On May 31, the day after Israel’s bloody and unconscionable raid against civilian aid volunteers in international waters, around 1,000 people gathered in Times Square to protest. The next day, June 1, the same number showed up to protest again, meeting at 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue and marching to Times Square.
The organizers had arranged for 200 feet of the street to be blocked off for the demonstration, and by the time the march began, it was overflowing. There were very few news cameras around, though, most of them from the independent and left-leaning press. A counter-protest was held a few blocks away by people who supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its attack against the flotilla. A friend and I went to check it out. He suggested I hide the kuffiyeh that was hanging around my neck, but I was in no mood to cater to anyone’s delicate sensibilities after what had happened. It was a symbol of solidarity and resistance to illegal brutality, and I wore it proudly.
The right-wing protest looked as packed as the pro-justice protest, and it was surrounded by journalists, most of them apparently mainstream. One of them, well-dressed and sharply-groomed, from a local Fox station, was asking a protester what he thought about the claim by activists that the boats were attacked in international waters, and that Israel’s assault was therefore illegal. I leaned in closer, very interested to listen to his answer.
Just then a large bald man, apparently an organizer who noticed my kuffiyeh, stepped between me and the interview and asked accusingly, “Where are you from?” I replied, “Oklahoma.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “You can’t stand here. Not with that scarf. You know what it means, don’t you? It means support for terrorism.”
I laughed, because it was such an absurdist thing to say. The kind of thing you don’t expect real people to say right in front of you.
“You can’t stand here,” he repeated. “It’s a free country,” I reminded him.
He mumbled something and walked away. Soon I was confronted by a huge policeman with a thick Bronx accent. “You can’t stand here,” he said. “Join the protest or step aside. They got permits for this space, they can choose who they want to be in there, and they don’t want you in there, so step aside.”
“I’m not in there,” I said. “I’m standing on the sidewalk.”
“You can’t stand there.”
“I can’t stand here because he says so?”
“Ma’am, I will lock you up for refusing to obey a legal order.”
“You’ll lock me up because I’m standing on the sidewalk?”
“This is a crosswalk, ma’am. It’s illegal to stand here. Step aside or I will arrest you.”
I nodded now that he said something halfway sensible and stepped out of the trickle of pedestrian traffic, too far away to engage or listen to the protesters except for hearing a few intermittently chanting, “Stop the flotilla, Stop the Islamic terror!”
My friend, who is Jewish, was also rustled up and kicked off the sidewalk for trying to talk to one of the protesters, with no ready excuse that he was standing in a crosswalk, because he wasn’t. He argued in vain with the same police officer (“It’s illegal to have a conversation?”), then he joined me near the curb. With no more reason to be there, we headed back to the pro-justice protest.
And that’s when the illusion was broken. The pro-Israeli-government protest had reserved as much space as the pro-justice protest. But their protesters were all crammed into about one-sixth of the space at one end, where the cameras were surrounding them. There couldn’t have been more than 150 people. From the angle we saw as we were approaching it, it looked about as formidable as the pro-justice movement. But from the angle we saw as we were leaving it, it perfectly encapsulated the state of Israel’s government’s supporters today—surrounded by cameras, aided unquestioningly by the powers that be, with an increasingly sad, defensive, sputtering illusion of popular support.
Pamela Olson is working on a book called Fast Times in Palestine.