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Chasing the Dragon

Among the protesters.

9:00 PM, Aug 30, 2004 • By MATT LABASH
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I USED TO THINK that there was nothing wrong with street activists that a good scrubbing and a few rubber bullets couldn't fix. But that's before I met Adam Eidinger on the sidewalks of Washington, D.C. The first time I saw him in 2001, he stood nine feet tall. He was on stilts, and hadn't quite gotten the hang of them yet. He was scraping his glasses on tree branches and risking impalement on SUV antennas, but Adam kept at it to advertise an upcoming inaugural protest. "We don't want to yell at Republicans, we want to engage them," he said.

I hung out with his people, then wrote them up in snarky fashion. His comrades sent me several irate letters. But Adam, who runs his own progressive public relations collective, never complained. He just kept on calling me every time nuclear weapons needed to be abolished or hemp regulations needed to be relaxed. Adam, it seemed, would not be deterred. Adam believes.

We arranged a reunion on the streets of Manhattan for Sunday's mass protest of the Republican Convention. Now 30 years old, the former Eagle Scout and Naval Academy aspirant has been through seven arrests and countless court dates. He's had handcuffs affixed so tightly by D.C. police that he couldn't feel his thumb for a month. He says he was dragged by his hair and beat up by Philadelphia cops when he wouldn't give them his name once in custody, after undercover officers infiltrated his puppet warehouse at the 2000 Republican convention. ("I should've seen it," he says, kicking himself. "They were all burly guys who ate cheeseburgers among all these emaciated vegans.") But he is still at it, as he has been since the anti-globalization movement created a permanent underclass of free-range activists in the late 1990s. Today, Adam is not the stilt-walker. He is the "Dragon Master." He is overseeing the operation of a gigantic papier-mâché dragon, called, rather inelegantly, the "Dragon of Self-Determination." As dragon-names go, it's no "Puff," but it's all about the message.

Requiring around 15 people to operate everything from its fly-away tail to its munching jaws, which chomp on a Pinocchio-nosed George W. Bush blow-up doll, the dragon attracts all sorts of curiosity-seekers- from Communist Revolutionary youth to soot-caked anarchists who look like Dick Van Dyke's chimney-sweep kick-line from Mary Poppins. There are all manner of distractions, from reunions with former holding-pen mates to the pro-bono lawyer who asks, "Is this the socialist group?" ("Aren't they all?" I respond.)

But Adam, who sports a Brillo Pad of hair and Buddy Holly-hipster glasses, never loses sight of his Dragon-Master responsibilities. He lashes car batteries to the dragon's wood-rickshaw frame in tight Eagle Scout knots, in order to power the sound system. He barks orders at his affinity group, telling people they're permitted out of the dragon torso to take bathroom breaks, but they must find their own substitutes. He apologizes that the PVC pipes feeding into the dragon nostrils will not be smoking as they have at other protests. This is, after all, Mayor Bloomberg's New York.

Walking point in front of the dragon is Lizzie Croydon, one of Adam's close cohorts. Lizzie is a fledgling stand-up comic (she specializes in "world culture humor"), a 1-900 tarot-card reader, and an aikido aficionado who calls actor/martial artist Steven Seagal her "sensei." Dressed in an oriental tunic, Lizzie does shoulder rolls and spins bamboo rods, and while landing on your back on the bare concrete can be hard on a girl, she says she'd follow Adam anywhere, not only because of his commitment to nonviolence, but because she once heard him refer to their like not as "protesters" but as "attesters."

As we join the protest route up Seventh Avenue, the Dragon of Self-Determination is the belle of the ball-a camera magnet. But Adam spreads the love around. Taking the dragon's microphone, he transforms himself from a nice Jewish boy into the fourth Beastie Boy. He spins all the protest tunes from the Clash to James Brown to the Beastie's own "Finga-lickin' Good," while allowing every yobbo with a couplet and a dream to bust a rhyme on his sound system, like the skinny white kid who scream-sings: Hey Bush / You liar / Your cowboy ass is fired!

When Adam is not attempting guttural dragon noises that sound like a gopher with smoker's cough, he improvises his own chants, such as "We're gonna hydrate / We're gonna liberate!" Uninspired by his call to drink more fluids, someone hoots for a new DJ. But Adam is not discouraged. He is the CINC, the General, the Dragon Master. He not only inspires the troops, he also provides a public service with announcements like "This is the Dragon of Self-Determination; will Tiffany Price from Indiana University please come to the dragon to pick up her lost wallet?"

The caravan inches along the choked streets about as quickly as a passing kidney stone. I get out front to see Lizzie doing her shoulder rolls/bamboo twirls, and catch a rod right in the goo-loos, so I head back to the safety of the dragon torso, where Adam is spinning any and all requests through the sound system, except when someone tells him that the anarchists would like to hear some smooth jazz.

But as we edge closer to Madison Square Garden, in order to fly our middle finger at the Man, the mood blackens and everyone seems overcome with the nervous twitchiness one feels when too many high-strung people with bad intentions are operating in tight quarters. As Adam stops with the good-times tunes, and starts playing mixed-tape hardcore punk thrust at him by someone in the crowd, a menacing bloc of anarchists inch up on our left flank, holding cardboard shields shoulder-to-shoulder to make a wall, while others mask-up with bandannas and still others hold umbrellas to shield from police surveillance.

As the dragon stops in front of the Garden, Adam and his team cite technical difficulties, break down their equipment faster than a Jeff Gordon pit crew, and start walking away briskly. With a wife and a five-month-old daughter, and a case still on appeal from the last convention, Adam says, "I can't be around for whatever happens," by way of apology. The people's dragon is about to be commandeered by the anarchists, whose idea of a cheeky slogans is "F- Your War." And Adam wants no part of it.

I take off after him, but don't want to miss the scene. When I double back, however, the dragon has already turned into bonfire cinders in what looks to be an anarchist marshmallow roast right on the Republican convention's doorstep. The riot police are slow to react, but when the taunting anarchists themselves seem slow to vacate the protest route, bowed-armed bulls with Irish and Italian surnames start charging the little twits, dropping them like middle linebackers laying waste in the open field.

Arrests are made. Paddywagons are loaded. Debris is rained down on the police's heads by onlookers. Mounted cops come in and pin us all against the parade route barriers for a protracted cool-down period. "We better be allowed to finish our march," one pixie in a designer "Dissident" tank T-shirt says. Not without a change of shoes, one would hope. There are horse-droppings everywhere.

Later on, having caught up with Adam at one of his favorite restaurants off Union Square-a place where hemp-crusted catfish is always in season-he looks slightly bothered when I give him an after-action report. He knew the dragon wasn't coming home, but didn't know it was going to be set aflame. He winces. But street theatrics are an important component of a successful protest, he says. They help mainstreamers understand that "they can make a jailbreak from the two-party system."

"None of us are pure. We do the best we can," he says of imperfect methods, as he nods at the check. "For instance, this isn't the first time I let Rupert Murdoch buy me dinner." Still, he's sticking with the movement, even if in order to do so, he has to eke out a meager living doing public-relations work for progressive companies like Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. He tells me it's all-natural, the anarchists' favorite soap.
"I didn't think anarchists cared much for soap," I say.

"They do," he says, undeterred. But "they don't wear deodorant-it has petroleum-based ingredients."

Matt Labash is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.