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William Rivers Pitt: For Those About to Rock...

For Those About to Rock...

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Saturday 28 August 2004


"I have never read anything that comes anywhere close to explaining the shock and intensity I felt at that convention...and although I was right in the middle of it the whole time, I have never been able to write about it myself. For two weeks afterwards, back in Colorado, I couldn't even talk about it without starting to cry...Every time I go to Chicago I come away with scars."
- Hunter S. Thompson, on the 1968 Chicago convention, 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail'

The Big Apple is going to be crowded this week. 50,000 Republican conventioneers are about to run headlong into somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 protesters. Salting the mix will be somewhere in the area of 10,000 New York City police, New York State police, FBI agents, Secret Service agents, SWAT teams and attack dogs.

Two years ago, it might have been considered a good idea for the Republicans to come to New York for their convention. The Iraq invasion was still a product yet to be marketed, whistleblowers like Joe Wilson and Richard Clarke hadn't yet stepped to their microphones, and some of the hard truths about what really happened on September 11 hadn't yet filtered down to the streets. Flush from their victories in the 2002 midterms, the Republicans saw New York as a perfect place to strut their stuff.

Funny how things change.

Republican conventioneers are flowing into New York today, and they are scared. The level of hysteria being pumped into the equation would be funny if it were not so combustible. Bernadette Malone, former editorial page director for the New Hampshire Union Leader, warned GOP delegates that, "Next week, people who hate Republicans plan to release swarms of mice in New York City to terrorize delegates to the National Republican Convention. Republican-haters plan on dressing up as RNC volunteers, and giving false directions to little blue hair ladies from Kansas, sending them into the sectors of New York City that are unfit for human habitation. They plan on throwing pies and Lord knows what else at Republican visitors to the city. Prostitutes with AIDS plan to seduce Republican visitors, and discourage the use of condoms."

Yes, she was serious.

Mice, pies, bad directions and AIDS notwithstanding, the Republican conventioneers actually do have a lot to be concerned about. They are showing up for a party to celebrate the worst Presidential administration in recent and extended memory, and they are going to try to convince the American people that four more years of the same are just what the doctor ordered. Hundreds of thousands of people will be spending the week reminding them of how bad things are.

This is where things might get sticky.

The daily newspapers in New York have been going out of their way to inspire a public crunch between the protesters and the police. Any violence will make for increased newspaper sales, and never mind the ethics of trying to instigate a brawl. Shot through the coverage are dire warnings of 'anarchists' coming to burn the joint down. These black-clad fellows, we've been told, are the ones who went berserk in Seattle in 1999, and in Philadelphia for the last Republican convention in 2000.

Laura Flanders of Air America Radio, however, offers a different perspective: "As the Kerry Swift boat story tells us, being blamed isn't the same as being guilty. Want to know who started the violence in Seattle? Ask the media who covered the protests early on. From-the-scene reports showed that it was the police who locked down the city, used chemical weapons on penned-in crowds, and fired rubber bullets at nonviolent demonstrators, even at bystanders and families trying to flee. According to a long ACLU report on the matter the Seattle police bullied local residents and shoppers, made hundreds of improper arrests, and committed widespread acts of brutality."

"Turn to Philadelphia," continued Flanders, "and were protestors accused? Yes. But convicted? Mostly not. In fact, the enormous majority of the cases brought against activists were dismissed, in no small part because of the revelations about undercover police tactics that came out in court. Legal documents revealed that in violation of Philadelphia law, the police infiltrated protest groups, spied on organizers, instructed city housing officers to shut down buildings on specious pretexts, police provocateurs provoked violence. Federal, state and local police, it turned out, were working together with the Secret Service, and the basis for at least one group of search warrants was a report produced by a extremist right wing think tank, the Maldon Institute. One targeted demonstrator, arrested while walking down the street, made history when he became the first American ever accused, but not convicted, of brandishing a cellphone with intent to commit a crime. Bail was set at $1 million. All of this, it should be said, was long before the PATRIOT ACT."

Anyone with an appreciation of political history knows the bedlam outside the Democratic convention in Chicago back in 1968 did more to elect Richard Nixon than any other ten factors combined. Despite the fact that what took place was a hard-core police riot, the American people saw the Democratic party come unglued on national television.

If things get out of control in New York this week, we may again be talking about police officials who went into a hate frenzy and started gassing and clubbing with impunity. This won't matter to the tone-deaf media; when the smoke clears and the blood gets hosed off the sidewalk, the headlines will again be about Democrats flipping out in an orgy of violence.

Any of the protesters in New York this week who are dedicated to the removal of George W. Bush from office should bear the potential headlines in mind. Protests are political actions, but when they go wrong, they become marvelous rallying posters for the very people who inspired the protests in the first place.

Will there be anarchists in New York this week? Probably. Will some of them try to start a brawl with the cops? Probably; there are going to be knuckleheads in any large crowd, and who can forget the picture of the black-clad bozo kicking in the window of a Nike store in Seattle with a Nike-clad foot.

Will there be people in the crowd who draw their paychecks from the FBI, the New York police department, or right-wing organizations? Count on it. If no protester starts a fight this week, bet on some outside agitator trying to get something going in order to smear the whole works.

Large groups of people tend to act like herd animals when trouble starts. It is the nature of things. The best thing any individual protester can do is to be aware of their surroundings, understand that any violence will play right into the hands of Karl Rove, and call any cop they meet "Sir." History is about to be made in New York. Hopefully, it will be a positive story of action, democracy and peaceful resistance.

I'll be there with you, cameraman in tow.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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