Marking the citys latest volley in its ongoing skirmish with Critical Mass and with protesters in general the Police Department recently announced it would introduce new regulations for parade permits affecting everything from walking to biking. The new regulations would have meant that as few as two people riding bikes or walking in the street without a permit would have been subject to arrest if breaking traffic rules such as by not having a bicycle bell. Twenty or more bicyclists or vehicles proceeding together on the street also would need a permit or face arrest. And 35 or more pedestrians proceeding together on the sidewalk would need a permit or else face arrest.
A forum at St. Marks Church last week saw 200 concerned citizens turn out to voice their objections. Civil rights advocates such as Norman Siegel pointed out that the city would surely have to enforce these rules selectively. For example, would a group of 35 summer camp kids on a field trip be arrested for walking? How about a group of 35 tourists strolling around the Village? Would a funeral procession running red lights be arrested en masse?
Clearly, there were many answered questions, particularly about the potential for selective enforcement, mainly against protesters.
What was clear was that the sidewalk regulation would stifle protest, particularly spontaneous protest. Protesters, for example, wouldnt be able to spontaneously march on the sidewalk from Times Square to the United Nations, as they can now, provided they keep part of the sidewalk open to others and stop at red lights. Instead, theyd have to apply for a permit, hope it would be issued and as usually happens be left waiting until the very last minute to find out if they would even be receiving the permit.
More to the point, the regulations seemed aimed at curbing protest, at the very right to assemble and speak out. Most think the proposed changes were in response to the Critical Mass rides. The city has been unable to get the courts to order the freewheeling monthly bike rides to obtain a permit, and a state judge advised the city that its parade permit regulations should be clarified first before it seeks to rein in Critical Mass.
Yet, these regulations threat to civil liberties went beyond Critical Mass. They clearly would have affected our fundamental right to protest or just to assemble for whatever reason we choose.
The city blinked, however, and the Police Department has withdrawn the regulations. From the sound of it, though, the proposed changes as they were would not even have stood up in court. As Rosie Mendez, the East Village city councilmember, aptly put it, justice and civil rights arent easy. Yes, the police do have a hard job in balancing civil rights and safety. Yet, our society wasnt founded on being easy, but on being just and thats what the freedom to assemble and speak out are all about.