Resplendent in their finest evening wear, they will greet President Bush and the Republican National Convention here this summer not with a bang but a toast.
They will defend tax breaks for corporations and celebrate defense contracts that have gone to companies with ties to the White House.
While tens of thousands of Republican Party delegates and media representatives flock to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan from Aug. 30 through Sept. 2 for the GOP’s nominating convention, Billionaires for Bush will be the president’s only champagne-sipping, cigar-chomping champions on the streets, where between 500,000 and a million people are expected to demonstrate.
Billionaires for Bush, a satire group that aims to bring attention to the Bush administration’s economic policies through street theater, will hold “corporate vigils” for the rights of multinationals and stage a “Million Billionaire March” for its cause, “advocating for the rights and interests of people of absolutely fabulous wealth.”
“Leave no billionaire behind,” nattily dressed members will shout. “Hands off Halliburton” and “Tax work, not wealth,” they will yell.
For members of Billionaires for Bush, who take on noms de guerre such as Robin Eublind, Ionna Bigga Yacht and Phil T. Rich, the delivery is the hook
“Satire is a great way to make a point and theater lightens the political element a bit. It brings smiles to people's faces when typically political issues get under people's skins,” public relations director Pam Perd said in an interview in New York’s East Village.
Although perhaps the most colorful, Billionaires for Bush is one of an extraordinary array of groups — ranging from anti-war protesters, environmentalists, labor unions, religious leaders, self-declared anarchists and others — that even now, months before the convention opens, is planning for what promises to be a contentious week here.
A groundswell of opposition
Common to many of these groups is their use of the Internet and e-mail lists to promote their messages and organize activities ahead of the Republican convention.
Some have been planning for months how to provide housing for protestors coming to New York from across the country. Strategy sessions have been held around the city.
Not in Our Name, a coalition of dozens of protest groups, is working “very intensely” to help bring about a “demonstration of truly historic proportions,” said Mary Lou Greenberg, of the group’s national steering committee.
“We want to show people that its fine to dissent, it's right to dissent, it’s absolutely imperative that we dissent,” Greenberg said.
Rev. Peter Laarman’s Accountability Project will try a different approach.
It recognizes that the city needs the convention’s revenue and that it is not New Yorkers’ role to try turning American voters against the Republican Party, Laarman said. Instead, Laarman wants to stage a “responsible, informed” protest, one that is “not too strident,” instead taking a non-disruptive course that will showcase positive things about New York.
“We want to set questions in the air for when the convention opens. But keeping ... the tone dispassionate and not vituperative in any way,” Laarman said. “We're aware that this event has tremendous potential for volatility.”
United for Peace and Justice, which says it is the largest coalition of anti-war groups in the United States, is worried that convention security could affect protests, spokesman Bill Dobbs said.
“We have the capacity to bring out large numbers of people but obviously we're concerned” about police behavior, Dobbs said. The group plans a series of protests and activities, “some of which could easily evolve into civil disobedience and other such things,” he added.
On Thursday, United for Peace and Justice was denied a permit to use Central Park for its anti-war protests because the crowd was expected to be too large.
A ‘National Security Event’
The Department of Homeland Security has designated the convention a National Security Event, freeing up federal funds for it. The Secret Service and FBI are reported to be working with the New York Police Department to coordinate security.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said he is concerned about the possibility of disruptive protests.
“Our job is to facilitate peaceful demonstrations, to make certain that this is a … peaceful and safe event for everyone. And … I have every confidence that it will be,” Kelly told WNBC-New York. “There will be some pockets of demonstrators that will probably break the law and … we’re prepared to deal with them.”
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau has estimated 1,000 daily arrests during the convention.
It remains unclear how close demonstrators will be allowed to get to Madison Square Garden. The police department has said it will create a zone around the building to allow protesters to be within view of the arena — as required by law — but not too close.
Some groups, such as Direct Action, have been holding workshops on how to interact with police.
