With Republicans in town, NYC trying to look tough

August 31, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WE GOT out of Manhattan just as the Republicans were arriving. We blew grateful kisses in the rearview mirror to the Holland Tunnel, for being slightly less maddening than usual. The reason? All clunky commercial vehicles had been ordered uptown, all the way to the Lincoln Tunnel. The cops, trotting out brand-new high-powered equipment, figured it was easier to inspect for terrorists that way.

The city had an oddly isolated and lonely feel to it. Millions of people were all around, but the town felt cut off: from the rest of America, which could watch from a safe distance, which hadn't endured mass-murder attacks, whose streets weren't filling with hundreds of thousands of angry protesters and police who were torn between the demonstrators and the city's standard routines of terrorism defenses.

In the new national vulnerability, New York's usual in-your-face attitude takes on an unexpected poignancy. They're still trying to look tough, but the posture seems a little forced since Sept. 11. When George W. Bush speaks on national TV this week, he intends to confirm America's greatness. But everybody still remembers New York on its knees.

The Republicans picked Manhattan for their national convention to remind the country of Bush's public resolve after the terrorist attacks, to recall that vision of the president at Ground Zero, standing atop a wrecked fire engine like the leader of a nation refusing to be afraid.

Or maybe not. A lot of New Yorkers, already predisposed to dislike the Republicans (New York is registered 5-to-1 Democratic), believe the choice of this convention site is a symbol of political revelers dancing too close to a grave site. And, not coincidentally, a gesture of sheer political manipulation.

In this view, the Republicans are hoping for the full display of New Yorkers' famous pugnacity, so they can showcase it to Americans out there in the hinterlands tuning in to television sets each night and thinking: Look at what those liberal Democrats are like; look at them out there, after the president gave them such a nice pep talk when they were attacked.

Committed Democrats will see the demonstrations as a great catharsis, a healthy political expression of their antipathy toward Bush. But the unanswered question is: What about that tiny national sliver of the uncommitted? What do such expressions of anger in the streets say to them?

There were several hundred thousand protesters out there the day before the convention opened, and more and more anticipated the rest of the week. They're marching past a stunning number of anti-Bush signs that were posted long before they arrived -- on billboards, in people's apartment windows, on storefronts, block after relentless block.

Along with confrontations in the street comes the occasionally comic. On 34th Street by Madison Square Garden, they've been handing out political leaflets. One is called Ten Things Republicans Believe. (No. 5: "Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy. Providing health care to all Americans is socialism." No. 6: "Global warming is junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools." No. 9: "Using the Sept. 11 attacks to launch disastrous wars is patriotic. Peacefully protesting those wars is un-American.")

And this is the gentle stuff.

On the radio, the local talk-show folks have spent days and days urging calm. Don't make this into Chicago in '68, they keep saying; don't make it into Miami in '72. Don't let a nation of TV watchers tune in to see a political convention and instead witness such street anarchy that it obliterates all issues of war and economics.

Walking through jammed Times Square one night last week, we were stopped at 45th Street. Roadblocks had been thrown up and nobody was allowed through, not even people staying in hotels there. Normally congested traffic, cars and pedestrians, was now choked off insufferably.

"What's the problem?" we asked a couple of police manning one end of the block.

"Unattended bag on the street," we were told.

If they're shutting down entire streets for unattended bags, what do they do for so many uninhibited protesters and the threat of terrorism? The answer has been on display for weeks now. In advance of the convention, the police trotted out, for waiting TV cameras, all the spiffy new equipment they've got: high-definition cameras that photograph the undercarriages of trucks, acoustic bullhorns to disperse unruly crowds, dogs that signal they've smelled explosives by simply sitting.

Democracy, it's wonderful.

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