Mob sends mixture of messages at UN

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on September 7, 2000.

The drums outside the United Nations stopped at 11 a.m. Exactly 11 a.m.

Sure, it was a protest. But that didn't mean they had to be uncivilized about it, does it?

As 150 world leaders and something like 15 times that many journalists crowded into New York in early September, demonstrators squeezed in behind them, seeking to deliver their message to ... well, many of them seemed unsure of exactly who should be receiving their message -- and of exactly how they should send it.

They knew they should be loud. They also knew they shouldn't break any rules.

The 91 official Millennium Summit demonstrations scheduled for the week were confined to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a large open area across from the United Nations building. Divided into half-a-dozen bays -- what one police office called "pens" -- the plaza was shared by a variety of groups, each competing, in the nicest way possible, for attention.

Early Thursday, Sept. 7, the airspace around the square was commandeered by a group of Iranians gathered from across North America. Equipped with a brace of snare drums, a fistful of tambourines and a microphone presided over by a profundo bass and a shrieking soprano, the crowd resembled nothing so much as a high school pep band hooked on politics.

"We want Khatami ... out of the U.N!" (Now the boys!) "We want Khatami ... out of the U.N.!"

"You get used to it," said a cop who had been standing guard nearby all day, "but I'll be dreaming about it tonight."

The music stopped precisely at 11 a.m., when the Iranian's noise permit ran out.

"There are many other groups to speak," said Soheila Dashti, one of the vaguely leader-like people in the group. ("We have no leaders," she said. "We are a group of people only.").

"We must be respectful," she said. "This is democracy for everyone."

The protesters were part of the Iranian National Council of Resistance, a Paris-based group that describes itself as the country's government-in-exile. Many of the demonstrators waved signs depicting Maryam Rajavi, the council's president-elect, and her husband, Massoud Rajavi, chairman of the revolution.

"The UN is supposed to represent the people. (Iranian President Mohammad) Khatami represents himself," Dashti said. "The UN is hypocritical, and we don't want that to continue. The seat in the UN belongs to the people."

But Dashti wasn't sure what will result from the protest. "We want change," she said. "We don't know how it will come."

At the tag end of a summer that has seen protesters hold Seattle, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Los Angeles hostage, such vagueness seemed de rigueur among the small protest groups scattered throughout lower Manhattan.

At Pfizer Pharmaceuticals World Headquarters, for example, the dozen or so folks marching in a circle just wanted to have their voice heard -- by anyone. The demonstrators, mainly members of the gay right group ACT UP!, pressured the company to provide cheaper AIDS drugs in South Africa.

"I lost my lover to AIDS and nursed a close friend as he died," said marcher Bob Kohler. "Your anger builds up, but who are you going to be angry at? The disease?"

Kohler found an outlet for his anger when he learned that Pfizer was considered a "humane company" and was working with the United Nations on various programs.

"What's humane about charging $18 for an AIDS drug?" he said. "No one's saying they can't make a profit, but that's not right.

"When you go to a place like South Africa, with the AIDS problem they have, we're within our rights asking them to drop prices," he said.

No one, however, seemed exactly sure who the group was asking.

"No one's listening at Pfizer," Kohler said, "and we can't get anywhere near the UN. But somebody has to listen."

Those somebodies weren't on the streets of Manhattan Thursday afternoon. The most attention received by the marchers was from a slightly befuddled-looking pedestrian who somehow got tangled in their circle while crossing the street and couldn't figure out how to exit.

The group was also joined by a Robin Williams look-a-like, complete with suspenders, who marched in line reciting -- by himself -- the Lord's Prayer, blessing the nearby crowd of police officers before heading off.

If God is on the side of the big battalions, the cops had no need for Williams' blessing.

New York's finest appeared to be the only group out in strength Thursday: at the Pfizer protest, there were as many cops and security guards as marchers, while at a demonstration by the Cuban consulate, protesters were outnumbered by police, who were in turned overwhelmed by the number of media personnel.

The only protest group to really turn out in force were Fulan Gong adherents. Members of the sect, all wearing fluorescent yellow shirts, assembled from around the world to protest the treatment other members have allegedly received from the Chinese government.

About 300 practitioners were in the plaza Thursday, although organizers said more than 1,500 were on hand the day before. Thursday, hundreds fanned out throughout the area, distributing flyers and newspapers, taking each others' pictures and exclaiming over the architecture of downtown buildings.

Their message was a simple one.

"We just want to practice our exercises and read the book without the government interfering," said Terente Shindler, who came from Australia for the protest.

But, like many protesters, Shindler said he doesn't expect quick action, relating a conversation he had with a protester who marched against communism in Albania 20 years ago. "That went away, but it took time," Shindler said. "We know this will take time, too.

"We just want to do what we do," he said. "We don't want to get the government upset."

Almost unique among demonstrators, the Fulan Gong group received some public attention, perhaps because of their sheer difference: while other protesters were screaming, they stood silent; while others were marching, they were standing still, meditating; while others tried to show their agitation and anger, the Fulan Gong tried to show peace.

One of the city officials in charge of protesters told the group, said Connie Chipkarr, a Fulan Gong practitioner from Canada, that he likes coming by their bay. "He finds it helps him relax," Chipkarr said.

It might have been the only place to do so. Elsewhere along the ramparts of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza stood groups advocating criminal sanctions against the United States for bombing Sudan, a handful of people waving signs saying "Lies in Burma" and a man wearing an Ireland World Cup T-shirt, although he gave no indication whether he was for or against it.

As the Millennium Summit ended Friday, demonstrators planned on splintering into still smaller groups and scattering throughout the city, starting with an 8:45 a.m. gathering at the Burma mission on East 77th Street and proceeding with protests in support of the Zapatistas, in opposition to the Peruvian government and attacking U.S. military aid to El Salvador, the Philippines and Colombia.

"I'm going to try to go to the first one, and I'm definitely going to support the Zapatistas," said Matt O'Mahony, who had come down from Connecticut in search of protests. "I've been a Zapatistas supporter for a long time."

That's one of the few things that O'Mahony, who describes himself an anarcho-syndicalist, does supports. He went to the protests against globalization in Washington D.C., and swung by the Republican convention in Philadelphia; Seattle and Los Angeles were on his calendar, but he didn't have the money to get there, he said.

The diffuseness of Thursday's protests didn't surprise him.

"The movement is so decentralized," he said. "The planning just wasn't there. But the way this is done -- the city is so choppy, so large. It's all over the place."

No one he traveled to other protests with planned on bringing their complaints to the streets of New York, he said.

"I don't think Seattle will happen again, though I think it needs to happen again," he said. "People who went to D.C. and Philly didn't know protests were going on here.

"I don't think they even knew the summit was going on."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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