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First Skirmish in the Battle of NYC

Bush 1, Protesters 0

by DAVE LINDORFF

Bush may be on the defensive in the presidential election contest, but he won a big victory in New York Wednesday, when the main organization protesting the Republican convention set to begin August 29 agreed to Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s take-it-or-leave-it “offer” of a permit that pens in the demonstration on Manhattan’s West Side Highway.

“We were forced into this,” says an angry and disappointed Bill Dobbs, spokeperson for United for Peace and Justice, the main march organizer. “The city had simply broken off negotiations for a permit to use Central Park, and let’s face it, with only a month to go before the convention, the clock was ticking.”

The decision to shunt protesters over to the West Side Highway represents the most large-scale example yet of the Bush/Cheney strategy of penning in demonstrators and protesters during presidential events.

As I reported in Salon magazaine in October 16, 2003 (“Keeping dissent invisible”), the Bush strategy, which is designed to keep protesters far away from both Bush and Cheney and from the media who follow them like flies, was kicked off at the last Republican national convention, in Philadelphia four years ago. That time, the GOP planners, knowing they were dealing with a city government desperate for a major convention, extorted local officials into granting them a blanket permit for all available public sites in the city. They didn’t need them (god knows most Republican convention-goers are afraid to stand on a bib city street), but the point was this left protesters with no place to rally—a situation that produced endless confrontations with police, hundreds of arrests, police riots and injuries on both sides.

Subsequently, White House advance teams and the Secret Service have routinely instructed local police at cities where the president or vice president plan to visit to remove demonstrators—particularly those carrying signs which might mar the TV imagery of a triumphant presidential motorcade or rally—and pen them in, often in fenced-in enclosures, well away from the event and the media. The result is news coverage that has seemed to suggest a universally adored administration.

The ACLU has filed suit in federal court over the practice, seeking an injunction against it, but the suit has not yet been decided.
In any event Mayor Bloomberg has willingly done the president’s bidding in this case, denying for no good reason the protest organization’s request for a permit to use the Great Lawn in Central Park, long the venue for major concerts and demonstrations and capable of accommodating at least 250,000 people. His explanation for the denial: they’ll damage the grass.

So what’s wrong with the West Side Highway?

First of all, how can you have a rally—a rally! —that is stretched out 50 feet wide by several miles long? Participants certainly, and probably the media and the national public as well, will have no sense of the magnitude of the event if it is strung out like that.
Second, the site is well removed from the Madison Square Garden site of the convention itself, meaning that the Republican conventioneers themselves will be completely insulated from the public protests. (There will be a march past the Garden enrooted to the highway, but it will be over before much is going on there.)
The highway location is bad for another reason, purely humanitarian. There will be no shelter from rain or sun, and in the dog days of summer in late August; the likelihood is for blasting heat. In Central Park, the temperature is several degrees cooler, and the air fresher, than in the rest of the city, and the trees provide a respite for those who are overwhelmed by the heat. It is likely that many people, especially older ones, will succumb needlessly to heatstroke standing for hours on the highway. Many others will probably decide simply not to come because of the location—no doubt Bloomberg’s intention.

Finally, and most importantly, the highway location makes containment by police much simpler. They need only block each of the cross-town streets to prevent anyone from escaping the containment area. Buildings, and the Hudson River, will do the rest of the job for them.

It is unfortunate that United for Peace and Justice agreed to this repressive plan—a plan that should shame the city of New York—instead of fighting on in the courts against what could well have been ruled a violation of civil liberties. On the other hand, the organizers needed to have a solid plan for a demonstration lest uncertainty cause out-of-town protesters to cancel plans to attend.

"We need to move on, so we decided to take the high road here," said Leslie Cagan, leader of UPJ, at a Wednesday news conference announcing the organization’s surrender after a year of battle with the city. "The city forced us into a location we did not want. It’s not our first choice."

Dobbs adds that in its last appeal of a Bloomberg denial of a march permit, back in February, 2003, protest organizers lost both in federal district court and in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. “Going to court to fight this would not have been a slam dunk,” he says.

Besides, the UPJ did win one big victory—the right to have the march that precedes the rally go directly past the Madison Square Garden convention site. The march permit calls for assembling in the city’s Chelsea district (on Seventh Ave. between about 14th and 23rd Streets), going up Seventh Avenue in front of the Garden at 34th Street, then west to the West Side Highway, and back down to the rally site. “I hope everyone will plan on coming to deliver this protest’s message, which is: ‘The World Says No the the bush Agenda of War, Greed, Lies and Hate!’” says Dobbs.
UPJ still says it expects hundreds of thousands of protesters on Aug. 29 and says it is still working with police and city officials on details regarding the highway site.

It’s all just one more example of the extent to which this administration and its supporters have repressed dissent and constricted the freedom of movement of those who would protest its abuses.

Meanwhile, with many activists calling the UPJ agreement with the city a liberal cave-in, an anonymous group has called for people to ignore the city and assemble in Central Park’s Great Lawn anyway.

The combination of Mayor Bloomberg’s unconstitutional pandering to White House desires, and the UPJ’s decision to accept a less than ideal site, means the potential is there for a new “People’s Park” episode or a replay of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. If enough demonstrators heed the call to enter the park, city police, busy penning in demonstrators on the West Side, will be hard-pressed to prevent them.

Warns Dobbs, “Mayor Bloomberg, because of his hostility to free expression, is helping to invite chaos.”

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com