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Dying for peace
The brief time span of a protest

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2004, NEW YORK --6 p.m. Tuesday, Union Square Park

Some 30 people, dressed almost entirely in white, are huddled together, discussing plans for a protest. They take votes by hand-raising and are leaning heavily toward a die-in, but are divided over specifics. Where? Should they combine with others? They are a variety of ages; a few are carrying anti-Bush and anti-war signs. Some of them want to do it here at the park, but one man objects that there is no media around. "Yeah there is, that guy right behind you," a woman replies, pointing at me. One of them checks in with someone by cell phone. "Who wants to be arrested?" a man asks. "I can't, I've got to work tomorrow." They divide momentarily for the sake of tallying; about two-thirds stand with the group planning to be arrested. Finally they concur on a plan and begin walking single-file toward 5th Avenue.

17th Street, between Union Square and 5th Ave.

Two sisters, 16 and 19, are walking together. They are both from New York but the older one attends Smith College. "We're not really a group," the younger one says of the people marching. "We are all part of the A31 coalition." The two of them walked in the big march on Sunday, and attended an A31 training session on Monday. A young man says that the plan is to walk to Madison Square Garden, as close as they can get. "We intend to walk onto the stage," he says. "Hey, maybe they'll let us. We're a special interest group."

5th Avenue, near 19th Street

The group stops in front of a Victoria's Secret store. They are waiting to merge with another group, the one they had spoken to by phone. They are disappointed that I don't have a camera. When the other group approaches, they conscientiously walk up to 19th in order to cross in the crosswalk, and then walk back a half block to the meeting spot. The other group is larger. They all head north, double-file.

5th Avenue, between 19th and 23rd

A police car is driving slowly alongside us the wrong way up 5th with his flashers on. A couple of National Lawyers Guild observers are now on hand. At the front of the march is John Winkleman, formerly of Providence and now a Manhattan resident. He was with the other group. "I started at Ground Zero," he says. There had been mass arrests there earlier; Winkleman claims that the police grabbed a bunch of people, including the leaders of the protest, with their orange mesh wall -- I tell him I am familiar with the tactic. A middle-aged couple also near the front explain that the white clothing they are (almost) all wearing is a symbol of mourning. The wife, like several others, is wearing a sign around her neck with the name and address of a soldier who died in Iraq. At 23rd Street a police sergeant on a megaphone announces: "You can go to the protest area at 43rd and 8th." The protesters, who are being very careful not to provide any reason for premature arrest, do not respond. They are clearly not planning to follow the instruction. They wait for the light and cross, turning up Broadway.

Broadway, between 23rd and 28th

The march is now well over a block long, and is accompanied by about two dozens cops on bicycles and a handful of reporters and cameramen. Way back I can see an effigy of the black-hooded man from the infamous Abu Ghraib picture held aloft. "Is the intention of the group to get to the demo area?" a sergeant asks. "Our intention is to keep going up Broadway," replies a woman named Annie, one of the original Union Square gang. I chat with Lexy Vanier, a drama student from Pittsburgh, who is among those at the very front. She stands out, because rather than wearing white mourning clothes like the others she has opted for an elaborate Cartman from South Park costume. "I believe artistic expression is a fundamental part of civil disobedience," she explains. She will impress me later when she "dies" with her arms frozen in the classic pose of right fist up, left hand in right elbow.

Broadway and 28th Street

The bicycle cops move into position and a policeman informs the group that they will not be allowed to cross 28th. "Diers -- pass it down -- diers -- when the light changes," one of the protesters calls back. We wait in front of Clover Training Company. The light changes, and the diers emerge from the group, move onto the 28th Street asphalt, and lie down. The others, a couple of hundred worth, gather around and cheer. I count 70 in the street, including the two sisters, the middle-aged couple, and quite a few others from the Union Square contingent, all lying comfortably on their backs, gazing up at the clear blue sky. They have died right in front of a Mister Softee van; the proprietor inside is not amused. More bicycle cops arrive, and form a ring around the "dead." "Next time anybody steps inside this circle, they are under arrest," a policeman announces. The crowd on the sidewalk begins chanting "First Amendment." It is seven o'clock and the protest is over, although hours of arrest processing lies before them.

Issue Date: September 1, 2004
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