By Maurice Pinzon
Yesterday, at the 2nd Annual Citywide Choral Festival, about 200 people gathered in Bryant Park on 42nd Street to hear an announcement about New York City school arts programs. During a question and answer session, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg refused to consider reversing the Parks Department’s denial of a rally permit for United for Peace and Justice’s (UFPJ’s) proposed protest in Central Park.
Just last week, UFPJ held a press conference to mobilize New Yorkers to support their march up Eighth Avenue, past Madison Square Garden, with the event culminating in a rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park. The organizers plan to hold the event on August 29, the day before the Republican National Convention.
When a reporter asked Mayor Bloomberg if he would overrule the Parks Department’s decision, the mayor said, “No, we are not going to issue a permit for 250,000 people for a place in Central Park that only holds 80,000 people.” The mayor said City officials “would be derelict in our duty to provide public safety” for an event that large.
In addition, Mayor Bloomberg insisted that the gathering could “destroy an enormous investment” — not just the Great Lawn’s grass, but also the park’s infrastructure. The Police Department could suggest other venues that would be safer, he said.
Bill Dobbs, media coordinator for UFPJ, responded by saying, “With a crisis in Iraq, only Bloomberg could turn a protest about issues of war and peace into a discussion about lawn care.”
In a recent telephone conversation with New York News Network, the Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Paul Browne, said the department and protest organizers were continuing their discussions about the rally. Last week, Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for UFPJ, confirmed that the Police Department was talking to the group and had suggested alternative proposals, including a street march ending in a rally in downtown Manhattan.
But UFPJ and supporters said the Police Department’s proposal would be a circuitous movement of people through the streets of Manhattan, ending in the crowded and narrow streets downtown. The organizers indicated this option was impractical.
In contrast, Ms. Cagan said demonstrators could safely gather in Central Park, adding that the park had a history of holding large events. Ms. Cagan also said people could get off at multiple subway stops and that numerous park entrances would allow protesters and other New Yorkers to gather safely.
The UFPJ disputes the number of people the Great Lawn can hold. The Parks Department’s estimate of 80,000 people appears to come mostly from corporate ticketed events. The organizers contended that plenty of adjoining spaces were available that would allow for a larger crowd. In addition, they argued, the 250,000 is simply an estimate of the maximum number of people who might attend the Central Park rally.
Tony Kushner, the playwright of “Angels in America,” “Caroline, or Change” and “Homebody/Kabul,” was also present at the UFPJ news conference.
Mr. Kushner said, “If Bloomberg’s administration continues with this policy that was begun really under Giuliani, of repeatedly denying New Yorkers the right to organize in a planned fashion, to get the word out about where people need to meet, and so on, it’s going to be madness on the streets in August. And that’s madness that’s created by the Bloomberg administration.” Mr. Kushner added, “What this does, of course, is it discourages dissent.”
The protest permits may be heading into a legal maze. Today the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) announced that in Manhattan Federal Court, Judge Robert W. Sweet would be hearing three cases against the New York Police Department about the February 15, 2003 anti-war demonstrations. The NYCLU will argue that the street restrictions set up by the New York Police Department that day were unreasonable because the use of pens made it difficult for demonstrators to gain access to the rally site.
The NYCLU apparently believes the lawsuit will be important because it may impact the Police Department’s actions during the Republican National Convention. The lawsuit also seems to buttress UFPJ’s argument that street demonstrations with various obstacles are more unwieldy than their proposed march to Central Park.
Anything short of a large gathering on the Great Lawn seems unlikely to appease many of the demonstrators, precisely because of UFPJ’s experiences in February of last year.
Mr. Kushner said, “And of course security is a concern, but if you were on the streets in February, you saw what happened as a result of an endlessly and needlessly protracted battle in the courts to get an organized march to happen: chaos is created.”
He added, “I think the refusal of this permit is a scandal, or will be a scandal, if it is finally refused by the Police Department.”