ACT UP disrupts the RNC before security intervenes and cracks down
On Wednesday morning, about ten members of the AIDS activist group ACT UP interrupted a speech by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Jr. during a Republican youth event at Madison Square Garden. The activists committed a daring foray into the heavily fortressed site where Pres. George W. Bush hopes to seal the deal in his quest for another term in office.
Security officials quickly swarmed and apprehended the protesters, who were handcuffed and carried out of sight.
Unlike the streets outside the garden, where protesters have skirmished with police for days without breaching the security perimeter of a core midtown grid patrolled by an unprecedented deployment of law enforcement agencies, the ACT UP demonstration on the convention floor, immediately after a presentation by Pres. Bush’s daughters Jenna and Barbara, struck into the heart of a security bastion increasingly under siege.
One participant in the action, who said she was a witness, not an organizer, claimed that 15 protesters legally entered the arena but would not elaborate on what credentials gained them entry. Katie Riek, 20, a George Washington University undergraduate, who said she has been a member of ACT UP for a year, recounted that shortly after Card began his address, ten protesters seated within the Wisconsin delegation stood on their chairs following a whistle signal. The protesters stripped off their business shirts to reveal T-shirts that said “Bush Lies” and “Stop AIDS.” Riek estimated that the group’s presence so stunned the convention that the activists were able to convey their message for about 20 seconds, with Card yielding to the spectacle unfolding on the floor, while some delegates cried out “Four more years!” and a band of Republican youth began scuffling with the ACT UP members. The protesters were able to unfurl a seven-foot banner reading “Stop AIDS, Drop Global Debt Now” on one side and “Bush: Global AIDS Liar” on the reverse, before plainclothes security officers surounded them and dragged them into a secluded holding area. A Secret Service spokesperson, Ann Roman, said that the 12 arrested activists had been turned over to the New York Police Department, where a spokesperson confirmed that 11 will be charged with disorderly conduct and one with assault. The spokesperson said that the group included four individuals who had participated in last Thursday’s protest outside the Garden, in which ACT UP members removed their clothing and stopped traffic. He would not identify those four individuals.
The assault charge involves an allegation by a 20-year-old, Suhr Daniel of Milwaulkee, who claimed an activist punched him in the head.
At last week’s action, the activists painted their bodies with “Drop the Debt,” and “Stop AIDS.”
Both actions reinforced ACT UP’s reputation for disrupting public events in order to raise awareness about the risk of HIV. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the arrival of protease inhibitors, ACT UP staged many actions of civil disobedience against pharmaceutical companies and elected officials as AIDS killed tens of thousands of Americans. Now, the disease is ravaging other parts of the world.
Another ACT UP activist, Asia Russell, who was not involved in Wednesday’s action inside Madison Square Garden, said that G-7 finance ministers will meet on October 1 and that the United States has a unique opportunity to save millions of lives by lobbying its European partners to forgive the debt of countless African and Asian nations. Russell said today’s RNC effort was aimed at trying to get the Bush administration to understand that nations hard-hit by AIDS cannot afford to pay off their foreign loans as well as address their burgeoning AIDS epidemics.
The incident occurred a day after tensions rose on Tuesday between police and protesters outside the convention hall, from a large protest outside Fox News headquarters on Sixth Avenue to spontaneous unrest in Union Square Park. Police reported that by nightfall on Wednesday, more than 1,700 people had been arrested, a sharp increase from the number of arrests that had occurred through the end of the massive United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) rally on Sunday. Throughout Tuesday afternoon and night roving groups of mostly young men and women chanted slogans, banged drums and in some cases got into heated exchanges with delegates.
Protestors who were swept up by the police in incidents over the weekend, including the Critical Mass bicycle ride across lower Manhattan last Friday, said that the temporary detention facility on the Hudson River at Pier 57, a defunct bus depot, was unsafe for human occupancy, with motor oil and filth caking the floors, little access to water and unsanitary restroom facilities. The New York Civil Liberties Union was investigating whether asbestos was the reason transit workers no longer worked at the site, a suspicion raised by various prisoners following their release. One of those detained referred to the location as Guantánamo, for the U.S. military detention camp in Cuba.
Several gay protesters reported that police were equally professional and aggressive, including those officers who rounded up activists at the Mouse Block protest at Times Square on Sunday, when, following the UFPJ march, various groups, including Queer Fist, an ad hoc coalition of activists who oppose the Bush administration, took to the theater district to disrupt the lesiure time of some of the G.O.P. delegates.
Stephen Kent Jusick, 35, a New York artist, was apprehended on the corner of 45th Street and Eight Avenue, and remained kneeling on the ground as he said he spotted a motorcade bearing Vice Pres. Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne roar past. The police employed many of the same preemptive tactics that New Yorkers would come to see over the ensuing days of unrest. “They threw metal pens on the sidewalk and blocked us off with that orange netting,” said Jusick, who acknowledged that he was in a group of protesters but said that they were walking along the sidewalk and not breaking the law. His arrest was the beginning of a daylong odyssey that would include his detention in Pier 57 before being transported to the Tombs, or central booking on Centre Street, where he was fingerprinted and issued a desk appearance ticket. Typically, such summonses are issued by police officers and result in a dismissal, small fine or community service and are not felonies. However, Sunday’s processing of such routine arrests took an inordinate amount of time, which Jusick attributes to a deliberate stalling effort on the part of police to sweep protesters from the streets and sow disorder within their ranks.
Lorenzo Ciniglio, a news photographer for The Downtown Express, a sister publication of Gay City News, said that overall the police have shown restraint except for what he witnessed outside the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue on Wednesday evening. He said a police lieutenant “was pushing people when it really was not necessary,” and said the officer “cross-chested me with his stick and I was not in the way of the police.” At Herald Square, Ciniglio did not observe any police misconduct, although he said he could not see what was going on at every corner. He saw a group of about 60 protestors break off and run down Fifth Avenue toward 26th Street. He said the group looked to be out of control and police actions arresting them seemed appropriate.
Around 11 p.m. on Tuesday on 33rd Street and Sixth Avenue, as delegates began leaving the secure perimeter of the immediate streets around Madison Square Garden, they encountered scattered yet resilient bands of protesters who reconnoitered for propitious spots on the streets where the police were thinly stretched.
One such encounter took place on the north side of Herald Square. As a line of buses bearing delegates into the convention area passed, eliciting a chorus of boos and catcalls, a group of placard-bearing protesters followed the last bus and as the young people approached Sixth Avenue on 35th Street, police scrambled to contain their advance, lining the intersection, their nightsticks poised. Within minutes, a squad of mounted police cantered into position and the foot officers made a retreat to their former positions, the horses responding to commands to fall in and block the street. Meanwhile, cut off from behind, handcuffed protesters began to be led through the ranks of stomping horses, and herded to the open hatches of paddy wagons lining the street.
One such arrival at the wagon resulted in one gay man, who refused to give his name, shouting from behind a police barricade: “We love you protesters! Our hearts are filled so! We love you!”
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