NEW YORK–On the way here, I was thinking about Brian and his philosophy of “direct action.” I met him at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill, at a meeting of lefties who were planning to be in the city protesting the Republican National Convention. He didn’t want to tell me his last name, and I don’t really need to print it. But otherwise he was forthcoming. He doesn’t vote. Voting at best is indirect action, he said, and changes nothing. Brian wants radical changes, which means changing the world–directly.

“Direct action is politics as a way of life and the way human beings relate to one another,” he said. It’s publishing your own stuff on the Web, instead of trying to get in the press. It’s helping the homeless instead of hoping your elected officials will, although they certainly should. But they won’t–not enough anyway–until people demand that they change.

But first, people have to change themselves. Brian is a ’96 UNC-Chapel Hill grad, major in philosophy, who has opted out of commercial America as much as he can. He toils for an hourly wage at a job he didn’t name, but his real work is in a publishing collective called CrimethInc, a name taken from George Orwell’s 1984, and he plays in a band–a punk-rock, grassroots thing, as he described it–that performs only for friends, for free or for barter.

By dropping out, Brian said, he’s trying in a small way to show how the world could make different choices, not just select from corporate America’s menu. Coke or Pepsi? Democrat or Republican? That’s no choice at all. As long as people buy SUVs, corporations will sell them and the government will nod its approval, regardless who’s elected. To improve the air and save on oil, stop buying.

Stop buying and start protesting.

Brian’s been in some mass protests (Quebec 2001, Miami 2003), but he seemed to relish the smaller ones, like Chapel Hill’s “reclaim the streets” campaigns of five or six years ago. Some drums, some music, a little street theater and dance–always done “with respect for others,” he emphasized, if not for the legal niceties–can get the public to pay attention to a cause even when the ranks of the protesters are small.

In New York, where the ranks would be large, all the more chance to get attention by bringing a bit of showmanship and provocation–style–to the proceedings. Brian predicted that smaller, attention-getting events would break out all over Manhattan during the RNC’s stay, as spontaneously as if they’d been planned.

As I reached the New Jersey Turnpike, the program on NPR turned to the subject of whether the protests would include not just illegality, but violence. Unlike in Iraq, where a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib reflected nothing about America, according to President Bush anyway, a few bad protesters outside the RNC could tar the Democratic party irreparably, interviewed pundits agreed.

To my friends who are Democrats and who do think the choice of George W. Bush or John F. Kerry makes a big difference, this prospect of street protests, big or small, peaceful or not, was nothing but trouble. They’re gonna be counterproductive, several warned me, as if by going to report on them I’d be aiding and abetting. The Republicans will just point to them as evidence that the other side’s a bunch of loonies, they said.

The fact that these would be anti-war protests, and the Democratic candidate was running as a pro-war candidate just like the Republican, did not matter to them, of course, except as irony. They trust in their hearts that Kerry doesn’t mean it. And if he does mean it, whatever the protesters do, Kerry’ll be stuck with it.

Upping the ante, meanwhile, the flagship protest event was in doubt.

The plan was to march past the convention, then rally in Central Park. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, was refusing to let protesters tramp on the $18-million-worth of new sod recently installed on the Great Lawn–fescue versus free speech. The issue was in court, and with it the possibility of mayhem and arrests, a reprise of the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago when protesters’ chants that “all the world is watching” only hastened the election of Richard Nixon, Republican.

March organizers were predicting a turnout of 200,000, but it seemed like Bloomberg’s mischief–and the huge police presence in New York–would suppress the total, and thus accentuate the alt-efforts of any provocateurs–like Brian.

Then, too, New York is the biggest stage in the world, and even 200,000 hoofing the streets wouldn’t really fill it. Any less, and the march would be both a bitter flop and an object of Republican scorn. That would be counterproductive to Kerry, for sure.

Well, by now you know what happened, yes? It’s impossible to say with any precision how many marched in New York on Sunday, but the organizers, the police and The New York Times, the paper of record, have settled on 500,000 as their estimate. On the basis of some seat-of-the-pants arithmetic using theorems I heard along the way (e.g., 3,000 an hour per block X 40 blocks X 5 1/2 hours of marching, albeit some of it pretty slowly), I’d already guessed 500,000.

So be it. I find as I’m writing this, that I’m whistling the lines from “Woodstock” about being half a million strong. Suffice it to say, the march was huge, a rude Bronx cheer for the Republicans as they were hitting town.

