"A REPUBLIC, IF YOU CAN KEEP IT" - Benjamin Franklin
The Mayor is playing with fire.
Michael Bloomberg has dug in his heels, insisting that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and their guests will not be given a safe or appropriate venue for a protest rally scheduled for less than two weeks from today. Americans don't need a "free speech zone" to assemble or speak freely, but everyone would be better off if the police weren't positioned out there as an enemy army on a quiet Sunday in August.
I'd like to think that the Mayor will come to his senses and, contriving to show that he is fair, find some way to recognize that for a group of the size anticipated that day only an assembly in Central Park can protect liberties he has sworn to protect.
Make no mistake, there will be a march, and its route has been "approved" by the Mayor and the Police Department. But at this point in time, as indicated by the map on the site of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ, facilitators for the coalition organizing the August 29 march and rally), the route of the march begins at 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, above a huge asembly area, and ends at Madison Square Garden, the site of the Republican Party's own rally.
This means that although it was never intended that it would stop with 34th Street, at the moment the march route "sanctioned" by the police is only ten or eleven blocks long, enough room for only a few thousand people. Members of the coalition say they will procede to Central Park. The City authorities say they will not be permitted to do so. Those worthies are led by a Republican mayor who wants to "make nice" for the Republican Convention, and he says he won't budge in his opposition to un-Republicans' right to dissent.
In fact, yesterday Bloomberg declared,
"People who avail themselves of the opportunity to express themselves ... they will not abuse that privilege," he said at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Because if we start to abuse our privileges, then we lose them, and nobody wants that."
He seems to have learned well from the scoundrels in Washington who have already converted fundamental Constitutional rights into privileges available only at an executive's discretion.
But since very few in New York are going to roll over for Bloomberg or the Republican carpetbaggers for whose patronage he has paid so dearly, the Mayor and his friends are playing a very dangerous game.
Already in March, in testimony before the City Council Public Safety Committee, the Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said that he expects 1000 arrests per day before and during the Convention, and that his office would be hard-pressed to handle the dramatic increase.
The police are studying a specially-published guidebook on dealing with "dangerous" demonstrators, and they have been infiltrating the meetings of protesters and march and rally planners.
Only some demonstrators planning to appear August 29th will be aware that a little-reported exceptional court ruling will allow Morgenthau's office to introduce previously court-sealed records of prior arrests for civil disobedience in order to award harsher penalties to those arraigned for activity during the Convention.
For many weeks, beginning even before the Democratic Convention in Boston, the FBI has been terrorizing dissent through its questioning of potential political demonstrators, and their friends and their families, about their plans to protest, issuing subpoenas in some cases.
All of these statements and activities have a chilling effect on legitimate expressions of dissent, but they also have the effect of radicalizing both the police and demonstrators who will not be easily discouraged.
Public authorities charged with protecting life and property have assembled the ingredients for an extremely volatile situation. If there is a disaster twelve days from now, does the Mayor think anyone will be served - other than a radical Right which, having picked this town for the site of its celebrations in order to profit from New York's 9/11 grief, now somewhat disabused of the expectation that plan would work, may see advantage only in scenes of rioting or police confrontations?
Is provoking these confrontations, and possibly much more serious consequences, really part of someone's plan? Is Bloomberg's and his Party's current course in New York, and the outrageous activity of the police and the FBI, a way of keeping down the numbers of protesters, of making sure that nobody comes out on the day of the march and rally except the most radical? There seems to be no other explanation for these absurd restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
Finally, if it already seems like the streets of New York on August 29th may end up looking and feeling something like many German cities did in the early 1930's, then we won't be surprised when the contemporary equivalent of fascist Brownshirts arrive that weekend to engage the protesters.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
New York has no great square. Virtually every other city in the world has a major, central, open plaza which functions as the heart and soul of its people, and which has occasionally been the site of the greatest popular assemblies in its history, both glorious and mourned, but New York was historically always too busy or too greedy (ok, to put a good light on it, maybe just not autocratic enough?) to set aside a large piece of real estate just because it might come in handy. Times "Square" is only an intersection, after all. We do have Central Park however, and Central Park is our great Commons. It must be permitted to function as such on August 29th, and for the safety of every man, woman and child who will be out that day, and for the sake of their freedoms, Bloomberg and the Parks and Police departments must do what they can to make it go smoothly.
Those of us who will be there speaking with our bodies and our words will do our part.
We just want to show that we are still here; we must show that we are still here. Bill Dobbs, media spokesman for UFPJ, describes August 29th as one of only two opportunities we will have to say what we think of George W. Bush. We cannot miss either of them.
You can make a difference even before August 29
Bloomberg can't be suicidal. He may still listen to reason. Let him know how you feel about the rights of speech and assembly.
NOT IN OUR NAME reminds us, "It's not about the grass" (actually that was originally Dobbs's call) and suggests we "politely" protest the city's denial of a permit for the rally in Central Park on August 29 by emailing Mayor Bloomberg or by calling his office at 212-788-3000, and send a fax to 212-788-2460. Also let the Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, know how you feel by calling his office at 212-360-1305.