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Gary Younge
The protesters are coming...

The president was finding it difficult to throw the ball in his bulletproof vest. "Are you going to throw from the rubber or the base of the mound?" asked Yankee star Derek Jeter. The rubber, the highest point on the mound, is the point from which a pitcher would usually throw. Bush had been planning to throw from the base, which is about six to 10 feet closer to the home plate. "If you throw from the base of the mound they are going to boo you. You really need to take the rubber," said Jeter.

Bush, then at the height of his popularity and leading a nation at war with Afghanistan and in fear of an anthrax attack, asked Jeter if the fans would really be so mean. "Yeah," said Jeter. "It's New York."

Three years later, Bush is coming back to New York to a sceptical, if not downright hostile public as the Republicans prepare to kick off their convention on Monday. In an ad broadcast in June to prepare New Yorkers, former Democratic mayor Ed Koch pleaded: "While they're here, make nice. Volunteer to show 'em the ropes. They won't know uptown from downtown. They've never ordered pizza by the slice."

But with a week to go, the best they can hope for is that this city, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by five to one, doesn't "make too nasty". It may be in vain. So numerous are the expected protesters at the presence of the "Grand Old Party" in the city that its Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has spoken of them as a marketing opportunity. Last week he offered discounts to Broadway shows, museums, stores and restaurants to those wearing buttons bearing a picture of the Statue of Liberty and the words "peaceful political activists".

"It's no fun to protest on an empty stomach, so you might want to try a restaurant," said Bloomberg. "Or you might want to go shopping, maybe for another pair of sneakers for the march."

The protesters, meanwhile, are making their own plans. At, a website dedicated to protesting against the convention, a group called the Biotic baking brigade, spells out the basics of how to pie your enemy. Step one: "Choose a worthy target. Any evil pompous evil-doer will do for a glouping." After that, it breaks down the strategy in to bite-size chunks, including, "Plan your pan" and "The meringue is the message".

A group of activists plan to ride down Lexington Avenue on bicycles shouting, "The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming!", mimicking the 18th-century Massachusetts craftsman Paul Revere who rode a horse through that state warning locals that the British were coming during the American War of Independence. A group of bell ringers, meanwhile, are planning to surround the site of Ground Zero ringing 2,749 bells to commemorate the victims of September 11 and oppose the war.

"Visitors to the city at the end of August may see illegal murals with political messages and the city itself may become a giant art installation," warns Liza Featherstone in the leftwing Nation magazine. "Don't be surprised if you're crossing the street and a traffic light flashes 'Beat Bush' instead of 'Don't walk'. "

But not all the demonstrations will be unorthodox attention-grabbers. Among the more traditional acts of protest will be a parade of thousands of abortion-rights advocates marching across Brooklyn Bridge; the Hip-Hop summit's poor people's march to Madison Square Garden, where the convention is being held; the 5,000-strong permitless march of the poor being organised by a welfare mother from Philadelphia; and the huge demonstration planned for Sunday, which the demonstrators insist will be in Central Park and the New York Police are adamant will be on the West side highway, but which could reach a million-strong.

Reverend Earl Kooperkamp of St Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem will be hosting between 30 and 50 protesters on the wooden pews of his church, and has persuaded more than 30 other religious institutions to do the same, offering housing to almost 500 people. "As long as they're standing firm against war, working for peace, that's what the church is supposed to be about," he told the New York Times. "We pray every day to a guy called the Prince of Peace."

Peace may not be on everyone's mind, however. At least 20,000 security personnel, representing everyone from the Secret Service to civilian units of the Army National Guard, have been mustered. Given that the convention is expected to attract only 48,000 visitors, including delegates, lobbyists and journalists, this is the equivalent to one law-enforcement official for every 2.4 civilians.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been questioning dozens of protesters who plan to come to New York, asking them all three basic questions: were they planning to be violent, did they know anyone else who was planning violent acts and did they understand that it is a crime, to withhold any information if they might know. The questioning immediately raised concerns about civil liberties, particularly after three young men, who were planning to come to New York from Missouri, were subpoenaed earlier this month and informed that they are part of a domestic terrorism investigation, without being informed on what grounds.

"It is part of a national effort to chill dissent in this country," says Bill Dobbs, the spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, which is staging week-long demonstrations in New York during the convention. "And it is always a worry that this kind of intimidation will scare people off."

"The FBI isn't in the business of chilling anyone's first amendment rights," says Joe Parris, an FBI spokesman, referring to the right to free speech and free assembly enshrined in the United States constitution. "But criminal behaviour isn't covered by the first amendment."

