Volume 74, Number 15 | August 11 - 17 , 2004

Protesters reject rally on highway

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Leslie Cagan, center, of United for Peace and Justice at Tuesday’s press conference.

Saying they refuse to be “exiled” to the West Side Highway, organizers of the United for Peace and Justice rally planned on Aug. 29, the day before the start of the Republican National Convention, announced on Tuesday morning that they had filed a permit again for their original preferred site, Central Park.

“We believe that exiling a rally to the remote location of the West Side Highway is making a mockery of our constitutional right to assemble,” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of U.F.P.J., speaking at the organization’s W. 38th St. headquarters to a packed audience of news cameras and reporters Tuesday morning. “We do not have to rally at a site that doesn’t work for us,” she said.

However, within four and a half hours, the Bloomberg administration responded that the rally, anticipated to draw a quarter-million people, would be too big for Central Park and that, again, a permit would not be issued for the park.

In response to U.F.P.J.’s latest permit application, Edward Skyler, the mayor’s press secretary, issued the following statement: “The city has worked hard to accommodate a rally for 250,000 people, which, unlike other events that we have given permits for in Central Park, won’t fit in the park. U.F.P.J. has already agreed to a route that will take them right by Madison Sq. Garden. With less than three weeks to go, the organizers need to concentrate their efforts on making the necessary arrangements and working with the city to ensure a safe event and stop the theatrics.”

Included with the mayor’s response was a brief letter from Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe to Cagan, in which he referred to the department’s previous denial of U.F.P.J.’s request for Central Park’s Great Lawn: “Since this event is essentially the same event for which you previously sought a permit, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation must deny your application for the same reasons stated in Parks’ denial of your earlier application.”

However, U.F.P.J.’s latest permit application does, in fact, differ from the first one, in that they are now requesting the Great Lawn, North Meadow and East Meadow. Cagan and others said that by spreading out the protesters onto three sites, instead of one, they would do less damage to the grass — which has been the city’s primary concern about use of the Great Lawn.

Cagan said under the latest plan the main rally would be on the North Meadow, with Jumbotrons — gigantic TV screens — or possibly small soundstages also set up on the Great Lawn and East Meadow.

After its earlier effort to get Central Park’s Great Lawn — and subsequent requests for Central Park’s North Meadow, then the Great Lawn combined with the North Meadow — for the Aug. 29 rally failed, U.F.P.J. last month grudgingly accepted a permit to march from 14th St. and Seventh Ave., up past Madison Sq. Garden — the site of the convention — west on 34th St. and then down West Side Highway to rally on the highway near Chambers St.

But for a variety of reasons, the organizers decided the highway rally site was unacceptable and that they would try for the park again. The deciding factors included feedback from member groups of the coalition who did not want to rally on the highway and a lack of response from the Police Department and the city on the protest group’s requests for assurances that safety conditions would be met.

For example, Cagan said the city failed to say that metal barricades would not be used to pen in the protesters or if there would be “water buffalo” trucks to provide water to the marchers.

Also, a rally stretched out over two or three miles would lose the power and inspired feel of a rally in a large oval in the park, Cagan noted.

City Councilmember Bill Perkins, who was among the speakers at the press conference, said police failed to respond to his request as to whether the marchers could at least bring umbrellas to shelter themselves from the sun.

In addition, they feel the highway is just too remote from the convention site.

A medical adviser said that the march approved by the city, on baking-hot asphalt — a “hellish place,” as he put it — in the dog days of August, is simply a health hazard.

The city also didn’t respond to the protesters’ request for shuttle buses to serve the transportation-deficient site.

Furthermore, bids had come in for supplying the rally site with a sound system and Jumbotrons and the cost proved to be exorbitant, Cagan said. Because a rally on the highway would necessarily be longer and narrower than in the park, more sound and video equipment would be needed.

Representatives of U.F.P.J.’s coalition groups in turn blasted the highway site and the denial of the park to the protesters. In short, the mayor is trying to squelch dissent, they said.

“The Bill of Rights is more important to us than the grass in Central Park,” said David Cline, national president of Veterans for Peace.

Perkins, who has been a champion of the protesters’ right to rally in the park, said, “I think we can never put the rights of grass above the rights of New Yorkers and peaceful citizens…. People go to the park on hot days for relief. There are trees, shade, a breeze. You’re not on concrete.”

U.F.P.J. had given the city 48 hours to respond, before it would contemplate legal action, if necessary. However, speaking on Tuesday evening, Cagan and Bill Dobbs, U.F.P.J.’s media spokesperson, said they were shocked at how fast the city did respond.

“They didn’t appear to read our application, but just slammed the door,” said Dobbs.

Cagan said U.F.P.J. plan to meet with their lawyers Wednesday morning and decide their next course of action. She said, as per their original permit approved by the city, they still intend to gather between 14th and 23rd Sts. between Fifth and Ninth Aves., funnel onto Seventh Ave. and march past Madison Sq. Garden. Where the rally will head after that is unclear, but, said Cagan, “Under no circumstances will we go to the West Side Highway on Aug. 29.” Cagan doesn’t want the march to stop at the Garden, because she wants every marcher to get the chance to pass the convention site.

However, after Tuesday’s press conference, Michael Shenker, an East Village activist, said some people don’t care whether there is a rally at Central Park or not, and plan to march up to the Garden and then stay there as long as possible.

Dobbs noted that the decision is Mayor Bloomberg’s, and that in 1982, before the massive No Nukes rally, former Mayor Ed Koch overruled his Parks commissioner, allowing the protesters to use the Great Lawn.

“The mayor can easily change his mind and resolve this,” said Dobbs.

Added Perkins, “This could be done, I daresay, in a week’s notice. The wonderful thing about being on the inside is you know what can be done and what can’t be done.”

