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August 13, 2004

Protesters Plan to Give RNC the Bronx Cheer

by Jim Lobe

MONTREAL - Recent terrorism alerts in New York City have not slowed plans there to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC), which is set to officially nominate George W. Bush on Sept. 2 to run for president in November's U.S. elections.

This week alone, the myriad groups and coalitions organizing marches, days of action, conferences – even a "bike national convention" – to mark the RNC are gathering to: plan direct action (nonviolently block streets); stage benefit concerts to fundraise for the protests; and even recite the Bill of Rights into their cellular phones, to emphasize U.S. guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly.

"We are still going to be out there talking about our issues ...we are not going to change our plans," says Lisa Bhugalia, coordinator of Still We Rise, a coalition of 40 groups that fights for the rights of the poor and has scheduled a march of 25,000 people in downtown Manhattan (New York City's heart) on Aug. 30.

Already tense New York has tightened up considerably in recent weeks. On Aug. 1, U.S. officials hiked the official terror alert in the city, in Newark in neighboring New Jersey State and in Washington, D.C., following reports that intelligence agents had uncovered information signaling a possible terrorist attack on financial landmarks in those cities.

Emerging the day after the opposition Democratic Party nominated Senator John Kerry to face Bush in November's election, the alert was met with some skepticism, which grew in subsequent days as officials acknowledged much of the intelligence was years old.

Also, late last week authorities announced they had arrested two New York State men for plotting to launder money for a rocket-launcher that would be used in a plot – created as a "sting" by security agents – to murder a Pakistani diplomat. They also announced that the al-Qaeda terrorist group of Osama bin Laden had plotted hijacking helicopters to use as weapons in New York City.

"The city definitely is putting on a large scare, but we're really solid and with the spotlight turning to New York we want to use this to really get out the issues that [people] are facing and struggling with on a daily level," Bhugalia told IPS.

"What I've heard from different organizations is they feel more scared to not be out on the streets, talking about the ways in which these issues and policies have affected their lives."

Among the main events scheduled to protest the RNC is an Aug. 29 rally organized by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a coalition of more than 800 groups that spearheaded the global antiwar marches of millions of people in February 2003, and "direct action" on Aug. 31 coordinated by the ad hoc RNC Not Welcome Collective.

The location of the UFPJ rally remains controversial. When city officials rejected the group's application for a permit to gather in Central Park – ostensibly because of concerns for the grass – UFPJ agreed to relocate to the West Side Highway on the edge of Manhattan.

But rejection of the request to gather in the hugely symbolic public space rankled many activists and ordinary citizens alike, including the New York Times, which denounced the decision in an editorial.

On Tuesday, UFPJ leaders rejected the deal, saying authorities promised to provide access to water and other services at the highway site but have not fulfilled the pledges. They have now applied for a permit in another part of the park.

Another broken agreement threatens the work of hundreds of independent and community media journalists traveling to New York, where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to one, to report on the convention.

They were supposed to work from a newsroom provided by the Grassroots Media Coalition. But just minutes before members of the group were to sign a contract for the space not far from Madison Square Garden, the convention site, owners scrapped the deal.

"The executive director actually said, I believe, that law enforcement was telling them not to do anything different during the month of August or during the convention," said Ana Nogueira, a member of New York City's Indymedia, one of three organizations in the coalition.

"That put some fear into them and literally two minutes before signing the contract, they pulled out," she added in an interview.

"We don't know if [the warning] was specific to us or the space; it might have just been that they were contacting buildings in general."

The coalition has since found another (donated) space and is now hoping to get an Internet connection established in time for the convention.

Many observers have no doubt that New York's police, who have a reputation for violence and have been strategizing with the Secret Service for the past 18 months, are trying to choke dissent before it can begin.

They point to the "surges" being practiced on city streets by groups of up to 80 police cars, which charge down a road in rows before stopping and swinging in against the curbs. At a legal protest in March to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, police, who number 37,000, used interlocking steel barricades to flank the marchers, creating a vast pen that authorities call "free-speech zones."

Protesters have also been honing their tactics. Speculating on whether police will enforce a "no-mask" law, the RNC Not Welcome Collective advises on its website: "It is most unwise to wear masks at permitted marches where there are always interlocking steel barricades and rows of cops on either side of the street."

"When it is time to act, and if it is necessary, then mask up and perform. After your escape, the thing people will remember about you is the color of your kerchief (or your Yankees cap). Swap some clothes if that makes you feel more comfortable, then you're ready for Plan B," it adds.

The site also includes a list of hotels where RNC delegates will stay, a map of corporations the coalition says are profiting from the war and occupation of Iraq, another of New York City's public surveillance cameras and a guide to police tactics.

According to Bhugalia, all protesters do not match the mainstream media's description of anarchists and other marginalized people who do not represent everyday Americans.

It is a "broad coalition of people coming together – from across generations, across racial and ethnic lines, across class backgrounds even, to say that, 'OK, we have an opportunity to make a statement ... people inside are making policies; we outside are the ones who have to live with those policies, and look at what those policies have done.'"

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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