Leslie Cagan scuttles highway march route, citing heat and expected huge turn-out
On August 10, organizers for United for Peace and Justice, the group planning a massive rally for the day before the start of the Republican National Convention, announced that they had filed yet again for a permit 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., at the organization’s W. 38th Street headquarters on Tuesday morning before a phalanx of news cameras and reporters. “We do not have to rally at a site that doesn’t work for us,” Cagan said.
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 refused, as they have done throughout the summer, to issue a permit for the park.
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.”
Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe responded to Cagan in a brief letter. “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. maintains that the latest permit application, differs significantly, in that before the group only requested the Great Lawn, but is now requesting that space along with the 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 expensively sodded Great Lawn.
Cagan said that under the latest plan, the main rally would be on the North Meadow, with Jumbotrons — gigantic TV screens — carrying live images to the Great Lawn and East Meadow crowds.
Last month, after its earlier efforts to get Central Park’s Great Lawn and North Meadow failed, U.F.P.J. grudgingly accepted a permit to march from W. 14th St. and Seventh Ave., up past Madison Sq. Garden — the site of the Republican convention — west on 34th St. and then down the West Side Highway to a rally area near Chambers Street.
For a variety of reasons, including feedback from member groups of the rally coalition who did not want the highway site and a lack of response from the Police Department on requests for assurances on safety conditions, rally organizers have decided that the highway site is unacceptable and that they want the park gain.
Cagan said, for example, that the city would not say whether metal barricades to pen in protesters would be used or if there would be “water buffalo” trucks to provide water to the marchers on a potentially scalding afternoon.
Organizers also said that stretched out over two or three miles on the highway, the rally would lose its power, unlike the inspired feeling a rally in the park might generate, Cagan noted.
City Councilmember Bill Perkins, a Manhattan Democrat and borough presidential aspirant, said the police had not responded to his request that marchers be allowed to carry umbrellas for shade.
In addition, orgaizers said, the highway location is just too remote from the convention site.
A medical adviser, Dr. Richard Brown, warned that the city’s highway route on baking-hot asphalt — a “hellish place,” as he put it—is simply put, a health hazard.
The city also didn’t respond to the protesters’ request for shuttle buses to serve the remote Chambers Street site.
Furthermore, supplying the rally site with a sound system and Jumbotrons 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.
“The Bill of Rights is more important to us than the grass in Central Park,” said David Cline, national president of Veterans for Peace, one of the group’s in the rally coalition.
Luis Garden Acosta, a board member of New Yorkers for Parks and director of El Puente, a community and youth group, who worked on Bloomberg’s transition team, said that as a park advocate he urged the mayor to let the protesters use Central Park. “Yes, it would be better to have one rally,” he said. “But we’ll spread out for three rallies — so the grass is safe.”
Said Tanya Mayo of Not In Our Name, “The denial of the use of Central Park is the chilling sign of the beginning of a police state. This has never been about the grass in Central Park or about our safety. It’s time for a massive no,” Mayo said.
Perkins, who supports the Central Park site, 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. initially gave the city 48 hours to respond. 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. planned to meet with their lawyers on August 11 to decide their next move. The original permit approved by the city still allows protesters to gather between 14th and 23rd Streets between Fifth and Ninth Avenues, funnel onto Seventh Avenue and march past Madison Square 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.
Cagan stressed that U.F.P.J. wants to avoid litigation if possible and still hopes to work things out with the city.
Dobbs noted that the decision is Mayor Bloomberg’s, and that in 1982, before a massive anti-nuclear weapons rally, former Mayor Edward Koch overruled his parks commissioner and allowed 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 accepted the highway rally site, Perkins called that a “technicality,” and said it’s up to the city to do the right thing.
Saying he was also concerned about Central Park being run by a private fundraising body, the Central Park Conservancy, Perkins noted that he plans to call for a Council hearing to look into the degree that the Conservancy has a say on use of the park for large-scale events like protests.
As opposition to the highway rally site mounted, 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 Square Park, for which U.F.P.J. had never asked the Parks Department for a permit. Things came to head at U.J.P.’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 wants 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.”
Still, some New Yorkers have other plans for August 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 Street where Republican National Convention delegates will be going to see shows. The event is called Mouse Bloc in protest of the “Disneyfication” of 42nd Street.
Time’s Up will also participate in the A31 Action Coalition’s activities on August 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.
“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 public relations stunt, when it’s clear Bush is anti-New York.”
Other convention protest events include Ring Out Bush, a bell-ringing extravaganza around the World Trade Center site on August 28 at 5:30 p.m. Organizer Christian Herold, an adjunct drum professor at New York University, said they hope to have at least 3,000 bell-ringers, in eight sections, doing a composition by Paul Oliveros. “It won’t be ultra-loud,” he said. “We’ll pass out 3,000 small bells and 80 larger bells will lead it.”
At noon on August 30, the Still We Rise, Poor People’s March and Rally for Justice will convene at Union Square. 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 September 1, the day before Pres. Bush accepts his party’s nomination, 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. “We have no real experience in political activism. We are just two guys with a very simple idea,” says a flyer for Shut It Down, which notes that the idea was conceived over a meal at a diner in Chelsea and that their original intent was to protest the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Greene Dragon, a satirical performance group, will hold a number of events in patriotic costume, including “Paula Revere’s Ride,” on August 24, at 7 p.m., a ride with “horse-cycles” up Lexington Avenue to warn that “The Republicans are coming!” and on August 27, at 2 p.m., a crossing of New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry to “liberate” Manhattan from the G.O.P.
On August 21, The Really, Really Free Market will be held in the courtyard of St. Mark’s Church at E. 10th Street and Second Avenue from noon till dark. Free performances and free food, games and services are encouraged at this event, in which buying or selling will not be allowed.
Meanwhile, John Penley, who with Aaron Kay, the “Yippie Pie Man,” failed to get a permit to hold a “camporee” in either Tompkins Square Park or East River Park, said they still expect the camp-out to happen in Tompkins Square. Penley said there’s been a noticeable influx of young punks into the neighborhood in anticipation of the convention. 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 during August 17-24.