And it was peaceful. Except for the dragon. But now we’re getting ahead of our story, which is about who was in the thing and why.

Ground Zero
I was staying with friends in New Jersey, so on Thursday morning, three days before the march, I took the NJT train to Newark and then caught the PATH train across the river to Ground Zero. The World Trade Center towers are gone. The PATH station below, heavily damaged but not destroyed, has been put back together and operates now in a hole, surrounded by the WTC’s broken foundations and, at a distance on all four sides, by the tall buildings that 9/11 didn’t get. Bathed suddenly in sunlight, it awaits the next scene in the drama.

Ground Zero and 9/11 are why the Republicans came to New York, notwithstanding that it is a solidly Democratic city and state. President Bush and friends, by all accounts, will miss no chance during the week to stoke fears about more terrorist attacks while also claiming credit that, since 9/11, there hasn’t been another one, at least on U.S. soil. Featured speakers include former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani and Gov. George Pataki, who are hardly representative of their party on other issues (they’re pro-choice, pro-gays, and so on), but who will try to put New York’s wartime security, and by extension the nation’s, in the Republican column, though its electoral votes go elsewhere.

In this effort, the corporate media was singing the GOP’s tune as I arrived. “ANARCHY INC.” screamed the front page of the tabloid Daily News. The police were on guard for 50 “hard-core extremists with histories of violent and disruptive tactics,” the story said, who were coming to New York for the protests from all over America. None were named. This against the backdrop of Homeland Security warnings about plots to blow up banks in Manhattan. Two Pakistani-born youths were caught, courtesy of an FBI “informant,” with drawings of subway tunnels, albeit no explosives or knowledge of same. “TARGET: 8,” blared the cover of the New York Post, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News-in-print.

Needless to say, the police were out in force everywhere I went, growing in numbers with each successive day. The budget for RNC security: $65 million.

A 9/11 memorial in the tiny St. Paul’s Church across the street from Ground Zero was a painful reminder of the emotions that swept New York back then. I found myself choking up at the pictures of the living as they mourned the dead, and as later they reclaimed their own courage. St. Paul’s was built in 1761. It witnessed the Great Fire of 1776, a marker said. On 9/11, it was buried in ashes. It endures, like New York itself.

Indeed, three years later New York seems a most unpromising place for the Republicans to meet and spread their fear. It is the epitome of diversity, as the GOP is not: The streets of New York are a cacophony of languages and skin colors, and while you will hear some New Yorkers say that Bush’s wartime choices were necessary, more think that invading Iraq was a stupid idea that served only to spawn more enemies, not capture the ones who attacked us on 9/11.

At the midtown headquarters of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the group–actually, the coalition of many groups organizing the march–two dozen volunteers were busy answering phones, greeting visitors, doing press and attaching thousands of protest signs to cardboard tubes (no wooden handles allowed) so Sunday’s marchers would be able to hold them up high.

The news, just in, was bad. A New York judge had turned down UFPJ’s appeal to use Central Park, rebuking them for waiting too long to file suit. (Their excuse: They believed the city’s empty promises of compromise if they stuck with negotiations.)

As it turned out, not marching to Central Park would prove a blessing. A quickly revised march route from 14th Street up to 34th, past the RNC in Madison Square Garden, and then over a couple of blocks and back down to 14th, totaled about two miles. Marching from 14th to the Great Lawn, at 81st Street, would have been more than three miles, uphill, in 90-degree heat.

But no one knew that then. It just seemed like another blow to the turnout, which on Thursday was looking distinctly iffy. Only a few protesters were in town so far, the direct-action vanguard.

One who’d stopped by UFPJ was an effervescent, 21-year-old Californian named Kat McIver, who turned out to be in charge of logistics for DNC2RNC–a group of 100-200 people (some came and some left) who’d gathered in Boston to protest the Democratic Convention and then walked for 28 days to New York to protest the Republicans.

Kat’s family is well-off and she’s one year away from finishing at Chapman University outside Los Angeles, she said. But after thinking about law school, she’s decided to be an organizer instead, living and working “in solidarity with the disenfranchised.” Making all the arrangements for the DNC2RNC trekkers, from housing to health care, “was a nightmare,” she confided, but in the next breath she was gushing about the result: “It was really an amazing experience of living in community with other people who share your ideals.”

En route, the group debated constantly whether to vote in November. Their decision? “Our motto is ‘Beyond Voting.’ If you vote, if you don’t vote, that’s one thing you do, one day a year. Real social change comes from organizing communities to achieve grassroots democracy.”

