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New York’s attempt to limit protest backfires as doves flock through Manhattan

" Whose streets? Our streets! "

That chant was more wishful than true during Saturday’s antiwar march in New York. But it reflected one of the core issues of the day: the fact that the city of New York had actually outlawed a peaceful march. Perhaps the city (and its federal friends) thought restricting the event to a stationary rally in bitter cold weather would discourage the antiwar faithful.

In actuality, the city’s attempts to limit the event (sidewalks only; holding pens on First Avenue, where the rally was to occur; and late-breaking rules including no wooden poles or posts) seemed to ignite even more determination. Deborah Battit, 29, of Middle Haddam, Connecticut, was undeterred. Though she had never been to a protest in her life, she says, " I felt like I had to do something. I’ve written letters and signed petitions, everything a full-time working mother can do. But this was a chance to be there and be heard in person. "

Guided by the advice of legal experts who argued that use of sidewalks can’t be banned, protestors like Battit had a new option: " feeder marches. " Beginning at assembly points from Chelsea to Harlem, 71 themed groups led sidewalk mini-marches of their own, all flowing toward First Avenue — like a reverse sun, with beams of energy radiating inward.

With a flying dove puppet swinging on an eight-foot pole over my head, I joined the Performing Arts march from Columbus Circle. The performance troupe Bread & Puppet led off the march, with somber puppets of Iraqi women carrying bodies. Moments later, a Dixeland jazz combo stepped into the crowd, sounding a decidedly different note. A rolling drum-set billing itself as the Rhythm Workers Union kept up the energy.

That sensory mix — images of war set against a spirited backbeat of human hopefulness — fueled us on our way across the island along 59th Street. Past the Helmsley Hotel, where fur-coated matrons wait to get to their limos . . . past the horse-drawn carriages of Central Park, where the newly-engaged peered out to see another kind of passion . . . past building after building, where people crowded to windows to see the swarming streets below.

At Fifth Avenue, we bled into another feeder march, setting off cheers. As far as we could see down two streets, peace marchers were converging. The city’s initial action had defeated itself: Instead of one discreet event, the protest had become a web of purpose cast over the entire city.

The mood shifted as we slowly approached the rally site. In a microcosm of US policy, it seemed the police were determined to provoke us into misbehavior so they could respond. When we got to Third Avenue, they turned us north — away from the rally at 51st — saying that we needed to cross the avenue at a higher block. But then they stood officers or positioned obstacles in the other blocks to discourage us — prompting marchers to finally leave the sidewalk and stream right by the police to get to Second Avenue.

Second was as far as we would get. With police barricades, emergency vehicles, and the smug calm of those who make the law, they would not let us cross to First. They told us that the avenue was full for 40 blocks, despite the fact that we could see the empty streets for ourselves. Worse, they decided not only to keep us from getting to First — they didn’t want us going anywhere else on our own. Having herded us toward one blocked street, they threw down metal pens to keep us in line.

Two activists, loudly reminding the police that they had a legal right to use the sidewalk, crossed through an empty block to get to First, and just like that, an emergency vehicle appeared, depositing 10 uniformed officers with black clubs in hand to make it clear that no one gets to tell the police about rights. Battit, who doesn’t usually handle crowd situations well, said she wasn’t nervous until riot police in full gear ran into view to block off another street.

Three hours into the march, knowing we could not get to the rally, my partner and I headed back toward mid-town and were startled to see that Third Avenue now resembled Second — full as far as the eye could see. " They’re not going to tell anyone about all of us over here, " an old woman in a Sophia Loren wig complained. " They’re keeping the numbers small on First, so they can say that’s all who came! " Whatever the intent, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the protestors like Battit, who says, " Here we were, in the streets, chanting, smiling at strangers — I really felt I was a part of something. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. "

On the subway, we fell into conversation with a Parisian woman (with a paper sign reading " la guerre? non merci, " politely safety-pinned to her chest). While we were enjoying the post-march harmony, a man on the train began arguing loudly with peace marchers. A young woman asked the man to stop shouting, suggesting that they could have a reasonable conversation on this topic. As we pulled into the next station, the guy punched the girl and hopped off the train. We were stunned, but the Parisian was not. " A bully, " she pointed out, " always shows his muscle when he has nothing left to say. "

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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