Guerilla theater gets rough in New York City
President Bush Back to Texas, No! Send him to The Hague! How ’bout Abu Ghraib?” chants a small contingent from the Tejas Bloc aka the Radical Tejas Bloc. They are standing against the Ford Theater on 42nd Street in New York City. It’s about 5 p.m., the day before the Republican National Convention is to begin. Only blocks away, an anti-Bush march that set out in the morning, 400,000 strong, is still working its way downtown. It’s the largest protest of a political convention in the history of the United States, and it moves slowly.
The 10 or so activists at the Ford are mostly from Houston. To come to this famous street, they’ve broken off from the main bloc of Texans, about 50 compatriots from across the state united behind a large banner that says, “Yee-Haw! Is Not Foreign Policy.”
The Houston activists have a banner too. It reads, “We Don’t Want Him Either.” During the march, the Texans felt honor bound to respond to the ubiquitous “Send ’em back to Texas” signs. “There is a negative stereotype of Texas out there,” notes Steve Boudreaux, a ship inspector on the Houston Ship Channel. Boudreaux had flown in on Saturday to join the bloc. He has short hair, a beard, and a t-shirt with Bush’s picture and the words “International Terrorist” written on it. A recent convert to political action, Boudreaux traces his “big awakening” to 9/11. He says he was largely apolitical before that day, an Aggie with two daughters. He had been in the Merchant Marines during the first Gulf War. But as he watched the propaganda that accompanied the “war on terror,” Boudreaux couldn’t swallow the official line that America was attacked by those jealous of its freedoms. “What a bunch of happy horseshit,” he says.
Guarding the doors to the theater are about a dozen burly policemen. Glimpses of a police surveillance blimp floating over midtown are visible between buildings. On every corner stand policemen with wads of plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts. Pedestrian and vehicular movement is tightly controlled. The NYPD set the tone on Friday when police arrested 260 cyclists from the pro-bicycle group Critical Mass for a ride-in that normally passes each month unmolested. Throughout the week, using orange netting, mopeds, and video cameras, the police will put the latest law enforcement tactics to use, trampling the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Tejas Bloc in the process.
Sunday had sweltered, topping out at 87 degrees, and both cops and protesters look steam-cooked. Inside the air-conditioned theater, the Texas Republican delegation enjoys the musical “42nd Street.”
Luxury coaches with “God Bless America” on the front instead of a destination had deposited the delegation at the Ford early. When the bloc arrived, there was nothing but police and empty buses to shout at. “Nobody ever said they were stupid,” says Boudreaux. About midway through the vigil, three hairy men sporting prosthetic breasts and large photographic cutout masks of Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld join the Tejas Bloc. A character who seems to be playing Lynne Cheney also sidles up straddling a strap-on phallic missile. The Texans are happy for the company.
The first delegate comes out the door with the aid of a walker. Jeff Wilton from Lacoste, Texas, follows her a few minutes later. He’s wearing the obligatory cowboy hat and boots but insists he’s not a delegate. Wilton seems a little unsteady on his feet and a journalist from the British Daily Telegraph surmises he has had “a drink too many.” The cops look on with a mixture of bemusement and concern as Wilton talks with the costumed activists and then makes a play to touch one of their rubber breasts.
More delegates follow, shooting glares and dismissive smiles in the direction of the protesters. Rival chants break out: “Four more months” versus “four more years.” Then the delegates board their buses to take them the 14 blocks back to the Hilton Hotel.
It’s a pity they don’t stroll the thoroughfare after their matinee. Once known for its exuberant hustlers and seedy sex shops, 42nd Street has been newly sanitized. Now it’s safe for MainStreet USA—with a new look as a corporate fantasyland full of gaudy video-screen carnies hawking plastic palaces like The Disney Store. The Tejas Bloc has done its part, for a brief moment, to help restore some individuality and a tinge of the illicit to the street.
Sometime Monday, a phony blast fax on Halliburton letterhead went out to major newspapers and television networks. The fax reportedly announced a Tuesday celebrity breakfast for the Texas delegation at 8 a.m., advertising special guests Scott Baio, Delta Burke, and Gerald McRaney. It must have seemed logical enough to many of the assignment desk editors. Vice President Dick Cheney had been CEO of the Houston-based company. Halliburton does rake in enormous profits from the Iraq War on no-bid contracts. It stood to reason the company would treat Texas Republicans to breakfast. In reality, the image-conscious Halliburton had no public presence at the Republican National Convention. The corporate sponsor of the Texas delegation’s breakfast was in fact the energy firm TXU.
