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Convention Protests: What Purpose Do They Serve? - 2004-09-01

The Republican National Convention in New York has already made history. No other American party convention has seen as much protest activity as this year's Republican gathering. The highlight came on Sunday, when hundreds of thousands marched past the site of the convention in a mostly peaceful protest.

The demonstrations have continued since then, not always as peaceably. On Tuesday, more than 1,000 people were arrested as demonstrators calling themselves "anarchists" clashed with police, and a brawl broke out in front of the New York City Public Library. They have come from all over. Their issues have been diverse.

"I'm here because I believe in women's rights. There's nobody that's going to tell me what to do with my body, and I'm the one that's going to make the choices," said one of the protesters.

"I don't know if people really understand how passionately upset the vast majority of New Yorkers are about how they're using the blood of the victims or heros of 9/11 to further their political aims," said another. "Of all the things for Bush to be upset about, he wants to ban gay marriage. You know, there's people being killed in Iraq, and that's what he wants to talk about?"

Their numbers have been unlike anything ever seen before at an American political convention. Five thousand turned out for an environmental bike rally. Another 12,000 to 15,000 marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in the name of reproductive rights. And then, of course, there was the March for Peace up Seventh Avenue.

Depending upon whom you talk to, anywhere from 200 to 500,000 people showed up for that. Todd Gitlin is a journalism professor at Columbia University. He's also the past president of Students for a Democratic Society, which actively opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Professor Gitlin says there weren't nearly as many protestors in 1968, at the now infamous Democratic National Convention, where police and demonstrators clashed.

"A little known fact: Not so many people participated in demonstrations in Chicago, August, 1968," he said. "Probably no more than 10,000 in total, during the entire week. So this is of a whole other magnitude, and I think it reflects the immense unpopularity of the president and the war in Iraq with the population."

It also reflects the power of the Internet, the primary tool for mobilizing support for these demonstrations. Some of the protests have been highly orchestrated the result of months of planning and a good deal of contentious, but ultimately conciliatory debate between organizers and city officials.

But there are many people in this city who are angry and who feel they don't need a permit to express that anger, creating a situation that is unavoidably volatile. Whenever protestors have clashed violently with law enforcement, the behavior has been loudly condemned by groups like United for Peace and Justice, which organized the march up Seventh Avenue. Todd Gitlin says protest is, by its very nature, disruptive, but he also says he doesn't think demonstrations should be deliberately disruptive just two months before a national election.

"If you find the Bush policies dangerous and in need of repeal, there is one overriding and constitutional recourse, and that is to vote Bush out," he said. "Disruptive tactics might be justified if legitimate means have evaporated. But this is the season of legitimate means."

So then what is the point of protest in this "season of legitimate means?" No one seems to believe the demonstrations are going to convince convention delegates to change their minds about President Bush. And none of the demonstrators we talked to felt their actions would convince the president to change his mind about anything. A few demonstrators did mention those nebulous "swing voters," who haven't quite made up their minds yet about the election.

But most of the protesters were like Tara Schubert, who says she has a much bigger audience.

"If I go outside this country, I don't feel safe as an American, because I feel like people hate us because they see what our country does, and what they're doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and the policies they're supporting in Palestine," she said. "And I really want the rest of the world to know that I disagree with this administration, and many Americans do."

President Bush's opponents haven't been the only people taking to the streets this week. Several dozen Bush supporters have shown up at various anti-war demonstrations, waving signs that read "Freedom isn't Free," and "Four More Years."

So far, the Republican Party leadership has downplayed the demonstrations against the president, choosing instead to highlight the administration's efforts in the ongoing war against terrorism.