My Experience at the 2004 Republican National Convention Protests: Part I: Prelude (March 21 – August 27)
My Experience at the 2004 Republican National Convention Protests
Part I: Prelude (March 21 – August 27)
By Jim Macdonald
This series of essays will consist in four parts:
I. Prelude (March 21 – August 27)
II. The Great Big Opening Act (August 27 – August 30) -
III. A31 and Guantanamo on the Hudson (August 31 – September 1) - http://www.eclecticworld.org/2015/09/my-experience-at-2004-republican.html
IV. Copwatch and Aftermath (September 1 – September 3)
Prelude to the prelude
Many of you are certainly wondering about what happened to me in jail, how it happened, what it was like, and what the next steps in that particular fight are. Since it could be several days before I share that account, let me share a few things on that score right now.
Firstly, the jail experience was one of the best in my life, one where people came together and took very good care of each other. It was like going to the best protest rally ever, only made that much more poignant by the ridiculous situation we found ourselves and some of the harsh realities of life in a jail cell. The friends I made in jail give me great confidence of the power and imagination in our movement, and the compassion I saw and received from others was astounding.
However, more importantly, and secondly, for all of us who are so gladly martyrs for the cause of peace and social justice and who are trumpeting our own personal stories (for instance, read this one), the reality is that we are not victims, that we are not the forgotten story of New York. The forgotten story is all those people who have gone through and continue to go through the jail and prison system in this country. In New York, police repeatedly told us that we were lucky, that it usually took up to 72 hours to process the average person and that the “Tombs” (as the jail in New York is called) were remarkably more clean and more pleasant than usual. The poor, the mentally ill, the minorities, the homosexuals, the transgendered, and the unfortunate drug addicts go through this system all the time. They become lost in it without charges for days, without the support system that the activist community brought. They do not know who they are locked up with, and they do not have people outside when they get out. It is for them and not for us that I give my support and pity. If writing this account inspires others to speak out on behalf of those who are the real victims, then it will serve its purpose. I am intent on building this movement and showing both the positives and negatives in my experience, but none of that means a damn thing if we do not reach out to those people who are truly feeling the brunt of this system.
So, as you read, remember the forgotten people. Then, organize and take action so that we can create a world where we truly take care of each other and the world in which we live.
Why protest the RNC?
Well over 500,000 people protested at the Republican National Convention (RNC) at hundreds of events and demonstrations. No other political conventions in American history have had anywhere close to this many protesters. Yet, this year, the magnitude of these protests surprised few.
George W. Bush has been a horrible President. In 2000, he stole Florida and the national election despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore. He gave the rich a tax cut that bankrupted a government that was starting to get on its fiscal feet. He used the tragedy of September 11 to start wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where tens of thousands have died, including over 1,000 Americans. His environmental policies have included easing restrictions on the Clean Air Act, numerous attempts to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, allowing increased snowmobile emissions in Yellowstone National Park, and attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. He has been a friend of big business, the pharmaceutical companies, and the oil industry. His Administration supported the successful coup against the democratically-elected leader of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the failed coup against another democratically-elected leader in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. He has cut benefits for many social programs. At the same time, his government has assaulted civil liberties, especially through the Patriot Act and the detaining of those held without charges in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The list could go on indefinitely.
As a result of the failure of many to have faith that electoral politics can be counted on and the sheer suffering that Bush’s policies have caused, massive demonstrations have been the norm during the past four years. In 2000, 80,000 protested Bush’s inauguration, by far the largest such protest of any inauguration ever. From October 2002 through March 2003, tens of millions demonstrated worldwide hoping to stop the war in Iraq, including an estimated 32 million alone on February 15, 2003. More than 1.1 million women and men marched in the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004.
For over a year, most activists knew that the protests at the Republican National Convention would not only be necessary but also that they would be quite big. The million reasons to protest Bush could not but stir the passions and enthusiasm of those who wanted to make it happen.
