The Battle of Second Avenue

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Roger Horowitz

[We present here the first-hand account of Roger Horowitz, a Solidarity member who lives in Delaware and a labor historian who participated in the February 15 antiwar mobilization in New York City. Obviously this report reflects only a fragment of the extraordinary experience in New York, which in turn was one of over 300 demonstrations in cities large and small across the planet. As even the New York Times noted, the world now has “two superpowers:” the United States government, and world opinion. In the coming months all of us will be engaged in the conflict between these forces, not only as analysts but as participants. –The Editors]

I MET JULIAN and his friends from the Hastings on the Hudson High School at 53rd and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, the epicenter of the confrontations between police and demonstrators during New York City’s huge antiwar protest on February 15.

He explained that hundreds of demonstrators had left the 53rd Street subway station and headed for the rally, pushing through police barricades at 3rd Avenue, and now were blocked at 2nd.

My friend Sara and I found our way there by a more placid route, having left the “pigpens” on 1st Avenue — the enclosures created by police in each block to restrain demonstrators — and headed down 2nd Avenue to see if we could get closer to the speakers platform.

We met in a confrontation created entirely by restrictive and ineffective police tactics. Viewing protesters as not much different than weekend revelers in Times Square, the police sought to create a tame rally by pushing demonstrators into the enclosures on 1st Avenue.

Blockades preventing use of side streets in the 50s, 60s and 70s were intended to divert demonstrators north, forcing them to take long walks up 3rd and 2nd Avenues to get to the 1st Avenue rally area; but police seriously underestimated the crowd’s size, and above all, its militancy.

We all felt the frustration of Bush’s drive to war and the silencing of oppositional voices by the media; we were in no mood for the police department to sabotage our right to congregate and shout our opinions if we wanted to.

“Whose Streets? Our Streets!”

By the time we arrived perhaps 1,000 people filled the 53rd Street intersection, trying to cross to 1st Avenue, but blocked by the police barricade. 2nd Avenue traffic ground to a halt, further hindering movement of demonstrators uptown.

While the signs (many hand-lettered) all focused on the war, the chants spoke of democracy. “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” was especially popular.

The crowd was a fused conglomeration of subgroups like Julian’s friends and others who had traveled together from places like Ohio, Vermont, and upstate New York. Having voyaged far and braved the bitter cold to arrive at this intersection, they had no intention of being silenced so close to their goal.

A dozen police on horses arrived, and the decibel level rose along with the tension. They pushed the crowd back, shouting “get on the sidewalk,” seeking to clear the intersection.

Soon one lane was reopened, but the cars and trucks barely crawled by; the police were now in the way as well. With horses in front and a barricade behind, the crowd packed onto the sidewalk and spilled into the street with nowhere to go.

Then the mounted police moved onto the sidewalk, compressing the crowd even more and forcing terrified demonstrators against shop windows. Their main target was a man on top of a bus kiosk who was photographing their activities. He was pulled down, violently forced to the ground and arrested.

Police grabbed three more demonstrators, including Julian. One of his friends was led off, hands clutching at his eyes, evidently blinded by pepper or mace spray. Nearby I saw the police officer who had done this deed, his arm extended straight down, the canister with the blinding chemicals clearly visible in his hand.

As the crowd vented its rage with cries of “shame, shame” I looked at the large picture windows of the vacant store on the corner, just waiting to see them broken. But nothing of the sort happened. Nor were any police officers assaulted, no rocks were thrown.

Taking Control

The crowd wanted to go forward to the rally, militantly so; a confrontation was only an outcome of such determination. Nonetheless I thought this a good time to move elsewhere so we headed uptown, only to encounter another large group of several hundred demonstrators marching downtown, also seeking passage to the rally.

When this new group hit the back of the crowd already stalled on 2nd Avenue, traffic once again came to a complete halt. Efforts by the marchers to head down 54th street were similarly blocked by barricades.

Having completely lost control of the streets, the police merely repeated their confrontational tactics of using mounted units to clear the intersection. A cacophony of shouts and chants filled 2nd Avenue as demonstrators surrounded the horses, keeping their distance, and wary of police efforts to push them back to the sidewalk.

But there was simply no place to put the people. As the mounted cops kept up the pressure, so too did the pressure rise on the foot police trying to hold the 54th Street barricade. Soon they started waving their clubs, not at the demonstrators, but at their comrades, trying to tell them to back off — but to no avail.

Pressed chest to chest between the horses and the foot police, and without any visible leadership, we all started leaning hard together against the barricade. No one said let’s go, just suddenly there was this feeling, almost a physical sensation, among the people there that it was time to stop waiting for the police to move in on us, and to take control of the situation ourselves.

So we pushed, hard. The dozen or so police were no match for several hundred determined demonstrators, and we forced our way through. The police quickly retreated, and we surged down 54th to the rally, chanting “Whose streets? Our Streets!” but with a new tone of victory.

We arrived in time to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu — but minus Julian and the Hastings students. They had come a long way to exercise their democratic rights and had been prevented from doing so.

The battle of 2nd Avenue was entirely unnecessary, a creation of police tactics that infringed on our rights, and shocked the demonstrators who had never seen such measures. Should Bush decide to invade Iraq the police department would be well-advised to bend to popular will and allow our march and rally to take place, unhindered.