“Sir, you're not allowed to take photographs here.”
“Oh, I'm sorry, I -”
“Come with me, sir.”
Yesterday evening, my colleague J. and I walked down to 34th St to take a look at the area around Madison Square Garden, site of the Republican National Convention. The news was full of reports of mass arrests, and I was curious to see what was going on.
What was going on was police. Lots and lots of police. The whole area resembled an armed camp, with every street blocked by vehicles, metal and concrete barriers, and - in some areas - flak-jacketed officers with assault rifles. Crowds of commuters, struggling to reach Penn Station, were being herded and penned behind movable orange plastic mesh fencing, barked at by police officers with bullhorns. 7th Avenue, where we had walked on Sunday, was impassable.
Protests were practically absent.
“There's nowhere for more than two people to stand together.” observed J. disgustedly. A few disconsolate knots of protesters wandered aimlessly through the rush-hour crowd, being yelled at whenever they showed signs of halting:
“You with the sign - keep moving.” A man holding a piece of cardboard scribbled with imprecations against Bush and Cheney stalked angrily down 34th St, past a dribble of Republican delegates disembarking from their chartered buses, convention passes dangling from color-coded ribbons.
About six or seven blocks south we finally found a cross-street that wasn't blocked by police, and tried to circle around the site, looking for the 'free speech zones' that were rumored to exist somewhere in the area. On 9th Avenue there were abandoned placards and leaflets on the ground, and a hippie couple staring bemusedly out from behind the steel fence of a holding pen. I couldn't tell if anyone had tried to exercise their free speech here, but if they had they were probably down at Pier 57 by now.
The scale of the operation was far larger than I had expected. The streets west of the no-go zone were almost empty except for scattered groups of police. The area around MSG was fenced in and ringed around, bristling with armed and armored men, all staring suspiciously outwards.
It seemed to me to be another illustration of the increasingly absolute separation between the rulers and the ruled. Any political event attended by anyone of any rank now demands the deployment of a small army whose role seems to be provide protection not so much against the assaults of lunatic terrorists as against the disagreeable sight of the unwashed masses expressing their dissatisfaction. The scale of such operations suggests that the goal is not primarily to fend off murderous jihadis or over-enthusiastic anarchists, but rather to defend the delicate sensibilities and carefully-orchestrated media events of the governing classes against the noisy frustration of the people that they claim to represent.
Local feelings of hostility towards the RNC are not confined to those who take the time to protest. When Cheney's sixteen-vehicle motorcade blared down 42nd St, his Secret Service detail huddled behind the tinted glass windows of their SUVs with their AR-15s locked and loaded, passers-by spontaneously gave the VP the finger. The decision to plant the huge, disruptive, costly convention in the heart of a city that has been ill-served by the Bush administration and has little love for the Republican party anyway struck New Yorkers as an act of cynical and provocative arrogance. The endless September 11th references in the delegate's speeches may play well in the heartland, but here they have simply confirmed most people's suspicions that New York was chosen only for the opportunity that it offered the administration to strut around with the flag some more and milk the tragedy for a little more political capital.
Of course, September 11th is not really what they want to commemorate. September 11th wasn't anyone's finest hour. Lest we forget, George Bush, far from responding decisively, dithered for a while in Sarasota and then spent the day zig-zagging nervously across the nation from well-defended air base to well-defended air base; Dick Cheney was bunkered down and invisible at his undisclosed location. No, when they say September 11th, they really mean the days after, when George struck the first of his heroic poses and soothed the nation's wounds with the balm of his brutal and simplistic platitudes.
It's no wonder, all in all, that the RNC isn't exactly getting a warm welcome here and that it has been necessary to implement what must surely be one of the largest and most expensive operations of its kind to keep the hostile natives at a distance. They know that they are in enemy territory.
The defenders of the Republican enclave were certainly vigilant. We were somewhere around 32nd or 33rd St when I pointed my camera at a group of police cars drawn up with the Empire State Building in the background and a lady cop pounced on me before I even had time to press the shutter button.
“Come with me.” she said, taking me by the elbow. Her partner gestured to J.
“This one too?” he asked.
“I'm the only one taking pictures.” I told him wearily. The lady cop steered me across the road.
“Stand here.” she instructed.
“The Secret Service are just going to want to ask you a few questions.” It's hard to find much reassurance in a sentence that includes the words "Secret Service" and "questions", but I was glad that she didn't seem to be in any great hurry to arrest me.
The SS man, a big balding man in a blue uniform and earpiece, was polite, even affable.
“OK, big guy, let's see what you've got.” he said. I switched the camera to preview mode.
“Do not stop, do not go back until I tell you to.” he ordered. I thumbed through the few pictures I'd taken.
“This is the blimp ... and here's one of a guy in a hat ... and that's all of them.” He seemed satisfied.
“That'll do. Just don't take any more pictures of checkpoints. Fair enough?”. I told him that it was fair enough, because that was what he wanted to hear.
As I went back to rejoin J., the police were already leading another incautious snapper across the road to have her pictures reviewed. I could see that the blond SS man was in for a long evening.
“What do you want to do now?”, I asked J.
“I think you should take another picture of that checkpoint.” he said. I shook my head.
“I don't think so.” I told him.
“Come on, let's get out of here.”