Will she vote? I asked. The gist of her answer was, maybe.

Later, I saw Kat & Co. up at Columbus Circle, at the southwest entrance to Central Park. Their arrival in New York was the biggest protest show in the town Thursday evening, drawing perhaps 500 onlookers for their brief display of street theater. Almost everyone there was young, toting a backpack and looking like they might have walked from Boston, too. Brian was in the crowd. He gave me a flyer: The “DON’T JUST VOTE, TAKE ACTION!!!” contingent, it said, would march Sunday in solidarity with UFPJ while striving to supply “a radical voice.” Those interested should meet on 20th Street between 5th and 6th avenues, and look for the dragon.

The Naked Truth
Friday morning, the media leads with the dozen AIDS activists who stripped to little or no clothing in front of the Garden yesterday. “A New York Welcome for the G.O.P,” the Daily News headlines over its front-page photo, which barely manages to be in good taste.

I head for the International Action Center on 14th Street to meet Peter Gilbert, who’s come up from Raleigh to work there the last several months. The IAC is a Ramsey Clark creation–Clark being the former U.S. Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson who quit over the Vietnam War and who’s waged a lonely battle since against American militarism. Its office is a Spartan affair, filled to overflowing with the stuff of revolutions.

The IAC’s contribution to the protests, besides plugging the march, was a War Crimes Tribunal held the day before, in which President Bush and the high-ranking members of his administration were found guilty as charged of “waging a war of aggression” and other violations of international law. Over the course of six hours, 10 “hearings” and 50 speakers, the event leveled a radical blast at American foreign policy in places as disparate as Haiti, Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian borders. Gilbert was one of its chief organizers and writers, and the hearing he ran that I sat in on just flat-out flayed American support for “the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” as the IAC–and he–termed it.

The morning after, Gilbert thinks it went well. I relate the opinion of a liberal friend of mine who attended with me and found the negativity “dispiriting.” The only good part, my friend said, was that no voter who is not already on the far left would hear any of it prior to November. Personally, I found it fascinating as a counter-argument to what Americans customarily hear about our policies, which is that they’re always right, always humane, and if it seems like our country is always fighting a war somewhere, bombing away, it’s because somebody has to do it. This was the other side, saying that Iraq is no aberration–we’re always wrong.

Gilbert’s reward for all the organizing, however, was that his van got towed out of its illegal space and was stashed over by the Hudson River on the 79th Street pier. It will take two hours, by subway and on foot, and $215, to return it to its parking place in a friendly church lot in the Bowery.

So, we have time to talk. He doesn’t shrink a bit from the radical label, Gilbert said. The United States was built on imperialism abroad and the exploitation of labor, especially immigrants and blacks, at home. That Americans don’t know very much about their own past, or their present, is a huge problem that requires a movement to address. The idea of building “the movement” is what motivates him–that and stopping the war in Iraq. It isn’t George Bush or John Kerry.

A year ago, Gilbert was starting graduate school in physics at N.C. State after graduating from Yale. But at the end of his second semester, he took a leave of absence to do politics instead, deciding he lacked the passion needed to be great at lab work. I should say that I know his father very well–he’s a neighbor who teaches political science at State and was on the Wake County school board for years. Until last week, though, I’d only met Peter briefly. That said, when I asked him about his work in physics–something about quantum “computers” with the potential to operate at frightening speeds by exploiting the properties of molecules at near-zero temperatures–he described it with the same fiery intensity that he brought to the subject of “challenging the fundamental power of capitalism.”

He’s all passion, in short, and because of it and his brainpower, “he’s the future of the movement,” a colleague of his at IAC, veteran organizer Larry Holmes, said to me.

As compared, say, to Brian, who is about change by subtraction, and Kat, who’s focused on the grassroots only, Peter Gilbert’s notion is that a movement must be organized from the top as well, so it can supply information that the grassroots need and can use. Young people, especially, “need a deeper discourse and understanding of the issues,” from trade policies to oil imports to war, “but are lacking the information for a deep analysis,” he said.

At the same time, an effective movement needs to be aware of its audience(s) and how much information they can absorb, he agreed. The tribunal was aimed at the audience of about 300 radical activists who attended it. Papers by the participants will go up on the Internet shortly for somewhat wider circulation, and printed booklets, 15,000 of them, were going out to the protesters on the streets.

