COVER

WHERE’S THE OPPOSITION?

Dissent is beginning to simmer in New York City

JONATHAN DURBIN June 23 2003
COVER

WHERE’S THE OPPOSITION?

Dissent is beginning to simmer in New York City

JONATHAN DURBIN June 23 2003

WHERE’S THE OPPOSITION?

COVER

Dissent is beginning to simmer in New York City

JONATHAN DURBIN

THE PUERTO RICANS paralyzed midtown Manhattan by lunchtime. Tens of thousands of them flooded Fifth Avenue near Central Park, most clad in red, white and blue—the colours on both the flag of the U.S.-governed Caribbean island and the Stars and Stripes. Shirtless men hawked patriotic bandanas for a buck, whistling at women who favoured hankies for tops and occasionally let their thongs peek above the waist of their jeans. There were many of them, wobbling on their high heels to the assembly’s approval, but there were also so very many more: roadblocks halted traffic for more than 40 blocks. People were packed in so densely it was difficult to breathe, the sidewalks a sea of support for the island’s culture and a demonstration of pride in America. Such was the scene one Sunday in early June at the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.

At day’s end, the gutters of Fifth Avenue were lousy with empty brandy bottles and flyers for after-parties. But the parade-goers were oblivious to the mess, in much the same way they were to the CNN and Fox elec-

tronic news tickers overhead. Despite the lack of attention, the tickers doggedly continued broadcasting the news: “American unemployment rate highest in nine years”; “55 per cent of Americans believe the war on terror is being won”; “57 per cent of Americans approve of Bush’s reconstruction effort in Iraq.” Between the liquor and women, no one seemed to care. Farther downtown, the apathy toward the headlines was only slightly different. At the opening of Plaid, a new club on East 13 th Street, hipsters displayed black humour when questioned about America’s role in the Middle East. One said the war in Iraq was like a popular television show that had been cancelled mid-season and, when pressed on terrorism, joked, “Al-Qaeda? Aren’t they the guys that corked Sammy Sosa’s bat?” The message at both events was clear: it’s not our problem. Give politics a rest. It’s all good.

Actually, the evidence suggests it’s all bad.

A recent poll released by the Pew Research Center, an independent American organization that studies how people respond to politics and the press, states that world opinion of the U.S. has “plummeted” since October. Fence-mending at the G8 summit two weeks ago may have assuaged the U.S.’s friends and neighbours, but international levels of support are nowhere near where they were in the days following Sept. 11—it’s unlikely French newspaper Le Monde will run another front page editorial that says “Nous sommes tous Américains” any time soon.

And it’s not just the French who have their doubts. The U.S. government’s credibility erodes every day inspectors in Iraq fail to find weapons of mass disappearance— the chief justification for the war, repeated endlessly prior to the invasion. And although America’s attempt to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians is laudable, giving Iraq the business has set other potentially hostile nations on edge. Meanwhile, at home, George W. Bush’s stewardship of the economy has taken America from a projected

budget surplus of US$5.6 trillion by 2010 to a projected deficit of US$4 trillion by 2013. Our southern neighbour’s economic troubles helped boost the Canadian dollar past US74 cents, which is incredible, considering Toronto’s confidence-shaking SARS crisis.

The U.S. government’s policies are both confusing and worrisome, but what’s downright perplexing is that opposition from the American left has lately either been ignored by the media, or gone altogether silent. While it’s difficult to rally a mass protest when there isn’t a smoking gun (like a war, say), on paper conditions are so bleak it’s a wonder more people aren’t concerned. Really concerned.

You’d expect that New York would worry. The city is the intellectual problem child of the U.S. Citizens here provide the liberal ying to Washington’s conservative yang. It’s Ground Zero not only because of the crater at the World Trade Center site, but also because Manhattan is a storied proponent of freedom of thought and expression, home to both the New York Times and avant-garde types who are as liable to redefine culture as they are to adopt a cause. And everywhere there are reminders of Sept. 11, like the subway ads that admonish riders to report any unusual people (terrorists), take packages with them when they leave (bombs), and refrain from eating on the trains (powdered sugar looks like anthrax). New Yorkers value

their freedoms and are conscious of the role they play in world affairs, evidenced by the February 15 anti-war demonstration that drew over 100,000 people. Now that there’s an unpleasant new normal in the city, where does that leave the protestors?

