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The political establishment has thrown down the gauntlet. New York State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Silberman ruled late Wednesday against an attempt by United for Peace and Justice to open up Central Park’s Great Lawn for a massive rally against the War and President Bush to follow Sunday’s march on the RNC convention site at Madison Square Garden.
Silberman lined up squarely behind the city administration saying that march organizers had not demonstrated any political motive behind the city’s denial of a permit for a rally in the park. She also criticized UFPJ for "waiting" until August 18 to bring its suit. Her ruling followed a similar one two days earlier by a federal court hearing another case by International A.N.S.W.E.R. which wanted a park rally permit for August 28.
Expressing disappointment, though not surprise, at the state high court court ruling, UFPJ announced that plans for the march, in which over 250,000 people are expected to go from Chelsea in lower Manhattan up to Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, will go ahead (the march has been granted a permit), and that the organization will be negotiating with city police about what will happen at the march’s termination.
Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of UFJP, condemned the court’s decision, saying, "We believe the court is wrong and we believe this is actually a violation of our constitutional right to assemble." She added, "A Republican mayor hosting a Republican convention has done everything designed to undermine the demonstration against policies of a Republican administration."
Ending the march in a peaceful, organized manner would be a challenge even without marchers, city officials and the police being at odds. Countless numbers of people have already expressed outrage at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s obstinate refusal to grant permission for a rally in Central Park, given that the same site, the Great Lawn, has accommodated profit-making commercial events far larger than the expected crowd-for example concerts by Simon and Garfunkel and by the Dave Matthews Band. Many of these people, and doubtless many others on Sunday, plan to simply continue to the park on their own in a massive spontaneous protest against this assault on freedom of assembly.
The prospect of a sea of protesters making their way up through the canyons of mid-town Manhattan to the unfenced and very accessible Central Park has to be a nightmare to police. Since the park will be open to the public on Sunday, it is unclear how police could legally distinguish between ordinary park-goers and demonstrators-especially if people heed advice being spread on the internet to protesters warning them not to carry signs or other readily identifiable paraphernalia when going to the park.
The prospect of confrontations between protesters and police, and of mass arrests, looms, and could be complicated by advice from legal advisers to the marchers, including the Center for Constitutional rights and the National Lawyers Guild’s New York chapter that protesters not provide police with their names if asked. Another wild card is the role of the Secret Service, which has taken over the leadership role in "providing security" for the Republican convention, and which thus may in fact be calling the shots in how the city deals with protests. (Ordinarily, at events featuring President Bush, the Secret Service has been instructing local police agencies in how to handle protesters, as I reported last fall in an article in Salon magazine.
A similar situation occurred in April 2003 during the height of the U.S. military’s drive on Baghdad, when a march down Broadway terminated at Washington Square with no end-of-march rally, and no place for marchers to go. When marchers predictably began to congregate around the square on that occasion, New York Police took up offensive positions and began pressing in on the growing crowds, inciting needless confrontations and making arrests. On that occasion, there was no underlying tension to start with, as there will inevitably be this time because of the denial of the park permit and the presence at the march terminus of Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention will be about to commence.
There is some speculation that Bloomberg’s intransigence regarding the park permit (which the mayor-ordinarily no environmentalist–has attributed to a desire to protect the sod on the Great Lawn), is really the work of the Bush campaign, which has made no secret its intention to portray any disorder or violence during Sunday’s protests as the work of the Democrats.
In fact, march organizers have bent over backwards trying to meet the demands of police and city officials, who for months simply stonewalled.
Complicating matters, the police themselves are in a bitter dispute with the mayor. NYPD officers, despite being widely hailed as heroes after the 9-11 attacks, have been working without a contract or a pay increase since 2001, and police union activists have been demonstrating daily against the mayor, tailing him everywhere he goes (in a grand irony, the police union has been railing against anti-protest measures such as fences and video-taping that the police have been using against demonstrators themselves). While the city plans to have a record 37,000 cops on duty Sunday and during the four days of the convention next week, how officers will respond to the demonstrators if their own labor dispute has not been settled remains to be seen. There is even the possibility that cops could have their own job action-for example an outbreak of Blue Flu-on Sunday, with large numbers of unionized officers calling in sick.
Bloomberg also has to consider what the impact of a major confrontation between protesters and police could have on his own political future. Polls indicate that 75 percent of New Yorkers support the right of demonstrators to use Central Park as a rally site, suggesting that the blame for any problems might well be laid on Bloomberg’s doorstep-and on the Bush campaign.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org