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© 2004 The Beast

 



“Fox News sucks! Fox News sucks! Fox News sucks!”

A group of demonstrators gathered near the rear bumper of a black Fox News van and chanted abuse at two of Rupert Murdoch’s employees, who sat and took it with fatuous smiles.

It was late in United for Peace & Justice’s march Sunday, at a corner of Fifth Avenue in the 20s. The group of demonstrators had already filed past Madison Square Garden, shaking their fists and shouting slogans at the empty arena that would be filled for the next few days with Republican delegates.

They were now headed back to Union Square. There were no cops, and no metal barricades. The only thing that prevented the mob from crossing the line and violently attacking the hapless technicians—tools of the enemy—was self-restraint.

That, in a nutshell, sums up the mood of the march. How else can you explain only 200 arrests among half a million demonstrators, especially after weeks of anarcho-hysteria on TV and in the papers. Some news commentators have pointed to the massive and very visible presence of the police as a deterrent to violence and destruction. But only a simple-minded idiot would offer fear as an explanation. It was evident from the outset that the protesters were mostly peaceniks with two things in common: virulent opposition to George Bush, and the war in Iraq.

Indeed, it was a broad cross-section of people under the rubric of the United for Peace & Justice coalition. Of course there were all manner of freaks, communists, and radicals. But various other demographics were well represented, too: young, old, middle-aged, Asian, black, white, Latino, yuppies, retirees.

Two old men sat on the sidewalk along Seventh Avenue, each holding one end of a “Veterans from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” banner. One of them explained, “We started fighting fascists in Spain, and we’re still fighting fascism today.”

A few fascist-types crowded along the route. Most came under the banner of Protest Warrior: “fighting the left…doing it right.” Several of their laminated signs read, “War Has Never Solved Anything…Except For Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism, and Communism.”

Trying to talk to these people wasn’t easy. First, you have to shout over their shouting, and then try to follow a series of non-sequiturs. In the context of the war in Iraq, you might be told how bad Saddam Hussein has been to his own people—a point that everybody can agree on. Never mind that the rationale for war was the danger Hussein posed not to his own people, but to America with weapons of mass destruction.

But some on the Right suffer from a congenital impairment that prevents them from understanding nuance. It’s sort of a learning disability, but it cannot be easily treated. What you also find is that behind the belligerent posturing and rhetoric is often a pathetic and scared schlub. Take Hank Frank (he insisted that was his real name) from one of the Islips on Long Island (East, West, Central, I can’t remember).

During my freshman year of college the guy in the dorm room next to mine was from East Islip. He was an overweight loudmouth. He was soon universally despised, and for good reason, because he mercilessly bullied his roommate, a pale, meek kid from Utica, who was painfully awkward and shy. This guy from East Islip imposed his will, sometimes violently, over matters large and small, including which channel to watch on TV. Eventually, he drove the Utica kid from the room for good, and into full-blown alcoholism and a self-destructive bent. It happened faster than you could imagine; his confidence was so shot from all the shit he endured.

I imagined Hank Frank was on the same kind of power trip—kick the weak. They may be teaching it in the schools out on Long Island. Still, Frank was not ready for the commitment that real violence requires. I don’t think his body could handle it. He was not small, but at 25 or so, he had a gut that most men twice his age would be a little ashamed of. And he was sweating terribly, so that his thick glasses slid down his nose.

Frank explained that he would have enlisted in the military, but he had been offered a really good job, and his girlfriend, and parents had urged him not go to Iraq—begged, he said. So Frank relented. But before anyone could question his credentials, he quickly pointed out that his grandfather had served in WWII.

At least Frank had the ability to calm down enough to talk honestly, which is when it became clear that behind his bluster he was just a pathetic, brainwashed jackass. Others, though, were more inclined toward histrionics.

One red-faced guy with white hair was hanging over the metal barricades and screaming at passersby. He stood on the sunny side of the street wearing a dark plaid long sleeve button down shirt, and appeared to be going mad from the heat. His outstretched arms nearly hit me in the face as I passed, which is why I gave him the finger, only a few inches from his mug, which at the time was screwed up into an expression of anger and pain as he bellowed at some imagined enemy.

It’s true what they say about small gestures—they can go a long way. He immediately went into near-apoplexy. “Hey, buddy,” he screamed, “you have a lot of class!” I turned and gave him a smile as I walked away.

“A lot of class,” he yelled. “Hey, buddy…”

The counter-protestors didn’t amount to more than a small sideshow and a chance to have a little fun. After all, the United for Peace & Justice demonstration was the largest demonstration at a political convention—ever. Larger than Chicago in 1968, where all order broke down when Mayor Richard Daley turned the cops out on the demonstrators, causing a week of running street battles.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s cops were mostly non-confrontational, although their presence was impossible to ignore. Police helicopters hung overhead like dragonflies. The Fuji Film blimp, ostensibly in the City to cover the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Flushing, Queens, actually had cops on board filming the march. Cops peered from rooftops. I asked one legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild how he knew the heads on one rooftop were cops. “I can smell them from here,” he replied.

