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Chasing the Dragon

Among the protesters.

9:00 PM, Aug 30, 2004 • By MATT LABASH
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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.