Dissent is simmering. As the adrenalin rush of the war in Iraq dissipates and the 2004 presidential race kicks into low gear, some locals are beginning to view their government as frighteningly intrusive. “Those who would

AS THE ADRENALIN rush of the war in Iraq dissipates, some people are starting to view their government as frighteningly intrusive

sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” said congressman Jerrold Nadler to a packed public school auditorium on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, the Democrat was speaking as part of a panel discussion called “America Under Surveillance: Erosion of Our Civil Liberties Post 9/11.” Nadler hopes this is the issue that will galvanize Americans now that the peace between Republicans and Democrats, briefly united in support of their troops at war, is dissolving. The discussion focused

on how the Patriot Act, legislation advocated by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of Sept. 11, granted extraordinary powers to the FBI—Stasi-style stuff that enables American spooks to skirt the constitution and bug telephones with little or no judicial oversight. That’s just for starters, the congressman said.

“They’re using the war on terror as a pretext to attack our personal freedoms,” he asserted, and even the guy wearing the Navy SEAL T-shirt (“Call 1-800-HOOYAH! Ask About Our Special Terrorism Elimination Discounts!”) nodded. The congressman compared the legislation to the work of infamous senator Joseph McCarthy, and said that not since before the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 have Western freedoms been so seriously imperilled. “The British rebelled against George III for less than this,” Nadler pointed out. Catching his breath, he added, “Not that I’m suggesting rebellion.”

It sounds fantastic, like an X-Files conspiracy plot or, worse, like the ranting of a burnt-out hippie consulting for Oliver Stone, but New Yorkers have sacrificed freedoms for safety. Some of them aren’t taking it sitting down. There is the tacit understanding here that it’s a question of when, not if, terrorists strike the city again, and even that isn’t threat enough to dampen resistance from activists. For instance, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-profit legal group, has filed a class action lawsuit against Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, Immigration and Naturalization commissioner James Ziglar and others on behalf of seven men who were imprisoned on immigration charges in connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Sometimes kept in lockdown for 23 hours a day, the men were held for months without being charged. They were not offered legal counsel, and only allowed limited communication with the outside world. “Their families would show up at the prisons knowing that these guys were there,” says staff attorney Rachel Meeropol. “The prison guards denied they were holding them.”

One of the plaintiffs is Akhil Sachdeva, a 30-year-old man from India who was incarcerated in New Jersey before being deported to Canada. The FBI was unable to connect him with Sept. 11—Sachdeva is Hindu,

not Muslim, and a Canadian landed immigrant—but held him for four months regardless. “One fine morning I woke up and lost everything,” Sachdeva says. “At 6 a.m. on December 20 [2001], 20 FBI agents came to my uncle’s house outside New York and arrested me with their guns drawn. There were 43 people in my first cell. The other prisoners would say, ‘You killed all those people, now well kill you,’ and I was beaten a

few times. The FBI said I was going in for five life sentences—100 years—if I didn’t co-operate. Co-operate with what? I know nothing about terrorism. It was hell.”

So just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. On an intimate, horrific level, the stories of Sachdeva and his co-plaintiffs are symptomatic of broader American government concerns about both terror and internal dissent. The mood on the

street is equally anxious. While waiting on a subway stopped in the middle of a Brooklyn tunnel, several university-age boys played a game of hangman with the names of nerve gases; two girls sitting within earshot began to cry. During a downtown Manhattan cab ride, my driver was cut off by another yellow taxi, and, when we pulled up beside the other car at the light, he rolled down his window and screamed, “Terrorist!”

The American media is helping to fuel fears. Those who opposed the war were often labelled unpatriotic by the right-wing press, where the tone was “united—or else.” Anti-war celebrities like the Dixie Chicks, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn were pilloried, and foreign nations that refused to join the coalition of the willing were scorned. In a discussion with New Yorker senior editor Hendrik Hertzberg, Sidney Blumenthal, former senior adviser to Bill Clinton, said Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire— which owns firebrand media outfits like Fox News and the New York Post—has promoted the “atmospherics of intimidation.” Blumenthal intimated that the government and conservative media were moving in unison, using fear of ridicule as a tool to quash debate. Describing France and Germany as “the axis of weasels” for opposing the war is one example. The home version is a popular pack of playing cards sold on-line, called the “deck of weasels.” Jean Chrétien is the queen of spades.

Strategizing about intimidation is a skill that the Department of Homeland Security has learned well. A billboard in Manhattan that advertises the agency’s Web site (www.ready.gov, which includes downloadable instructions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack), promotes its message in flat black type against a stark white background. “Terrorism forces us to make a choice,” it reads. “We can be afraid. Or we can be ready.” While being against terrorism is like being against smallpox—it’s difficult to argue in its favour—just what “ready” means is still up for debate. If being prepared continues to entail restrictions on liberties, New Yorkers aren’t going to stand for it. The government might not care—Republicans soundly lost the state in the 2000 presidential elections. But there’s at least one sure thing: if the intention of his administration is to soothe fears while keeping the public on guard, Bush should fire his ad people—before more Americans become suspicious. 171