NEW YORK — "Thank You New York" read the sign flashing on the enormous screen outside of Madison Square Garden on Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of people protesting President George W. Bush and his policies strolled by. But exactly who was doing the thanking, and who was being thanked? On the one hand, demonstrators at the United for Peace & Justice march may have seen the message as one of support for their cause. Yet Republicans, who are making MSG their convention home this week, likely saw it as their own mannerly message to the residents of the Big Apple, a kind regard for the hospitality the city is offering the many out-of-town members of the Grand Ol' Party.
One thing's for sure: New York is creating a perfect setting for both sides of the most intense election-year battle in years. Because if there's one thing that this city is good at, it's providing a big stage.
Of course, while Republican conventioneers see New York's 9-11 experience as defining the new American century, and though they may feel comfortable here, welcomed with open arms at numerous Broadway shows and in the finest restaurants, when it comes to national elections, New York remains a predominantly Democratic town. And as such, more of its sympathies may rest with the protesters than with the visitors partying at the Garden.
A poll of more than 800 New Yorkers conducted by Quinnipiac University the week before the convention saw 81 percent of those surveyed approving of demonstrations against the RNC, and 68 percent approving of nonviolent civil disobedience. (Predictably, 70 percent of those polled also disapproved of President Bush's leadership.)
This support has been felt on the street. It is impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing common, non-participating New Yorkers with buttons, T-shirts and even signs disparaging the president and the Republicans. Even bystanders, whose lives have been made more complicated by the ruckus of anti-conventioneers, are cheering on the active dissenters.
When on Monday evening executive assistant Helen Zoeller emerged from her job at 866 Second Avenue and saw her commute home blocked by a spontaneous, large-scale demonstration, she took it in stride. "It's wonderful," said the forty-something mom who had to get back to Queens. "It's people expressing their constitutional rights."
Alan Sekula, a professor of photography at the California Institute for the Arts and a veteran observer of protests around the globe, thought the many dissenting actions not only reflected the level of social anger felt in the U.S. at the moment but a largess inherent to most things in New York. "These protests are off the scale in terms of sheer size [in comparison to those at previous Republican and Democratic conventions]. And because it's New York, there's a higher level of political sophistication; it's not just a revenge scenario."
Yet not all demonstrations have elicited unequivocally positive responses from New Yorkers.
Friday's gathering of Critical Mass, a loose affiliation of bicyclists that meets monthly, helped kick off the RNC protests with a massive throng of an estimated 5,000 two-wheelers riding without a set route around Manhattan. (The ride ended in more than 260 arrests when bicyclists clashed with the NYPD in the East Village — nearly half the total number of those arrested over the course of the RNC protests through Monday evening.) Though downtown residents have grown accustomed to Critical Mass' rides, some criticized the implications that Friday's actions may have had.
"I have no problem with them blocking traffic," said Anthony Tedesco, a writer who's lived in New York for 10 years. "I support their expression. But I do have a problem with the fact that ambulances and fire engines were unable to get through. They could've been putting lives in danger."
As one pre-convention tabloid headline succinctly put it, New Yorkers just want everybody to "Play Nice" (see "RNC Protesters: The Voice Of The People, Or Pawns In The Media Game?") Then let the electoral chips fall where they may.