Why protest Bush and the RNC? Are you seriously asking me that?
The Beginnings of My Involvement
On March 21, 2004, I was writing about my experiences on March 20 just as this September 4 I’m writing about experiences of the day before. In writing, I find the power to preserve and to collect so that I can gain perspective on the melodies of my existence. However, in writing, it is not the truth we are preserving. Writing does not contain the truth not so much because what is written is untrue but because truth is not itself able to be contained. The truth is always so much more than any particular collection of words. Nevertheless, writing is a melodic process with potentially profound results. What writing does is invite others to conversation with the wonders of our minds and with the tapestries in our world. If successful, it evokes response and creativity. That process is profoundly beautiful, and in that process truth unfolds—rather than being contained—before our eyes and sets fire in our hearts.
Something about March 21 was different, though. I found myself unable to feel enthusiastic about my writing. It was as if what happened that yesterday no longer seemed all that relevant to tomorrow. Often, I write with the idea that the thought that went into that writing session would organize my actions for the next. Yet, long before that day, I already knew what was next for me. The March 20 demonstrations by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) were moderately successful, but everyone knew that they were only a prelude to the later demonstrations in New York at the RNC. Perhaps, that is why we in the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN) could only field two buses to New York that day. Everyone knew that a bigger wave was on its way.
Thus, what I wrote that day failed to resonate, it failed to seem all that important. The formulas of our protesting had grown as old and stale as what I had to write about. This is not to say there were not fresh thoughts of some relevance, but it is to say that they were not fresh and active enough. We had to do and be more or the RNC would be our Waterloo (what is the fascination with the analogies of war?)
On March 21 I knew that I was going to propose to DAWN that we immediately turn the team that provided buses to New York for March 20 into a working group to prepare for the protests at the RNC. In my heart, I also believed that I wanted to be the working group’s point person for the action. Never before, believe it or not, had I ever been the point person for any action in DAWN. For March 20, I served as the bus ticket sales coordinator and ultimately as the bus coordinator for two other bus captains, but I was not ultimately responsible for keeping the overall work of the group together. For the RNC, finally, I felt that I had the confidence to do the hard work of taking the lead in organizing, not because I had some egomaniacal need to be a leader but because my energy was at an all time high, and I knew that that energy could best be used in this effort. The bus trip left me feeling unusually confident that maybe I could take on a project of some scope and organize a team of people to get things done.
DAWN formed a working group for the purpose of protesting at the conventions, both the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and RNC, the following Tuesday. Within the week, the working group met for the first time at Café Mawonaj and then soon after over at the Warehouse Theater. From efforts following those meetings, a DC Conventions Coalition formed, meeting regularly at St. Stephens Church and eventually in Dupont Circle. That entire planning experience truly is a book in itself. I would like to write it some day, but I think that there are going to be far too many volumes of experiences upcoming for me to ever tell the whole story. That’s a happy thought, to know that life is so full of wonder and experience that there is not enough time to write about it all.
The Scope of Our Work
While I cannot write about all the work of the DAWN working group, the DC Conventions Coalition group, or the DC Cluster that arose out of the latter, I will highlight some of our thinking and try to give you the scope of the planning that went into this. Eventually, DAWN buses brought 200 people to New York. We estimate that over 1,000 DC-area residents attended the protests, perhaps more. We housed between 30 and 40 activists and had the capacity to house many more. The activists on the ground took part in numerous planning meetings while many DC affinity groups took effective action on the ground. In the past, big demonstrations in other cities simply meant that DC people came to participate in a march but do little else. This time hard work and planning by our group and so many other groups like SOA Watch, MGJ, and Codepink meant that Washington, DC activists could play an important and organized role in both the national planning and the actions on the ground.