Several groups — including Direct Action, Not in Our Name and United for Peace and Justice — also plan protests at the Democratic National Convention in Boston from July 26 through July 29.
First RNC in New York
Many groups are especially perturbed that the RNC chose this city, above others, as its venue. Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a Republican, Democrats in New York City are believed to outnumber Republicans by 5-1.
While the Democratic Party has chosen New York for its convention five times, 2004 will be a first for the GOP. In 2000, Al Gore carried all five boroughs in New York City and garnered around 60 percent of the vote statewide, compared to Bush’s 35 percent.
Further angering protest groups is that the convention will be held late, ending only days before the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That has raised concerns that memories of 9/11 will be invoked for Republican advantage, though organizers have said that Bush will not appear at Ground Zero during the convention.
Direct Action’s Louis Jones said that the Republican Party “is holding the city in contempt” by staging its convention here, so close to the anniversary of the attacks and with the city so hard hit by the country’s economic woes.
But the city can use the extra cash the event is expected to bring in. New York’s Economic Development Corp. estimates that the convention will boost the local economy by up to $260 million and create the equivalent of about 1,800 jobs. The event could provide tax revenue of as much as $10 million.
‘There have been many different reactions’
But among the groups, Billionaires for Bush has quickly become a media favorite. Although it dates back to 2000 — when they were “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” — the group has dropped the former vice president’s name from its title, and its efforts have gathered steam in this election year. There are now 40 chapters across the United States and several others overseas, Pam Perd said.
Gauging the responses their protests-cum-performances elicit is an intriguing part of the process, co-chair Phil T. Rich said.
“There have been many different reactions, but there’s this nice little double take, that hiccup, that sort of moment where they’re not sure whether we’re for or against [Bush] or what, and that’s a very interesting moment,” he said. “I think it can be an intellectual opening, where people double-check with themselves about what their impressions are about Bush, whether they support him or not.”
Their most brazen stunt came in February, when they demonstrated outside a Bush-Cheney fund-raiser in Manhattan where Bush’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove, appeared.
After initial confusion as to whether they were for or against the president, security corralled the “billionaires” into an area for protesters.
No sooner had the group been roped in with the other, more traditional, protesters, such as the Sierra Club, than a limousine pulled up and out hopped a Rove impersonator, complete with security detail. Amid the general confusion, befuddled reporters peppered the actor — who began signing autographs for the “billionaires” — with questions before realizing their error.
Humor as a weapon
Billionaires for Bush is among the latest, mostly liberal or liberal-leaning, individuals or groups to use humor in political discourse, including Al Franken, Michael Moore and Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
“We are the true environmentalists, we own most of the natural resources of this planet, and we’re maximizing the values and the profit, and that’s what this country is about,” Robin Eublind, fully in character, said. “So, oil is good to the last drop and we’re going to make sure that last drop comes into our pockets.”
Like the Accountability Project, Billionaires for Bush acknowledges concerns about how its message will play in the rest of America, particularly the South and Midwest.
“Here in New York it’s very easy, it’s a very liberal area — but I think in the swing states, which is where we’re really trying to push our chapters and reach out to voters, we need to bring to light” Bush’s economic policies, Pam Perd said.
The protesters expected at the RNC will bring innumerable agendas, all of them anti-Bush in one form or another. But it remains to be seen whether such a tidal wave of anti-GOP rhetoric will allow specific messages to be heard.
Billionaires for Bush, however, think its means of delivery will ensure its voice stands out.
“A really nice feature of this is that you’re connecting with people on the human level,” said Phil T. Rich. “You’re bringing up really tough intense content and yet it’s playful, it’s funny, it’s engaging, it’s amusing. Politics has become a form of entertainment … [and] this is a grass-roots version of political infotainment.”
Rich’s colleague, Hal E. Burton, said that the convention protests could turn out to be a defining moment for a generation, “almost like Woodstock.”
“The RNC is going to be an incredible show,” he continued. "And one of the ways I imagine Billionaires fitting in is as one of the star attractions of the show.”