By Tom Engelhardt
New York City, as always, what a dream! A sally deep into enemy territory! A signal that all of America was his for the taking! Not so long ago, when the Republican convention was being planned, the President and the rest of his administration imagined their return to the best of their top-ten moments as a way of launching a second drive on the White House. Washington’s own Lion King would take Broadway and the Democrats would fall like some ratty Iraqi army. From the heart of Manhattan, they would bask in the glow of post-9/11 America, of brave policemen and firemen in the ruins of two great towers, of a president with a bullhorn and a touch of gold. With their plans in place, the dreams only grew — of an administration triumphant and of an unscathed war president with his mission finally accomplished. The Republican Convention in Manhattan would be a coup de théâtre, a lightning strike, a fabulous blow from which the political opposition might never recover.
How times change though. Now, angry policemen and firemen are picketing outside Madison Square Garden (“The Republicans are coming to bask in the glow of Sept. 11, and yet the firefighters and police officers who died in record numbers and continue to be the frontline defenders for this city haven’t had a contract for more than two years,” said Stephen J. Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association); protestors are heading for New York in what may be prodigious numbers; and the Bush administration, suddenly in something like flight, appears capable only of locking itself inside Green Zone Manhattan. Even “security,” even “safety” — less and less this president’s selling points — turn out to be fatal obsessions. As Nick Turse makes clear below, the man who uttered the mocking phrase,” bring ’em on,” is about to become the safest man on Earth. His ability to ensure his own security remains unparalleled — and a kind of madness. Now, let’s sweep back the curtain and see what Republican Manhattan will look like in the summer of 2004. Tom
Fortress Big Apple
Will the President Escape From New York?
By Nick Turse
The tagline for John Carpenter’s 1981 cult sci-fi classic Escape From New York went “New York City is now a maximum security prison. Breaking out is impossible. Breaking in is insane.” In that movie set in a then-unimaginable, futuristic “1997” Gotham, criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) was charged with rescuing the President of the United States, whose plane had been downed in the walled-in, armed and angry prison island that Manhattan had become. With his life and freedom riding on saving a man he holds in contempt, Snake eventually fights an epic battle in world famous Madison Square Garden in his bid to save the president.
Today, as in the movie, many New Yorkers are angry at the president, and as in Carpenter’s grim vision of the future, at least parts of New York City will be in a state of lockdown for the President’s arrival — with a major showdown due to take place somewhere in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden (MSG). In Carpenter’s future, Manhattan was a walled-in fortress island under high-tech government surveillance, guarded by heavily armed security forces, with helicopters perpetually overhead — a futuristic Alcatraz Island of epic proportions.
In our 2004, the authorities have an eerily similar vision of how the city should be. Madison Square Garden will be walled in by a fence or “other physical barrier” with additional “movable barricades,” complete with checkpoints reinforced with heavy weapons. A new “closed-circuit surveillance video system” will be introduced; armed federal agents and police officers will be keeping watch; and plenty of helicopters will be circling overhead. In Carpenter’s future, however, the government was in control and New Yorkers were locked down. In our present, the Bush administration and the Republican Party are the ones retreating into a fortified bunker.
Once upon a time in a past not so long ago, New York City was viewed by many in the Republican Party as an enemy outpost in an alien land. Then came the 9/11 attacks and Manhattan became the Bush administration’s ground zero in its war against terrorism. On January 31, 2003, with a supposed easy victory in the upcoming war with Iraq looming, it seemed the perfect place for the President to begin an inevitable march to a second term. But like the president’s flight in Escape From New York, things have gone awry. New York once again looks like a threatening, alien land and the party of the President whose greatest claim to fame is that he’s made Americans “safer” is about to treat the city as if it were Baghdad.
