Protest Groups 'Empowered' by Large Turnout

by Martha T. Moore and Charisse Jones

Published on Friday, September 3, 2004 by USA TODAY
Protest Groups 'Empowered' by Large Turnout
by Martha T. Moore and Charisse Jones

NEW YORK - They didn't change the Republican platform, prevent the nomination of President Bush or even make a lot of noise about voting for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry. But the half-million or so people who protested during the GOP convention this week didn't come for that.

Protesters said they had shown that not all Americans agree with Bush and that dissenters can speak out. "People are recognizing they need to vote with their feet. They need to be out in the streets," said Tanya Mayo, 36, national organizer of Not In Our Name, an anti-war group.

The protests were believed to be the largest ever at a U.S. political convention.

A protest sign is held up behind U.S. President George W. Bush as he delivers his speech to the delegation during the final night of the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City on September 2, 2004. The protester was removed from the convention hall by authorities. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

On Thursday, police in riot gear greeted demonstrators for a final night outside the Republican convention as Bush spoke inside. Police said late Thursday that there were no major incidents.

But two protesters gained access to Madison Square Garden and briefly interrupted his speech; another one earlier shouted when New York Gov. George Pataki spoke.

On the convention's last day, an AIDS group staged a protest in Grand Central Terminal during rush hour, and organizers of Sunday's massive demonstration held a candlelight vigil during Bush's speech.

Organizers said the protests succeeded in focusing attention on the anti-war sentiment in the country and providing a boost to a movement they say will continue long after the Republican convention.

"We feel very heartened by the massive turnout this week," said Brian Becker, national coordinator for the ANSWER Coalition. "It gave the anti-war movement a great gust of wind in its sails."

Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice said, "I think people are coming off of this week feeling very strong, very empowered. ... So hopefully people will go back into their neighborhoods and be inspired ...and keep the action going."

Andrea Buffa, a national organizer for Code Pink, a women's anti-war group that was highly visible at protests thanks to members' hot pink outfits and Statue of Liberty crowns, said a teenager from Queens joined them Saturday and then spent nearly every day demonstrating with the group. She even encouraged members to protest Bush's visit in Queens on Wednesday night, Buffa said.

"She's 14 (years old) and she's going to become an activist for the rest of her life because of what she participated in this week," Buffa said.

"We brought the naked truth to the (convention) floor," said Asia Russell, 28, a spokeswoman for ACT UP, the AIDS activist group that disrupted a Young Republicans meeting Wednesday and also unfurled a banner during Laura Bush's speech Tuesday. But she was not pleased by the overall outcome. "The police and Secret Service acted violently, and they didn't need to," Russell said. "Real issues didn't get discussed unless we were forcing people to pay attention."

More than 1,800 people were arrested during convention-related protests, including 29 on Thursday. Activists and attorneys continued to criticize police for the mass arrests of demonstrators.

Buffa reflected the mixed emotions some protesters felt toward the police. "We felt we were able to establish pretty good rapport with the police out on the streets," she said. "We tried to engage them in dialogue and said that these protests are not against you, they're against the Bush agenda. At the same time, I think that, especially on Tuesday, there was a policy implemented that was kind of like a pre-emptive strike against the protesters. And I think that violated people's First Amendment rights."

New York officials released about 470 protesters late Thursday after being fined by a judge because the protesters had been held too long without being arraigned. New York Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo fined the city $1,000 for every protester held past 5 p.m. "These people have already been the victims of a process," he said.

Kim Sue, 19, a New York college student, spent more than 24 hours in custody after she helped disrupt the Young Republicans rally in Madison Square Garden. She faces charges of assault from the ensuing scuffle ? although she says she was punched by people attending the rally who were not arrested.

"I feel like my whole experience was utter hell. Every second of the way, I was scared ... but I would do it again in a heartbeat," Sue said after she was released Thursday. "Because 8,000 people a day are dying and they don't have the same access to the media. Their voices are silent, and it's my responsibility."

? Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.