But they’re not for everybody either–Gilbert gets that. His own introduction to the IAC came when Holmes visited Jacksonville, N.C., home of the Marines at Camp Lejeune, and showed a film on the health effects of weapons containing depleted uranium on our own troops. Holmes brought a nurse and information about how military families could request health screenings through the chain of command.

“I certainly wouldn’t have worn a button there saying I stand in solidarity with the people of Naiad,” Gilbert said. But he wears one in New York.

This is the serious side of the protests, and the hardest. Someone else in New York last week told me she was doing voter registration work and met people who don’t know what the Supreme Court is–forget knowing that the United States spends more on military armaments than the rest of the world put together.

Gilbert, however, wants no part of elections in the first place. “None of the significant gains in our history came as the result of elections,” he says flatly. “They were the result of mass movements.” Will he vote this year? Yes, he says, to honor those struggling in other countries who can’t vote. But, since North Carolina’s not a battleground state, he’ll feel free to write in a candidate, knowing his vote won’t sway the outcome. If he lived in Pennsylvania or Ohio, he might vote for Kerry.

Lick Bush and Dick
Let me summarize the rest of Friday and all of Saturday. I walked for miles and miles, making many subway connections and missing a few. At every turn and gathering point, people handed me literature–for the Socialist Workers Party, the Militant Labor Forum, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, and so on.

In Union Square, “Communists for Kerry” did verbal battle with young activists, baiting them with crypto-Kerry slogans like: “End the two Americas! Create one big welfare state.” They were Republicans, of course. Puppeteers entertained by mocking Bush and Kerry–but mainly Bush. “You’ve got to fight hegemony on the cultural front,” Noah Meyers said. “That’s what I learned in four years of college”–at the New School. I met two anarchists from Michigan (they were 19, and worked in a restaurant), a communist from Chicago (he was 18, about to start at City College), and some students from N.C. State, Wake Tech and UNC-CH who’d come to join Peter Gilbert in the march. They were mellow.

“I’m missing the first week of classes,” said Nick Shepard, a UNC-CH sophomore who was all smiles when we met–again. (He was in Raleigh last year to protest the pro-Nazi protest.) “I’m a history major because I want to make history,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

Up in Times Square on Saturday, I chatted with a quiet young woman from Iowa who was selling a bumper sticker: “Lick Bush and Dick in 2004.” She was moving 200 every four hours, she said, at $3 per ($5 for two). But some people didn’t think it was funny, and a few cursed at her. Did she come to New York for the protests? No, she wants to attend NYU’s nursing school to be a psychiatric nurse. She’s saving up.

I haven’t been in New York in years. They’ve cleaned up Times Square, that’s for sure. The strip joints are gone. In their place, garish stores and video advertising have taken over, along with streaming news headlines courtesy of Dow Jones. “Anti-Bush Protesters Converge on the World Trade Center,” said one, flashing by. Wait a minute! I was just there, I thought to myself, and the PATH station was deserted.

“WHEEL TROUBLE,” the Daily News cried over a picture of a cop cuffing a bicyclist. Wait a minute! I was there, too, and the Critical Mass bike ride Friday night was unbelievable–10,000 cyclists, I’m guessing, who poured down Broadway waving anti-Bush signs as folks on the sidewalks cheered. Adding to the din, cars were honking in frustration trying to cross Broadway, only to be blocked by bikers who stopped in front of them to clear the way for the Masses.

That got 250 bikers arrested, reportedly. Illegal. But not violent.

Critical Mass started just after I left Peter Gilbert, and I was still thinking how in the world he could get his deep, critical information to the masses when all the major media can do is report on crime. I’m slow, but the answer came to me when two videographers for the TV version of Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now program rolled by on their roller skates, shooting the scene.

New York was starting to fill up, and everybody, it seemed, had brought their own video cameras and were shooting their own pictures and their own interviews to use on the ‘net–and on those back digital channels when we all go to HDTV. In their telling, Critical Mass will be a great burst of exuberance by people getting psyched for a march. Not “wheel trouble.”

As dusk fell on Saturday, protesters did converge on Ground Zero, ringing it with the aid of 3,000 bells supplied by an NYU professor and his friends. “The idea behind it is to honor the space in a way that is peaceful and healing and not as a backdrop for false claims of security,” said one such friend, a fashion designer named Petra Hansen, as she called over her walkie-talkie for the bells to start up once again.

