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'Who's the world's worst terrorist?'

Last updated on: August 30, 2004 22:11 IST

Perhaps the first signs of trouble at Sunday's enormous protest march against President George W Bush and the Republican National Convention came at about 3 pm, when the green dragon started approaching Madison Square Garden.

I'd been walking on and off alongside a group of anarchists -- mostly gregarious folk interested in singing and dancing around a float of a large papier mache dragon -- when it became clear that many of those original marchers had been replaced by a mysterious band of masked men and women.

They wore bandanas and black ski masks, ducked behind large banners, and held black umbrellas over their heads to avoid being identified by the massive police contingent lining the route. Efforts to take photos of any of these people were met with nervousness or hostility.

Only later did it become clear that this was the beginning of an anarchist action -- what insiders call a black bloc

Moments later, the dragon stopped moving. The crowd was directly in front of Madison Square Garden, the venue for the convention and symbolic object of the protesters' rage.

Some people were booing loudly or hurling profanities at the policemen standing outside the arena; others were considering courting arrest by sitting down on the street.

It was then that smoke started rising up from the ears of the dragon

It took some time before police officers started moving in. But they were too late. Flames burst through the skin of the dragon and smoke started belching into the sky.

Soon the crowd was alternately running away from and drawing closer to the conflagration, fearful of the police and the noxious fumes and ash filling the air but also morbidly fascinated by the spectacle before them.

The police, dozens of them, swept in and blockaded the area. A fire engine roared by. For now, tens of thousands of protesters would have to stand and wait out their chance to pass the arena as the severed, front half of the march turned the corner and disappeared.

As for the anarchists themselves, they all seemed to have removed their masks and slipped into the crowd, their mission perfectly and anonymously executed.

'Bush took time out for Indian Americans'

For the most part, though, Sunday's march was surprisingly peaceful. The vast majority of the crowds who showed up in the late morning -- as many as 500,000, according to one generous estimate -- seemed more interested in celebrating than in seething, their optimism confirmed, at least momentarily, by the massive turnout.

Music rang out from every direction, people flaunted their often-outrageous get-ups, and everyone from the fringiest of political creatures to the elderly to down-home Middle Americans with multiple children in strollers ambled about. An entire cottage industry of anti-Bush merchandise was being hawked by vendors - jewelry, bumper stickers, buttons, literature, T-shirts.

The festive atmosphere was a far cry from the sense of terror and impending chaos that government officials and the media had projected in previous days, and which had led many New Yorkers to flee town.

"We were expecting it to be tense," said one cop, leaning against a wall along the route, "but everyone's been just great."

On side streets, groups put the final touches on their presentations. One organization created nearly a thousand mock coffins, draped in American flags, each box representing the death of a soldier in Iraq.

"Pallbearers?" called out an organizer. "We need pallbearers here."

Nearby, a man wearing a George W. Bush mask and cowboy hat hammed it up, his latex face held in a rictus of glee as he danced to the beat of a nearby band and bounced his very large, inflated globe.

On 7th Avenue, where most of the protesters stood, a distant murmur grew louder and like a passing cloud swept over the crowd until everyone was roaring. Several times the crowd lurched forward, only to stop again, and then, finally, it kept going.

An East Asian man climbed atop the shoulders of a friend and stood, teetering as he addressed the people around him.

"Tell me what democracy looks like!" he chanted.

"This is what democracy looks like!" came the answer, as they responded to his call over and over again.

Meet Bush's Brain

One woman, a neighborhood resident in her late 50s handing out little leaflets, cautiously noted the positive atmosphere. At least 95% of the crowd, she estimated -- maybe even 99% -- weren't interested in causing trouble.

"My generation and older are afraid that 1968 would happen again," she said, referring to the street violence of the Democratic National Convention, in Chicago at the height of the Vietnam War.

"We want a peaceful march to tell people across the country the way the Bush administration is running the country."

The grinning cowboy Bush jogged by, inflated globe in tow.

Periodically, he'd let the globe roll over him until he was flattened on the street.

"Whoo!" shouted a small group of female spectators, "Go, world!"

Hey, Ho, Bush has to go

As the day wore on, it grew hot -- the hottest day of the summer -- and people started shedding clothes, occasionally slipping away for a drink of water before rejoining the march or a dance in session.

The marchers passed by a hotel with a sign welcoming the Republican National Committee and they automatically went into nose-thumbing mode.

"You're not welcome!" Clap clap clap-clap-clap. "You're not welcome!"

Once the charred remains of the dragon had been cleared -- most protesters never even came to know about that incident -- the crowd encountered its next situation in front of Macy's, where yet more anarchists were getting rough-handled and arrested by the cops.

A brief showdown occurred between the crowd and the police, one of whom was threatening to use mace on a protester.

"The world is watching you!" screamed the crowd as police officers held protesters face-down on the street before taking them away.

But miraculously, the incident didn't take too long to resolve and before long, the march resumed and protesters were on their way south to the endpoint, at Union Square. There, the leaders of United for Peace and Justice were greeting protesters and telling them to enjoy the city's many attractions, not the least of which -- wink, wink -- was Central Park, which the city had forbidden them for using for a rally. The protest was now, officially, over.

But the day was still young.

Just north of Times Square, a contingent of Republican delegates from South Dakota, Iowa and a number of other states were filtering into the Broadway Theatre for a performance of Bombay Dreams.

There were rumors of protesters swarming over the site -- people dressed as mice, carrying cheese, ready to topple the metaphorical elephant (as in Republicans -- get it?).

But so far, no mice had materialised.

"I'm just not worried about it," said Dennis, a middle-aged Texas delegate with his wife, Cynthia. "It's a free country. Let everybody say what they want to."

His wife smiled broadly and concurred. "Thank God we have America."

Just then, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg whooshed by, escorted by a heavy security detail as he made his way into a side entrance. The rest of the delegates filed into the theater.

A few minutes later, protesters led by Gaurav Jashnani showed up and started chanting and beating drums as they walked back and forth in front of the police guarding the theater.

"And who is a fascist?" asked Jashnani.

"Bush, Bush, Bush!"

"The world's worst terrorist?"

"Bush, Bush, Bush!"

A senior police officer threatened to have Jashnani and company arrested if they stood their ground. After a moment's thought, the young activist decided to take his friends across the street. It wasn't that he was afraid of being arrested, he explained, just not in these circumstances.

"I don't know about standing in front of Bombay Dreams, with no delegates outside," said Jashnani, an activist from Michigan. "But if there were delegates entering Madison Square Garden, then maybe."

A policewoman had crossed the street and was very openly aiming a video camera at Jashnani. He responded by walking up to her fearlessly, and asked her if she thought she was doing any good or if she thought she was scaring them.

His friend, a tall, bearded guy, asked her if she thought she was furthering the cause of democracy by videotaping them. She didn't seem fazed by either line of questioning.

Jashnani received a call on his cell phone, and after a moment, turned to his comrades.

"Hey, there's a bunch of people [protesting] at 45th and Broadway," he said, excitedly. "And the cops are coming. Let's go down there."

"Woohoo!" yelled a young woman, "We're psyched."

And with that, the group started walking quickly down Broadway, chanting: "Hey hey, ho ho, Republicans have got to go."


Arun Venugopal in New York