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 towards chaos. Though event organizer United for Peace and Justice states its willingness to follow any route the New York Police Department designates, the only legal option at hand is for anti-war demonstrators to be massed in tightly controlled police pens stretching far up First Avenue north of the United Nations. Of the perhaps 100,000 people corralled there – stationary, cold, unable to hear or see the program directly, unable to duck out without difficulty for coffee or the Port-o-John – how many will chant for a guilt-assuaging hour and then head home?
Then there are those who will seek a more creative outlet, avoiding the pens and hoping to sow chaos all over Manhattan. The Net features discussion of such tactics, honed at past free-form protests, as using cell phones to coordinate splinter actions. Of the currently 29 UFPJ-sanctioned “feeder” marches – by such groups as the “Queer Anti-War Contingent,” the “Interfaith Ministers for Peace,” not to mention the “Anarchist Red & Black Contingent” and the “Anti-Capitalist Bloc” – how many might break up like mercury in a dish, blobs going off on their own rather than being shunted into the pens?
As former Brooklyn DA and Congresswoman Liz Holtzman told me, “It’s tough to distinguish [regular] walkers from marchers.”
One contributor to the NYC Indymedia Center Web site called for: “a tactical plan for widescale 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 theatre, 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.”
Writing in ZNet online, Brian Dominick, an emergency medical technician from Syracuse, NY, noted his phone message to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that, “permit or no permit, we will march.” He added, “This latest clash between the streets and the elites is at this phase neither cataclysmic nor revolutionary, but it is certainly momentous.”
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, he disagreed about 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 seeks 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.”
By phone, Brian Dominick, a veteran of many demonstrations, wondered about an exit strategy – both citizens’ and the cops’. While he’s helped organize medical facilities at prior demonstrations, he’s just coordinating buses for this one.
Based on his experience, he speculated that, “With hundreds of thousands of people at what was planned and promoted as a march, they will have that expectation. What, are the police somehow going to manage to say we have to leave in very small groups and disperse us a few at a time? That’s what they do when there’s hundreds or even a few thousand people. But 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.”
As endorsed by Judge Jones on Monday, the city has seemingly transformed a largely self-policing, follow-your-nose chant-and-sing march along any route the city might choose – UFPJ having abandoned its goal of marching by the UN – into an unpredictable and potentially chaotic cat-and-mouse struggle. Any rampant hooliganism will besmirch the peace movement, true, but also black the eye of civil liberties in a country touting itself as a democratic example to the world.
And, to the degree that news cameras focus on cops tussling with some kids decked out in anarchist regalia or some shattered plate glass rather than on throngs tramping by under a Unitarian or Queer or Labor peace banner, that apparently suits the authorities just fine. (At one point, UFJP’s negotiations with the city were delayed because, according to its legal complaint, Mayor Bloomberg “needed to be part of the decision-making processâ€¦.” And sitting with city lawyers before Judge Jones bolstering denial of a march permit were two U.S. assistant attorneys.)
Effective, massed dissent an intolerable visual spectacle as war approaches, the city now invites struggle on both ends of a nightstick. The current thin strip of a rally – Jones estimated it might stretch from its start north of the UN for some 25 blocks – precludes TV shots of a vast, anti-war crowd gathered in Central Park, UJFP’s requested endpoint. (Before they decided they would accept any route of march the city dictated, UJFP wanted to march past the UN, then west, then up through Times Square and along Seventh Avenue to Central Park.)
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 â€¦. Marching in the streets is a time-honored tradition in our country that lies at the core of the First Amendment.”
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.
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.”
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.” As to the latter, thousands of marchers might hope – corporally and en masse – to turn many fellow New Yorkers from the quotidian, to raise a question or two. Dissent becomes a less lonely business surrounded by thousands of the like-minded. Perhaps some burghers in from the burbs for a Saturday matinee just might keep that ticket in their pockets, seeing so many well-fed folks just like them marching along. Or any number of teens descended on Times Square for some gawking and a movie might be enticed by their peers in the line of march.
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.
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.”
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.” This is in a city famous for decades for its world-class ability to cope safely with crowds.
But both UFJP co-chairwoman Leslie Cagan and 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.
Jones herself cited case law that, “Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens.” But, she added, such rights are “not absolute.” They “may be regulated in the interest of all â€¦ in consonance with peace and good order.” In fact, as was disclosed in Newsday, since last fall, there have been no permits for any protest marches in Manhattan below 59th Street. Apparently an ancient right has been whisked away without notice.
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 made the bald assertion that, “The Police can more effectively monitor crowds for terror threats at stationary rallies than they can crowds moving in a processionâ€¦” But she offered no support for this perhaps counterintuitive assertion that’s key to the whole dispute. One might argue that furtive activity would be easier to manage when people are pressed together, without the natural spacing that movement involves. (Unless shooting invisible poison or some such out of a boutonniere on your lapel, given the crowd and the cops, escape isn’t much of an option moving or stationary.)
Esposito testified that since, unlike a cultural parade, people self-select, perhaps at the last minute, to come, “That crowd, that number marching through where they wanted and not knowing how many would be there would be very difficult to policeâ€¦. It would be very difficult to do.”
Why? Only so many people – soccer moms from Scarsdale and anarchists (perhaps also from Scarsdale ) alike – can fit on any given block. At bottom, that number dictates how the NYPD marshals its forces. Besides, how are the hundreds of other cities around the world coping with the marches they’ll allow on Saturday? Has the NYPD suddenly lost its status as a paragon of police science?
During an anti-war protest of similar size in Washington in January, one that the Bush administration endorsed (sort of) as Americans exercising their rights, very few cops monitored the peaceful crowd. At the staging area on the National Mall, with tens of thousands of protesters, a couple of dozen U.S. Park Police loitered about. As marchers then passed the Capitol and nearby federal offices, more cops were in evidence, some few hundred. Then the march passed into a residential neighborhood in South East Washington, with nary an officer in sight, mile after weary, frozen mile.
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.”
There’s no reason to expect a New York line of organized march won’t be similarly pacifist. It is a peace demo, after all. But rather than rely on both peer and more direct pressure from massed, orderly protesters and parade marshals who might point out transgressors to the cops, the city instead sets the stage for bands of hotheads to swoop down for some mayhem and then try to flee. Rather than an easily policed, peaceful line of march, now most of Manhattan becomes a protest zone.
An execrable New York Sun editorial last week raised “the possibility” of demonstrators being subject to “an eventual treason prosecution.” It noted that by “obstructing” the protest, the city can hope to limit the turnout. And, “the smaller the crowd, the more likely that President Bush will proceed with his plans to liberate Iraq.”
Maybe the Sun parsed Bloomberg and company’s ability (and reason) to limit the crowd correctly. Or just maybe a bunch of folks on the fence about bombing Baghdad might show up to defend a core freedom Americans have fought and died defending for a long time. As Glick put it, “The bottom line is the march rather than hanging around being frustrated near the UN”
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.