Walking Backwards Into the Future

Walking backwards, about 200 reporters unwittingly led the United for Peace and Justice protest parade as it passed Madison Square Garden heading north on Sunday.

Police had granted reporters early access to barricaded Seventh Avenue on the condition that once they met up with the protesters, they, like the protesters, would not be able to leave the parade until it ended. Before the reporters knew it, they found themselves the unwilling heads of the parade, separated from the body of protesters by an oncoming but unyielding arc of UPJ marshals and police officers.

Journalists standing on Seventh Avenue at 30th Street had waited with a thick sense of anticipation as hundreds of thousands of protesters slowly made their way toward them. As the reporters waited, they tossed around ideas for possible stories, and teams of two and three speculated among themselves:

“Is there something going on somewhere else?”

“If we get separated, we’ll just meet on 31st … where we were before.”

“I’ll be the one with the bruises and blood.”

“Oh, please.”

“Do you think any of them will be marching naked?”

The first protester to appear in front of the miles-long line of demonstrators was a man pulling two young boys on a carriage behind his bicycle. His bike was fitted with an American flag with a peace symbol where the stars would be. He wore a ripped athletic shirt with stenciled letters on the back that read, “NYPD Undercover,” and a straw hat with ragged edges.

The man and his boys had somehow gotten out in front of the parade, and were quickly surrounded by an entourage of reporters who peppered them with questions. From the attention they were getting, one might mistake these three for a visiting royal family. The two dazed children stared up into the lenses of zealous photographers. One reporter trailed the group with a bagel hanging from her mouth as she scribbled notes in her fresh notebook.

Soon, the first heavy waves of people were upon us. I searched the crowd for people to interview myself, only to discover that this was not the protest parade, after all. These were just more reporters. They were everywhere, like piles of ants covering cake crumbs.

Through the armies of journalists, I spotted the line of United for Peace and Justice workers, in tangerine-colored “marshall” t-shirts, arms linked across the entire street.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the media, please move back for the sake of safety,” one police officer called out on a bullhorn. “You’ve gotta keep moving.,” he intoned. “You stop, the march stops.” The line of linked UPJ marshals, with the help of dozens of police, herded the increasingly frustrated pack of reporters on, backwards. Thus did the press become the vanguard of the protest.

With little else to do, journalists from publications ranging from the Village Voice to National Review relentlessly questioned and photographed the few protesters who had sneaked their way past the marshal line: the bicyclist with his two young boys, four teenagers with a cardboard sign, and a person in a wheelchair.

Sidelined spectators watched with confusion as the journalists passed, a few cheering as they mistook the reporters for protesters. Soon enough, the backward-scrambling reporters had interviewed and re-interviewed every scarce protestor available ahead of the cordoned-off main body of oncoming marchers. They returned to doing what reporters do best: talking to some of their favorite subjects — other reporters.

—Tom Randall

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Tom Randall is a contributor to CJR.