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500,000 Protest R.N.C. in N.Y.C.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Michael Wilson, Randal C. Archibold, Diane Cardwell, Ann Farmer, Colin Moynihan, John Holl and Judy Tong. On Sep. 6, Joyce Purnick wrote in The New York Times, "A total of 1,821 protesters were arrested [during the week] and taken to Pier 57 on the Hudson River, a temporary detention center set up in anticipation of multiple arrests. Lawyers complain that they could not get in to see their clients. And a still undetermined number were held without being arraigned for longer than the 24 hours allowed by state law. Some might still be behind bars if Acting Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo hadn't found the city in contempt on Thursday, fined it and ordered the prisoners released. . . . Of the 1,821 arrested, 81 percent - 1,480 - were charged with disorderly conduct, a violation that normally involves a few hours in detention at most. Another 282 were charged with misdemeanors and 56 with felonies, and 3 were juvenile arrests."

The New York Times, Aug. 29, 2004

Photo: 500,000 Protest Republican National Convention in New York City, August 29, 2004.

A roaring two-mile river of demonstrators surged through the canyons of Manhattan yesterday in the city's largest political protest in decades, a raucous but peaceful spectacle that pilloried George W. Bush and demanded regime change in Washington.

On a sweltering August Sunday, the huge throng of protesters marched past Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican National Convention [R.N.C.] opening today, and denounced President Bush as a misfit who had plunged America into war and runaway debt, undermined civil and constitutional rights, lied to the people, despoiled the environment and used the presidency to benefit corporations and millionaires.

The protest organizer, United for Peace and Justice, estimated the crowd at 500,000, rivaling a 1982 antinuclear rally in Central Park, and double the number it had predicted. It was, at best, a rough estimate. The Police Department, as is customary, offered no official estimate, but one officer in touch with the police command center at Madison Square Garden agreed that the crowd appeared to be close to a half-million.

The march, which took nearly six hours to complete, was a tense, shrill, largely choreographed trek from Chelsea to Midtown and back to Union Square, where it ended, as planned, without a rally. And while there were a couple of hundred arrests, the event went off without major violence, despite fears of explosive clashes with the biggest security force ever assembled in New York.

After the march, hundreds of protesters in a more belligerent mood made their way to Times Square and blocked the entrances of two Midtown hotels, while another group harassed Republican guests at a party at the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park. But a post-march gathering on the Great Lawn of the park was peaceful.

At a news conference last night, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said there had been about 200 arrests, mostly for disorderly conduct, though nine people were charged with felony assaults on officers who were seizing a 10th suspect for setting a small fire outside the Garden, and 15 members of an anarchist group called Black Block were arrested after they knocked down police barriers and hurled bottles at police lines at 34th Street and Avenue of the Americas.

It was unclear how many protesters were injured. Mr. Kelly said three officers suffered minor injuries in the Black Block arrests, and a deputy inspector suffered a hyperextended elbow in another incident. Another officer sustained a wrenched shoulder as he went to the aid of a colleague outside the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and another suffered a knee injury chasing a disorderly protester at Union Square.

'Organizers for United for Peace and Justice should be commended for keeping their word,' Mr. Kelly said. 'They pledged that their demonstrators would follow the march route and that's exactly what happened. It proceeded as expected and by and large was peaceful and orderly.' He also praised officers for 'commendable restraint,' adding that 'they are consummate professionals and it showed today.'

The relatively peaceful outcome of the enormous march seemed the result of various factors - a determined restraint by the marchers and the police, weeks of planning by organizers and city officials, and, perhaps not least, the subduing effects of an exhaustingly hot day, with 90-degree temperatures and humidity that soaked shirts and wilted all but the most aggressive spirits.

As the march unfolded, the 5,000 Republican convention delegates, their families and entourages began sampling the delights of New York, attending parties and Broadway matinees, dining in homes and elegant restaurants and taking in the Gotham sights. Vice President Dick Cheney, Gov. George E. Pataki and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani gave speeches on Ellis Island, but took no note of the march. President Bush campaigned in Ohio, working toward an arrival in New York on Thursday.

The Republicans, some of whom regard protesters as little more than wild-eyed liberal wastrels, largely ignored yesterday's demonstration, but there were occasional encounters between delegates and demonstrators, like one outside a theater on 44th Street.

'Four more years,' the delegates chanted.

'Four more months,' the protesters responded.

Several hours after the march stepped off at noon, chaos erupted outside the Garden at Seventh Avenue and 33rd Street when a papier mâché dragon float was set on fire, scattering demonstrators. But the police quickly extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived and seized 15 people said to be carrying smoke bombs, and the march resumed as order was restored.

More than 50 bicyclists who were not participants in the march were seized for obstructing traffic at several locations in Midtown. Bystanders said that officers on motor scooters had rammed some bikes, knocking riders to the ground before handcuffing them. But the police took photographs and insisted that the officers had acted properly.

More than 50 people were also arrested for blocking the entrances to the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, where delegates from Ohio and California were staying, and the Milford Plaza Hotel on Eighth Avenue.

