Beneath a sweltering July 4 sun, hundreds of Americans marched the streets of New York City on Thursday to fight back against the U.S. National Security Agency’s covert surveillance programs revealed early last month by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The mile-long NYC march, from Union Square on 14th Street to Federal Hall in downtown Manhattan, was one of more than 100 “Restore the Fourth” protests held across the country this Independence Day. The protests are part of a growing movement, both online and offline, to reestablish robust Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the U.S. government.
Restore the Fourth NYC kicked off with speeches by a number of privacy and civil rights advocates, who roused an eclectic group of between 800 and “over 1,000″ protesters, according to police and event organizer estimates, and informed them of their rights in the event of police interference. In the distance, NYPD officers stood in the shade, dozens of zip-tie handcuffs strapped to their belts.
All down Broadway, protesters held their signs high, and chanted slogans to let passersby understand why they weren’t shopping or grilling hotdogs instead.
“They say wiretap, we say fight back!”
“No warrants, no searches!”
Police herded the crowd down the streets, half-heartedly demanding that marchers keep on the sidewalk and leave room for other trying to get by. Tourists sitting atop open-air double-decker buses took pictures of the sight. Many cheered in support.
By the time the march passed Houston street, about 14 blocks south of Union Square, both the protesters and the police began to feel the heat. One police officer at the front of the march confronted Restore the Fourth NYC’s lead co-organizer, Ben Doernberg, and threatened to start issuing arrests.
“There’s a law in New York City that if you have more than two people with masks on, it constitutes a ‘masked gathering’, and they can arrest you – unless you’re at a masquerade ball,” explains Doernberg. “So, the cop basically said, ‘I’m hot, and I’m not in the good mood, so if I see more than two people, then I’ll make it my problem.'”
Aside from a few calls of “F**K the police” – which were quickly hushed by other demonstrators – the crowd remained upbeat throughout the march. But that doesn’t mean they are happy with the state of civil rights in the U.S.
“We’re losing our democracy,” says Eve Silber, a New York City native who said she is in her 40s. Silber has been attending political rallies since she was “an infant,” she says, and the July 4 march was simply the latest to catch her attention.
“It’s really a citizen’s duty [to take part in protests],” says Silber. “To show up, and show the power of the people. ‘Cause if we don’t advocate for ourselves, there’s clearly nobody advocating for us.”
“The question is, to everyone who’s not here, what are you doing? Why aren’t you here?,” she adds.
Like the successful online protest agains the Stop Online Privacy Act in early 2012, Restore the Fourth originated on the pages of Reddit, a fact made known by Snowden himself during his first public interview with the Guardian newspaper last month. And it was clear that many Redditors were in attendance on Thursday; when Doernberg gave a shout-out the to “the church of Reddit,” the crowd gave him a robust applause.
“I’m on Reddit, and I heard about it on there,” says Scott McGill, 29. McGill says he is not interested in partisan politics, but sees Fourth Amendment protection as an issue important to both the Right, Left, and Center of the political sphere.
“This is much larger than that,” he says. McGill hopes the Restore the Fourth protests will help other Americans care about “unconstitutional surveillance.” But, he says, it will take more than just marches to push any real change.
“I’m very active in calling my representatives, and I encourage my friends to do the same,” he says. “That’s where the change will come from.”
Nearly three hours after the march began, Restore the Fourth protesters filled the steps of Federal Hall, the building where the Bill of Rights was first introduced to Congress in 1789, waving cardboard signs and American flags. After a closing speech by activist Rev. Billy Talen, the hot, dehydrated crowd slowly dispersed.
According to Doernberg, the march was a monumental success, especially considering it was organized in just three weeks, mostly by people who had never before engaged in this level of activism. Even Doernberg had helped organize only one previous protest – a rally against an effort to raise tuition at Wesleyan University, his alma mater. Starting Friday, his group will examine what went right and wrong during Thursday’s march, as they prepare for the next event, on August 4.
“I’m going to a house party tonight,” he says. “I haven’t slept a whole lot in the last couple of weeks, so I’m going to rest for a little bit.” But then, he sayd, “it’s back to work.”