Protesters leave a modest footprint, so far

Activists take on issues from the Iraq war to the two-party system, but security strictures dampen size of the turnout.

He isn't your average American patriot. Two "Bushocchio" inflatable dolls dangle from his hands. "Stick it to Bush," the man, who calls himself Nick Williams, yells out, "it's the ultimate in electoral pleasure." He's draped in the flag - but only from the waist down, where red and white stripes wind around his legs and corporate logos replace the 50 stars.

But here on the Boston Common, he's just one more face in a motley assortment of war protesters, waving everything from Puerto Rican flags to images of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. One group of feminists, the Axis of Eve, donned "protest panties." Another cluster called for a communist revolution.

But the kickoff march here this week of an estimated 3,000 from Beacon Hill to the FleetCenter and back - despite police in riot gear and choppers hovering above - wasn't exactly what the city had braced for during the first large-scale protest of the convention, neither in energy nor volume. At one point, a speaker urged the crowd not to fall asleep.

So it wasn't Chicago in 1968. But the crowd was taking advantage of what may be their biggest platform this week, hours before the Democratic National Convention was set to begin in earnest. For a city torn between polishing its image as the cradle of liberty and barricading itself against threats of terrorism, the fight for scenes of dissent is emblematic of an emerging municipal dilemma: how to weigh the First Amendment against the goal of safety first.

Ever since police sparred with antiwar activists at the Democratic convention in Chicago in the 1960s, host cities have been increasingly wary of large-scale dissent. Now in the post-9/11 world, the hurdles for the right to protest have only become higher.

The effect that might have on future protests is still unclear. Many activists at Sunday's inaugural march said turnout was low only because most protesters are waiting for the Republican National Convention in New York next month.

The battle in Boston reached a critical point last week, when Judge Douglas Woodlock of federal district court called the measures in Boston - which forbid on-site marches for the rest of the week and confine protesters to the "Free Speech Zone," a chain-link "cage" with a capacity for 1,000 - an "affront to free expression." Still, he said there was no alternative in the age of terrorism.

The 28,000-square-foot protest zone, about a block from the downtown arena, has been likened to an internment camp, blocked off with metal fencing and razor wire. Much of the space is topped with abandoned rail tracks and metal girders.

The site has been boycotted by nearly all activists, who have come from across the country to rally against everything from political imprisonment to imperialism. Protesters call it one of many infringements on their freedom.

"America is not a democracy, and what are we going to do about it?" John Spritz-ler, a local resident, asks as he hands out pamphlets about his organization New Democracy. He says he hasn't voted in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter won the vote. "I'll be the first to register," he says, "the day we have a democracy."

Policing the police

With their neon green T-shirts, members of the National Lawyers Guild let it be known they were acting as "legal observers" for the event. Dawn Johnson, a group captain, says members act as a deterrent to police officers and other authorities in positions of power. But one observer reported no violations on Sunday.

In fact, aside from a few Bush supporters who were pushed off the sidewalk by zealous pacifists, and a small scuffle with antiabortion protesters, the event was uneventful. For many photographers, the biggest challenge wasn't avoiding an unruly crowd, but shooting pictures without journalists in the line of vision.

In fact, one older man joined the group simply for a Sunday stroll. "I like protests," says Michael Mulcachy, an Irish native who has lived here for 43 years. After all, chants and banners aside, the route served as a good walking tour - past the gold-domed State House, over the top of Beacon Hill for a view of the famed Zakim Bridge, past Faneuil Hall and up again, this time past the Old State House.

Who's protesting

The event in Boston Sunday was organized by the Boston chapter of ANSWER: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. Those congregating for the rest of the week include more antiwar factions, which aren't necessarily opposed to John Kerry but against US policy in Iraq.

But the messages will be diverse: There will be those fighting to depose President Bush, those criticizing US policy in Haiti, Israel, and Afghanistan. Some will fight for immigrants rights, others will rally against police brutality.

As the group ended the march on Sunday, passing the Granary Burying Ground, where many a notable forefather is interred, one protester tried to motivate the unresponsive: "All you dead patriots, rise!" he yelled into a bullhorn. "Join the crowd."

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