In my particular case, I estimate working at least 60 hours a week simply on conventions-related planning. I organized meetings; attended meetings of other groups; participated in conference calls; researched and created spreadsheets of activist groups; wrote calls and press releases; created, printed, and distributed flyers; participated in every wheatpasting; oversaw all the bus tickets sales; updated the website; publicized meetings; created agendas; participated in numerous events; took trips to cities like Richmond to promote the coalition and get support; helped organize other events where conventions was promoted; organized the bus trip; worked with groups in Boston and New York to secure housing; and so much more. There wasn’t a job too big or small that I didn’t have some part in. In fact, many have told me that I probably did too much, that one of the central flaws in organizing was my inability to delegate responsibility effectively. I can say that it was not for lack of trying, but it surely was for lack of ability that I hope will improve over time.
And, yet, for all that I did in planning from late March until the very end of the convention protests, I absolutely did not and could not have done this alone. Genevieve had her hand in most things, too. She made hundreds of phone calls, which is especially useful given my neurotic fear of making phone calls. She helped wherever I needed help and took care of so many of my physical and emotional needs. She single-handedly secured Jan Hus Presbyterian Church where some people ultimately were housed and which provided the DC Cluster meeting space. She accompanied me at several meetings and offered numerous planning suggestions. She was the inspiration for so much of my energy. Then, there was Andy. From beginning until end, Andy was critical. He designed and maintained the conventions part of the conventions website. He helped with important outreach, designed flyers, worked hard on helping us put on events, at least one that never happened but still may. His analytical mind helped us see ways we might do things differently or remind us of tasks that needed to be completed. Sam was another extremely important member of the group. Having moved recently from New York, Sam was our best source of information about what to expect in New York and for potential contacts and information. He made whatever calls we asked him to make and more besides. He was able to do a lot to help build our coalition and secure ticket outlets. At moments when I felt low about the enthusiasm that the community had for our work, he always reassured me and told me that things were going on the right path. Then, of course, there was Ryan, who although he had a very busy summer which took him away from being as active as he had been in leading us on the March 20 action, he played the extremely important role of acting as liaison with the bus company and for coordinating the final days of the August 29 bus contingent. Besides these people, many dozens of others played important roles. Ellen fed us several times and provided a lot of food for the August 27 trip, which one passenger from Texas called the best bus trip ever. Morrigan helped us with wheatpasting buckets, by giving advice about securing St. Stephens, and played the pivotal role of organizing affinity group, legal, and medic training. Gordon and Tracy at Iraq Pledge of Resistance helped put on a nonviolence training workshop. Josh and Christy at SOA Watch facilitated the affinity group training while Peter and Carol led crucial medic and legal training respectively. Pete, through his “Free the Peace” events, gave a megaphone for conventions. Louise at All Souls Church and Cindy with the Virginia Grassroots Coalition helped a lot in getting the word out. Mary from Maryland helped us flyer. Jeff, besides being a bus captain on August 29, was an important help to me in particular by making sure that I put an emphasis on training and action. Without that emphasis, I might not have put such emphasis on the necessity of training, which turned out to be especially important for those of us who eventually went to jail. Ashley, a summer intern for Los Angeles, helped wheatpaste and she also promoted conventions heavily, especially at a poetry slam at Mangos. Ethan, a graduate student from Berkeley, helped wheatpaste, print numerous flyers, and offer general support to our efforts. Loree made sure that we had plenty of wheatpasting flyers. Jose helped us create a Spanish version of our wheatpasting flyer. Ryme at WPFW helped us publicize the protests as did Brian at the Washington Peace Center. Jesse helped us wheatpaste. Sam W. over at DC Labor for Peace and Justice was so important early in the process and helped us develop a better connection with that organization. The Kucinich campaign helped us get the word out about Boston, and I’d like to thank Charles in particular. In New York, we need to especially thank Julie and Todd with the noRNC housing team; the good people at West-Park Presbyterian Church, especially Philip, Hope, Lauren, Rev. Braga, and Rev. Brashears; and Rev. Irwin, Marvin, and Del over at Jan Hus. There are so many other people to acknowledge, who played important roles, including Gael at Codepink, Malachy and David B., Chris, and David K. in DAWN, our new friends, especially Jen L., in Richmond, Mike with the Green Bloc and Baltimore CAGE, Paul the Peacewalker, Ann and Dean with the DC Statehood Green Party, Shahid and Laurie and all the DC Guerrilla Poets, and on and on and on. As I remember others, I may go back and edit this. However, you can gather from this that this was no small effort.
