." That was yesterday at 7:00, and right below that, "A31 party heading to Broadway at 15th, headed north doing fine." Moving down from there, and we would get these throughout the day. Then there’s the one, "Congrats the protesters …" Hmmm, talk about this one, Jeremy. "Congrats, the protesters just disrupted MSNBC interview with Ben Stein at Herald Square live. Couldn’t continue."

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, there are a number of confrontations of the media yesterday. One was the shut-up-a-thon at Fox News. The other was when the MSNBC broadcast which was taking place outside was disrupted in the Herald Square area. People staging a protest against the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the occupation of Iraq. People were actually able to disrupt the broadcast itself of MSNBC and it was —

AMY GOODMAN: Because they were in the street?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Because they were there, in the area where MSNBC had this outdoor studio set up. So they were able to effectively disrupt that. That was one of the most successful direct actions of the day in terms of getting a message out or a message across. The other thing about the text messaging is that the independent media center, as well as legal observers, have used it to try to document what’s going on in the streets. For instance, when the numbers started to wane a bit outside of Union Square, the Independent Media Center put out a call for more cameras to go there because the numbers had dropped off and they want to make sure that they’re continuously monitoring the situation. So they put out a call saying 'we need more cameras' or 'we need photographers to come to such and such a block.' So then people knew to go there. Same thing with legal observers. 'Police have just used pepper spray on such and such a corner, we need legal observers to get there as soon as possible.'

AMY GOODMAN: And of course, they’re not the only ones with cameras, because the police have — I’ve never seen so many cameras that the police are overtly using at every single protest. Sometimes we see one, we’ll see two, we’ll see three, going along, and often on the back of their shirts it says 'TARU.'

JUAN GONZALEZ: And that’s only the hand-held cameras. The ones that are already prepositioned all over the city, it’s an amazing number. We are also joined by Eric LeCompte, outreach coordinator for School of the Americas Watch. Talk to us about your experiences yesterday.

ERIC LECOMPTE: We had quite a day yesterday. We did begin our direct action, our procession, at ground zero. It was important for us to begin at ground zero to remember the terrible tragedy that took place on September 11th. And it was our sense at the School of the Americas Watch and War Resistors’ League to bring that memory to the Republican National Convention. So what we wanted to do was to have a solemn funeral procession that went from ground zero to the Republican National Convention. When we began our procession, we were about 3,000 strong at ground zero. About 200 people crossed the street, and as they crossed the street—

AMY GOODMAN: Eric, we’re going to hold it there, leaving our listeners and viewers in suspense just so we can break for 60 seconds and then we will come back and find out what happened to those 200 people who walked across the street at ground zero. This is "Democracy Now!" breaking with convention. The battle for New York. We will be back in a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! Breaking with Convention. The Battle for New York. Almost 1,000 people arrested yesterday in mass direct-action and civil disobediences around the City. I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez. We’re joined by Democracy Now! producer and correspondent, Jeremy Scahill who was out in the streets along with all the other Democracy Now! producers documenting what was taking place from Union Square to Herald Square which is near Macy’s just a block from Madison Square Garden, up at Fox headquarters at 48th, 49th and Sixth avenue where thousands protested the Fox network. Down to ground zero. Also up in Harlem, some of the first protests beginning at Wall Street. We’re joined also by Eric LeCompte of S.O.A., School of the Americas Watch. You said that 200 people left the crowd of several thousand and started to walk across the street. What was the goal?