Most of those arrested were taken in buses to a detention center at Pier 57, at West 14th Street, an aging, dingy three-story warehouse of the Department of Marine and Aviation. Mateo Taussig, speaking for the National Lawyers Guild, said many had been denied access to lawyers, and he called the building an inappropriate detention facility.

After the march, thousands of protesters, apparently following suggestions by the demonstration's leaders, regrouped in Central Park, where organizers had been denied permission to rally in order to forestall damage to the Great Lawn - an affront to many who insisted it was free speech and not the grass being trampled. Trouble had been widely expected.

But the protesters gathered on the Great Lawn in what appeared to be a mellow mood, mostly young people scattered in small groups. Some held up peace signs or anti-Bush placards, others twirled sign poles like batons. Some practiced yoga, others smoked cigarettes and talked quietly. A few drums could be heard in the distance, but there were no bull horns or sound amplification equipment.

Police officers were also scattered around the Great Lawn, talking in small groups. Norman Siegel, a former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union [N.Y.C.L.U.] who was acting as a legal observer, said the police told him they would not enforce a rule that gatherings of more than 20 required a permit. The police and the protesters appeared to be just hanging out, looking to avoid trouble.

'I see a very mellow scene,' said Leslie Cagan, a leader of United for Peace and Justice, who had urged protesters to go to the park after the march. 'The police are being very laid back and very mellow and that's great.'

Underlying yesterday's events was wide concern over a possible terrorist attack - premonitions of a catastrophe aimed at disrupting the Republican convention, the national elections and the American psyche three years after Sept. 11. Such fears were expected to be the subtext of events throughout the convention, which runs through Thursday.

In response, the city and federal governments have mounted a $65 million security operation, with warplanes enforcing a no-fly zone over Manhattan, an armada of Coast Guard cutters and police launches patrolling waterways and tens of thousands of police officers and military personnel guarding landmarks, the convention site and other potential targets, as well as overseeing the week's almost nonstop protests.

But there was no sign that a terrorist attack was imminent, and the focus of the day was on the protest march as a tide of chanting, placard-waving, lustily shouting demonstrators from across the region and around the nation converged on New York's sun-drenched streets in a boisterous, almost carnival mood that belied the serious intent of the demonstration.

The multitudes were packed as dense as broccoli florets, and they filled the entire two-mile route - so the head of the march reached Union Square even before the last of the marchers stepped off at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue.

After months of mounting anger at the president and frustrations over plans for a rally that finally was scrapped after a court upheld city objections to the use of Central Park for fear of damage to the Great Lawn, the day was an emotional crescendo for the participants, for organizers and for city officials.

For Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other city officials, who had spent days calling for a peaceful demonstration, the nonviolent outcome was gratifying, a testament to months of planning and training and an insistence on common-sense restraint by officers and marchers alike, and on carefully drawn rules to avoid needless confrontations.

For organizers who had also urged nonviolence, the outcome was gratifying and something of a relief. The leadership had voiced concern that any violence would play into the hands of Republicans, allowing them to caricature the protesters as anarchists, provocateurs and chronic malcontents.

The organizers said they were also pleased by the size and diversity of the turnout. The faces appeared to be a cross-section of the American experience. There were individuals, families and groups from many states and across the region and the city. There were young people and older citizens, families with small children, students and representatives of the middle and working classes and many organizations, including advocates of gay and women's rights, antiwar groups, immigrants, veterans, artists, professionals, religious organizations and proponents of education, health and other causes.

For many participants, there was also pride, and a kind of amazement, in being part of an event so large and diverse, and yet so pacific.

And there was a satisfying sense for many of having played a role in larger political processes, of doing something beyond voting to affect the outcome of an election widely seen as crucial to America's future on issues as varied as the war in Iraq, the huge national deficit, abortion, same-sex marriage, the environment and the nation's role in the world.

Gathering on the avenues and leafy residential side streets of Chelsea between 14th and 23rd Streets, the marchers stepped off shortly before noon, a cumbersome army led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the actor Danny Glover, the filmmaker Michael Moore and other celebrities.

Shorts and T-shirts, many branding Mr. Bush a liar, a criminal or a warmonger, were the uniforms of the day. Anti-Bush accessories went beyond banners, placards and buttons. There were fly swatters bearing Mr. Bush's face. Pallbearers carried a thousand mock coffins of cardboard draped in black or in American flags, representing the war dead in Iraq. And moving along the line of march was a papier-mâché tank with President Bush's head, wearing a cowboy hat, poking out the hatch.

On either side, the marchers were flanked by blue and camouflage-green lines of helmeted, flak-jacketed police officers and National Guardsmen, mostly watching quietly as the marchers moved north on Seventh Avenue toward the deckle-edged skyline of Midtown.

Overhead, police helicopters thwacked and a relentless sun beat down on the protesters and pavements.

Still, the protesters were exuberant. Shouting insults and obscenities at Mr. Bush, raising placards proclaiming 'Drop Bush, Not Bombs' and 'Eradicate Mad Cowboy Disease,' they marched past the Garden hour after hour in masses that poured out barrages of abuse. But inside the Garden, no one was home to hear it. Aside from workers making final preparations, the arena was a decorous empty shell hung with patriots' bunting a day before the delegates' arrival. That hardly mattered to the protesters, whose outpourings were aimed mainly at news media, anyway.