Back home in New York recently, I spent a day at the protests. I made a point of getting there early -- before 9 A.M. -- to survey the field.

Walking the length of the enormous courthouse in the Bronx where the four New York City police officers who shot Amadou Diallo were to be arraigned in the afternoon, I was reminded of how huge the streets are in the outer boroughs. On three sides of the courthouse, the police had closed the streets off to traffic. Then they'd divided and subdivided the empty streets with waist-high iron barricades, until all three streets were a series of pens, as big as basketball courts. With hundreds of uniformed cops manning their stations, the place looked like one big anti-riot contraption.

At the courthouse, which is about a homerun's distance from Yankee Stadium, the four officers would face charges of 2nd-degree murder and reckless endangerment. It would be the first time any New York City police officer was charged with murder for a shooting while he was on duty.

A little after ten o'clock, about twenty-five people were gathered in the pen designated for anti-cop protesters, carrying signs and marching in a circle. Their number would grow to 400 or more in the course of the day. Their signs mostly targeted New York mayor Rudy Giuliani: "Racist Rudy," "Arrest Giuliani" (a couple of organizers were handing these out by the dozen). Some compared the mayor to Adolf Hitler, the Devil, what have you: "Butcher Rudolf goes to Reno, Not the casino." Such talk, of course, does nothing to dampen the claim that it's Giuliani's rhetoric that has, as Jesse Jackson says, set a climate of hatred. Business was brisk for a button seller hawking his wares inside the protest pen. Buttons bearing the recent New Yorker cover of a cop taking 41 pops at a carnival game went especially fast.

Other signs testified to ragtag leftist affiliations. One, bearing the name of the Black Labor League, said, "Cops out of unions." Some demanded freedom for death-row cop-killer Mumia Abu Jamal or called on marchers to "Break with Democrats! For workers revolution to sweep away the racist capitalist state." But it all came back to cops. Around 11, a guy appeared looking ever so pleased with himself as he held aloft his message to the world: "Encourage police suicides."

In the mostly black crowd, I noticed many Nation of Islam types, a couple of Travis Bickles, dozens of community activists with lapels full of political buttons and fists full of fliers, a few shaggy-haired, middle-aged New Yorkers eager to enlighten you on any number of third-world problems, a short Mexican in a gigantic black and silver sombrero who kept time for the marchers on a scratchy wooden instrument, fiftysomething hippies with beards down below their beads, and, poignantly, a near-sighted old man who, in addition to looking as if he had just been kicked out of a homeless shelter, had prepared for the roar of the crowd by stuffing wax paper in his ears. Absent were the everyday New Yorkers invoked by columnists to say these rallies are not about Al Sharpton, who received huge applause when he showed up with the Diallo family.

True, the occasional businessman was there, marching along chanting, "AHM-AH-DOO, AHM-AH-DOO" or "One, Two, Three, . . . " all the way to 41, for the number of bullets the officers shot. And some kids were running around, one holding a sign that said, "I skipped school today because I'm 9 years old and I'm against police brutality." She probably could have used a lesson in the meaning of "because." Still, the presence of kids lent the proceedings the air of a community outing.

About fifty feet away, quartered in their own pen, a crowd of off-duty police officers, on hand to support the defendants, quietly grew. Standing around in one big coffee klatch, they could have been outside the local Knights of Columbus. At 1:10 precisely, 200 of them moved en masse to the side of their pen closest to the protesters, who immediately fell out of lock-step and lunged toward the cops. Organizers moved quickly to rally the protesters, saying, "That's exactly what they want you to do. Don't stop marching. Keep moving. Keep moving."

Suddenly the air seemed spiked with fury. The people in the anti-cop pen were a bit frenzied. Squeezing my way through the crowd, I got tied up in a knot of protesters facing off with a uniformed officer. "You can't possibly understand," a rather angry man was shouting. "Just cause you don't know my name, just cause I don't wear a badge, don't mean I don't have value. We all got value. Even though we're not white. We oughta bumrush the gate, you bastard." Being the only white person except the stonefaced cop in the immediate area, I took one last look around and made my getaway.