'1984' Day in New York City


By Tanya Silverman

Protesters in New York City make their way to Columbus Circle. Photo by Tanya Silverman.

One month after ‘Restore the Fourth‘ protests took place in over 100 cities across America on Independence Day, organizers in New York City reserved yesterday, Aug. 4th, for demonstrations they called “1984 Day”. In the time between, there have been many new developments in the subject of the public’s ire.

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed details of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs earlier this year, exited the Moscow airport where he had been residing in legal limbo for weeks after being granted temporary asylum in Russia for one year.

Almost needless to say, the American government is unhappy with Russia over this. Damaged Russian-US relations aside, Snowden’s revelations have sparked a notable and fresh wave of concern among Americans that a security-conscious government is impeding unnecessarily on their civil liberties. The latest sign of which in Washington includes Congress almost passing a bill to end the NSA’s indiscriminate collection of American telephone records.

The proposal has been the most significant action taken to limit the powers of the NSA since September 11th and the introduction of the Patriot Act, and has even united lawmakers from all sides of the political spectrum. Prominent NSA supporters, such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D), have been more conciliatory in their rhetoric toward limiting the NSA’s authority and the Obama administration stated that they are “open to suggestions” on how to creating proper oversight of the NSA.

The bill, introduced by congressmen Justin Amash (R) and John Coyers (D) from Michigan, fell short of just 10 votes, and currently, lawmakers in Congress are developing legislative packages aimed at regulating the means by which the government gathers surveillance information in a way that is focused on protecting Americans’ civil liberties and privacy.

During the rally at Bryant Park, however, several protestors were not so inspired by the recent trend of events in Congress.

“I’m not too convinced with the government and their legislation,” says Carlos from Brooklyn, while holding a large, yellow “Occupy” flag. “I think it’s just a little publicity stunt so they can calm people down and try to make them forget about the whole NSA scandal.”

Angelo from North Bergen, New Jersey, held a sign with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s face painted as a clown, with NSA standing for “Not So American.”

Regardless of what suggestions the president may entertain, the protest organizers and marchers found clever ways of portraying him: they put on a short skit that gave a man wearing an Obama mask a “Big Brother Award” for bringing 1984 to the 21st century and prosecuting whistleblowers. To further enjoy their right to free expression at the hands of the chief executive, one large banner built on Obama’s iconic pop-art portrait added headphones and printed the slogan “Yes We Scan” above his face.

Snowden posters were present, as was a sympathetic audience.

“I think it’s a shame that it had to come to [Snowden] going to a country like Russia instead of being able to be… welcomed as a hero back to America,” says Richard from Queens, who keenly remembers that Edward Snowden was his main motivation for attending both protests, and that he is constantly defending this figure.

In terms of differences between the two summer demonstrations, fewer people showed up this month than last.  Instead of marching downtown to from Union Square, like on July 4th, the party journeyed uptown to Columbus Circle from Bryant Park.

Out of Bryant Park, northward on Sixth Avenue past sterile glass office buildings, the marchers cut west to walk around the proximity of Times Square, an area where their presence often alarmed pedestrian viewers enough to stop and ask what this protest was about.

Walking past TGI Friday’s on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street, couples sitting in window booths took a break from their appetizers to glance out the window and snap shots on their smart phones. Several servers at the restaurant stepped out of the establishment to witness the protest pass, with one young male innocently asking, “What’s NSA?”

As intrigued members of the public observed and inquired about the march, members of the NYPD were constantly within close proximity. At one point, the crowd stopped outside of a precinct office to speak out about Stop & Frisk — a controversial local issue on police searches that is often accused of promoting racial profiling. The issue was prominent in both Restore the Fourth protests and occasionally the crowd was urged to chant, “N-Y-P-D, keep your cameras off of me!”

As it was deemed ‘1984 Day’, some commented on the new found relevance of the George Orwell novel.

“I’ve been reading 1984 since I was ten years old, it’s one of my favorite books,” says Celeste Liebowitz, who came out from Brooklyn. “I do not, however, want to live in that society, and I see us sliding towards it really quickly and it’s very frightening.”

When asked how this work of literature relates to what’s going on today, she commented, “They can take your picture everywhere, they have face recognition, they can find out everything everybody’s doing — and that’s basically what the telescreen did in 1984!”

Jennifer Fatone, a teacher who lives in Manhattan, assigned 1984 as summer reading for her class.

“I’m looking forward to having some really good conversations with my AP Language students this year,” she predicts.