The fact that the focus has shifted from what will be said inside the convention to what might happen outside is a symbol of just how much has changed in the national political mood over the past 18 months. Back in January 2003, when the party declared its choice of New York (over New Orleans and Tampa), it seemed like a shrewd if cynical move.

The logic behind both the venue and the timing (the latest of any convention) was to bolster George Bush's status as a war leader, standing firm against terrorist attacks. "What we focused on was that New York was the best background for the convention, growing out of the events of September 11," says Roland Betts, a member of the committee of Republicans assembled by Bloomberg to lobby the White House to come to New York. As recently as July last year, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani was claiming that Bush could even be the first Republican to take the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. "New Yorkers like strong leaders," he explained at the time.

But that was then. In January 2003, when the announcement was made, the nation was facing down the United Nations and preparing for war with Iraq. President Bush had 59% approval ratings, 68% of Americans supported military force against Saddam Hussein and the Democrats were amassing a crowded field of contenders with no obvious frontrunner. Today, Bush's approval ratings stand at 49%, 47% of Americans think going to war was a mistake and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, leads in 13 of the 17 key swing states, if only by a narrow margin in most of them. With the latest poll giving Bush 35% in New York against Kerry's 53% he has about as much chance of taking New York as Saddam Hussein does of taking back Baghdad.

Opposition to the war was not insignificant at the time, but it had been marginalised. But the torture scandal in Abu Ghraib, President Bush's premature declaration of victory in Iraq, a stiffer than expected Iraqi resistance, a lack of international support and US military casualties that could reach 1,000 during the convention, have put the war into mainstream political debate. Meanwhile, the findings of the 9/11 commission into the terrorist attacks, the publication of which has become a bestseller, have exposed institutional shortcomings that put a question mark even over what he hoped would be seen as his finest hour.

In May last year, the leaseholder of the World Trade Centre, Larry Silverstein, told the Daily News that New York state's Republican governor, George Pataki, wanted to lay the cornerstone to the new building during this year's convention. With the political winds blowing against them, he did it on July 4 instead. "If you were to do something overtly political around Ground Zero you'd get hammered for it, and rightly so," says Michael McKeon, a Republican strategist and a former senior aide to Pataki.

Sitting in a field last week just outside Orange, Connecticut, about 20 mostly young people were discussing non-violence. They were about two thirds of the way through a 258-mile march from Boston, scene of the Democratic party convention, toNew York, where they plan to protest. Six miles and several hours earlier they had set off from New Haven, Connecticut, crossing paths with the "Stonewalk" - a procession of family members of 9/11 victims, pulling a 1,400 pound granite memorial honouring the "Un known civilians killed in war", also heading for the Republican convention.

Around two thirds of the 50 or so on the march would describe themselves as anarchists, although there are Buddhists, pacifists and others for whom knowing that they could not bear another four years of Bush is enough. "I don't have a problem with people telling the police to go fuck themselves," says one, prompting a debate about the issue of verbal as opposed to physical violence. Also under discussion is the issue of whether to "go limp" or "unarrest people" if the police try to take them away.

None of these people have walked all this way to "make nice". But this particular band of vegan, non-hierarchical political travellers are not out to carve great chunks out of the Big Apple either. Like the authorities, however, they feel the need to be prepared if things do spiral out of control. With no venue so far agreed for the main demonstration on Sunday, and tempers rising over the FBI's tough stance, there is plenty of scope for tensions to flare into something more serious.

The last time the issue of violence dominated a national political convention was Chicago in 1968. Back then there was a war in a far-off land, a divisive Republican candidate in Richard Nixon and a mayor who pledged not to compromise. The police responded to verbal abuse from protesters and occasional missiles with tear gas and occasional beatings. Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff took to the podium to decry "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago". It was a public relations disaster for the Democrats, and Nixon went on a few months later to defeat Hubert Humphrey.

With Kerry taking a moderate stance on the war, these demonstrations have little, if anything, to do with the Democratic party. None the less, many believe that whoever is responsible, a rash of violence so close to the election will once again benefit the Republicans. "If I were a voice in top Republican circles, I might be offering this advice: 'What we need for New York is a large-scale riot,' " wrote Norman Mailer in New York magazine recently, in a public written exchange with his son. "I don't have a great deal of hope that most of the people involved are really thinking of this election so much as expressing the need to vent, to gain some self-therapy."

"You do get a sense that the spiritual revolution may be awakening," replied his son, John Mailer, who believes that the protests could provide a focus for a huge anti-corporate movement. "All right," replied Norman. "But if we lose the election, it's going to be a very expensive spiritual education."

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