I do not know how much reading such a list might bore you, but in truth it was only a very small part of all that went into this entire experience. Days and minutes were so full of activity that you cannot simply reduce all of that varied experience into a few pages, which many of you will tell me you never finished reading because they were too long. Planning for these protests were some of the most rewarding days of my life and represented the beginning of what I think is a new age in my life, one with many happy days to follow.
Our mission inside of our small local grassroots anti-war group was to help DC mobilize for two long and important protests one month apart. Logistically, it was the most complicated thing that we ever had to do. This was not simply organizing a bus trip, which was not at all easy to do. It was organizing several inter-coordinated bus trips, housing, and myriad on-the-ground actions. Each level of complexity made the workload increase geometrically. To deal with this work, we developed a strategy that was largely successful, though probably flawed in some respects.
Our strategy in DAWN was to create partnerships with a large number of groups so that we could share the workload. For instance, we identified the housing component as the crucial element of our success. Whether it was is quite debatable since so few actually stayed in housing we provided, but nevertheless the housing need and our interpretation of its importance helped set the strategy. How would we house up to 150 activists in New York who needed free housing? Knowing little about New York, we believed the only way to successfully get that much housing was to develop partnerships with New York-based groups who would help us with housing. To form those partnerships, we researched New York-based peace and social justice groups, contacted them about our needs, and then offered similar assistance in the future. These groups had a vested interest in having the New York protests become massive, and we had a vested interest in getting as many of our people there as possible for as long as possible and for others to come to future Washington events. Thus, I spent much of April contacting many groups in New York and doing general outreach. Interestingly, though response was pretty decent in New York, especially from groups like the War Resisters’ League, we managed to attract some attention and help from outside New York. Charles Shaw, the editor of Newtopia Magazine and Green Party organizer, generously offered to help out. Over time, we joined the noRNC housing group, which was somewhat in disarray, and offered to do what we could to help. They gave us access to databases, and we held calling sessions to New York churches, using that info to update their database. As a result of that and our early start time, that group committed heavily to providing us with the housing we got at West-Park Presbyterian Church.
So, we formed partnerships with working groups and organizations in New York, Boston, and Chicago, but what about DC? In DC, there was no way to mobilize as many people as we wanted to mobilize without the help of the other grassroots organizations in town. So, while we were simultaneously working outside of DC, we worked hard inside of DC forming a coalition of groups to work on planning. We recruited and received endorsements from several organizations including Codepink, SOA Watch, Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ), DC Labor for Peace and Justice, Howard University peace groups, Critical Resistance, Kucinich for President, Richmond’s Virginia Anti-War Coalition (VAWC), Veterans for Peace (ch. 016), Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), DC Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency, Proposition One, and the DC Statehood Green Party. Frankly, the coalition almost never functioned like a coalition. Some groups never sent members to meetings, many groups did their own thing, and some others gave sporadic support. Yet, forming this coalition was not unimportant to the efforts. The outreach created relationships that did not exist before. They introduced some of us new to big scale organizing to many others in the local, regional, and national movement. I also believe that while the coalition did not always meet or work together on coordinated projects, the general notion that there should be a coalition for this effort must have had some effect on overall attendance at the convention. Since word was getting out to very active participants in these organizations, conventions-related activities spread through to the general body of supporters in the region.