*           *            *

I was thinking about the exercise of awesome power while lying on the Great Lawn in Central Park on Saturday. Like Sunday, the weather was lovely, although a bit too humid. All around people played Frisbee and softball and lounged about. I was lying on my stomach, enjoying the sun, when the grass distracted me.

The Great Lawn has the finest grass in New York City, and possibly anywhere. It’s a thick, green rye variety, cropped short, which perfectly frames the nutmeg-colored infields. Some of the nation’s finest golf courses are envious, but they can’t afford it, not without raising club fees.

My friend Carl, a groundskeeper at the world-famous Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Florida, has been experimenting for years with a hybrid that he says will match or surpass the Great Lawn’s grass. I don’t doubt him, although he tends to drink too much wine and become hyperbolic. He claims that the Great Lawn’s grass is not hearty enough for the intense Florida sun. Moreover, he says it would never withstand the heavy trudging of the galleries during The Players’ Championship each spring. On this point, he’s probably right, because the grass at the Great Lawn is notoriously fragile.

Still, it is truly beautiful, like a briefcase full of neatly stacked $100 bills. Which is what it took to restore the grass nearly ten years ago.

In the 1990s, The Great Lawn was a dustbowl and a civic embarrassment. Then the Central Park Conservancy came to the rescue. A private group of rich philanthropists, which included Michael Bloomberg, the Conservancy raised $18 million for the lawn’s restoration. Afterward, the Conservancy and the mayor would be damned if they were going to let anyone ruin the lawn. Which is why there were several hundred cops poised in the shade on Saturday afternoon.

The ANSWER Coalition and the National Council of Arab Americans had sought a permit to rally on the lawn, but were denied on the grounds that they would ruin the grass. They were again denied after appealing the decision in federal court. Some whispered that demonstrators would come anyway.

In the end, only two dozen or so turned out. In fact, they were outnumbered about eight to one by the cops, news media, and legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild wearing their trademark neon green caps.

The biggest ruckus of the afternoon took place on a softball field when a belligerent and profane argument erupted over a call at third base.

*           *            *

On Sunday, softball and the first amendment finally squared off on The Great Lawn.

United For Peace & Justice had applied for a permit to rally on the lawn after its march past Madison Square Garden, but was denied first by the city, and then again in court. Many insisted they would show up anyway, and the police took it seriously.

By 5 pm, a few thousand demonstrators had indeed assembled, edging into the outfield and encroaching on a softball game. The cops tried to keep demonstrators out of the field of play, but at one point a sharply hit ball sailed into the crowd in left field. There were conflicting reports whether it struck someone in the spleen or whether a shirtless man with a beard was merely writhing on the ground trying to scratch his itchy back. Nevertheless, the outfielder was upset, because meanwhile the batter had circled the bases and scored.

Otherwise, there was little action. Out of nearly half a million marchers, less than one tenth had shown up at The Great Lawn. The Rangers and Knicks get bigger crowds on Wednesday nights. While some danced or played drums, most slumped on the grass after a long day in the heat. No one, it seemed, had the stomach for confrontation, including the cops.

Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik had energy though. He bounded all over the lawn in a suit and tie, trailed by supporters with banners. Lacking anything else to do, I walked up and introduced myself. Badnarik proceeded to explain the Libertarian platform.

On universal healthcare: “Entitlement programs are antithetical to the Constitution,” he said. “That’s theft. That’s socialism.”

On public education: “The entire Department of Education is unconstitutional,” he said. “The citizens of the United States used to be the most intelligent society in the world. Now we rank approximately 21st in the fields of math and science. Even if the Department of Education was legal, it is not doing its job.”

He wants to privatize all education, and when I noted that his position sounded a lot like George Bush’s, he replied: “Republicans make wonderful promises. The problem is they don’t follow through. Remember this: ‘Read my lips; no new taxes.’ Republicans have made too many promises.”

Right. Badnarik would cut all entitlement programs, because he and his supporters don’t want to be taxed to pay for any of them. Social Security, welfare, Medicare, public education – good-bye to all that radical incipient socialism. Of course Badnarik has nothing to lose by being honest. After all, he doesn’t stand a chance in any election.

But Bush does. Which is why he would never admit to holding those same views. Yet he has slashed taxes, disproportionately favoring the rich. If he wins in 2004, expect no debate by 2008 over funding for entitlement programs. The subject will be moot, because the treasury will be bankrupt.

If you’re wondering what this Brave New World might look like, read a newspaper from South Africa. Huge disparities in wealth, lack of basic social services, and guns for everyone will mean gruesome crimes and world-record violence that would make Genghis Khan cringe. It is, however, still possible to enjoy a good cigar on a well-guarded golf course outside Johannesburg. In a nation with private security forces, the rich can still afford security.

So load up. Another four years for Bush…no contracts for the cops…peaceful protestors in the streets of Manhattan attacked by criminal gangs. The lucky will be living in the Islips, polishing their gun barrels, caressing the dogs, one eye on the carnage on TV, the other on the gleaming razor wire ribbons atop the walls.

“Did you hear something outside, honey?”

“Relax, Sweetie. They can’t get us out here. Have another Cosmopolitan.”



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