Next Time We Take Lexington

An alternative to police conspiracy to explain why protesters were prevented from joining the main rally on First Avenue: In short, there was no place for them to go. I arrived at the site of the rally around 10 a.m., when there were fewer than 1000 protesters and organizers on hand. My plan was to explore the rally site, scope good locations for photographs, and, it must be admitted, note reliable escape routes in case it should turn dangerous. For the next five or so hours, I threaded my way through an eleven-by-two-block radius, from 50th Street to 61st, from First Avenue to Third, allowing myself to be pushed by the crowds as often as I fought my way upstream against them, with side trips and detours. If you look at this picture, you can see that the blocks on First Avenue were partitioned off with metal barricades, leaving a north-south lane and cross streets open for authorized residents and municipal vehicles. This is very similar to standard practice for most street events, such as fairs and parades. It was a good safety measure and allowed the thousands of residents in the affected blocks east of First Avenue to leave and return from their homes. You can also see from the photo, taken from the Roosevelt Island Tram (at 59th Street) well before noon, that the areas permitted to protesters closest to the stage are packed tight. The rest of the blocks filled quickly, some in less than 20 minutes. Unfortunately, it also meant that the number of people who could fit on First Avenue was limited. Where this practice diverged from standard police procedure (and in contradiction to what Deputy Chief Michael Collins told the Times, “The bottom line is, people are free to walk on the sidewalks. Nobody’s going to be bothered walking as a group to a demonstration.”) was that the sidewalks on First Avenue were off limits to almost everyone. (The best authorization I saw anyone offer was a man, wrestling with a half-dozen packed grocery bags, who said to the police, “Obviously, I live here. Right?”) As the crowds poured off of public transportation, they headed for what they perceived as the center of the action, 49th Street and First Avenue, although the first penned-in rally area was actually a couple of blocks to the north. The police, knowing what the protesters could not, that this area was already full, directed the flow of people up Second and Third Avenues so that they could cross east to areas on First which were not yet full. In this way, they could fill each block consecutively, one on top the other, all the way up to the Seventies. It would have been incredible had it worked. So anyone who found themselves trapped on Third Avenue arrived, I’m both happy and sorry to say (happy because it shows the huge success of the rally, and sorry because it denied them access to the core of events), too late to get anywhere near the stage, or even within sight of it. All that said, there’s no doubt this was handled badly by the police, but I’d attribute it more to incompetence than to malice. For example, I’ve seen a number of reports of people complaining that they were forced to “hide” under scaffolding so they couldn’t be “counted” or filmed by the helicopters. This gives the Keystone Kops more credit for coordination than they actually displayed. Scaffolding is, by necessity, over sidewalks, and if you’re kept on sidewalks, you might also be under scaffolding. It’s correlated, not causal. In several instances, I, too, was held as part of a crowd on a sidewalk, but was always eventually allowed to move. In more than a few cases, I forced my way through crowds (people tended to move for a big guy shouting “Excuse me!” in four languages), only to find no police at all at the front of the crowd. Just people standing there, or moving as if window shopping. The collective mind of a crowd might follow complex mathematical formulas, but it’s a mystery to me why those in the front should be stopped or stalled, apparently unaware of the chanting throngs behind them trying to get forward. Probably related to why people stand at the top of subway stairs lighting cigarettes (throw that on your list, Bloomberg). Also, because they underestimated attendance, police were building last-minute barricades which were incomplete or enclosed traffic rather than conducted it. Bad communication meant not all the officers knew at the same time which cross streets should be open, meaning crowds were sometimes turned back upon themselves. Some bright light let crowds cross from Third to Second at 59th and 60th Streets, effectively blocking traffic to and from the Queensborough Bridge, and forcing the crowds up Second Avenue, against and through traffic. Adjacent to Bloomingdale’s on Third, a line of cops then cut the passage down 60th, forcing the remaining thousands further up Third and toward other officers who were already overwhelmed. Another screw-up was in the forcing people up Second and Third Avenues while trying to keep the major cross-town thoroughfares open. They should have expected it: that the feeder marches were happening was public information, even if forbidden. It ended up with this astonishing scene: dozens of cops holding back thousands of protesters north and south of 57th Street, and then, suddenly, the protesters bursting through, streaming eastward down 57th Street, to the rally on First Avenue, blocking in city buses and other traffic along the way. And when the protesters arrived you could hear their comprehension. One person said, “Ohmygod, this is boring. Let’s go back to Third Avenue.” The police were understaffed to such a degree that plainclothes officers were forced to break key fabe and help with mundane patrolman-like duties such as directing traffic (not that we hadn’t already spotted the plainclothes officers: In Manhattan, the only pudgy white guys who habitually dress like they’re going to clean out the garage are plainclothes cops). The cops started out in good humor. I saw two standing in the middle of Third Avenue, like islands in the stream, chatting, the crowd pressing past. Someone shouted to them, “What are you doing here?” One responded: “We’re hiding from our bosses!” But that good humor dissipated quickly, and not far from there I watched the mounted police try to force the crowds back on the sidewalks until more metal barricades could arrive. Police vehicles stood bumper to bumper and cops in riot gear did the Jesus pose to keep people off the empty street. The horses were skittish, the cops grew short-tempered, the crowds upset and elated. Feelings and spirits were high. A few taunted remarks, a few refusals to obey orders to get off the street, and voila, three men were arrested and led to the paddy wagon. It’s pretty much the way most rally arrests go. Rather common. The crowd even knew the chant: “Shame! Shame! Shame!” For the record, my father, the only man I’ve ever been afraid of, was a cop for 15 years, so I know how good police should behave. In my eyes, most of the world’s police are doomed to come up short next to his example. Some of the official and non-official reports mention that it was like two separate events. I would completely agree. The action on First Avenue was staid: regulated, controlled, barricaded, official. The action on Second and Third Avenues was a roiling mass of humanity: It was the march we had been denied. First Avenue was filled, Second Avenue was filled, Third Avenue was filled. We had hopes that Lexington would be next, and not long after, Central Park… Next time, maybe.

Posted February 19, 2003

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