NEW YORK — Vietnam vet Bill Steyert, bedecked in anti-Bush buttons, is twirling a white flag with a dove on it at a Green Party rally in Washington Square Park. The rally, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, feels like a scene out of the 1960s, and Mr. Steyert intends to go back to that era by getting arrested Tuesday.
"We're committed protesters," he says of his group, which will be staging a "die-in," acting dead so that police will have to carry them away. "I'll be wearing an all-white shroud with red blood stains," he says. "Well, it's actually permanent magic marker."
As conventioneers and President Bush head to New York, they are drawing tens of thousands of people, there to rally about everything from the war in Iraq to AIDS policies to abortion. There are anarchists holding press conferences to explain themselves. There are large contingents of everyone from atheists to those opposed to genetically modified food. And plenty are vowing civil disobedience - and a willingness to be arrested - in one of America's largest protests in recent years.
"It's the perfect storm for protest," says Nancy Snow, an expert on protest and a professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton. "People are coming to mount one visual, visible display against the Bush administration."
Sunday may have been the most visible of all. The organizers of a massive march hoped to attract 250,000 people who would display their banners and yell anti-Bush rhetoric as they walked past Madison Square Garden, where the convention is set to begin Monday night.
As they gathered Sunday morning, protestors from around the country chanted and waved banners. One was Susan Smith, a Tampa, Fla., homemaker wearing a T-shirt that read, "Patriot for Peace," who worries that her two teenage sons might be drafted. "If it were a just war, I could understand it," she said. "But now I feel we live in perpetual war."
Unlike the situation at the Democratic convention in Boston, where the protests were small and the police arrested only six people, the New York protests are expected to be large and filled with handcuffs. Even before most of the conventioneers arrived, police had arrested hundreds, from naked AIDS activists, to people who hung an anti-Bush banner from the Plaza Hotel, to 264 bicyclists charged with illegally blocking the streets.
"Most people want peaceful protest, they don't want it to look like Chicago in 1968," says Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communications. "The problem for the city [is] the hard-core anarchists."
Not a big deal, says police commissioner Ray Kelly, who vows to separate the troublemakers from the peaceable groups. "For 18 months now, we've been planning this, and we're in good shape," he says.
The city does not want the marches and rallies to end with the nightly news showing clouds of tear gas. With some 15,000 media members in the city, New York wants to portray itself in a positive light. "They don't want to look like a Patriot Act police state like many claim," says Mr. Berkovitz.
New York's effort to control the protests date back to 2003. Over a year ago, the group United for Peace and Justice (UPJ), a national coalition of more than 800 activist and interest groups, first sought a permit to rally in Central Park. After the application was denied in April, UPJ ultimately accepted the city's proposal to rally on a stretch of the Westside Highway. But the group later changed its mind and sued the city.
Last week it lost the suit and now plans only to march past Madison Square Garden. Instead of a rally at Central Park, many protesters, including the leader, Leslie Cagan, plan to picnic there.
It will be a contrast to Saturday, when the park's Great Lawn was filled with its normal mix of sun-seekers and frisbee-tossers. Police on horseback watched and protest monitors were on guard for civil-rights violations. But they hardly needed to be there. Just after 4 p.m., a band of six or seven people circled the lawn bearing signs and a tambourine. They were from a group called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (A.N.S.W.E.R) which had been denied a permit to use the park. "Even if we can't organize, we need our voices to be heard," said Michelle Maczka, one of the group.
Demographically, this week's protesters may not be much of a break with the past. Many, says Ms. Snow, will be in the tradition of the left-wing upper middle class.
"It's not a lot different from the core [of the] '60s and '70s," she says.
One of those activists is Steffi Woolhandler, a Boston physician who started campaigning for national healthcare when she was in college, and is now a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, a 10,000-member organization planning a rally midweek.
Dr. Woolhandler is confident about the impact she and other protesters will have during this convention. "Of course [Republican] party members will pay attention," she says. "They want people to approve of what they're doing and we will show them that people don't approve."
While Woolhandler is an old hand at protesting, the convention is also pulling in a considerable number of political neophytes, and plenty of college students and twenty-somethings who've never marched before, but were drawn to the New York demonstrations as a "historic event."
Among them is Melanie Moody, who just graduated from the University of Southern California and now lives in Seattle.
Sitting outside New York's Public Library, Ms. Moody says she kept hearing people say, "Don't go to New York, it's dangerous." But she couldn't resist the impulse "to give the Bush regime a piece of my mind and carry the anger of people who couldn't come." So even though she had no place to stay, she arrived - and spent her first night on the floor of a stranger's apartment.
Moody is also an example of why this week may be unique in the campaign season. She works a full-time job at REI, a producer of outdoor gear, and part time at Starbucks. "I'd like to stay all week, but I have to get back to work," she says.
That's typical of today's young adults, says Berkovitz: "There's nothing like a nice big student loan over your head to enforce some responsibility."
• Carly Baldwin and Alexandra MacRae contributed to this report.