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It's Up to You, New York, New York

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Start spreadin' the news, I'm leaving for New York and the Republican National Convention. Not to cover Bush & Company, whose television show from inside Madison Square Garden will be interesting only as farce. No, I want to see what happens on the streets of the greatest city in the world. Strike that. I need to see it, because it's going to be fateful for our country whatever happens--and it could be fateful great, or fateful fizzle, or fateful like Chicago 1968, when demonstrators at the Democratic Convention made it clear the country couldn't stomach Vietnam anymore, and our political system's response was a police riot, the election of Richard M. Nixon and the beginning of the era of reactionary politics that continues to this day.

So now, New York 2004. Bush returns to Ground Zero, but not--as he'd planned--in his flight suit, having dispatched the evildoers. Polls show him far behind Kerry in the Empire State, even further in the city. The official estimate is that 200,000 people will come to New York to protest his presence. I'd count that a fizzle, though, a swing and a miss at one reactionary who is ready to fall. I'm hoping for 1 million.

But, even if it is a million, will that serve to knock Bush out, or--as in '68--scare people into electing him? (I almost said re-electing him.)

When I picture in my mind what should happen, I see a million of us this Sunday morning marching peacefully through Manhattan to Central Park and massing there so that all the world can see--unmistakably see--that whatever the Republicans' spiel at the Garden, the people, in their majesty, want Bush to go.

But a peaceful gathering is not going to be allowed, apparently. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki and Bush's Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge--Republicans all--are bent on turning Manhattan into a police state, for the stated purpose of thwarting terrorists, and the unstated one of scaring as many law-abiding Bush-haters as possible into staying home.

Sensible people, after all, will hesitate to exercise their "rights" in the presence of stick-wielding cops, especially when the cops view them as the threat to our "liberties."

Thus, Mayor Bloomberg has insisted that any march end, not in Central Park (which is 40 blocks from the Garden, by the way), but in a construction zone out on the West Side Highway, where the combination of a police cordon and the August heat is sure to be, if not life-threatening, at least democracy-deadening.

To this demand, march organizers at one point said OK, thinking they had no choice. But soon they reconsidered and went to court, trying again for Central Park. Why? Because dozens of small protest groups were forming, or maybe it was hundreds (or maybe thousands), and they were dreaming up their own protest gigs all over town--while making it clear that, regardless of anything Bloomberg wanted, they weren't going anywhere near the West Side Highway.

You can get a sense of what's in store in New York from the various Web sites, from www.RNCnotwelcome.org to www.unitedforpeace.org to all their multitudinous links. But for what's at stake, the group of about 30 or so RNC-bound folks who met last week at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill offered a better primer. Several in the group were in Miami last winter to protest the FTAA talks (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas); that's where Police Chief John Timony's cops refused to let the estimated 10,000 demonstrators even come together in one place, wedging between the various groups and then driving a number of them, block by block, right out of the downtown area. Needless to say, but for some injured protesters, the peace was maintained and liberties preserved.

Timony was police chief in Philadelphia for the 2000 Republican Convention; his views on how New York's finest should maintain the peace were agreeably reported the other day in The New York Times. No surprise, then, that Harry Halpin, a Chapel Hill activist who's been in New York of late working with the protest organizers, expects the same divide-and-conquer tactics to be employed again, along with what he termed "snatch and arrest" moves to grab recognizable leaders away from their groups.

But Halpin, who led the discussion, and some others who joined in, are expecting protesters to use their own divide-and-conquer strategy. Cops won't let them have one big march to the park? So be it, they'll spread out all over Manhattan, all week long, working in so-called "affinity groups" of five to 20, and in groups of affinity groups called together spontaneously via cell phones. (Several groups equals a "cluster." More, and you have a "flash mob.")

Affinity groups are coming to New York from everywhere in the country, Halpin says, and each is arriving with its own special plan, from Wiccan street-dancing to Paula Revere's bike ride ("The Republicans are coming!") to--well, use your imagination. That's the point. It's called "direct action," and it means doing the things that empower you, not just marching in lockstep or listening dutifully to boring speeches by so-called leaders.

"Who knows what this is all going to lead to, but it's going to be interesting--and highly arrestable," Halpin predicts. "The New York police do have a history of arresting a lot of people."

Uh-oh. Small groups running all over, doing whatever, will get painted in the worst possible light by the Republican fearmongers. Someone mentioned harassing (I think the actual word used was "welcoming") GOP delegates as they arrive for Broadway shows. That'll play well on NBC. (And Fox.) Meanwhile, the chance for a mass anti-Bush protest is lost.

Michael Hardt, who teaches literature at Duke, thinks that in the long run this decentralized model of protest and activism is the best way to gain political power. Just as loose networks of self-directed collaborators have transformed economic production, so too can they transform society, he thinks, by modeling the change they advocate. "Voting," Hardt says, "is probably the least effective way of getting power," at least until the choices on the ballot change.

True. But in the short run, voting is the only means available to replace George Bush. Will Kerry be better? He could hardly be worse.

Left face: Who's the most progressive member of the state Senate? It's Ellie Kinnaird of Orange County, followed by--well, she doesn't have a lot of competition, does she? But with last week's runoff primary elections, competition looms.

Doug Berger, a lawyer who won the Democratic nomination for Senate in his Granville-Vance-Warren-Franklin district, is one of the founders of the party's new progressive caucus with a history of activism that goes back to fighting the PCP dump in Warren County when he was in college.

Berger won narrowly over an opponent, Creedmoor Mayor Darryl Moss, backed by the party's establishment wing, and should be elected in November in a district that is strongly Democratic.

Progressives lost a second round against the establishment, however, when Sen. Clark Jenkins won renomination in his Edgecombe County district over an opponent, Shelly Willingham, who was strongly backed by environmental groups and NARAL.

Right face: Republican gubernatorial nominee Patrick Ballantine is striking a pro-education stance, which is driving a lot of Democrats up a wall, given his voting record in the Senate. ("Cut, cut, cut.") But at least he's not running the typical "gays and blacks threaten our way of life" GOP campaign.

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