But at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday the street outside the Hilton is filled with dozens of reporters and about 20 protesters, including the Tejas Bloc. Tuesday is the designated day for direct action and by evening well over a thousand people will be arrested. Most of the activists at the Hilton wear pink latex pig noses. (The action is reminiscent of a 500-person demonstration outside the Halliburton shareholders meeting in Houston on May 19.) “We are here to illustrate the ties between the Texas Republican Party and Halliburton,” says Tejas Bloc member Scott Parkin, a long-time activist and member of a larger group called Houston Global Awareness.
A protester from the San Francisco chapter of an activist group called CODEPINK is dressed in a pig suit. “We are allowed to print our own money now,” says the pig, “and we decided to put Dick Cheney on the bill.” She throws out $100 Hallibacon Bucks, each with a picture of a sneering Cheney in the middle. The pigs then pretend to wallow in the money for the cameras. It’s a great visual. On Thursday, a short correction note will appear in The New York Times for both a column note and photo that “misidentified the event’s sponsor.”
Off in the corner stands Jason Moore, a Republican delegate from Odessa. He is trying to get a call through to a live talk-radio show back home. Wearing cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he towers over the reporters who swarm him. One asks if he’s worried about the activists. “I think they are harmless,” Moore says. “I’ve never seen a pig attack.”
Earlier in the morning, inside the Hilton, David Barton, widely credited for building the modern Texas Republican Party, lampooned the protesters from the podium for thinking the breakfast was sponsored by Halliburton. “I guess having intelligent information is not a prerequisite for protesting,” he said.
When Parkin is informed of Barton’s comment, he responds with a smile: “Oh really? I was here for the Halliburton breakfast. Oh, shoot.”
After the protest, the Tejas Bloc takes a breather to plan for the next demo: the Fox News Shut-Up-Athon.
Even among the roughly 4,000 activists, media, and police crammed onto the sidewalks outside Fox’s Sixth Avenue office building/studio, it’s hard to miss the 7-foot carrot. Dressed in a huge carrot-suit, he identifies himself as Chris P. Carrot, and hands out campaign flyers. Sponsored by the animal activist group PETA, the Carrot is running for president under the slogan, “It’s a vision thing.” Nearby, a skinny shirtless man in American flag shorts and matching boxing gloves spars with a stand-up Bush punching bag. Across the street, the Infernal Noise Brigade, an 18-piece protest marching band from Seattle, plays. At least two of the hundreds of police officers videotape all of this, as activists shout “Hey, hey, what do you say, how many lies did you tell today,” and “The more you watch the less you know.”
One of the Tejas Bloc members who gives his name as Jose R. is soaking it all up. He arrived on Monday, part of a group of 15 that drove from Houston in a biodiesel bus that runs on vegetable oil. They left Texas on Thursday, and stopped in Arkansas at a Vietnamese restaurant to fill up. The bus then broke down early in the morning outside of Dayton, Ohio. A new hose fixed the problem but the activists missed Sunday’s main march. Arriving Monday morning, they left the bus at a church in Yonkers. “There are so many people here,” says Jose. “I’m impressed. We are not alone.”
Neither is Fox. Monday night, Fox broadcast its prime-time coverage of the Republican National Convention to 3.9 million viewers. It’s hard to know how many of the assembled activists note the irony of several thousand people shouting at a skyscraper while inside, Fox reaches millions.
Even though many of the activists are hoarse from yelling, Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention, awaits, but police have effectively cordoned off the area. Armed men and barricades block every turn. The group makes its way to 28th Street and Broadway where a “die-in” of activists has just ended in arrests. The bloc finds itself, along with other protesters, penned in by police on a side street. A young Asian girl starts reading the First Amendment, with the crowd repeating each line after her, as she slowly walks to the front. The police charge all four corners of the intersection, pushing the activists back toward another line of cops coming from behind. After five minute of the activists’ repeated requests for a dispersal order, the cops allow the protesters to leave. “I really think that 15 minutes of the First Amendment worked on the watch commander’s head,” says Boudreaux.
The bloc moves on to Union Square Park on 14th Street, where various protest strands turn into a single conga line around the park. Many of those in the line want to try to get to the Garden again. The bloc holds a hurried conference on the sidewalk. More experienced activists like Parkin and Tish Stringer are ready to get a few beers and call it a night. Boudreaux, who is scheduled to fly home the next day, echoes many of the younger members when he says he wants to go “to the Garden party.” At about 8:45 p.m., a fateful decision is made to split up.
