It takes a particular commitment to walk a mile through Manhattan in 90-degree heat with a cardboard box on your head. But of the 1,000-or-so protestors who participated in today's "Restore the Fourth" march in New York City, at least a dozen took the opportunity to turn themselves into ad hoc security cameras. White shipping boxes folded into long rectangles, the letters "NSA" written on the side in marker. An unexpected way to suggest that Americans aren't happy with the government surveillance.
The display of cameras is only an analogy, of course. The actual activity that spurred the protesters is far less obvious, the collection of electronic data on phone calls and internet activity uncovered through the leaks of Edward Snowden. To be sure, the protestors knew the difference. While some compared the federal government's surveillance to the use of cameras in New York, most seemed to understand that the issue at hand was the secret use of obscure provisions of the law to collect scads of data — which in at least one instance has violated the Constitution. (Among the songs played by the crowd was The Clash's "Know Your Rights." They did.) The depth of knowledge among those in the crowd is suggested by the most unintentionally amusing sign being held by one of the attendees. It read, simply, "Reform Section 215" — a call for revisions of a component of the Patriot Act. Direct, achievable.
The march started, as marches in New York tend to, in Union Square, a trapezoid of space at 14th Street in Lower Manhattan. Under a statue of a mounted George Washington and a faded American flag, the group — mostly young, mostly white — waited patiently in the thick heat as the official program kicked off. Besides the "Reform 215" sign, messages ranged in effort and specificity. (There was a healthy dose of Occupy-style language, but it was also a day off in Union Square during the summer. Would the Socialists and LaRouchites have had tables set up anyway? Quite possibly.) Some signs were memes: Scumbag Capitol, Consuela from Family Guy. ("No. No.") Others covered the wide pastiche of liberal activism and skepticism: Vegans for the 4th, No Drones. Two isolated the Director of National Intelligence's false testimony to Congress. A picture of Bill Clinton, with the meme-style caption, "I guess perjury isn't a big deal anymore."
Ingrid, in her early 20s, was holding a sign that read "Ask me about digital security." Posed with the question, she balked a bit. "I'm far from an expert, and am still learning a lot," she said. But she felt it was important to attend because "government and private citizens are in an arms race" over privacy. Part of it was our own fault, she seemed to suggest, noting the ease with which we've adopted the idea of "sharing" online. When asked where the line for surveillance should be drawn to still allow investigations into terrorism, her friend, Yori, jumped in. (As befits a group worried about government surveillance, most people interviewed were skeptical about offering full names.) Surveillance, Yori said "was not effective at stopping terror anyway." Noting the Boston bombing, he suggested that "security is a false excuse." Ingrid agreed. "When do we stop living in extraordinary times?"
Sarah and Leonard were a middle-aged couple that echoed that concern. "They're just basically destroying the Constitution," he offered, suggesting that the surveillance "violates the principles" in that document. "It's very sad for those of us that really supported Obama," he added, though he noted that the programs started under Bush.
The political mirror image of Sarah and Leonard were Rich and his wife (who declined to give her name). Rich was wearing a tricorn hat, befitting the day and his philosophy; his wife wore a Tea Party shirt from a group in New Jersey. Unlike Leonard, who heard about the march online, Rich saw it on the news this morning. But his motivation for attending was the same. "It's the Bill of Rights. It's the Fourth Amendment." He, too, was critical of Obama, without the qualification. "This is an administration that's way too overreaching." Where should the line be drawn on surveillance? He pointed to his sign, which read: "NSA - Select targets only!"
The program, which was largely conducted in the Occupy mic-check format, was by then starting to wrap up. (The Tea Party couple wasn't joining in the chants.) Rev. Billy, the unofficial leader of the religion of New York Progressivism, opened and closed the ceremony, with songs and chants. In between, Jose LaSalle, from an anti-stop-and-frisk group, exhorted the crowd to cheer for those it "idolized," including Bradley Manning and Snowden. (Both names spurred extended applause.) Also part of the program: a woman explaining the legal rights of the marchers and offering phone numbers for legal support in case of arrests. (One young woman, no doubt an Occupy veteran, had come prepared, with the numbers written on her arm.) Such instructions were unnecessary; once the march started it stuck to sidewalks, stopping at street lights as requested by the police. The cops' belts were decorated with dozens of zip-ties anyway, just in case.
While Rev. Billy spoke, a man in a nurses' uniform walked up to a man in the crowd. "Occupy Wall Street?" the nurse asked. "No," the protestor responded. "It's about the NSA spying on Americans."
Nurse: "They've been doing that for years."
Protestor: "But now they have the tools to record your conversations."
Nurse: "Didn't you know that?"
Protestor: "But they're not supposed to."
The protestor gave the nurse a light, and then excused himself.
Several protestors seemed to balk at the Occupy association. One, Greg from New Jersey (who'd made a camera-hat out of "stuff I had in my room") said he would never march with Occupy, a group whose ideas were "too loosely based." He'd found out about the march on Reddit. Another, Jim Stevenson, wore the uniform he'd earned as an Eagle Scout. "I felt that during Occupy Wall Street, people weren't representing themselves well," he said. "I wanted to associate [the protest] with everything people respect in the country."
The march began, stretching for multiple blocks. "2 4 6 8 This is worse than Watergate." "This is what democracy looks like." "NSA don't spy on me / Set Edward Snowden free." Marchers paused briefly when walking in front of air-conditioned stores with their doors open. At one point, two teenage girls stepped out right in front of the crowd, catching a glimpse of the "Yes We Scan" banner being held by several of the box-headed security cameras. "Oh my god!" one exclaimed. The other grabbed her arm. "Vicki!" They laughed and ran across the street.
Lined at the curb by cops on scooters, the protestors headed south down Broadway, headed for Federal Hall at Wall Street and Broad. This is an historic location in the city, the site of the inauguration of George Washington (there's another statue of him there) and of a bombing by anarchists in 1920. But more significantly, it's where the Bill of Rights was introduced to the first Congress in 1789. Which is exactly where the people were trying to get.