Sunday, August 29, 2004

I was there.

It turns out that there's no such thing as spectator democracy, particularly not when several hundred thousand people are marching through the streets of New York. I left my house this morning lathered in sunscreen and with my backpack full of fruit, water, and granola bars, so I guess I knew on some level that by going to observe the protest, I was really planning to participate. As I walked through Tompkins Square Park and continued northwest, the crowds of people carrying signs and festooned with buttons grew and grew, until I found myself part of a crowd on 16th St. waiting to join the main body of the march heading up 7th Ave. So I bought poster board, a Sharpie, packing tape, and made myself a sign.

It also occurred to me that the only way to make sure that a peaceful march takes place is to make sure that peaceful people attend!

Everyone who attended will have a different story to tell, but my experience was overwhelmingly positive - I found the other marchers to be friendly and peaceful, the police hands-off and friendly, the energy focused on getting Bush out of office in November, and the crowds patient in the face of very slow movement, especially at the start. I led some chants, took some pictures, and held my homemade sign high.

One interesting new use of technology developed for the conventions is txtmob, a service that allows you to sign up to receive text messages as part of a group. I signed up last night for the comms_dispatch group, and throughout the day received text messages on my cellphone informing me of crowd movements, location and intentions of police lines, the start and end of the march, and much more. Since I had some safety concerns about the march, I felt like this service helped me keep perspective on what was happening beyond my own limited sight lines.

For example, when I was on 34th St. halfway between 7th Ave. and Broadway, a lot of photographers suddenly turned back towards 7th Ave. Looking back, we could see a cloud of smoke at the corner of 34th and 7th Avenue, without any clear source. You can imagine what rushed through my mind - it could have been gas used by police in response to a disturbance, it could have been a bomb or attack of some kind, who knows? The crowd around me grew anxious and I saw, for the only time during the march, the potential for panic and chaos. Fortunately, most people kept moving away from the smoke and asked nearby police officers for information. Within a half hour, I received a text message from txtmob that said that a dragon float had caught fire, the march was delayed at that corner, and things were under control.

Other things I saw... A cabdriver pulled over after the march, read my sign, and said, "I hate Bush!" Lots of protesters interacting with the police, thanking them and reminding them that we were here for peace. Young people organizing other youth to participate in the march. A group of marchers clearing a pathway for a woman in a wheelchair to cross the street. Drummers and musicians bringing joy and rhythm to the march. Marchers heckling the Fox News broadcast on the side of Macy's.

I'm glad I decided to participate. I can't imagine telling my children that I lived in NYC but didn't march - that's like living in Woodstock but skipping the concert!

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