The marching Tejas Bloc members, traveling in single file or in twos, make it as far as 17th Street and 5th Avenue before policemen wielding orange netting stop them. The leader of the march yells down the column that the police are working out a parade route. Suddenly, a squad of about 25 cops on mopeds swoops in and backs the line up against a building wall. Without giving the activists the opportunity to disperse or even to know what the charges against them are, the police start going down the line handcuffing people. One of the bloc calls Parkin to inform him of their arrest.
After a 45-minute wait, two buses arrive to take the activists to Pier 57. Once a chemical storage area, the pier has been converted with chain-link fences and concertina wire into what activists dub, “Guantanamo on the Hudson.” The prisoners are herded tightly handcuffed into large pens without bathrooms. Tejas Bloc member Rachel Clarke-Alvarez, among others, stays handcuffed for almost five hours until her hands turn so blue that a sympathetic officer loosens the cuffs. Those who make the mistake of lying down on the ground soon find themselves with rashes and chemical burns on exposed skin. “In a couple of years, we are all going to have Pier 57 syndrome,” Boudreaux half-jokes later.
The cops hold the arrested Texans caged on the pier for about 16 hours. In the pens they meet people from all over the country as well as New Yorkers, simply caught up in the sweeps, instant criminals for doing nothing more than trying to get home. Boudreaux manages to get word through a smuggled cell phone to his ex-wife to reschedule his flight, although he will miss that one as well. During their entire ordeal the police dole out nothing but a few rotten apples and stale bologna sandwiches to eat. On Wednesday afternoon, most of the prisoners are transferred to the city jail in lower Manhattan. Stringer, the designated person to cope while others are incarcerated, sets up vigil in a park across the street from the jail. She will spend about 45 hours waiting.
Protest organizers begin to suspect that city authorities are stalling the processing of the activists to keep them off the streets for Bush’s speech on Thursday. “The order came from the Republican Party that wanted to sterilize the city,” charges Daniel Meyers of the National Lawyers Guild. It’s an accusation officials deny. Nonetheless, after an appeal to the state supreme court, a judge orders the prisoners released. Bleary-eyed, dirt-encrusted activists start to trickle out of the jail by Thursday morning. “I feel like I look like a radical chimney sweep,” says Clarke-Alvarez after her release.
Many of the activists have accepted a plea bargain whereby they don’t have to show up in court but in return forfeit their rights to sue and promise not to break the law in New York for six months. Boudreaux is so angry, he refuses, and gets a court date for right before the November election. Still, he has no regrets. “I needed to do something,” he says.
At home, Boudreaux says he’s disappointed with the coverage the protests received outside of New York. If the goal, as Scott Parkin says, was “to raise consciousness about what Bush has done,” it’s debatable how effective it was. But the activists won’t sit still between now and the election. Boudreaux is thinking of volunteering for a local Democratic congressional candidate. Others plan to join with global justice groups to make October Halliburton Awareness month. In addition to teach-ins and protests, they will push for passage of legislation that addresses the lack of effective oversight in the Iraq contracting process and penalizes war profiteering.
A BIG TENT WITH A SECURITY FENCE
In New York, Republicans hid most anything controversial behind code words or rope lines. Fissures within the party were visible but often only in fancy rooms reached in fast elevators. The Sky Club, on the 56th floor of Park Avenue’s Met Life building was one such room during the Republican Majority for Choice fundraiser Tuesday night.
So rigid is the message-lock in today’s GOP that a moderate is anyone brave enough to be pro-choice, even old-school GOPers. The crowd at the fundraiser included original supply-side guru David Stockman and immigrant-basher Pete Wilson. They joined former EPA patsy Christine Todd Whitman and Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa), who recently survived a tight primary challenge from the right over social issues such as abortion. “The majority of Republicans favor choice,” said Specter. “One day we are going to have to make up our minds to have a good old fashioned floor fight.”
Or turn tail and run.
Despite the moneyed country-club feel at the Sky Club, it is the Evangelical suburban revolutionary who controls today’s GOP political agenda. Look no further than the party’s platform. It calls for an amendment to the constitution to give equal rights to fetuses and for the appointment of
Social conservative delegates to the platform committee like Texas Eagle Forum’s Cathie Adams could afford to be magnanimous about pro-choice speak
rs like Rudolph Giuliani. “We’ve won that,” she said. “I’m not sensing any compromise.”
