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Sunday, August 29, 2004

Shouts in an echo chamber

Cliches become cliches because often they're true, and one of New York's truest cliches is that it's a big, big place. The city swallows everything it encounters -- witness today's protests. Dozens of arrests, green dragons on fire ... it would seem to have the markings of serious pressure on President Bush and the Republicans as they gather.

Near the protesters, it was easy to sense the anger and frustration -- it was the sort of energy that pressed against you, literally and figuratively. People angry with Bush, the war, the economy .... and Kerry, and the culture, and the media ... and "the establishment," and the Chinese, and the ...

... and I've never been sympathetic to people who complain about protesters because they lack a coherent message. So it's not an anti-Vietnam War march, the seeming gold standard of civil disobedience. If people want to voice 50 complaints, let 'em. What was more striking than that today was how self-contained the protests are. Some of that's by design. Authorities denied protesters permits for where they wanted to go at the times they wanted to, and what's left are oddly timed, oddly located marches that aren't supposed to seriously disturb the lives of Bush and the delegates -- which is, of course, what many protesters feel they need to do to be effective. Looming more largely as an obstacle to the protests' effectiveness is The City -- the simple fact that, in New York City, "tens of thousands" remains a blip.

At the height of today's protests, when entire city blocks were taken over by one mass of outrage, life on city streets three blocks away was undisturbed. The whole convention is like that -- other than a couple blocks around Madison Square Garden and in isolated outposts around the convention hotels, it's very possible to go through the day completely unaware that a major political event is going on, minus the stray political sign or T-shirt. At one point I caught a few straggling Billionaires for Bush walking a side street. Their humor was noted, but really, a woman in a formal gown, wearing a tiara and carrying a map of Pennsylvania, really doesn't stand out in Manhattan. Nothing really does.

The bar is just too high here. The voices cry to be heard, but the cavernous streets drown them out with everyday urban noise. And if a protest falls in Manhattan and New Yorkers can't hear the sound, will anyone even care?