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Gary Younge
New York gets ready for wave of rallies

"It's so important to shake up people's world like that," said Kim, one of about 50 mostly young protesters who spent last week marching the 258 miles to the Republican convention in New York from Boston, the site of last month's Democratic convention.

"I'm going because it's important that people around the world know that George Bush doesn't speak for us."

And so they came in cars and vans from far and wide - from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to President Bush's former residence of Austin, Texas - converging on the streets of New York to protest at the Republican gathering.

As the temperature reached 29C (85F) and the polarised political climate threatened to raise tempers to boiling point, as many as 250,000 hit the streets to march past the convention site at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the convention before attending a rally at Union Square.

In a week when the Republicans could well find themselves becoming the sideshow, demonstrators had already stolen the headlines. On Thursday, a group of Aids activists stripped off near the convention site to protest against Mr Bush's policies towards Aids and third-world debt.

When asked about it at a press conference, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said: "This is New York. Of course we had seven naked people on Eighth Avenue before. What's the question?"

Earlier that day, four protesters unfurled a huge banner outside the Plaza Hotel with the words "Truth" and "Bush" written on arrows painted in opposite directions to great cheers. On Friday, about 5,000 environmental protesters on bicycles held up rush-hour traffic in West Side, Midtown and the East Village. By yesterday morning, more than 300 protesters had already been arrested, mainly for disorderly conduct - about 40 times the number held throughout the Democratic convention.

With many marchers vowing yesterday to defy the ban on rallying in Central Park to hold a "people's picnic", the prospect of the hastily agreed route ending in chaos remained a distinct possibility.

A mixture of hysteria and hype has prepared those New Yorkers who haven't left for the convention week for the worst. The front page of Newsday on Friday featured a large picture of police in riot gear and the words: "NYPD: We're Ready."

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The city government had launched a campaign for people to "make nice" while delegates were in town. Indeed, that was the banner headline of yesterday's Daily News.

But at a newspaper stand at Union Square, a man from South Carolina in a Bush/Cheney T-shirt - a very rare sight in the city - was making waves. A bystander complained: "They don't care about me, my family or anyone else in the rest of the world who ain't rich and white. And they don't care about you, neither."

The Republican replied, sheepishly: "You can't generalise like that." He then sloped off without buying his paper.

Back in New Haven on the long march, some protesters pointed towards the elitist Yale Skull and Bones fraternity, to which Mr Bush and his Democratic contender, John Kerry, belonged, as evidence that there was no real difference between them.

Most were anarchists, with piercings in places previous generations of radicals would never have dreamt of placing jewellery. But along with Buddhists, pacifists and ageing hippies who talk in rhymes - "Don't panic, just keep it organic," insisted 67-year-old Diamond Dave - they were committed to non-violence, at least on this trip. "If we want to gain allies among the uncommitted," said their leaflet, "we need to focus public discussion on the issues - not on flag burning, not on graffiti, not on violence."

They were preaching peace in Iraq while preparing themselves for the possibility of violence in New York city and hoping the size of the protest would overshadow anything else. Dewey, a marcher from Florida, said: "If enough people come and attract enough attention we can send a message that will encour age a whole lot of other people to get involved."

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