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The way things look, August 29 could see a major triumph for the First Amendment, or a pitched battle between police and demonstrators that would be reminiscent of Chicago’s Democratic Convention police riot of 36 years ago.
Since Michael Bloomberg, the Republican mayor, has taken the anti-civil liberties position that a protest rally can’t be held on Central Park’s Great Lawn-traditional site of such major political events-thousands of those who want to gather to protest the Bush administration have concluded that this is exactly where they ought to go.
No surprise that. After all, much of the anger at Republicans and Bush is over his administration’s assault on basic civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly.
The main protest organization that has been working for over a year on the anti-RNC march and demonstration, United for Peace and Justice, recognizing that Bloomberg and his police department were committed to stonewalling their permit application for the Great Lawn to the bitter end, finally agreed to the mayor’s shabby and wholly inadequate offer of a rally site along the lower portion of the West Side Highway, a multi-lane artery that runs just along the edge of the Hudson River. Clearly, while it certainly makes crowd control simple, a highway is no place for a rally, since it forces the estimated several hundred thousand to half a million anticipated demonstrators to stretch out along over a mile of hot pavement.
The alternative, which is being discussed and promoted on numerous websites and chat lines-and advocated in the mainstream newspaper New York Newsday by columnist Jimmy Breslin–is for people to just make their way spontaneously to Central Park, which after all will remain open to the public (short of instituting martial law and bringing in the National Guard, it would be almost impossible for city police to close the park, especially given the numbers of cops who will have to be sent to the West Side Highway for the official rally).
What ultimately happens on that last Sunday in August will depend to a great extent on the decisions of individual demonstrators and marchers. If people melt away from the march as it moves uptown from Chelsea to Broadway and West 34th Street, where plans call for it to turn west and cross over to the West Side Highway, and if they then make their way northward to the park, to be joined by large numbers who have entered over the course of the morning on their own, the city would be forced to decide whether to fight a guerrilla war in the park (at the risk of hurting many innocent bystanders just there to relax), or to cave in and allow a rally.
If the numbers who decide to go to the park are small, they may simply be ignored by the city-that is unless Mayor Bloomberg is trying to make a name for himself as a municipal Ashcroft.
One question that really can’t be answered is what impact a real Bloomberg Bash, should one occur, would have on the presidential election campaign. The police riot in Chicago in 1968 probably worked to the advantage of Richard Nixon and hurt the campaign of Hubert Humphrey. Public sentiment against the Vietnam War was still growing, but had not peaked, and for many people, the violence in the streets, which much of the media wrongly blamed on demonstrators instead of Democratic Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago police, was just the thing that Nixon’s “law and order” campaign wanted.
The difference this time is that first of all, opposition to the Iraq War is far more widespread, and crosses age, race and class lines much more than in 1968, and secondly, it is the Republicans who are in power, both in Washington and the convention host city.
It is quite possible that a Bloomberg crackdown on an impromptu, permit-less Central Park protest could backfire and garner more support for the anti-war, anti-Bush movement.
See you in the park!
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