The free-speech limiting, life-disrupting, artificial-reality-inducing security “bubbles” that empty the globe’s central cities as George Bush and Dick Cheney travel through them, are already well known. From August 30 through September 2, when the Republican National Convention invades New York, the GOP wants to see the same – a Manhattan emptied of life and the entire event “bubble-ized.” The estimated 48,000 people who will attend the Convention including 2,509 delegates and 2,344 alternate delegates, their hotels, their outings, their travels around the city, the massive media presence (sequestered away in the Farley Post Office Building, connected to MSG via an enclosed, climate-controlled pedestrian bridge to be built across Eighth Avenue); along with the RNC’s convention headquarters at Madison Square Garden will all be locked inside that bubble — and kept from the sight of the feared hundreds of thousands of citizens heading for the Garden to tell the President he’s “not welcome.”
To contain protesters and “protect” GOP’ers and fellow travelers, New York City is engaging in some of the same sorts of permit games that typified the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago. For example, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office has, with a helping hand from the city’s parks department, thwarted efforts of the national coalition, United for Peace and Justice, to secure a permit for a march ending in a large-scale demonstration in Central Park. Officials have cited fears that the park’s grass, home in the past to large demonstrations and huge concerts, would take a beating. Just recently, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly decreed that the Park would be off-limits, as would Times Square. Instead, UFPJ was told it could utilize the sure-to-be-sweltering, distant West Side Highway. Even in Snake Plissken’s Manhattan, Central Park was open!
Bloomberg and his associates clearly hoped that a lot of tough talk, terrorist alerts, and traditional New York City Police Department tactics — interlocking metal barriers (if not closed pens), horses, street closures, misinformation (telling protesters they can’t enter a certain area or sending them on wild odysseys to non-existent protest entry-points), and a conspicuous show of uniformed and riot-gear clad force– would contain protestors inside a police-imposed bubble, if not simply scare them off. The NYPD is, of course, a massive army unto itself; a force of about 40,000, approximately 6,500 of whom are slated to “patrol the Garden, hotels, bridges and tunnels, protest sites and points of interest for delegates” while another 5,500 have been assigned to patrol the subway system, commuter trains and the railroad and bus stations. Roughly one-third of the department, armed with handguns, batons, and tear gas canisters — and some, apparently inside a new state-of-the-art SWAT vehicle — are to be deployed in support of the convention.
Back in February, this was considered more than enough manpower for whatever was coming and tough-talking NYPD spokesman Paul Browne simply stated that the city’s police did “not anticipate the need for federal troops” to augment their forces. Since then, however, fears of the size of the coming protest — given growing dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and possible uncontrolled, autonomous protest actions across all five boroughs — led New York officials to take another tack. Raymond Kelly, the city’s pistol-packing Police Commissioner (he carries a .38 in an ankle holster), soon flip-flopped on his department’s position, noting, “If people want to give us help, we’ll take it.”
With the chief moving in reverse, and fearing the NYPD might be outnumbered and overwhelmed, New York governor George Pataki made the call to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge requesting federal assistance and, on July 9th, Ridge (with Pataki, Bloomberg, and former mayor Rudy Giuliani in tow) announced that the Department of Homeland Security would be designating the Republican National Convention in New York (like the DNC in Boston, which is undergoing its own lockdown) a “National Special Security Event.” With the invocation of that status the NYPD was relegated to a backseat role, while the United States Secret Service became the “lead agency for the design and implementation of the operational security plan.”
By the end of August, at least portions of the Big Apple will be under the control of the Feds just as director Carpenter imagined it. In fact, at least “75 government entities” of all stripes including the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be involved. The Secret Service will, according to Bloomberg’s office, be “supported by… [the] Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Department of Defense.” Further, the FBI field office in New York is already engaged in pre-convention work, with nearly all of its 1,100 agents in the field “collecting intelligence” and attending to “other security tasks.” Given the FBI’s past COINTELPRO exploits, there’s little doubt what kinds of activities these are likely to be. The NYPD will also be in on the black-bag action. The NYPD’s crack Intelligence Unit was already caught, by Massachusetts State Police no less, allegedly spying on protesters out of state.
During the convention, the department will reportedly be dispatching plainclothes and uniformed operatives to “landmarks, tourist sites, sites related to the convention, bridges and tunnels, airports and other places where people gather.” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Federal Protective Service will “be placing additional security at federal facilities in the vicinity of the Republican National Convention,” and U.S. Air Marshals will be “working closely with other federal law enforcement agencies to support the Secret Service.”
