Take one large city already threatened into a constant state of low-level nervous breakdown with terrorism jitters and a rockpile of an economy. Scare away a large percentage of the population by placing a Republican Convention in the city’s center. Pour in 5,000 delegates, half a million protesters, seven billion journalists and a concentration of cops greater than the entire US military force in Afghanistan– and voilá!– it’s RNC Week in New York.
As part of the security plan, a Frozen Zone– no unauthorized vehicles or pedestrians– has been created around Madison Square Garden. The Zone itself is actually quite small, but the street closings and security checks create a major headache.
Monday, August 30
RNC Day One. The sun beats down and the air’s not moving. A demonstration travels up 7th to the Garden. On 9th from the Village to Midtown, cops stand posted at every corner, scanning the pedestrians, chatting, fanning themselves with their hats.
The closer you get to MSG, the more crowded, tense, confusing and scary the whole things gets. More cops mill around 31st and 9th; metal barriers line the curb. Pedestrians are stopped from crossing either north of 31st or east of 9th. One after another, they ask cops questions; the cops point around the barrier and north. Inside the Zone itself, concrete barriers, TV satellite trucks, red, white and blue charter buses, orange plastic traffic cones, camera crews, the Garden itself, cops, cops and cops combine to form a picture of loosely controlled panic.
The overstressed and overheated seek refuge in the Cheyenne Diner (featuring “Buffalo Burgers” and frescos of Indians astride steers), just outside the Zone at 33rd and 9th. Manager Spiro Kasimas looks around at his two dozen or so customers–cops, fire fighters, tourists, demonstrators, journalists and locals. “Right now there are four people here I know. I asked around beforehand. Eight out of ten of my regulars said ‘We’re takin’ our vacation this week.’”
Across the street, authoritative Officer Nesmith stands at the pedestrian bottleneck, answering question after question after question. He gives directions north, south, west and all the way around.
With truck deliveries into the Frozen Zone prohibited, men pushing hand carts loaded with ice, soft drinks and big square cartons of catered food line up in the baking heat, eventually get to display their various forms of identification, then get passed through. A low-flying helicopter noisily buzzes the Garden. Again and again and again. A wilted-looking protester carries a sign: “Hermaphrodites are people too.” He passes a woman with a sign of her own: “NYC Women to RNC: Get the Fuck Out.”
Tuesday, August 31
It’s A31, the day designated for demonstrations involving, depending on which radio station you listen to, “non-violent protest and direct action” (NPR) or “Anarchists!” (1010 WINS).
But the weather has broken, the demonstrations are happening somewhere downtown, and life around the Frozen Zone has settled into its temporary routine. Seventh Avenue is now open, the sidewalks less congested.
The McDonald’s is once again accessible. However, only a handful of customers sit inside.
Yesterday, Spiro had nailed the truth about business in and around the Frozen Zone. “I’m doing good, but there on the other side (east)– nothin.’”
Most notably, no Republicans. Mayor Bloomberg chirps about the $265 million benefit the Convention will lavish on the city. Nobody’s seen it around here. The locals most imperiled and inconvenienced are taking a hard financial hit as well.
In the 33rd Street Galleria, past the Impressionist reproductions, New York posters, A-Rod and Mike Piazza bobble-head dolls, manager Nasir Sharif sits all the way in back, all alone. “Last week was really busy,” he says. “We hope we get a check in the mail next week from Mr. Bush. He wants to fix the economy, he can start here.”
The bad times continue at the A & H Plaza deli. Cashier Cindy Bat sums up business in one word: “Terrible! Look at me! I’m doing side work, there’s no customers to serve!” Any problems getting deliveries? “Only two deliveries!! Nobody’s here!” A pair of actual Republicans, small people in conservative suits carrying slick Bush-Cheney folders, quietly purchase some lunch and slink away.
H & M security guard Shirley Grant would rather talk about the Sunday demonstration than the flagging business. “Did you see the coffins? That was great; that’s something people need to see.” Despite the massive police presence, she worries about Thursday. “He’s coming, and you never know, it just takes one crazy person…”
Somewhere back there in the Frozen Zone, beyond the cops and the metal barriers and the satellite trucks and the concrete blocks, past the i.d. checks and metal detectors, Mayor Bloomberg quietly fantasizes about bringing the Olympics to NYC. And President George Bush, the man who promised to unite, not divide, America, will be staking his political future on the claim that he has made America safe.