This was a sentiment I heard again shortly afterward on the subway. “It’s hurtful what they’re doing to the city,” a man said, out of the blue, looking directly at me. I had a pad in my hand. I guess that was his cue. “They’re coming to New York to pick a fight. I was in the World Trade Center that day–one of the few who wasn’t killed. The Republicans are coming here to pick a fight.”

It’s the Occupation, Stupid
Sunday morning, I left New Jersey early, thinking the trains might be held up. They weren’t, and I got into New York three hours before the scheduled noon start. So did Betty Hutcheon of Somerset, N.J., who was wearing one of the very few Kerry-Edwards shirts–and the only straw hat–I’d seen in days. When I told her so, and that most of the protesters I’d met weren’t interested in voting, or voting for Kerry anyway, she was visibly alarmed.

“How can we convince them?” she asked.

I said Kerry wasn’t offering a very clear alternative on Iraq.

“I know, I know. I was in his house two years ago, and I begged him not to support this war,” she said.

Turns out Hutcheon was an early Kerry backer and fundraiser. She saw him as the most electable Democrat, then and now. “At least I feel he has the right instincts to start unraveling this mess.” (It was his Georgetown house, by the way.)

Slowly, the streets were starting to fill, and for every eschatological or inflammatory shirt or sign–and there were a lot of them (“My Pet Goat? How About Reading the Bill of Rights,” one woman’s sign read), there was a Kerry-Edwards thing or two, as well. The ranks of the radicals were swelling, but they were more than matched by folks who will vote for Kerry, even if reluctantly, to get Bush outta there.

One such voter is Ruth Zalph, a Durham activist in peace and campaign reform efforts, who traveled to New York in a rented van and car with 15 others from Greensboro. I met her, by pre-arrangement, in Union Square. “This is the most important election of my lifetime,” she said promptly. “I worry for my children, and my grandchildren, and for the children of the world. We all need to get out and say we want a change.”

Do protest marches really help? I asked her. “They help me,” she said. “I think they help. You have to struggle for the power, even though the press might print that we’re just crazy, radical revolutionaries bent on violence.”

I walked over toward the march route on 20th Street. Sure enough, there was the dragon, a kind of chariot/catapult affair with detachable arms, standing tall, if in pieces. A guy was directing people how to put it together, and though they were a pickup group, it seemed, they were responding. Brian, though, was nowhere in sight. I moved on.

A couple of hours later, the front-row phalanx featuring Michael Moore, Danny Glover, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and UFPJ leader Phyllis Cogan, stepped off at the head of a vast army. Ahead of them, hundreds of cops and a swarm of “media,” some with official credentials, others independents, freelancers and bloggers with cameras, walked backwards, shooting away at the scene.

Up 7th Avenue they came, jeering the Fox News video display and singing “Hey, hey, goodbye” to the handful of Republicans who peered out at them–from behind hundreds more police in close formation–from the Madison Square Garden steps.

From the front, it was impossible to see more than a few blocks down. Only later, much later, did we learn that the marchers in the rear never stepped off until almost 4:30.

By that time, some of us had stopped for lunch, taken the subway north to Central Park, and like any other walkers, runners, bikers or sunbathers on a hot day, we headed for the Great Lawn. For a couple of hours afterward, I watched in amazement as protesters entered the park, a few at a time, signs in hand, just to say they did, then turned around and left.

Hundreds more cops were there. They didn’t interfere.

Most of the protesters didn’t make it that far. At no time while I was there, until about 6, were there more than a few thousand people on Mayor Bloomberg’s lawn, and half of them had nothing to do with the march. A lot of those who did were the zanies–the Clown Army, for example, around 15 strong, insisting that there was a convention of clowns at the Garden and they wanted to be included. On the backs of their costumes: “Mission Accomplicated.”

I looked for someone who wasn’t zany and ended up chatting with a guy named John Herron, who’d driven up from Baltimore to join his son, Jeremy, a journalism student at Columbia University. John Herron, a business owner, was completely relaxed. “One of the reasons I wanted to come here is that I am pretty normal,” he said. “I’m not a ‘counter-guy.’ I do think, when you have an opportunity in a democracy to express yourself, you need to take it. I came here to mainly say this whole war thing is wrong, preventive war is wrong, and it cannot be done in my name.”

By anyone’s definition, that’s direct action. On my way home, I heard that the only trouble all day was caused when a big dragon was set on fire in front of the Garden, stalling progress for a few minutes. The fire was quickly extinguished.