NEW YORK — On Saturday evening, a group of roughly 75 people gathered on a Manhattan rooftop a few blocks north of Madison Square Garden, chatting and helping themselves to a generous spread. The next day, hundreds of thousands of protesters would march past the Garden, site of the Republican National Convention, hurling invectives toward the party and its candidate.
This particular group was in town to take part in those protests. They ranged in age from 15 to 55 and had traveled from locales as far flung as San Francisco, Kentucky and Canada. But the avowed sentiment for the meeting was hardly along the lines of the majority of marchers. There were members of ProtestWarrior.com, a conservative group dedicated to taking on the anti-war left on its own turf: at protests.
"These people want us to fail in Iraq," said Alan Lipton, 30, one of ProtestWarrior.com's founders.
Lipton clambered atop a ledge to call the meeting to order: "There are 200,000 of them; there's 200 of us — that's a fair fight!" His co-founder, 30-year-old Kfir Alfia, and 27-year-old Tom Paladino, the group's chapter leader for New York, then explained the various tactics for dealing with the police and their ideological nemeses.
"The cops are sympathetic to us," declared Paladino, "but if you get into a fight, they don't care who started it. You will be arrested. Just accept it."
"If you are attacked," added Lipton, "by all means defend yourself."
ProtestWarrior.com now counts its membership at around 7,200, typically college students, recent graduates and high school kids. They have staged nearly 80 "missions" around the country, involving street theater, head-on debate with protesters, and tongue-in-cheek posters like one reading "Saddam only kills his own people; It's none of our business" and "Except for ending slavery, fascism and communism, war has never solved anything."
Lipton and Alfia have known each other since they were kindergartners at a Dallas Hebrew school. The pair founded ProtestWarrior.com in March 2003, although both maintain that their interest in politics is longstanding. "We've always believed that freedom is the way to go," said Lipton, a former graduate student in film.
ProtestWarrior.com supports classic conservative values like economic liberty and the rule of law, but the group's focus is on supporting the Iraq War and quelling "Islamo-fascism" a term coined by the writer Christopher Hitchens to describe militant Muslims like al Qaeda.
"This group," said ProtestWarrior.com member John Paul, a 22-year-old Canadian student, "is not necessarily for Bush. It's for America. When I found out that John Kerry could be president, that really scared me. We need somebody with balls and who won't pussy-foot around like some European country ... or Canada!"
The next day, the Protest Warriors met at 26th Street and Seventh Avenue, where a permit allowed them to congregate alongside the march. People bearing placards reading "Bush is responsible for Abu Ghraib" and "Keep that scumbag out of my city" passed by, roundly booing the Protest Warriors. "It's the same stuff as always," shrugged Paladino. "They say we're Nazis and fascists harassing them."
Michael Vincent, a 41-year-old actor from New York embedded with the Protest Warriors, wore a T-shirt reading "F--s for Bush." He in particular drew the venom of protestors, one of whom raised his middle finger toward Vincent, calling him insane. "Marriage is a 5,000-year-old religious covenant between men and women," Vincent said.
Soon, a series of Protest Warrior squadrons joined the march. Paladino said the one he led encountered a protester who grabbed and smashed his bullhorn; another Warrior claimed he was spat upon. Yet another claimed that he had been ambushed by four "anarchists" who pummeled his head.
Eventually the Warriors regrouped at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, this time joined by an affiliate group, Communists for Kerry. Each wore a T-shirt with the likeness of Che Guevara, and each posed as socialist icons supporting of the Kerry-Edwards ticket. One, Julia Shafer, 37, from Fort Lee, New Jersey, said she was an insurance defense lawyer who "defends this country from the likes of John Edwards," who made his fortune on personal injury lawsuits. "I'm not willing to die because [the protesters] won't wake up" to the dangers of ignoring terrorism, she added.
Again, the protesters passing by took note of the Protest Warriors; when the latter chanted "Four more years!" the former responded with "Four more wars!" A man wearing a John Ashcroft mask began to debate Alfia, who repeatedly asked the man to show his face. The exchange was captured by none other than Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.
Finally, as the march wound down, a protester ran up along the barrier where the Protest Warriors had encamped and ripped a placard out of a Warrior's hands, ripping it to shreds. The offender then fled, only to be tackled by police, which amused the Protest Warriors greatly.