On Aug. 29, in New York City, I found a reason to love George W. Bush.
It took a year and a half of life-changing decisions to lead me there. I quit a steady career at the Orlando Sentinel, wagered my savings and fiancée on a move from Florida to Brooklyn, found a job, got laid off, spent unemployed months boning up on right-wing lies and left-wing languor and miraculously landed on my feet in this shit economy.
The morning of Aug. 29, the day of the United for Peace and Justice march through Manhattan, started typically enough. I walked out of my brownstone, said hello to Victoria (the one lady on my block who blew me a kiss the day I moved in) and then avoided everyone else. That's the unspoken agreement here: Mind your own business. I rode two subways without making eye contact with anyone and surfaced at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, the staging grounds for what promised to be a quarter-million-strong demonstration against Bush and the White House's sloppy policies. I thought I was ready to spew built-up bile. But as the throng grew, my mood changed. Instead of feeling angry, I felt the same way I did when I finally found my apartment after driving around Brooklyn lost in a giant U-Haul truck packed with my entire life. I felt a sense of connection, of relief, satisfaction, joy ... love.
The scariest part is that I started seeing a causal relationship between my warm feelings of unity and our faux-Jesus-freak, banana-Republican president. My reaction is obviously some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, but I think I can exorcise any misguided Dubya love in a brief explanation. Here it goes. I'll pick up at the part where I emerged from the subway at 9:30 a.m. to find a growing mass of protestors.
ALL CHOKED UP
Right away, I find the perfect protest T-shirt to rekindle the anger and rage I feel for the White House. It shows three cut-out photos of the heads of Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld and states underneath "Asses of Evil." As soon as I put it on, people passing me start complimenting me and asking if they can take pictures. Instead of reacting as a New Yorker ( "fuck off"), I thank them and I'm happy they get it.
At 11:30 a.m. or so, The Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks at a public press conference, which is really a thinly veiled excuse for a motivational rally. Cops and organizers tell people to keep moving past the press area set up around 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. But we all linger long enough to listen to Jackson's words and feel our blood flowing.
He says things like, "What makes America great is the right to fight for our rights," and "America is a liberal idea." And it's just making me all misty, 'cause, damn it, it's true, and we're all pickin' up what he's layin' down. By the time he gets to the line, "Let's turn our pain into power," and his signature, "Keep hope alive!" I'm damn near weepy. I gulp it down and line up behind Michael Moore and Danny Glover and Jackson, and they start the march forward, up Seventh Avenue toward Madison Square Garden, site of the Republican National Convention. The police bark at the press to move back; they're actually helping the marchers.
I join in what would become the dominating chant of the day: "Ho-hey, hey-ho, George Bush has got to go!" Then I break away to climb some scaffolding and snap pictures. That's when the magnitude of this thing sinks in. The line of protesters filling the streets stretches farther than I can see. I'm trying not to get so caught up in the chants that I forget to write down the coolest signs, slogans and costumes. There are the fluorescent-green-hat-wearing National Lawyers Guild volunteers passing in clusters. They're here for the people to defuse potential civil-rights issues. John Morgan, they are not. There are the Ghostbusters-style signs that translate to "No W" and the simpler ones that state, "Fuck Bush." Wittier placards depict Bush's hollow head cracked open and the message, "Empty Warhead Found in White House." Another asks, "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" There are the various veterans groups against Bush, and mothers with signs demanding the return of their sons who are in the U.S. military in Iraq. There is the dead-serious procession of 1,000 flag-draped cardboard coffins to call attention to the rarely shown loss of life in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for comic relief, there's the group chanting, "Shit. Goddamn. Bush never fought in Vietnam."
I'm into it all, save the chant of "Intifada! Intifada! Intifada!" by a free-Palestine group a bit out of my league. I do, however, yell the chant, "Fox News sucks!" when we pass the company's Jumbotron at the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue. They're covering a Bush speech, not us.