In addition to the myriad federal agents, uniformed and undercover NYPD cops, and various federal and local agent provocateurs crawling about, the military will be called out in a show of force. In the skies above the city, along with helicopters, there will be fighter jets from a National Guard unit based in Troy, NY. And, as in Iraq, private contractors won’t be left out in the cold either. As private security personnel, they will reportedly be hired to guard hotels and other venues where delegates and Republican officials will be holed up.
To sum up the “security” scene: Choppers hovering above; military fighters streaking overhead; under foot, fumbling with cameras they never seem to know how to work, those famously easy-to-spot undercover cops clad in bulky sweatshirts (no matter the weather); federal suits listening to their earpieces; protective fences; “frozen zones” (huge swaths of “public” city streets to ordinary citizens); metal barriers; “vehicle checkpoints around the perimeter of the Garden manned with heavy weapons, dogs, and portable Delta barriers, which are enormous metal contraptions that lie almost flat in the road and can be raised very quickly with the flip of a switch”; mounted police; cops on bikes and scooters; NYPD K-9 units; stormtrooper-esque “Hercules” teams; conventional “arrest teams”; cops boarding commuter trains and subway cars one stop before they reach Penn Station, the hub nearest the Garden; permit refusals; murmurs about the invocation of an 1845 law prohibiting mask-wearing under certain circumstances; and Kelly and Bloomberg periodically claiming to know protesters’ plans or issuing wild claims about the supposed plans of violent anarchists, “hard-core groups… looking to take us on”; and various administration officials issuing vague but chilling warnings of possible terrorism to come.
The intended effect of all this, in addition to keeping the city and nation in a state of fear and making their now insecure leaders the most “secure” people on the planet, is obviously to dishearten, frighten, and intimidate prospective protestors — that is, citizens who want to exercise their right to protest George Bush and his policies. Just as obviously, as happens in such situations, no one seems to be more convinced by their propaganda than the propagandists. Without a single protestor appearing, the GOP, the mayor, the NYPD and the Feds are visibly running scared. The President, the GOP, and the entire administration crave an empty, sterile, “bubble-ized” Manhattan with a few orderly protesters, divided and penned up in out of the way places. They aim to turn Madison Square Garden and the surrounding area into something resembling the “Green zone” in Iraq – a little enclave unto itself, fully fortified, insulated from the popular will or just ordinary life. The Village Voice recently discovered that residents of Penn South, a 3,000-unit cooperative development near Madison Square Garden, had received a memo from their development’s management company, coupled with a press release from Bloomberg’s office, advising “[i]f at all possible, [they] stay inside during the times the convention is in session.”
The President, who continually tells us that our world is safer due to him, aims to arrive in an alien “New York City” out of some lock-down sci-fi movie — a place specially prepared to make him the safest man on Earth. And yet New York isn’t a stage set and the best laid plans of frightened and controlling officials do have a way of coming undone, just as they did last February in New York when, having been prohibited from marching, hundreds of thousands of protesters, directed toward police “pens” snarled traffic and literally took over large portions of the city. Who knows in what strange ways life will burst into New York despite official efforts to empty the city and lock down Madison Square Garden? For as the folks at the RNCNotWelcome.org Collective note:
“If we are diffused throughout the city, we will have a much better advantage. After all, the real target is not Madison Square Garden, the stage of the spectacle, but the various events where deals are made – where the lobbyists wine, dine, and bribe Bush & Co. [T]he RNC has promised to stage events and photo ops in every borough of the city, not just in Manhattan. If we are truly everywhere in this very big city, the police cannot be concentrated in one area…”
In John Carpenter’s vision of the future New Yorkers had lost their war against an American police state. In our present, it’s up to the rest of us to make sure that doesn’t happen. Only we can burst Bush’s bubble!
Nicholas Turse is doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He writes regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-industrial-entertainment complex.
Copyright C2004 Nick Turse
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.