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200,000 in N.Y. Protest Bush

President and GOP Convention Unwelcome, Demonstrators Say

By Michael Powell and Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 30, 2004; Page A01

NEW YORK, Aug. 29 -- By the tens of thousands, demonstrators marched, chanted -- "No More Years!" -- and danced through the streets of Manhattan on Sunday, voicing their anger with President Bush, the war in Iraq and the Republicans' decision to hold a national convention in this most Democratic of urban bastions.

Hundreds of police officers in riot gear lined the sidewalks, SWAT vans idled, and police helicopters whirred overhead. But the protest was as peaceful as it was vast. More than 200,000 demonstrators, according to a police estimate, packed dozens of blocks along Seventh Avenue and snaked down side streets.

Organizers with United for Peace and Justice decided to forgo a rally and simply march through Midtown. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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The march drew protesters from many corners. Printers and emergency medical technicians rode early-morning buses from Lancaster, Pa.; suburban peace groups took the 9:29 a.m. commuter train from Bedford Hills; and a group of students traveled overland from northern Texas, hitchhiking the last 800 miles after their bus broke down in Ohio. Then there was Billionaires for Bush, a satirical group outfitted in cocktail dresses and silk gloves, tuxes and top hats and cigarette holders. They waved placards emblazoned: "It's a Class War -- and We're winning" and "No Justice? No problem!"

"I'm here to protest Bush's horrendous economic principles," said Kathy Merletti, decked out in a champagne-colored gown, lace gloves and a parasol, and calling herself Emma Goldmine. "After this, I'm going to be playing croquet in Central Park."

While passions ran high, the mood was often celebratory. As the marchers inched along Seventh Avenue, New Yorkers waved from windows and rooftops, and three gay couples enjoying Sunday brunch at the Eros Cafe in the Chelsea neighborhood raised glasses of orange juice to salute.

There were scattered arrests at the edges of the protest, but police reported no violence. The march route formed a giant U, running two miles north past Madison Square Garden before hooking south again another two miles to Union Square, where radicals and labor organizers have declaimed for more than a century.

Many New Yorkers spoke of deeply felt indignation that the Republicans would come to their city, as though the convention starting Monday were a slap in their faces. As marchers passed Madison Square Garden, they often erupted in chants of "Liar! Liar!"

Kate Abell, a public school teacher and mother who lives in Chelsea, stood in the sharp, hot sun of midday holding this sign: "My son watched the towers fall from his school. I don't feel safer."

"The Republicans have come here, to a place where they don't have a base, for one reason: To play with the image of 9/11," Abell said. "They are using fear and death to make Bush's policies seem more palatable."

Organizers with United for Peace and Justice had wanted to end their march with a rally in Central Park. But Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg demurred, saying that so many protesters might damage the park's newly refurbished lawn. City officials instead offered the demonstrators a rally spot along a treeless stretch of the West Side Highway.

In the end, the organizers decided to forgo a rally and simply march through Midtown.

"We couldn't be happier," said Leslie Cagan, the march's lead organizer. "People came to say no to the Bush agenda with all the diversity of our neighborhoods. We won the streets of New York."

After the march ended, several thousand demonstrators rode the subways north to Central Park's Great Lawn, where they had picnics, watched political theater by the "Mission Accomplicated" troupe and registered a peaceful protest against the city's refusal of a permit to congregate there.

Republican officials have suggested in recent days that Democratic Party activists were fueling the protest. It is hard to overstate how many people vote Democratic in this city; in the 2000 election, 1.6 million New Yorkers voted for Democrat Al Gore, while 398,000 voted for Bush.

There were thousands of "John Kerry for President" pins in evidence Sunday, but there was no real sign of a Democratic Party hand at play. Democratic strategists, in fact, have talked of holding their breath, lest the protests dissolve into violence or the Republicans turn them into caricatures of the left. March organizers were critical of Kerry for voting to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq. And Kerry might prefer to eschew the four-member "Communists for Kerry" contingent, whose placards advocated a "France First!" foreign policy.

The marchers were by turns humorous, angry and somber. They were momentarily silent as men in white shirts and ties and women in dresses passed bearing 1,000 flag-draped cardboard boxes resembling coffins, representative of the Americans and Iraqis who have died since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Elsewhere, a half-dozen Iraq war veterans in combat boots and desert fatigues marched and swapped stories about buddies still in Iraq. Kelly Doughtery, who walked between the broad shoulders of her male comrades, had returned from Iraq in February, after serving a year with the military police. She came here from Colorado.

"I saw that people were hoping their lives would improve, and we didn't allow that," she said. "When you invade and occupy a country, it stifles people's ability to help themselves."

Many families marched together, from mothers pushing baby carriages to high school students walking alongside their fathers. Janet Braun-Reinitz, a New York muralist, marched with her son Dave, a comedian who lives in Los Angeles, and her daughter Laura, who came in from California's Silicon Valley.

Sisters Vicki and Danielle Leifer passed out voter registration cards while their mother, Jacqueline, held a poster saying, "If you think voting doesn't matter, then why did Republicans try so hard to prevent black Americans from voting?"

The crowd was more than 90 percent white, which did not go unnoticed by the Leifers. "This is a very white, middle-class protest," Vicki said. "There's such a sense of disenfranchisement in the black community, and it didn't start with Florida in 2000."

At 19th Street and Seventh Avenue, Judith Malina, who played Grandmama Addams in the "Addams Family" movie, waited to lead her Living Theater collective into the streets. A diminutive woman, she has hair dyed jet black and harbors the hope that, one day, she might lead a "pacifist-anarchist-vegetarian revolution."

"We can dream, can't we?" she said over her shoulder as she led her troupe into the streets.

Special correspondent Michelle Garcia contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company