Personal Voices: Dissent and a Mayor's Betrayal

Millions of people rallied around the world on Saturday to voice opposition to war with Iraq. The people of New York took a strong stand against war, filling First, Second and Third avenues from 40th Street to 70th Street in a powerful demonstration of dissent.

Unfortunately, the actions of New York City Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD on Saturday, and in the days leading up to Saturday, were a disgrace. They were a disgrace to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to the Constitution of the United States. On Saturday, 200,000 people converged in downtown Manhattan to protest the possibility of war in Iraq, and 200,000 citizens were prevented from sharing their views with the world. It was only the remarkable restraint of protesters accustomed to obeying the law--a diverse array of families from the boroughs, twenty-something Manhattanites, and retired couples from Westchester--that prevented the day of peaceful dissent from turning into a riot.

In London marchers filled the streets from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park; in Milan protesters marched through the streets from the outskirts of the city to the center; even in San Diego, California opponents of war marched down Broadway, the main street in town. Only New York refused to allow protesters to march.

Instead of protecting our right to dissent, the police devised a maze of barricades stretching from 48th Street north to 65th Street, preventing protesters on Second and Third avenues from crossing east. Only early arrivers, or those with the stealth and determination of James Bond or Sydney from "Alias," could possibly have hoped to reach the official rally point on First Avenue.

The blockades fostered a dangerous threat to public safety by angering protesters who sought to walk along the sidewalk to the rally, creating tension in the crowd by frustrating entirely legal efforts to voice our political viewpoint.

Police sought to justify their labyrinth by claiming that protesters could not pass onto blockaded streets because those streets were "full." That justification proved false--First Avenue north from the rally stage was far less crammed with people than Second and Third avenues, and the labyrinth of police barricades blocked vacant stretches while containing people on tightly packed sidewalks and streets.

The blockades served no purpose except to assert the power of the state--as embodied by the NYPD--over those of us gathered to oppose the Bush war agenda. The blockades were designed to keep us, the protesters, separated from each other--to prevent us from assembling as a crowd united by a common purpose. Citizens who defied police divide-and-conquer stratagems were pushed back, attacked, and in some cases arrested.

I started my day with the student and youth contingent, which met at 10:30am at Union Square. We began walking along the sidewalk toward 49th Street and First Avenue via Sixth Avenue, but were stopped and turned back by the police every six or eight blocks. At 24th Street and 6th Avenue police claimed to be stopping us because we were blocking the street, but protesters only spilled into the street when we were not allowed to continue forward on the sidewalk. If the city had granted a march permit to begin with, we would not have been attempting to navigate the sidewalks on our long walk from Union Square to the United Nations. The goal of the police was made clear when they announced that we would be allowed to proceed, but only in groups of 15. Divide and conquer. I doubt the patient protesters at the back of the 3,000-person crowd ever made it close to the rally point.

The ability of citizens to gather and express their collective political view is one of the most fundamental elements of freedom in a democratic society. The First Amendment guarantees that the government "shall make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Tanks crushed Chinese students in Tiananmen Square for asserting their simple right to gather in protest. The civil rights movement was propelled forward in part by the moral weight of 250,000 people who assembled at the Washington Monument in 1965 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King describe his dream of a colorblind society.

For the most part I have appreciated the mayor's quietly pragmatic approach to city government, but no longer. First the mayor refused to grant us a permit to march; then he strategically deployed the police department to prevent us from rallying. The mayor betrayed his duty to New Yorkers by thwarting our expression of political dissent. Shame on the police department, and shame on Mayor Bloomberg.


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