The Value of 'Peaceful Protest'...
A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
"Affordable Housing Is A Human Right!" The poster shouted at me in ten
inch block letters. I was duly intimidated. Another bellowed, "Death To
All Rent Pirates!"
Do you see why I veer away from City Hall? I had an hour free and I thought to spend it in the sylvan sunshine of City Hall Park. Instead, I got caught up in a 'peaceful' rent control protest.
"One, two, three, four! We won't take it anymore!" The marchers were chanting--some were screaming--as they tramped through the park. Back home we used to call this disturbing the peace; it was worth ten dollars or ten days. In New York it's called 'outreach'; it's worth a column and a half plus a photo.
"Five, six, seven, eight! New York tenants cannot wait!" What's more peaceful than 'peaceful protest'? Most of the people who had been relaxing in the park collected their things and left. The winos were left to appreciate the 'non-violent' nature of the protesters in virtual solitude.
Over near Broadway, a woman began to make blowing noises into a megaphone. Thankfully, the chanting sign-brandishers drifted over toward her.
She was the sort of woman for whom the epithet 'dumpy' is a compliment. She looked like one of those 'sculptures' you see in Soho, or maybe the remains of a flood in the flour warehouse. She was bulging out of a sweatsuit, and she reminded me of Bella Abzug, not so much in facial features, but in the belligerent indifference of her posture and in the adamant refusal of her body to conform to any sort of intelligible shape. She bellowed at the milling crowd: "Test! Test! Test! Can you hear me?!"
"Yes!!," they roared back. They could have heard her without the megaphone. From Midtown. Maybe even Yonkers.
Bella looked pleased. She hollered, "Are you mad!?!"
"Yes!!," roared the crowd.
"Are you riled up!?!"
"Are you ready to fight for your rights!?!" Bella pounded on an invisible lectern.
"Are you ready to fight the festering lice who bleed you!?! Who gouge you of your last cent, then dump you out on the street when you can't pay!?!"
"YES!!!" The roar was deafening. The crowd was composed of two types of people. Half were those decent-shabby young people who are more than happy to be 'radical' so long as stuffy old Daddy keeps sending the checks. The other half were the sort of shabby-shabby poor people who always manage to have time available for 'peaceful protest'. I'd have been surprised to learn that as many as ten percent actually paid their own rent out of their own earnings; people who earn a living don't have a lot of time free for protest, 'peaceful' or otherwise.
Bella bellowed, "Are you ready to fight the parasites who want to do away with rent control!?!"
"YES!!" The protesters raised their signs high. Some began to stomp their feet. A confused-looking young woman sounded a tattoo on a tambourine. The chanting was resumed as an undercurrent to Bella's bellowing.
There was (much) more, but you've heard it all before. The next speaker was an earnest young man in paint-spattered dungarees. Call him the Bawler, because he looked as if he were about to burst into tears. "I speak for the Homeless," he whined.
"Aww..." The crowd joined him in thirty seconds of mass pity.
"There are hungry people in New York," he bawled. "There are people who haven't got a bed to sleep in. Who haven't got a place to cook or to take a bath."
"Aww..." A gangly woman in denim overalls wiped tears from her eyes.
"How can we live with ourselves," the Bawler wept, "knowing that somewhere a Homeless person is sleeping over a sewer grating with newspapers for blankets?"
"Aww..." Evidently the tears were contagious.
He gestured toward the breathtaking Battery skyline. "In the shadow of these skyscrapers, can we permit one person to go without a decent home?"
"No!" The roar was muffled by throats blocked from weeping.
"Just so some suburban baron of profit can buy a new Mercedes?"
The Bawler's speech was delayed by his own tears. He took control of himself. "Should we have to care about their profits when people are Homeless? Homeless?!?"
"NO!!" The mob was regaining some of Bella's supercharged hostility.
"No," the Bawler said. "We do not have to care about their profits!" The crowd roared. "The Homeless demand housing, and they demand it NOW!"
The crowd went wild. The chanting and stomping resumed in earnest. Ms. Tambourine Woman stepped up her cadence. Some of the sign brandishers seemed to want to remove the cardboard that concealed the clubs underneath.
The third speaker was obviously a lawyer. Three-piece blue suit, gold chain across the waist-coat with a fair imitation of a Phi Beta Kappa key, modish wire-frame glasses. His thick black hair was pulled back in a bouffant wave. In another age, he might have chased ambulances or scanned the obits for probate cases. But not anymore...
He shouted at the crowd, "Do you want rent justice?!"
"Do you want decent housing at a fair price?!"
"Do you want to know that you can't be evicted?!"
"That you won't be forced to pay outrageous rent increases?!"
"That your home is your castle, not your landlord's?!"
"YES!!" The stompers pounded away with vigor. Pity all that energy wasn't going toward something productive...
"Well then..." The Shyster swept back his black curls. "What are you going to do!?!"
"KILL!!" Only a few people said that, but they were loud.
"No," he chuckled. "You're not going to kill. You're going to sue!!"
"YES!!" The whole crowd joined in the clamor.
"Sue your landlord for rent reduction!!"
"Sue your landlord when he tries to evict you!!"
"Sue your landlord for tenant's rights!!"
"YES!!" The tambourinist had lost all sense of rhythm; she was banging away with abandon. The stompers were threatening to break through to the subway below.
The Shyster smiled. "My firm is prepared to handle your case at once!!"
"Yes!!" The attitude of the crowd had somehow drifted from the conceptual to the liturgical. It's not all that common to see people cheering for advertising.
"We'll help you get housing justice at reasonable fees!!"
"Major credit cards accepted!!"
The marching resumed. The Shyster pulled a thick stack of business cards out of his vest pocket. He began to distribute them among the crowd. A lot of people took them. The Shyster looked pleased with himself. After all, what's the use of 'peaceful protest' if an 'idealist' can't make a buck on it?