NEW YORK — Hundreds of thousands of liberal protesters swarmed
downtown Manhattan yesterday in a demonstration organized by the
anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice.

The march occurred on the eve of the Republican National
Convention – expected to draw about 50,000 to the city – which
begins tonight with speeches from the current and former New York
mayors and concludes Thursday night with President Bush’s formal
acceptance of the Republican Party nomination.

For most protesters, disdain of the war was their principle
motivation.

“For me the primary issue is the war in Iraq,” said New York
resident Kevin O’Neill as he observed a controversial procession of
pallbearers carrying flag-draped coffins to represent soldiers who
have died in the Iraq war. He said the U.S. presence in Iraq is the
source of the continuing violence in the country.

Aside from the war, a range of domestic issues colored the signs
and shouts of marchers.

Bush “has attacked women, he’s attacked labor, he’s attacked
countries,” said Jon Christiansen, a student at the University of
Colorado.

Marcher Kristin Norderval, a musician and resident of New York,
said she was marching against Bush’s stance on gay marriage.

“His attacks on civil liberties are horrendous,” she said,
referring to the president’s proposed constitutional amendment that
would ban gay marriages.

Regarded as a bastion for Democrats, New York seemed to many
protesters an unlikely site for the convention, which will take
place in Madison Square Garden.

Republicans “are at odds with a multi-cultural, tolerant city
like New York,” O’Neill said, adding that the GOP was trying to
exploit the events of Sept. 11, 2001 by having the convention here.
“It takes a lot of gall on their part to come to New York.”

O’Neill said he would probably vote for Democratic nominee John
Kerry as the best available option but explained his reluctance to
wholeheartedly support Kerry because the Massachusetts senator
lacks progressive planks in his platform. “He seems committed to
continuing the occupation,” he added.

Christiansen echoed O’Neill’s disillusionment with what he
perceives as a scarcity of options for American voters.

“Kerry is the lesser of two evils,” Christiansen said. He
explained that his vote for Kerry is more a vote against Bush than
an enthusiastic endorsement of the Democratic nominee.

Christiansen is missing a week of university classes to
participate in the protests in NYC during the week of the
convention.

“I want to show there is resistance to George Bush from Middle
America,” he said, explaining his sacrifice. He continued, “The
biggest challenge in dealing with young people is apathy.”

Christiansen said it was important for young people to
participate because “mathematically, they have more of their lives
remaining to be affected by the future.”

Many protesters expressed reservations about Kerry as they
affirmed their faith in the power of grassroots organizations to
pressure him to enact a progressive agenda and withdraw the troops
from Iraq. The UPJ coalition contains more than 800 such
groups.

While the march was not without its confrontations — police
arrested more than 200 cyclists riding in protest of Bush —
onlookers said security ensured that conflicts never escalated past
shouting matches. Members of the New York Civil Liberties Union and
the National Lawyers Guild were on hand to monitor interactions
between police and demonstrators.

“There were some arrests but the cops have been pretty
restrained,” said New York University law student Josh Saunders,
who served as a monitor for the NYCLU.

Saunders reported that between 12 and 14 demonstrators were
arrested at the intersection of Broadway and 34th Avenue. He said
that the idea for the monitors grew out of the anti-war protests on
Feb. 15, 2003, in New York City, where many were arrested and later
released when charges were dropped. Members of the NLG were
available to provide legal assistance in the event that a protester
was arrested.

Originally estimated to draw 250,000 marchers, the protest
proceeded without conflict until it reached the Garden.
Participants began to jeer loudly as they passed the building while
policemen positioned above searched the crowd with binoculars for
any signs of trouble. Minutes later — at around 3 p.m. — a dragon
float erupted in flames. The minor blaze burned for fewer than two
minutes. Onlookers said the float was set on fire by an anarchist
group, although those statements have not been confirmed.

Police halted the march while the flames were extinguished and
15 minutes later a newly enthused crowd quickened its pace. Some
participants beat drums, banged tambourines and blew whistles and
flutes while others competed for the catchiest slogan with their
scathing anti-Bush signs.

About five minutes before the incident, at least two arrests
were made at the corner of 7th Avenue and 34th Avenue, just past
Madison Square Garden. The arrests were unrelated to the fire.

In addition, liberal protesters and members of a conservative
group the Protest Warriors also clashed when hundreds marched past
the Texas-based group bearing the dummy caskets.

Delegates said the week’s protests, which include other
grandiose demonstrations that could rival UPJ’s march, wouldn’t
sour the convention for the Republicans.

Chuck Yob, a Michigan delegate and member of the Republican
National Committee, downplayed the marchers’ presence in New York,
criticizing them as “professional protesters” who had traveled to
the city just for the occasion.

Even as a sea of UPJ supporters trailed through the streets of
Manhattan, Holly Hughes, also a state delegate and national
committee member, said the city will still warmly receive
convention-goers.

“We believe in New York City, we want to support New York City,”
she said.

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