NEW YORK, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- The closing session of the Books not Bombs seminar began with people screaming "No more war" until the rafters shook. The combination of passion and pacifism was characteristic of the atmosphere in New York as protesters gathered on the eve of the Republican convention that will formally nominate President George W. Bush for re-election.
Mike Gould-Wartofsky, an intern for the National Youth Student and Peace Commission, summed up the defiant mood by declaring, "Our city is your city, and it will never be their city."
Representatives from all the major protest groups in the coming week presented their manifestos at meetings Saturday and called for people to march alongside them.
"The richest country in the world has no focus other than corporate greed. We (the organization) are resourceful yet resourceless. We run on love. There's a lot of passion, a lot of hate and a lot of hurt. We've got to make a change, it's our responsibility" said Tom Dowlin from the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.
He spoke of the need for healthcare reform, better treatment of immigrants, and improved legislation for the aid and protection of the economically disadvantaged. These are the issues that many protesters said brought them to New York, and motivated them to make their voice heard.
"This is the most important campaign of my lifetime, and this event in particular is important because it's essential for the youth to be a focus of the national political agenda. There is a need to change federal spending. If we're not fully funding the HeadStart program, we shouldn't be funneling the amount of money into the military that we are," said Sarah Johnston-Gardner, working for the Student Peace Action Network.
"We have to fight against the war in Iraq, but also against the current policies relating to immigration, women's rights and minorities' rights. The policies are detrimental to the people of the country. While the middle class may be benefiting now from such an aggressive and militaristic policy, in the long term it will do more harm" confided a protester willing only to be known as Justin.
Despite the rallying cries of the various interest groups proselytizing so effectively in the hall of St. Mark's Church, there is a palpable undercurrent of fear. Four people arrested in a protest Friday, at which a policeman was hurt when he fell through a skylight, are facing up to 25 years in prison. More than 300 bikers were also detained briefly Friday in the Critical Mass protest. People are being warned that jail time is a very real possibility for all the protesters present.
Many say they are prepared to make that sacrifice to further the cause of what they see as the greater good. However, it is widely understood that if these protests are to become violent, it will only reflect badly upon Democratic Party nominee for president John Kerry. These demonstrations could well end up being more beneficial to the Republicans than the Democrats. If a protest were to turn into a riot, Bush could present himself as the statesman in control of the country. The protesters are being warned repeatedly by organizers that violence would reflect badly on the Kerry campaign. And few protesters want to be responsible for taking away a single vote from the Democrats.
United for Peace and Justice is having a permitted march Sunday, ending in Union Square. From Union Square, many people plan to march on, unauthorized, to a gathering in Central Park. And although UFPJ urges people to join them in the park, Kiyoko McRae, the organization's representative at the Books not Bombs seminar, did say, "People should do what their hearts and consciences say in terms of any involvement in permit-less activity."
These protests are very much a pressure-less environment, each person may involve himself or herself as much or as little as they would like. However, McRae did go on to joke, "So of course we'll be seeing all of you in Central Park."
There have been comments that the greatest weakness of the demonstrations is how many interest groups are attending, with entirely different agendas. But as United for Peace and Justice claims there are two overriding common focuses for everyone attending: the need to get out of Iraq, and the need to replace Bush in the White House.
"We have entered a new phase of this war since Fallujah; the increased brutality of the attacks on civilians and resistors. The Iraqi people have a right to resistance. We are seeing unbelievable oppression of resistance in Najaf. We need to tell the rest of the world we condemn this. We need to get the hell out of Iraq now!" said McRae.
Jesse Marshall, a representative of the National Youth Student and Peace Commission outlined what the future required out of the demonstrators present.
"It's not just about this week. We need to go back to our communities and do the organizing work it's going to take to win back this country. They've already made it clear they're not going to hand us anything. They're going to continue with their agenda of occupation around the world. It's not enough to talk about what we're defending. We've got to stop defending and start demanding."
The mood was quite similar to the mood earlier in the day at the March for Women's Lives across Brooklyn Bridge. This march was a fairly small affair, more of a reminder to the Republicans of the demonstration in Washington earlier this year. But still, the need for change and the need for organization animated the marchers.
"I feel America in general is extremely apathetic, especially through the middle classes. The lower class at least wants the Democrats in power to help them ... Bush is metaphorically a political child who needs to be scolded and put in the corner wearing a dunce cap," said Bill Ardito.
The demonstrators were visibly moved by the mood of solidarity and purpose, as hundreds of women marched for abortion rights, the right to sexual health and the right to be equal. Some women had tears rolling down their cheeks as they recounted stories about abortions. The general consensus among the women who had gone through the experience was that as horrifying as it was, and as much as they no longer believe in abortion, no one has the right to decide for anyone else what to do with their body.
Both events were marked by the conviction and passion of those present. Whether they are right or wrong in their beliefs, justified or completely off the mark in their distaste toward Bush, these protesters across the board appear to be well informed, highly impassioned, and willing to make sacrifices to make their voices heard. It promises to be a dramatic convention week in New York.
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