The First Lady of Protest

The "Bushville" that Honkala set up in Central Park. Photo: Ilkka Uimonen

On a stormy Friday morning, about two weeks shy of the Republican National Convention, Cheri Honkala may be the first convention protester to break the law. She leads more than a dozen men, women, and children—many wearing garbage-bag jackets—straight into Central Park to erect an eight-foot-tall tent beneath a picturesque footbridge. The stone walls and surrounding fencing are quickly festooned with posters bearing slogans like BILLIONS FOR THE WAR, STILL NOTHING FOR THE POOR. A wooden placard painted with an American flag reads WELCOME TO BUSHVILLE.

Honkala, a slim 41-year-old woman with a Minnesota twang two notches past Frances McDormand’s in Fargo, plops herself down on a musty blue couch in front of the bridge. This is where she intends to stay, for as long as the cops will let her. “The point,” she says, “is that you can be homeless in America and rot in any park, but the moment you put up a sign, they can get rid of you.” The site under the bridge, she says, is “very practical. Reporters aren’t going to stay around if it rains and they’re uncovered. If we give them chairs, they can stay even longer.”

Over the years, Honkala has become the protester’s protester—the leader other activists most admire, whether or not they agree with her issues and tactics. Once homeless herself, Honkala founded the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in 1991 to house and feed Philadelphia’s poor. Then she launched a national umbrella organization called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign and began employing her most abundant resource—the restive poor—as instruments of telegenic civil disobedience. As Honkala’s movement has grown, the boldfaced have become involved. Bruce Springsteen and Michael Moore underwrote a documentary about the group, and Honkala’s 24-year-old son, Mark Webber—who happens to be an up-and-coming indie-film actor—recently threw a hipster-packed art-auction fund-raiser.

In mid-July, as supergroups and celebrity rappers were wrangling official permits, Honkala’s campaign hit the ground marching. She’d planned to use a stationary “Bushville” in Jersey City—named for the Depression-era Hoovervilles—as headquarters during the convention. But after being rousted by police, then drifting through the city for a few days, Honkala decided to set up a Bushville in Central Park.

Honkala won the hearts of activists after holding a peaceful—though illegal—march against the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. Police were hard-pressed to billy-club the ragged children and wheelchair-bound homeless who led the charge, and they may find it equally impolitic on August 30, when the campaign plans to march from the U.N. (where they have only a stationary rally permit) to Madison Square Garden to serve George W. Bush an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity.

Shaky logistics notwithstanding, Honkala’s legitimacy is the envy of every protester within shouting distance of the convention. You can write off other groups as Ivy League pranksters, sixties-trained bureaucrats, or celebrity dilettantes. But Honkala isn’t a moonlighting rapper or ad exec; she’s full-time. “Every time I’m with them,” says documentarian Gabriel Rhodes, who is filming protesters this summer, “I’m emotionally moved. She’s not just earnest about her cause—she is the cause.”

Cheri Honkala, a single mother, with her 2-year-old son, Guillermo. Photograph by Ilkka Uimonen

Born in Minneapolis to a mother of five on welfare, raised by an abusive stepfather, Honkala was a single mother at 17. By her mid-twenties, Honkala was nearing graduation at the University of Minnesota when she was arrested for accepting a Pell Grant while on welfare. Her mother put up their house for bail, and Honkala dropped out of college for good. Homeless for months at a time, she broke into abandoned houses, leading to more arrests and public battles with cops.

After moving to Philadelphia to marry a union organizer, Honkala became something of a celebrity activist, though her style could be polarizing. The Philly press dubbed her “the designer demonstrator”—citing her manicures and highlights—and she was attacked for effectively helping movement colleagues skip the city’s waiting list for housing assistance. Accepting donations from a local mob figure was another controversial move. David Zucchino’s influential (and generally sympathetic) book Myth of the Welfare Queen portrayed her as a wrathful activist with an overwhelming preference for “great fanfare.”

Under the bridge in Central Park, Honkala is in high fanfare mode—leading sing-alongs and fielding press calls, while also changing her 2-year-old son Guillermo’s diapers. “We’d like to stay here until the convention,” she says, “but chances are, once the press leaves, we’ll get arrested.”

Her preference, of course, is to get arrested in front of the press. But not many reporters have shown up, and the few passersby give the camp a wide berth. So Honkala decides to relocate her weary group to Columbus Circle, where, opposite the Time Warner Center, the stage is set for a symbolically rich rush-hour confrontation. Not long after the protesters set up their tent, dozens of police and Parks officials begin to gather. As reporters take turns on a red lawn chair beside Honkala’s couch, the scene is more press conference than homeless encampment. “When you go to jail is when you say something,” Honkala tells a documentarian, tears springing to her eyes as if on cue. “But if you just live silently in misery, then you can die quietly. Well, we’re not ever gonna die quietly!”

By seven, a handful of protesters are left, determined to get arrested. Officials have warned them of four Parks violations, and arrest is imminent. Honkala has been arrested more than 80 times, but she still looks unnerved. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she says.

A reporter asks whether the doomed protest is a success. “60 Minutes called today,” she says. “We talked to more press today than we have the whole time we’ve been here.” Honkala promises to set up another Manhattan camp a week before the convention, along with a press conference in front of the Statue of Liberty. “This is the window of opportunity,” she says. “Fifteen thousand reporters are coming here from all over the world. I don’t have money for commercials, so this is it.”

At dusk, Honkala and three compatriots are handcuffed and taken to Midtown North, leaving behind a scene both haphazard and deftly styled—a mess of dirty mattresses and soaked leaflets, but also a single white tent holding an American flag for the cops to take down.

The First Lady of Protest