NYC dissent: Six of New York's biggest protests

By Alanna Schubach | February 28, 2017 - 8:59AM 

Last month's Women's March against Donald Trump, which unfolded in cities around the country and the globe, was the biggest day of protest in U.S. history, according to The Independent. In New York City, DNAInfo writes, an estimated 400,000 people hit the avenues of Midtown to voice their discontent about the preceding day's presidential inauguration. 

The turnout was far more significant than expected, but New York City has a long tradition of political demonstrations, and the march was actually not the biggest protest in its history. That honor belongs to an anti-nuclear march in 1982, which drew a million people to Central Park; New Yorkers have been taking to the streets to express dissent with public policies since at least the draft riots of 1863. 

And it makes sense, given the city's density and infrastructure, a marriage that supports public displays of disaffection. "Cities give birth to social movements not only because of the kinds of people who live in them, but also because of the public spaces available and essential to their configuration," writes Ginia Bellafonte in her article for the New York Times. And in NYC, in fact, there's a movement afoot to create civic spaces even more conducive to demonstrations, by making busy neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly.

As Bellafonte points out, certain neighborhoods and open spaces have served as magnets for demonstrations again and again. Central Park, for instance, offers a huge expanse to spread out, and played host to that record-breaking 1982 gathering, as well as several "be-ins" throughout the 1960s. Washington Square Park, as a center for bohemian culture, has also historically drawn politically-minded artists and activists, and most recently was the site of a protest against Trump's travel ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority nations.

And Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, at Second Avenue between East 47th and 48th streets, is a frequent meeting place for protests and demonstrations, thanks to its proximity to the United Nations and the fact that the NYPD seems willing to grant permits for gatherings there. It's a tight spot, though, and when there are large turnouts, the small public space quickly becomes crowded.  

Congested thoroughfares haven't stopped us so far, though, as a look back at some of NYC's most momentous gatherings proves. 

 A depiction of the draft riots from the Ilustrated London News

A depiction of the draft riots from the Ilustrated London News

The Draft Riots of 1863

One of the earliest public protests on city soil was also one of the most violent and destructive. In 1863, with the Civil War raging and the Union's ranks diminished, Congress passed legislation to conscript new soldiers into the service. Locally, military representatives needed to draft 1,500 men; adding insult to the injury of being forced to serve, the wealthy could evade conscription by paying $300—a hefty sum at the time. 

On July 13th, the Washington Post writes in a look back at the event, officials began to draw names from a device dubbed the "wheel of misfortune." The waiting crowd on site at Third Avenue and East 46th Street, comprising New Yorkers who were planning to protest the draft, as well as locals from the poor and primarily Irish Five Points neighborhood, quickly grew restless. When someone suddenly fired a gun into the air, things unraveled from there. 

The crowd quickly devolved into a mob, facing off against a regiment of police officers and volunteer firefighters. Historian John Strausbaugh explains in the Observer that the rioters' rage stemmed from a confluence of factors that preceded the draft, including working class wages that were stagnating while the upper crust of the city profited off the war. 

Racism was clearly another factor: Many low-income workers feared that a Union triumph would mean an influx to NYC of freed former slaves, who would take their jobs. (Sound familiar?) It was perhaps this fear that fueled the appalling violence against African-Americans, who were chased, attacked, and killed. Over the course of two days, the riot raged, resulting in millions in property damages, hundreds of casualties, and many black families fleeing a city proven to be hostile and dangerous to them. 

The Silent Parade

Dramatically different from the Draft Riots was July 28, 1917's Silent Parade, a march that revealed that race relations had not improved much over the intervening years. The silent procession was organized by W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP in response to another riot, this one in East St. Louis.

That outbreak of violence had startlingly similar roots to the 1863 draft riots: With the first world war causing a vacuum of available labor, many African-Americans moved northward in search of work. White workers in St. Louis, fearing that their own jobs were under threat, poured into African-American neighborhoods, damaging buildings and beating and lynching residents, leaving hundreds dead, according to PBS

Here in NYC, civil rights leaders organized a "parade of silent protest," per the Times; an estimated 10,000 participated to draw attention to the injustices of segregation, discrimination, and violence facing African-Americans throughout the United States. Almost a century later, another soundless march would unfold in NYC to protest the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices. The policy, which disproportionately targeted people of color, was later ruled unconstitutional, suggesting that sometimes, silence speaks volumes. 

