War on Iraq

Penning Protests in New York

Antiwar activists are being forced to contain this weekend's protest march within tightly controlled police pens.
Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, protesters in New York will be corralled together in tightly controlled police pens. But some plan to break out. With Monday's ruling against an orderly, nonviolent protest march anywhere on the streets of Manhattan this Saturday, U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones has steered the City of New York toward chaos.

Though event organizer United for Peace and Justice has stated its willingness to follow any route the New York Police Department designates, the only legal option at hand is for antiwar demonstrators to be massed in tightly controlled police pens stretching far up First Avenue, north of the United Nations. The current thin strip of a rally is expected to stretch up to some 25 blocks from its starting point north of the UN -- effectively makes any spectacular televised scenes of a vast, anti-war crowd gathered in Central Park impossible. (Before they decided they would accept any route for the march, UJFP wanted to march past the UN, then west, then up through Times Square and along Seventh Avenue to Central Park.)

It is expected that many will seek to avoid the pens and hope to sow confusion all around Manhattan. The online discussion of such tactics, honed at past free-form protests, suggest using cell phones to coordinate splinter actions. One contributor to the NYC Indymedia Center Web site called for: "a tactical plan for wide-scale CD [civil disobedience] throughout Manhattan. This could include surprise "people's inspections" of various corporate and governmental sites, traffic lockdowns, a mass die-in, street theater, prayer vigils, snowball fights, you name it. It's time to be both bold and creative. Let's transform Feb. 15 into a carnival of peace and resistance throughout Manhattan all afternoon. Save the protest pit for last call."

This is among the more temperate postings. Another stated mildly, "We can't settle for tired megaphone speakers inside a protest pen encircled by police--we gotta bust out into the streets."

It is unclear how many of the currently 29 UFPJ-sanctioned "feeder" marches -- by groups such as the "Queer Anti-War Contingent," the "Interfaith Ministers for Peace," not to mention the "Anarchist Red & Black Contingent" and the "Anti-Capitalist Bloc" -- will disperse and go off on their own.

As the national coordinator for the Independent Progressive Politics Network, which normally focuses on alternatives to the two major parties, Ted Glick represents such groups as the National Lawyers Guild and the Green Party. An organizer of Saturday's demonstration, Glick does not advocate illegally taking it to the streets, saying in an interview, "I doubt there will be a breach of police barricades -- it will be absolutely peaceful and nonviolent. We're not looking for a confrontation, but to manifest the views of millions of people."

Glick added that the city is seeking to discourage attendance by forbidding a march. "But to the extent they don't cooperate with those of us with a history of organizing peaceful demonstrations, then they put a lot of stress on what can happen," he said.

Brian Dominick, a veteran of many demonstrations, wondered about an exit strategy for both citizens and the cops. Based on his experience, he expects the marchers to prevail, "Unless the police want to keep us penned up there for hours on end, it's going to be chaos. In reality, there's going to be a march. People will be at a rally pumped up for it, and that's the natural inclination."

The ruling has seemingly transformed a largely self-policing, follow-your-nose, chant-and-sing march into an unpredictable and potentially chaotic cat-and-mouse struggle. Rampant hooliganism will besmirch the peace movement, true, but the ban itself is a black-eye for civil liberties in a country touting itself as a democratic example to the world.

Instead of effective, mass dissent, the city now invites struggle on both ends of a nightstick. Representing the UFJP, the New York Civil Liberties Union noted in its federal suit, "For decades people in New York City have paraded and marched through the public streets as a means of expressing and demonstrating their views in a wide variety of topics .... Marching in the streets is a time-honored tradition in our country that lies at the core of the First Amendment."

According to the NYCLU complaint, when the NYPD first rejected a march, "the reason given for the denial was congestion and related concerns arising out of a march." Subsequently, according to the NYCLU, after flirting with the idea of allowing a march, the city refused. "The only reason given for the decision was a concern about the NYPD resources required to police a march."

Last week, city lawyer Jeffrey Friedlander told the Associated Press, "We will not allow any event to jeopardize public safety or prevent people from going about their business." NYCLU head Donna Lieberman said, "A rally has a different tenor than a march. It's important to go throughout the city to express your views to the people of New York in places that are vital to that message." People trapped in holding pens have a limited ability to communicate with each other, to grasp any sense of the totality of the event.

Said Glick, "People want to see who's there. You can't do that if everyone is jammed, you can't see the vets and the women's groups and labor. Marching manifests who we are and shows the breadth of the movement. It might take a long time for everyone to march. But that allows the size of it to be seen - as the hours pass."

In her decision, Judge Jones defended the city's refusal "because of safety and security considerations."After Monday's ruling, the city's Friedlander stated that both the judge and the NYPD concurred that any march "would have put the public's safety at risk."

But both UFJP co-chairwoman Leslie Cagan and NYCLU's Lieberman stated at a press conference Monday that city officials testified before Jones that they don't anticipate any violence or terror attacks. Lieberman said, "The city argued it doesn't have the time to plan or the manpower, and it invoked 9/11 in terms of fear of attack. But it said it had no fear from the demonstrators."

She added that the city issued a permit for a peace demonstration less than a month after 9/11, when fears and emotions were at an even higher pitch than now. The city agreed once it was pointed out that the demonstration coincided with the Columbus Day parade. Apparently next month's St. Patrick's Day parade doesn't provide the same rationale.

The judge leaned heavily on the testimony of NYPD Assistant Chief Michael D. Esposito. Referring to the thousands of protesters, he said, "If they at one time did something or if somebody in the group had a device, I don't know how we would be able to stop it with that amount of people or see anything." But how will police be able to stop a device from people packed in pens for 25 blocks better than they might from the same group of people moving their feet?

Judge Jones however claimed in her ruling, "the police can more effectively monitor crowds for terror threats at stationary rallies than they can crowds moving in a procession ..." But she offered no support for her assertion that is key to the whole dispute.

During an anti-war protest of similar size in Washington in January, very few cops monitored the peaceful crowd. At the staging area on the National Mall, with tens of thousands of protesters, there were a couple of dozen U.S. Park Police. Ted Glick, who marched in April's big D.C. anti-war protest, said, "There were virtually no police, and there were no problems. The disparity with the seat of government and what's happening in New York couldn't be more stark -- and it's essentially the same people."

The NYCLU appealed Jones's ruling Wednesday morning before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In an oral decision Wednesday afternoon, Judge Jose A. Cabranes upheld the city's ban, saying his ruling applied to Saturday's demonstration only.

Whatever happens in New York, organizers believe that the important goal is to protest the war -- using whatever means available, be it in a police pen or outside it.

Daniel Forbes ([email protected]) testified before both the Senate and the House regarding the Clinton administration's secret payments to the TV networks rewarding anti-drug sitcoms and dramas. Work archived at www.mapinc.org.
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