Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Protesting with Preschooler

Protesting with Preschooler
Victoria Law

My three-year-old daughter Siu Loong is no stranger to marches—not even those which have no permits. At last year’s February 15th anti-war march, for which the City of New York refused to issue a permit, she pointed out the signs and puppets that caught her eye. She smiled at the man dressed like a giant lobster dancing on the sidewalk. She had a good enough time that when I took her to another anti-war march less than a month later, she chanted, “Nother march, nother march,” until we actually reached the starting point.

Still, a month before the Republican National Convention came to New York City, I was anxious about protesting with her. The news reports of the NYPD preparations—of bag searches and ID checks, of blocked-off streets and mass arrests, the rumor that first the abandoned Brooklyn Navy Yard and then the detention barges on the East River would be used to warehouse arrested protesters, and the threat of Child Protective Services intruding into our lives if I inadvertently got arrested made me hesitate about bringing my daughter to any of the marches. After all, I had seen what the NYPD had been capable of—even at a march for peace. Although my daughter and I had walked away from February 15th with nothing worse than numb fingers and toes, others had not been so lucky. Police had trampled marchers with their horses and shoved unsuspecting demonstrators into the street only to arrest them for not staying on the sidewalk. A few years earlier, I had seen police attack tenants for marching to maintain the City’s rent regulation laws. I had seen them push, grab and arrest white-haired women with no provocation. I had no reason to believe they would handle me gently simply because I had a small child in a stroller.

Five days before the convention started, the DNC2RNC—a 258 mile march from the Democratic National Convention in Boston to the Republican National Convention in New York City to highlight the fact that neither party is addressing the interests of the people, arrived in New York. A march—or rather the last leg of the march from Central Park to Union Square—was scheduled to occur the next evening. The march didn’t have a permit, meaning that the police could arrest all participants the moment they stepped off the curb.

Despite my worries, I knew that I didn’t want to sit back and watch everything from the safety of home. I had done that two-and-a-half years earlier when the World Economic Forum had come to New York. Feeling trapped by my fears about police violence against my then one-year-old, I had felt helpless and hopeless. Being in the streets—even if it was just as another person (or, in this case, persons) for the official head count—was much better than doing nothing and feeling powerless about the situation. And how could I—as an activist—not take this opportunity to show my child the importance of protesting injustice in any way that we can rather than passively accept its existence?

And so I decided that we would go. We would stay on the sidelines and leave at the first sign of police unrest. Siu Loong’s father agreed to stay by the phone in case I was arrested and he needed to fetch Siu Loong from the precinct before Child Protective Services was called. We arrived over an hour before the march was scheduled to start. Siu Loong was the only child there.

Food was being served to demonstrators just outside the park. The organizers had even brought a water cooler with a spigot so that everyone could wash his or her hands before eating. Siu Loong and I shared a plate of rice & beans and canned peaches.

Once she had finished eating, Siu Loong, remembering past demonstrations and marches with their colorful puppets and signs, wanted to look for puppets. “Where are the puppets?” she asked. Since I was still eating, another protester—one whom we knew from other volunteer work—accompanied her on her quest to find colorful props.
The only puppets she found were of yellow cardboard birds on cardboard poles. She grabbed one and held it for a bit. Some of the puppeteers, along with passing protesters, took photos and oohed and aahed over how cute she looked.

After she had tired of holding the tall puppet over her head and put it down, a protester nudged me. “There’s a car coming. I don’t want you or your child to get hurt.” A police car was driving through the park and appeared as if it would drive through where we stood. I pulled Siu Loong over to the side. “There’s a car coming,” I told her. “We don’t want to get run over.”

"Cars don’t belong in parks,” Siu Loong commented. Then she turned towards the car, which had stopped about twenty feet away and yelled, “Go away car! Go away car!" It didn't. When we walked by it later, she very adamantly said to the officer sitting on the passenger side, "Go away car!" I'm sure he thought I put her up to saying it.
During the march, I overheard a fellow protester telling others that a three-year-old had told the cops to go away. When Siu Loong heard the story, she began chanting, “Go away, go away!” The grown-ups marching alongside us laughed but did not join in.

While we waited, someone gave her a small triangular flag to hold. It said "Dignity." I had a hard time explaining "dignity" to her and, not wanting her to brandish a word she didn’t understand, found a flag that said "food" instead.
A man came up to her and showed her the trick of pretending that his finger was coming off. He showed her three times. After the first time, she leaned forward to try to figure out how he did it. I don't think he was a demonstrator—just a passerby that noticed the only child in the crowd.

One protester—a young man in his early twenties who had done the full march from Boston—asked if we were planning to march. “Let me know if you need help pushing the stroller or anything like that. I’ll make sure you get any help you need.”
Even though it wasn't a permitted march, the police let us take one lane on Broadway. At least a few hundred people participated, at least at the beginning. I’m sure some dropped off during the forty-five block march.

Two men brought their pedicabs with them. They gave rides to protesters with cameras who wanted to get a better vantage point of the march. There was also a percussion band with a few drums, cowbells, clavicles and tambourines. They played at Columbus Circle and during part of the march before a white-shirt freaked out and yelled, "We talked about this already! This is *not* a parade! If you play again, I'll arrest you." Otherwise, the march itself was unconfrontational. Marchers near the sidewalk gave startled passers-by fliers explaining why we were marching. Pedestrians smiled, waved and generally showed support as we passed. I was told that the Native American flutists busking for the tourists at Herald's Square played "Solidarity Forever" when the march passed.

Siu Loong fell asleep before we even left Columbus Circle. I weaved in and out from the sidewalk to the streets, depending on which looked easier to maneuver the stroller. I was on the sidewalk when she woke up. "Mama--the march is over there," she said, pointing to the street.

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