Peace March

The late 1960s were, famously, an era rich in political actions, with Central Park seeing a number of "be-ins," peaceful gatherings intended to protest the country's role in the Vietnam War. Particularly notable was the Peace March, held on April 15, 1967, which was led by no less than Martin Luther King, Jr.  

This time, participants demonstrated their opposition to the draft peacefully. Some participants burned their draft cards in Central Park, and then the group marched to the United Nations, where they heard speeches from King as well as Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Benjamin Spock. Hundreds of thousands attended, but true to its name, the event was nonviolent, and only five people were arrested, according to NYC blog Walking Off the Big Apple.  

Anti-Nuclear March

Following the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981, fears of an escalating nuclear arms race reached a new high. Despite his famously stating that he wished to see nuclear weapons "banished from the face of the Earth," Reagan took a decidedly hawkish approach in the final years of the Cold War, upping defense spending and surrounding himself with advisors and officials who spoke of their willingness to engage in "protracted nuclear war," according to the Huffington Post

The response was as adamant as the stakes were high: On June 12, 1982, one million people rallied in Central Park in favor of nuclear disarmament. A New York Times article from that day refers to a coalition of impressive diversity, including Catholic priests, Communists, anarchists, union members, college students, and delegations from around the world. 

Coretta Scott King was one of many who spoke to the assembled, and interspersed with speeches were performances from Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joan Baez, and more. Several major politicians of the day, including Mayor Ed Koch and Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo, also attended. In the Huffington Post, historian Tad Daley suggests that the massive gathering pushed Reagan to back down from his aggressive stance on the nuclear arsenal. 

Anti-Iraq War Protest 

Before this year's Women's March, 2003's worldwide demonstrations in opposition to the war in Iraq were the largest in history, according to TimeIn NYC, hundreds of thousands gathered near the United Nations, with speakers ranging from Desmond Tutu to Susan Sarandon voicing their dissent against a U.S. invasion of the Middle Eastern nation. 

The UN is a natural gathering place for political protest, especially during a general assembly when diplomats from around the world are in town and closely watching. It's something to which one resident says, in an essay for Brick, locals like her have simply grown accustomed. Demonstrations are among the drawbacks of having the UN as a neighbor; on the other hand, she writes, comparing them to those who attened the months-long Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, "[UN protestors] can be loud, but they’ve never moved in for more than two months!" 

At the time, CBS reported that crowds extended 20 blocks down First Avenue. Though the protest was mostly peaceful, there were dozens of arrests, and a CNN producer reported seeing NYPD officers use pepper spray on some of the attendees. 

Tutu implored President George W. Bush to "listen to the voice of the people," but ultimately, to no avail—the country would end up mired in conflict for years. 

Occupy Wall Street

Tiny Zuccotti Park in the Financial District seems an unlikely setting for the birthplace of a worldwide movement, but that's exactly what happened in the fall of 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. In the wake of the financial crisis, with deepening economic inequality coming increasingly to the fore of the national consciousness—and with the recent Arab Spring as a source of inspiration—many Americans were primed for political action, and on September 17th, people began converging on the park. 

In a matter of weeks, NPR reports, the movement spread around the United States and then the world. Within Zuccotti Park, hundreds set up a tent city and remained there for months before the NYPD cleared the area on New Year's Eve. 

Whereas other protests might only be one-day nuisances for locals, Occupy lasted far longer, and many residents and business owners in the surrounding neighborhood said that their quality of life suffered. For instance, Times reporter spoke to a sandwich shop owner whose bathroom was damaged by Occupy activists and also interviewed a resident who was made uncomfortable by some of the demonstrators' tactics. A woman who lived in an apartment with a view of the park complained about "a general presence of incivility" having invaded her local green space. 

In another Times article about noise pollution in the area, some locals said that protesters' drumming could be a pain—but construction sounds emanating from Ground Zero were even worse. 

Though the movement also fielded criticism for its lack of hierarchy—Occupy was leaderless in the anarchist tradition—as well as an unclear vision and concrete goals for the future, it also spawned political concepts, like that of the 99 percent and the one percent, that are frequently referred to today. When a Times photographer followed up with some of the people she'd photographed in 2011, she found that for many, Occupy had been an education in activism, and that they have continued to fight for social justice, thanks to their time spent protesting in NYC. 


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