ERIC LECOMPTE: At that point, the 3,000 people that we had gathered at ground zero were marching two by two, so the 200 that crossed the street were the group that was directly in front of the 3,000. Our plan was to walk on the sidewalk legally all the way until Madison Square Garden, where, at that point, many people, a part of this group, would take to the streets and do a massive die-in. Feigning massacres that have taken place from Colombia to Iraq, remembering that ground zero, the terrible tragedy that we remembered, under Bush policy right now is being perpetuated all over the world. That this is something that so many people can relate to. People in Iraq right now, civilians are being killed by the war. In Colombia, as thousands are being killed every year because of training of Colombian soldiers by the School of the Americas. So we began our procession with this — this agenda on our mind. And as the first group crossed the street, leading the march of 3,000, the group was immediately split by the police. The group really didn’t know what was happening, and before people could even leave, they were completely blocked in by orange fencing, by police, by several riot squads. So everyone was packed in very tightly to the sidewalk area. And soon they began arresting people. It was very strange. We hadn’t expected this at all. People walking two by two on the sidewalk, not blocking access, to be penned up, corralled, and arrested right away. So as this happened, riot squads also started to form around the rest of the group of the several thousand who were also there walking two by two, very clearly a non-violent group, a very focused group. A group that was walking in a solemn procession at ground zero itself. The people are all being still held. Over 200 were arrested. And after that happened, we needed to reorganize to continue the procession. The march route that we originally wanted to take to walk to Madison Square Garden was no longer possible because of the heavy police presence. But we reorganized two by two. It was clear that those people were being arrested at that point and we continued on to Madison Square Garden. It was actually quite amazing. I think it was because there were so many direct actions taking place over the city that the police were widely disbursed, and it was virtually impossible for them to track our procession as we continued. Through using text messaging and also getting reports, our group was able to find out where the large presences of police were. So we were able to avoid them and get all the way to Madison Square Garden, just a block away, where we did complete the die-in. Where over 50 people took to the streets with the names of civilians who have been killed in Iraq, with the names of civilians who have been killed in Colombia — all part and parcel of the same Bush policy. They took to the streets, they did a massive die-in, and over the next few hours, up until 10:00 last night, over 50 people were arrested at that site. So in total, with the illegal arrest that the police did and the die-in that took place near Madison Square Garden to send the memory of ground zero —-that the Bush administration is continuing to perpetuate ground zeroes with his foreign policy all over the world -— there were over 250 people arrested as a part of this action yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Just in one spot.

ERIC LECOMPTE: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And interestingly, the police department had sent out word to reporters, actually around the City, that your group was not going to make it to Madison Square Garden, that their intention was to stop it before it got there. And Jeremy, I don’t know—as you went around the City yesterday, whether you noticed, the arrests had nothing to do with whether protests were violent or not violent, whether they were disruptive or not disruptive. They had — seemed more to do with does the group have the potential to create problems near Madison Square Garden? And do we have the force in place to do mass arrests right away? It basically came down to those things rather than the character of the demonstrations at all.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This is a much bigger discussion, but I think that what we’ve really seen in a way here is the Seattle generation coming of age. I think the people have realized, many people have realized the value of tactical nonviolence. So you don’t see people trying to throw any garbage cans through a Starbucks or anything like that. I mean overwhelmingly, they have put lie to the idea that a bunch of anarchists were going to come to New York and burn the City. Overwhelmingly the people who have gathered here have conducted themselves in a peaceful, non-violent manner. That’s probably disappointing to a lot of people that are inside of Madison Square Garden in the circle around Karl Rove because I think you’ve seen a real sophistication of the tactics that are being used by the activists. Yesterday was an impressive day of coordination.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And interestingly, the single incident of violence that has been gotten the most attention now is the one policeman who was injured the night before just south of Madison Square Garden and there was actually even a picture and a $5,000 reward issued last night, photos of the suspected assailant of the cop; but even there, the story of how that actually happened is a lot different from what on the media — on the commercial media — from what we know of.

JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s right. And if we are talking about the same incident, I mean this was a police officer who was not clearly identified as a police officer. It’s my understanding, I mean I thought a couple of times when these guys came up on motorcycles, I initially thought it was a biker gang attacking people.

AMY GOODMAN: And I will say that the A31 news conference, because Jeremy, Juan, we were all at that site right by Madison Square Garden the night before, right after this had happened. But at the news conference yesterday, they began the news conference by saying that they decried violence, that they were here in nonviolence and they addressed the issue of what happened to a police officer who moved in on a motorcycle. He said some people had gotten injured there and that the nature of this movement, its strength is that it is very decentralized and that the umbrella of groups that are here protesting for peace are peaceful.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Overwhelmingly. And you have, I mean the police officers who are riding around on these motorcycles, many of them are dressed in New York Yankees uniforms. I don’t know if you noticed that; but they are in New York Yankees uniforms going around the City.

AMY GOODMAN: Or jerseys, yeah.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Tremendous number of undercover police officers or plain-clothes police officers; and they have been putting out on some of the activist web sites the color of the arm band that the undercover cops are wearing for the day. Yesterday the color was yellow that they were wearing so that they can identify themselves as undercover police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: We will continue on the protest beat, but as all of this was going on outside, all over the city, it was amazing, listening to a delegate on another news network saying that she was not aware of any protests. The entire Herald Square was frozen. Thousands of people at every corner. Riot police almost looked like the same number. The entire area, I don’t know how many delegates came through infuriated, frustrated, because they couldn’t pass. Because people were shouting 'No. No to war. No to the Bush agenda.'

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