The Few and the Loud: East Enders day-trip to protest R.N.C. in N.Y.C.

Originally published September 02, 2004- By Peter C. Beller

The protests drew hundreds of thousands from across the nation opposed to the war in Iraq and determined to see the president defeated. The convention drew hundreds of Republican leaders, candidates, and conservative boosters who stumped for the president's re-election. But amid the national spectacle of the G.O.P. convention in New York City this week, the only people claiming to represent the South Fork were a handful of peace activists and one candidate for Congress.
Those few protesters from the Hamptons who took part in Sunday's march through Midtown arrived in the city over the weekend after a relay walk for peace that started in Montauk on Aug. 20 and ended in Manhattan at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"I'm deeply disturbed by the dishonesty of the administration," said Ellen Frank, a painter who lives in Springs, as she and other marchers prepared to join the larger protest Sunday afternoon. "I'm horrified at the war." Ms. Frank and Antje Katcher, a freelance interpreter from Springs, walked the final leg of the relay from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Another protester, Dan Steiger of Sag Harbor, was the only one of 1,000 people who participated in the Long Island walk to cover the entire distance from Bridgehampton to Manhattan. Mr. Steiger said that around 50 people were in Bridgehampton for the start (the bicyclists began in Montauk) and that the walkers averaged 30 to 50 people, and around 14 miles, a day.

With breaks in the morning and afternoon and a supply vehicle tailing them across the Island, most marchers joined in for a day or a few hours, including a 94-year-old woman and a 4-year-old boy with his father, Mr. Steiger said.

Rallies and concerts were held each night in the various communities to welcome the marchers. "People honked and waved," Mr. Steiger said of the reception from most Long Islanders. "Once in a while they stopped and said 'Thank you.'"

"The goal of the walk was absolutely outreach," said one organizer, Liz Folz of Stony Brook, at a Saturday afternoon rally on a Brooklyn street corner. She mentioned radio broadcasts and newspaper articles about the march and letters the group hand-delivered to the offices of elected officials.

Tom Cowan of Riverhead said some people would cheer the marchers, while "other people give you the middle finger."

"It's an expression of what I've got to be," said Mr. Cowan, who owns the Frederick Cowan and Co. manufacturing company and was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge holding a sign that read "Millions of New Yorkers Rise Up Against the Republican Party."

"George Bush is a disaster for real businesses," he said.

On Monday, the first day of the convention, Bill Manger, a Republican who is challenging Tim Bishop in the First Congressional District, focused on taxes in the few minutes allotted him to address the convention. "We must make the [2001] tax cuts permanent," Mr. Manger said, speaking before a half-full Madison Square Garden. "We must also repeal the death tax."

Later Mr. Manger, a business consultant and former Southampton Village Board member who has garnered the endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani, said the convention appearance would raise his campaign's profile and that protests were part of the democratic process."

"I think it's great when for the first time ever we have the Republican National Convention in New York City," Mr. Manger said on the telephone. "You're always going to have dissenters. That's part of the American system."

Local Republican officials, including State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, did not attend the convention, and none of the state delegates to the convention hail from the South Fork, according to Assemblywoman Patricia Acampora of Mattituck, the Suffolk County Republican chairwoman.

Tom Knobel, who heads the East Hampton Republicans, said he knew of no one from the town committee who planned to attend. Southampton Town Republicans did not return phone calls.

As was the case with the Long Island marchers, demonstrators at the massive Sunday protest differed on which issue was most important to them, but shared a mutual antipathy toward President Bush. More satirical parade than stormy protest, Sunday's march had an overwhelmingly humorous atmosphere.

As they did at past protests, marchers chanted slogans, waved banners, sang songs, and smiled as they walked hand in hand, pushed strollers, or marched in formation. The crowd was mostly younger crowd that also included parents with young children and some seniors as well. But there were also dozens of groups, large and small, each with its own brand of street theater that lent a tone of irony, more than outrage, to the event.

Billionaires for Bush marched in formal evening wear, men in top hats and monocles, women in gloves and oversized pearl necklaces, as they toasted President Bush's success to the tunes of a swing band. Their signs read "Still Loyal to Big Oil" and "Corporations Are People Too" and they shouted "Huzzah!" to each other after each chant.

Groups of women in pink slips, an indication that they wished to end the President Bush's tenure, and a half-serious group of "Communists for Kerry," with members dressed as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, were also on hand.

There were solemn moments and reminders, however, of the deep divide over this nation's direction.

One woman walked with a sign saying "Iraqi oil is not worth my son's blood" with two photos of a young soldier in uniform. Marchers carried fake coffins representing dead U.S. soldiers. Other messages read "Quagmire Accomplished" or "God is not a Republican - or a Democrat," and dozens of signs mocked the president's intelligence, punned on his name, or ridiculed his policies on everything from the Iraq war to the environment.

Although there were reports of arrests, the most common confrontations between police and civilians appeared to occur outside the march route, where irate New Yorkers were rerouted every few yards by phalanxes of armed and armored officers.

The day before the convention began, the atmosphere surrounding Madison Square Garden seemed eerily quiet. Helicopters thudded above Penn Station at 33rd Street, drawing long stares skyward from pedestrians. Hundreds of police officers stood silently in rows three and four deep away from the route, waiting, it seemed, not for the march to turn unruly but for worse contingencies.

Bomb-sniffing dogs, assault rifles, squadrons of scooters, and other police vehicles formed a ring around the march route, which passed the Garden and ended at Union Square.

The mood, however, was increasingly upbeat as the day wore on and apprehension over possible disaster melted away with the withering heat. Officers seemed to enjoy the show, even if they looked nervous, the sweltering humidity sent bottled water vendors to the sidewalks, shoppers gawked at the number of marchers but continued to spend, and perhaps 2,000 people headed to Central Park Sunday afternoon, despite a court order, where they lay on blankets, chatted, and tried to cool off.

As the convention opened Monday morning, delegates scrambled out of their hotels to catch shuttles or taxis, and agents from dozens of state and federal agencies checked passes, screened bags, and generally stared down anyone who might have looked remotely suspicious.

Mr. Manger spoke, along with other Republican candidates and Congressional representatives, after Ed Koch, New York's former mayor, and Michael Bloomberg, its current one, welcomed delegates to the city. They endorsed President Bush for re-election as people milled about the floor greeting each other in the first hours of the convention.

And that night, with a mostly packed house, hundreds of reporters and photographers on hand, and a string of speakers touting progress in the war on terrorism, Rudolph Giuliani and Senator John McCain delivered their speeches lauding President Bush as America's choice to battle terrorists across the world.