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Defending Johnny Cash’s honor


WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2004, NEW YORK -- Johnny Cash used to wear the black for the poor and beaten down. He wore black for the sick and lonely old and the thousands who have died. He wore it for those who never read and for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime. But he didn’t wear the black for rich folk eating in fancy dining cars or smokin’ big cigars. Because Cash was a man of the people, not a man of the wealthy.

Or so that’s what activist organizers of "Defend Johnny Cash" hoped to convey with their protest defending Johnny Cash’s honor. On Tuesday afternoon, Sotheby’s threw an exclusive Man in Black "celebration" for Tennessee delegates, sponsored by the American Gas Association. To counter this "disgrace," as protestors who went by the Man in Black bloc called it, Johnny Cash devotees and other anti-RNC types gathered on the corner of York Avenue and 71st Street to let the GOP representatives know they couldn’t have Cash. As one sign read, YOU CAN KEEP YER BROOKS & DUNN, BUT JOHNNY CASH BELONGS TO EVERYONE.

After 4 p.m., Cash defenders showed up sporadically, some swathed in black hats and shirts, others with both acoustic guitars and six strings made of cardboard. One woman passed out photocopied, homemade lyric sheets with the words to Cash classics like "San Quentin," "Ring of Fire," "What is Truth?" and "Man in Black." They held signs bidding, SEND W TO FOLSOME and NO CASH FOR THE GOP. They booed Republican delegates entering the auction house, occasionally forgetting about Johnny and taunting slurs like "Republicans have small dicks! That’s why they’re warmongers!" And the folk guitar players in the crowd led everyone in song, managing to work in lines like, "And those Republicans got me rolling over in my grave."

One person singing along with "Ring of Fire" was a 10-year-old in a Calvin and Hobbes T-shirt named Alex. "I don’t even know him," he said defensively outside the protest pen. Then he looked around at the waving signs and added, "I just know he’s sticking up the middle finger."

His mother, Upper East Side resident Patricia Zito, brought her son Alex and his 8-year-old brother Nicky here. A spectacled woman with cropped hair who looked like a lawyer on vacation, she heard about the demonstration on Air America and stopped by after they’d finished playing in Central Park. "You know that song, ‘I’ve been everywhere, man’?" Zito tells her sons. "He’s the guy who wrote that song."

By 5:30 p.m., about 250 people had gathered outside Sotheby’s. Even Triumph the Insult Comic Dog showed up. While other protestors yelled, "Take your money and give it away," Triumph barked, his plastic poochy face high above other peoples’ heads, "Take your money and stick it up my ass!" But Conan O’Brien’s canine collaborator also showed up to harass professional demonstrators, who all got the joke better than Eminem did a few years ago at an MTV Music Awards. "Why don’t you give soap a chance?" the rude doggy asked one sweaty, unshaven demonstrator in an Uncle Sam hat. "I had to lick my own ass to get a fresh of breath air."

Issue Date: September 1, 2004
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