The next day, the politically connected law firm Aiken Gump provided a large room on the 22nd floor of its Madison Avenue offices for a forum on civil liberties and the Patriot Act. The American Conservative Union (ACU) and the Arab American Institute co-sponsored the event. Grover Norquist, an ACU board member, was a panelist. Norquist is at the center of the “conservative” movement that undergirds George W. Bush. His Wednesday morning invitation-only meetings shape the movement as does his close association with Karl Rove. The man who called “bipartisanship” another word for “date rape” seemed to be at the forum in part to mollify the rage civil libertarians feel toward Bush.
Panelist Bob Barr, a former Georgia congressman and now a consultant to the ACLU, expressed regret for voting for the Patriot Act. Sounding a little like John Kerry, he said, “The basis on which it was presented was not entirely accurate.” It is the most important issue affecting his choice in November, he continued, and then declined to answer whether he will vote for Bush. “Kerry’s public pronouncements have been very positive,” Barr said.
Norquist quickly jumped in to trash Kerry on the topic and urged conservatives to work harder to influence the administration. “As we get a more mature center-right movement, it is very important to understand it’s okay to question the government,” he said.
But statements like one from audience-member and former governor John Sununu can only worry Bush partisans. “We will create a society where people who care about the same issues that we do will loathe the government,” fretted Sununu. “When my dear friends who are involved in this administration forget about this, I start to worry about the system.” —JB
BREAKFAST AT THE HILTON
At the Texas Republican delegation breakfasts, featured speakers came in two flavors: those focusing only on Bush in November, and those pretending not to be looking at 2006. By the end of spring 2005, it should be clear who is running for statewide office. Once each candidate declares, it will be vital to lock down grassroots support quickly. As a Republican state, the election will likely be decided in the primary.
Governor Rick Perry knows it. Delegates received Kerry flip-flops courtesy of Texans for Rick Perry. Every day they found an expensive campaign handout from Perry on table settings in their cavernous dining room. The pamphlets pumped-up Bush and bashed Kerry, but also included a large portrait of the governor.
At least two Republicans—Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—have been mentioned as possible Perry opponents. Strayhorn stayed in Texas for the convention. Hutchison rarely missed a breakfast. Her speech received polite applause from the delegates. They displayed greater enthusiasm for Sen. John Cornyn, her junior colleague. Cornyn—who claims to believe in limited government—is a favorite of social conservatives for his efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution, twice, over marriage and fetal rights.
Some observers believe that Congressman Henry Bonilla used his fiery speech to signal a run for the senate if Hutchison challenges Perry. Bonilla certainly gave the crowd what it wanted. “Hollywood types are not just against us, they are against our country,” he told them. “You want us to be more like France and Belgium, and countries like that, I say to people who want us to be like that, ‘if you like those places, why don’t you move there?'”
Delegates heard from two potential aspirants for the position of comptroller. Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and Matthew Dowd, a former Democrat. The Bush campaign’s chief strategist, Dowd presented a PowerPoint briefing that was more pep talk/spin than objective analysis. His talk had its share of bold predictions. “[The election] could be close although I think in the end we could end up winning by 3,4 points,” he said. “We will set a record among Hispanic voters.”
The delegates also received training in message discipline. Frank Luntz, one of the GOP’s most effective propagandists and an MSNBC commentator, gave a language tutorial that he gleaned from his work with focus groups. First, he warmed-up the crowd with gifts and Kerry insults. Luntz handed out free tickets to the taping of America’s Most Wanted and compared Kerry to one of the trees in The Wizard of Oz. He then lauded the Swift Boat ads that talk about Kerry’s anti-Vietnam activities. “So, please, in your community, the number-one word is betrayal,” Luntz instructed.
Economics is what concerns American voters the most, he continued, and Republicans are vulnerable on the issue of outsourcing. “I say that word because I never want to hear it from your lips again,” he advised.
And don’t respond with the ineffective “free trade” argument. Instead talk about how “taxation, litigation, and regulation” are forcing American companies to go abroad. Luntz worked over a few other standard GOP phrases. He cautioned delegates not to say “tort reform;” but instead “lawsuit abuse.” The enemy is not “trial lawyers,” because many people still think of them as Perry Mason; it is “personal injury lawyers.” He wrapped up with new methods on how to portray taxes as unfairly onerous.
But no proud Texan—from a state famed for its rugged individualists—would cotton to being trained like parrots, right? Wardrobe had the answer. Each day of the convention, only the Texas delegation coordinated their clothing. The night of Bush’s big speech, they all wore Texas flag shirts and matching Stetson hats.
For Luntz, whose job was to push message discipline, the Texans were ideal students. “I love your state. I love what you represent,” gushed Luntz in conclusion. “I love the principles that you have, that you pledge allegiance not just to country, but also to your state.”