NEW YORK—After the painfully mild protest marches Sunday and Monday, anarchists promised that Aug. 31 would kick off the rock-throwing portion of convention week. "That's where the arrests will happen," one protester said this morning. I had no idea he was talking about me.
I was strolling down 42nd Street around 7 p.m., heading for the "direct action" demonstrations near Madison Square Garden. "Don't run, don't run," whispered David Durant, a protest leader. Four dozen cops had surrounded us, each clutching a handful of an enormous orange net. Half the protesters made a break for it, tumbling uselessly into the net. For a second, the mob looked like it was going to go berserk. But Durant thrust a peace sign into the air and began to chant, "We are peaceful people. We are peaceful people." The 48 of us inside the net followed suit. Only instead of a peace sign I was waving my red-and-green media badges.
All day, Manhattan seemed to be on the edge of mayhem. Anarchist Web sites instructed followers to meet at Union Square at 4 p.m. for directions to protest sites around town. (A few Web sites listed "war profiteers" like the Carlyle Group and the Rand Corp. as targets; others singled out polluters like Hummer of New York.) I arrived at Union Square 10 minutes early to find a crowd bunched on the west side of the park. The police were dragging four twentysomethings away in plastic handcuffs. A lieutenant, who would give only his last name, Johnson, told me one of the protesters was carrying a vial of creamy liquid with the word "POLICE" scrawled in Magic Marker. Two of the arrested had arrived at the park with cardboard strips covering their forearms—a favorite tactic of protesters, witnesses said, to resist police batons.
The crowd in Union Square began chanting, "Shame! Shame!" and massed in the middle of the sidewalk. "If you refuse to leave, you will be arrested for disorderly conduct!" one cop shouted into a bullhorn. A sunbather in a black bikini, noticing the pandemonium, started pulling on her pants. But then David Durant appeared, signaled for calm, and began taunting the cops with chants of "Go arrest Bush!" The cops let the protesters have the sidewalk.
"That was a f--kin' victory right there, huh?" Durant said when I caught up with him. He looked like a lead singer in a mildly edgy Top 40 band: sleeveless T-shirt, red bandana on his neck, and beard cut to the same length as his hair. I asked Durant what he thought about the police response to the marches thus far. "Quite honestly, a mixed review," he said. "I've seen a lot of restraint."
The anarchists sites had announced a "gathering and celebration" on the steps of the New York Public Library at 6 p.m. About five minutes passed before things turned ugly. According to witnesses, three protesters tried to hang a sign on one of the lion statues that guards the front steps—all were arrested. Then a cop who looked like an Irish crusher from Gangs of New York started waving a wooden baton—it was unclear who provoked him—and touched off a wave of shoving that led to another 10 arrests at least.
Durant was back on the bullhorn. "Five, six, seven, eight, we don't want your police state!" he screamed. Then he whirled toward the row of cops behind him and flashed a peace sign. What amazed me about Durant was the way he could take his anti-police agitprop, refine it, and make common cause with the cops. New York police are currently working without a contract, so Durant led joyous chants of "No work, no contract!" "What do you say, police officers?" he shouted, "You work too hard, and George Bush is f--king you, too!" The cops clenched their batons and stared into space.
"There's a direct action on Seventh Avenue," Durant shouted. "Let's all move to Seventh Avenue!" Seconds later, the orange netting made its appearance. I felt like a dolphin who had wandered under a StarKist boat. An elderly man in a pinstriped suit who looked like he was trying to buy the Daily News was swept up in the net—the police released him immediately. Another detainee turned out to be a photographer with an NYPD media credential—he got sprung, too. That left 45 protesters and me. We were instructed to sit on the warm sidewalk with our hands folded behind our backs.
The cops led the protesters out of the net one by one, clasping their arms in white plastic handcuffs and herding them toward a city bus the police had commandeered for the occasion. Those remaining dispensed legal advice, while others placed plaintive calls to friends on cell phones. A girl wrapped in an American flag glanced at my notebook and said, "Tell them we weren't doing anything wrong." I spent the next 20 minutes trying to convince NYPD information officers that I wasn't doing anything wrong. Their response was, what in God's name is Slate magazine? I answered with more unmanly whining. Finally, a lieutenant told me he knew of Slate and let me wiggle out of the net. (Owe you one, Lt. Nathan.)
I left Durant and his comrades to face charges of failure to disperse. As I trotted toward the Garden feeling ecstatic and supremely guilty, I took a glance at the fearless leader. Durant was sitting crossed-legged, sipping from a green water bottle, and staring glumly at a legal aid number he'd thought to write on his arm.