The Star-Ledger

Hundreds March Through Well-Policed Streets In Protest

The Star-Ledger — Saturday, March 5, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

Amid the waving placards, raucous teenagers and graying activists swirling through Westfield's streets yesterday stood Susana MacLean, mother of two.

"It's not just left-wing fringe groups who feel this is wrong," the 42-year-old said. "I'm a Westfield soccer mom. I'm a Harvard MBA. And even I'm against this."

MacLean was among nearly 500 protesters who descended on Westfield as President Bush spoke at the township's armory, touting his plan to let workers invest portions of their Social Security benefits in private accounts.

As Bush addressed a crowd of about 1,500 in the armory, the protesters – including scores of seniors, some with canes and walkers – marched through Westfield's tree-lined and well-policed streets.

They waved placards denouncing the president, listened to speakers and chanted slogans as officers looked on in riot gear.

While boisterous – and occasionally tense – the demonstration was largely peaceful. Police officers from throughout Union County prevented the protesters from coming within 200 yards of the armory.

Nine people were arrested for disorderly conduct, including five juveniles, according to the Union County Prosecutors Office.

"I think the demonstrators behaved extremely poorly," said Chief Bernard Tracy of the Westfield Police Department. He said protesters blocked streets while teenagers threw snowballs at police officers and shouted epithets at passersby.

Event organizer Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, contended protesters acted in an exemplary manner and police were overly aggressive.

"There was just an incredible hostile police presence," she said.

The demonstration was supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m., in a parking lot at North Avenue and Clark Street, several blocks northwest of the armory.

By 9 a.m., nearly 200 people had gathered around a flat-bed truck that the organizers planned to use as a stage. There were some moments of tension when police threatened to tow the truck because it was blocking a crosswalk and parked at an expired meter.

A tow truck arrived, and a handful of people stepped in front of the truck, refusing to move. After a momentary standoff, someone dropped coins into the meter, a driver backed the truck off the crosswalk, and the program began.

Politicians and activists climbed atop the truck to speak through a bullhorn, blasting Bush's privatization plan.

"He comes like a traveling salesman," said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.). "We'd welcome him if he had a good product. But he's selling snake oil, and we're not buying."

Menendez said Bush's private account plan would endanger benefits and rack up an enormous debt. Other speakers argued the program would favor the wealthy, who they said are more savvy investing on Wall Street than working-class Americans.

By about 10 a.m., the crowd had swelled to nearly 500 and began marching toward the armory.

Laura Cayford, 69, pushed her walker along First Street alongside other protesters.

"Bush is trying to destroy Social Security little bit by little bit," said Cayford, a retired secretary who rode a bus from Wall Township to protest.

About 200 yards shy of the armory, at Rahway Avenue and First Street, the marchers met a police barricade.

Some continued south, hoping to find their way closer. They encountered more barricades. With nowhere to march, demonstrators chanted loudly toward police, argued about what to do next and traded verbal darts with Bush supporters.

Richard Frungillo, 40, showed up at the armory at 7:30 a.m., hoping to photograph the president's motorcade. Police ushered him away, so Frungillo checked out the protest.

"I think it's a great act of the First Amendment," he said. "I just happen to disagree with them."

On the southeast side of the armory, as the president was chatting with the audience inside, a less cordial exchange flared along Dorian Road.

A crowd of Bush supporters gathered on one sidewalk, yelling "Four more years." A crowd on the opposite side retorted "No more war."

After the event, several protesters accused police of brutality. One of those arrested, Emily Colvin, 18, claimed she was in an approved protest area when officers grabbed her, twisted her arm behind her back and pushed her into a police van. She also said she saw officers strike a juvenile with a nightstick.

Tracy denied any protesters were mistreated or brutalized and said officers used neither mace nor nightsticks. "I think everyone was treated the way they should be treated," he said.

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