I first participated in an anti-Bush protest along Colonial Drive and Orange Avenue in Orlando a year and a half ago. In that small gathering, I felt ignored and just as frustrated afterward, since few if any passersby gave honks or hollers. Here, I'm as giddy as the actual kids, people for whom this is a defining political moment. I'm equally thrilled by the three female demonstrators who are walking around topless all day, and I'm disgusted by the abundance of armpit hair on everyone, but that's my own hang-up.
The real standouts are the old people. More than the guy in a giant purple puppet costume, more than the young couple wearing Dubya Halloween masks and suits made of duct tape, more than the giant pink penis character, the grannies and grandpas get to me. It's almost 90 degrees (sizzling in concrete Manhattan). But several silver-haired ladies buy protest pins and flags from my fiancée, who's volunteering for United for Peace and Justice. An octogenarian in a suit and tie stops midmarch to tell me he loves my T-shirt. He doesn't have to be here. Like Bush himself, this elderly man could easily kick back, watch Matlock and dismiss the impact of this presidency on future generations. He'll die soon. But he doesn't want me to.
GETTING A GRIP
In the end, maybe all of the love came from the fact that the city held the rally hostage from the beginning, and Bush, well, he's held us hostage for four years. We all had a grasp of how the march would start with hundreds of thousands of bodies filing down Seventh Avenue like ants across a kitchen floor, heading somewhere unauthorized to congregate in a tighter cluster that better demonstrated our number. We didn't know exactly where it would end, probably in Central Park, though the city leaders that welcomed the Republicans legally blocked a permit for its own mostly Democratic-voting residents to peacefully assemble on Central Park's Great Lawn. They didn't want taxpayers damaging taxpayer-financed grass. But if we did try to go there, would we be gassed or clubbed or squashed? Bicycle riders from the activist group Critical Mass had tested the unauthorized protests on Aug. 27 and 28, and plugged streets in the days leading up to the massive march. About 100 were arrested, according to news reports. During her volunteer training, my fiancée heard stories of police clubbing those kids on their heads. (Would I need the People's Collective Law hotline number I'd scrawled in waterproof marker on my wrist?)
The New York Times would report at the end of the march that 134 arrests were made. Many were cyclists. A few others burned a papier-mâché green dragon near the Garden. And someone hurled something at a cop.
But during the march, we demonstrate without violence, and cops seem fair. "Folks, we have to ask you to continue on," barks one officer into a bullhorn. "You have a mile to go. Don't give up now. There's a gold medal waiting for you at the end." When I come upon 50 to 60 identically dressed NYPD clustered alongside the march route, I can't help conducting a quick poll.
"Raise your hand if you're voting for Bush," I yell. Not one does. So that's that.
At Union Square, the ending point, organizers encourage people to head toward the subway, "Spread out around the city, take over the streets," an official says. We go to the Great Lawn. Cops are waiting. But that's all they're doing. And as they watch us singing and dancing to drums and horns, attending impromptu nonviolent direct-action lessons and forming drum lines through the crowd, they must secretly want to join us. The grass holds up fine to the masses. Those topless women even show up again, effectively defining the day's high-water mark.
So, you see where this is headed, right? The parade, the sentiment, the explanation? Let me get this over with, then.
I love George W. Bush because he smacked us so hard we finally awoke from a long nap. I used to think I was born too late and missed out on the Vietnam protest era. But on this day, I participated in the largest-ever protest of a political convention. Event organizers estimated our number at 500,000. Now I feel right on time.
Bush ran for president as a "uniter," not a "divider," and boy, has he united. He made daylong bosom buddies out of New York assholes who otherwise do everything in their power to avoid associating with one another unless money or tragedy is involved. He inspired us to spend the day together in the park, to affirm in one assembly that there's a huge chunk of the country hopefully more than 50 percent that hasn't totally given up on critical thinking, who assemble peacefully, with unity, with love for one another.
On Monday we'll get back on those subways and sidewalks, keep our heads down and pretend not to notice each other like awkward co-workers who had an intense one-night stand. Hopefully, we won't let what happened between us change the anger and rage we need to fuel a regime change. We have a job to do, people. We have to get Bush defeated again. Let's not let things between us get, you know, weird.
Tyler Gray is a Brooklyn-based writer and an editor at Men's Fitness.