Our strategy of partnerships inside and outside the DC region was key to helping us pursue the ambitious organizing we hoped to and eventually accomplished. At times, I found myself exhilarated by the scope of the project. How was housing coming along? Where are we on getting bus ticket outlets? Are we playing an active enough role in the Free the Peace planning? Which interview must I do today? How do you like this flyer? How many meetings do I have this week? I was not getting by financially at all throughout this process, working a temp job at the US Department of Education in Federal Student Aid through July, and not working at all in August. I was getting poorer and likelier to be homeless by the day, and didn’t have time to take care of many of my basic personal needs. Yet, seeing this project through was worth the enormous personal sacrifice and was so often energizing. Other times, however, I was running myself ragged, getting myself discouraged by the lack of participation, by tasks not being completed on time, wondering if there was general dislike of me since so few seemed to be participating as actively as I might have liked. Sometimes, that sense of discouragement would seem to happen to me most at our Monday conventions meetings, which probably turned off people who were there looking for enthusiasm and a way to help out. The low point was certainly when we discovered that only one ticket for Boston had been sold a week out from the convention and that we had to scrap any buses. At the DAWN meeting 10 days out from our trip, I broke down in tears in the meeting believing that I had been an absolute failure as an organizer.
Finally, It Comes Together
Eventually, through hard work and a lot of help, everything came together spectacularly. I think the turning point may have come when Shahid began organizing the DC Cluster. Up to that time, bus ticket sales had been okay but rather slow. After the last couple meetings, which had great participation, bus sales exploded. DAWN ultimately filled four buses, but we could have easily filled two in the last couple of days after ticket sales ended. Genevieve, Ryan, and I wore ourselves out the week before New York. In all honesty, the week before the RNC, I was receiving well over 200 emails a day, and about 60% of those were in some way relevant to the work we were doing on the conventions. My phone rang off the hook, giving me cell phone bills that have left me scrambling for ways to pay them. I was also moving out of my apartment while all this was going on. Genevieve’s home turned into a travel agency office where we were booking reservations for travel and housing while answering individualized questions. WUSA, channel 9 in DC, even suggested coming to the house to watch us work. When I was not doing all of that, I only found a spare moment for a WPFW radio interview. The day before our trip, I worked 16 hours nonstop on the bus trip. You have no idea the accounting, the money collection, the information packets, etc. that goes into a bus trip. Throw on top of it that it is a protest with potential legal, medical, and other issues, and you just add layers of complexity. Yet, I made a commitment to keep up. Very few emails went unanswered (except when my email went down for half of a day the day before I left) as quickly as possible, and I put all my passion and work so that others could protest at the convention. I felt a big rush from it all, a sense that the more exhausted I felt, the more alive I became.
I had a great sense by the time I got to Union Station to board our charter bus to New York that we were about to have the time of our lives.
In the end, I had the time of my life.
What will follow is a lot more writing. All my memories crowd together and compete to be remembered in black ink. If I had started writing this later in the day, another flood of different memories would have found themselves here. My point is that writing is merely the façade of a much more intricate and compelling world. The major party conventions had very little coverage on prime time television, and people complain about that. Yet, how much more time and space they get than we get, we who are working on systemic changes in our culture and society? How much more do we get than those who have been forgotten, who don’t have the time to write and record and to share? The world is so much more than our words. Activity and color flood us all the time, infinitely occupying even the smallest recesses of any being. So, what will follow is largely small, even though it will be too long for most editors. We as readers have the responsibility to remember and to ask about what our writing and our words do not say. There are words for the forgotten, too.
I have reduced several months of experience to mere pages of writing. In meetings, I would reduce it to a minute’s worth of speaking. How lucky are those who stand out to be counted! In New York, the few represented the many, and they were represented only barely. What I hope these few words have shed light on is the sheer scope of the effort that went into it from just my end of things.
Tomorrow, we can only hope to do more.
To be continued… [Editor's Note: Part II is shared here.]