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'You were lucky. They were ready to give you the chair'

By Arun Venugopal in New York
September 02, 2004 22:02 IST
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Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.


That's what I was thinking to myself, about myself, as I stood just inside the entrance of Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was taking place. In the space of a few footsteps I had gone from being just another reporter on the job to possible radical activist. Large men in suits, large men likely concealing large guns, hovered around me, asking me questions about my work, my family, my place of residence, recent trips I had made out of town and out of the country. Outside, nearly a thousand protesters had been arrested for civil disobedience and vague rumors of anarchist violence were floating about – I had quite clearly picked the wrong day and place to be carrying anti-war, anti-Bush literature. Dumb.


"Who do you work for?" they asked


I told them – repeatedly – that I wrote for the Indian media, and encouraged them to peruse to see some of my other convention coverage.


"It's a funny thing how I got this sticker, you know," I explained. "Ha ha. There was this older Jewish guy in a suit, and I -"


"Do you mind if we look through the contents of your wallet?"


Dumb dumb dumb. So much for being a good Samaritan. Just an hour earlier, I'd been trolling the streets around Madison Square Garden, looking for trouble, or what my editors call news. After parking my car and walking toward Herald Square, next to Macy's, I encountered a Jewish man in his late 50s arguing with a young woman, presumably an anti-war activist. Within minutes, the man was surrounded by about 20 people, mostly young protester types. In his grayish-blue suit and yarmulke, he stuck out from the crowd and looked around nervously, but he held his ground and tried to have a civil dialogue with members of the crowd. This didn't stop people from calling him names, and occasionally someone would quietly plant an anti-war sticker on his back, as if to teach him good. At one point, while listening to him engage a Tibetan monk on the merits of the war, I reached down and pulled a sticker off and slapped it on my notebook.


"When Bush Lies, Thousands Die," it read. "Say no to the war in Iraq."


Unconvinced of the news value of this debate, and of the numerous other arguments that were popping up nearby, I decided to head over to the convention itself, and see what the Republicans were trying to tell the world.


After passing effortlessly through the first few cordons of security, I arrived at a walk-through metal detector, and pulled out everything from my pockets – cell phone, wallet, keys – which I tossed into a little basket on the conveyor belt. The security guard picked up my notebook from the basket and saw the bright yellow anti-war sticker. Why do they have to make those stickers so visible?


"Woah, woah, what's this?" he asked, alarmed. He motioned me over and brought me to his superior, who looked at the notebook and brought me to someone else. This man was polite, almost apologetic, but asked me for my social security number, so he could perform some background checks.


"Let's do an NIC on him," he said into the phone, before walking away.


Several of his colleagues surrounded me.


"Where do you live?"


"Uh, Brooklyn."


"What neighborhood?"


"Um, Park Slo- I mean, Fort Greene." Now why did I do that?


"Which one is it?" said another officer, leaning forward as if he'd cracked my code. "Park Slope or Fort Greene?"


"Fort Greene. That was just a slip of the tongue."


"How long have you lived there?"


"Since May of 2000," I said, happy that I could be so precise for once.


"May of 2000, huh?" one of the suits asked, sounding a little less than convinced.


They would periodically drift away and then re-congregate around me, each time bringing someone from a different branch of the national security apparatus to come and give me a long once over before they flipped through the pages of my notebook and asked me the same old questions again. No one wanted to hear about the old Jewish man whose dignity I'd saved.


"Call Intel."


"Ah, intel," I said to myself, "That's good. Only an intellectual could understand just how absurd this situation is, how Kafkae-esque, as they say."


But no such person appeared. Instead, I got a plain-clothes guy from NYPD, Vargas, who thought he'd mess with my mind, leaning over the table next to me and shaking his head as he looked into the distance.


"No no no no no no," he whispered. "We have a situation here. A real situation. This ain't foolin' around."


His colleague showed up, an African-American man.


"What should we do?" Vargas asked him, pretending I couldn't hear them speak. "Should we collar him?"


People were starting to leave the convention center. Clearly the night was coming to an end. I saw my friend Jyothi walking towards me. She asked sympathetically what was going on. I should've started crying.


"Excuse me, ma'am, do you know this gentleman?" an official said, walking over to her.


Jyothi said she did. The official looked at her Time magazine credentials and asked if she could confirm that I was a journalist, which she did as well. And then, a few minutes after she'd left, my photographer showed up, or rather, walked by as fast as possible. I called after him and reluctantly, he came over, but seeing the situation, thought it best not to get involved and took off. This, I realized, is what had become of the foreign-born. Even as a recent citizen, I knew he lived in fear of what the state was capable of doing to him.


"Can't you see he doesn't wanna talk?" said Vargas, quite pleased at the incident. "He said bye. Let him go."


I asked him if I could leave. I'd recently read that it was worth periodically asking this of police officers, in the event one was detained.


"No no no no no no," he said, shaking his head again, likely doing his best impression of a cop he'd seen on some second-rate, late-night TV police thriller.


By this point, most of the convention delegates had left the building. One of the more senior officials told his subordinate, an African American, to escort me outside, but Vargas insisted on coming as well.


"You were lucky," he whispered. "They were ready to give you the chair."


He held onto my credentials and watched me follow the crowd outside, past the security cordon. A woman stopped in front of me and trained her camera up at a building in front of us. There was a huge green W being projected onto it, as in George W, probably.


Or perhaps just Warning.
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Arun Venugopal in New York