In response to questions as to whether the protesters had put themselves in a tough legal situation by having initally accepted the highway rally site, Perkins called that a “technicality,” and said it’s up to the city to do the right thing.

Last week, several groups were already making plans to be on the Great Lawn and not the highway on Aug. 29. A group of about 25 East Village activists calling themselves the Committee to Defend the Right of Free Assembly hatched the idea of holding the rally in and around Madison Sq. Park. Things came to a head at U.F.P.J.’s meeting on Mon., Aug. 1, when the alternate idea was raised. The committee pasted up yellow posters on lampposts around the East Village objecting to rallying on the highway.

“We’re the fringe group that want the demonstration at the appropriate location. That makes us the fringe group. We accept the label,” said Eric Rassi, 51, speaking last Friday. “It’s Orwellian to demonstrate on a highway. People over 60 came up to me and said they’re not going — it’s too far.”

For the last two months, the Manhattan Libertarian Party has been distributing flyers calling for an “unauthorized RNC protest against the Iraqi War and Occupation and the Patriot Act” on the Great Lawn. The Libertarians’ dual mottos for Aug. 29 are: “If you ask the government for permission to protest it, you deserve to be told no” and “The First Amendment is our permit.”

Performance artist/preacher Reverend Billy said he intended to go to the Great Lawn to hold First Amendment marriage ceremonies. The words of the First Amendment will be recited during the ceremonies.

The satirical street theater group Billionaires for Bush also said they would head for Central Park, where they will play croquet with their “staff” waiting upon them.

Some have still other plans for Aug. 29. Time’s Up, a nonprofit environmental group advocating bicycle use, plans to participate in what’s being called the Mouse Bloc, a protest starting at 5 p.m. outside theaters on 42nd St. where Republican National Convention delegates will be taking in shows. The event is called Mouse Bloc in reference to the Disneyfication of 42nd St.

Brandon Neubauer, 26, Time’s Up’s RNC organizer, said 100-200 bicycle riders will initially provide support and scout the landscape for the U.P.J. marchers.

“We use the power of the group and try to stay free and stay out of the pens,” said Neubauer, who lives in the East Village.

Time’s Up will also participate in the A31 Action Coalition’s activities on Aug. 31, scheduled as a day of nonviolent civil disobedience and what is known as direct action — when protesters plan to put themselves on the “front line” to get arrested by blocking intersections and holding die-ins on the street. Carnival-like activities, music and drumming are scheduled for the area outside the restricted zone around Madison Sq. Garden.

“The intent is not to shut down the RNC,” said Neubauer. “We’re trying to make a very clear statement about the RNC coming to New York for what it was, which was using New York as a 9/11 symbol — a P.R. stunt — when it’s clear Bush is anti-New York.”

Still others don’t plan to stray far from home on Aug. 29. Listening to the end of a punk rock concert in Tompkins Sq. Park last Sunday, Karl Rosenstein, a beret-wearing squatter and the East Village’s resident Trotskyite, said he wasn’t keen on trudging all the way to Chambers St. for a rally.

“I’ll just go to 14th St. where the march starts, then I’ll come back here,” he said. “There’ll be plenty happening here.”

Other planned events during and around the time of the convention include Ring Out Bush, a bell-ringing extravaganza around the World Trade Center site on Sat., Aug. 28, starting at 5:30 p.m. Organizer Christian Herold, an adjunct drum professor at New York University who lives in the Village, said they hope to have at least 3,000 bell-ringers, in eight sections.

“It won’t be ultra-loud,” he said. “We’ll pass out 3,000 small bells and 80 larger bells will lead it.” They don’t have a permit, feeling one is not needed.

On Mon., Aug. 30, at noon, the Still We Rise, Poor People’s March and Rally for Justice will convene at Union Sq. Scheduled speakers include R&B singer Alicia Keys, rap impresario P. Diddy and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. The rally will focus on the need for housing, jobs, education, an improved welfare system, drug law reform, healthcare and treatment for H.I.V./AIDS.

On Wed., Sept. 1, a group called Shut It Down! is encouraging New Yorkers who work in service industries as well as actors and musicians to call in sick so that the Republicans will not be able to enjoy Broadway shows, shopping, restaurants and hotels.

Shut It Down was conceived over a dinner at a diner on 15th St. and Seventh Ave. in Chelsea by two friends, originally as a protest against the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Greene Dragon, a satirical performance group, will hold a number of events in patriotic costume, including on Aug. 24, at 7 p.m., “Paula Revere’s Ride,” a ride with “horse-cycles” up Lexington Ave. to warn that “The Republicans are coming!” and on Aug. 27, at 2 p.m., a crossing of New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry to “liberate” Manhattan from the G.O.P.

Meanwhile, John Penley, who with Aaron Kay, the “Yippie Pie Man,” failed to get a permit to hold a “camporee” in either Tompkins Sq. Park or East River Park, said they still expect the campout to happen in Tompkins Sq. Penley said there’s been a noticeable influx of young punks into the neighborhood in anticipation of the convention. However, he said the Yippies will discourage people from camping out in the park until after the end of the HOWL! Festival, which will be holding events in and around the park and run from Aug. 17-24.

“If they want to camp out in the park after HOWL! we won’t discourage them,” Penley said of the RNC protesters.

Also last week, “The People’s Guide to the Republican National Convention,” compiled by a coalition of editors and writers, was issued. First handed out at last Thursday night’s No RNC Clearinghouse meeting at St. Mark’s Church in the Bouwerie, the guide includes a map pinpointing hotels where delegates are staying, a schedule of events as well as addresses of local corporate sponsors of the convention. The guide and other convention literature are available at a 49 E. Houston St. storefront space that Time’s Up! is using for its convention organizing activities.

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