Protesters sue for park rally

By Lincoln Anderson

After filing a lawsuit in State Supreme Court for the right to hold a massive anti-Republican rally in Central Park, organizers remained hopeful this week that the judge on the case would rule in their favor.

United for Peace and Justice filed the lawsuit on Wed. Aug. 18 to demand that the Bloomberg administration allow the scheduled “World Says No to the Bush Agenda” rally to be held in Central Park on Aug. 29, on the eve of the Republican National Convention

According to Bill Dobbs, spokesperson for U.F.P.J., they were encouraged by the fact that the judge on the case, Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann, asked U.F.P.J.’s lawyers if she ruled in favor would they be willing to post a bond to cover any potential damages to the park, to which U.F.P.J.’s lawyers said yes. Dobbs said the city’s lawyers argued that the case was being brought too late, just two weeks before the rally, and should be dismissed. But Silbermann agreed to hear the case, with the next court date set for Monday.

Last week, as a result of objections among its own coalition members, U.F.P.J. rejected its previous agreement with the city to rally on the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan and filed a new permit for Central Park. But the administration promptly dismissed the application for the park, as it has done several times before.

Paul Goldstein, district manager of Community Board 1, wrote in an email to Downtowners that if the protest comes down to Chambers and West Sts., it “will obviously have major impacts on the local community.  Needless to say, West Street will be closed, Hudson River Park will be virtually inaccessible and there will be many additional people throughout the area….It would be advisable to avoid the area unless you are attending the rally and to handle any errands, delivery on another day.”

In addition, this week, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields joined the call to allow the protesters to use Central Park.

“The city should stop trying to block the application to use Central Park for a rally protesting the Republican National Convention and approve the permit immediately,” Fields said. “There is no better venue in Manhattan for such a protest and it has proven to be ideal for numerous, large events.” Fields called the rally “a matter of free speech, a right enshrined in our Constitution. An event as large and as political as the Republican National Convention requires that we make room for dissent, and the Bloomberg administration appears to be trying to squelch that dissent.”

Also, City Councilmember and Manhattan Borough President candidate Bill Perkins told Downtown Express he planned to ask the Council to hold hearings into what role the Central Park Conservancy, a private fundraising vehicle that is the park’s de facto operator, may be playing in blocking the approval of a permit for the protesters to rally in the park. Perkins has been a leading advocate in the Council for U.F.P.J.’s right to a safe, pen-free rally in the park, instead of on a blazing hot highway.

Meanwhile, Former Mayor Ed Koch, who is vice president of the R.N.C. Host Committee and chairperson of its Volunteer Committee, told Downtown Express that while it’s true that he did overrule his Parks commissioner in 1982 to allow the No Nukes rally to take place on the Great Lawn, “it didn’t make a difference,” because the Lawn hadn’t been renovated at that point. U.F.P.J. has cited Koch’s ’82 decision as an example the mayor should follow and that he should overrule his Parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, who opposes the use of the Lawn, as well as the North Meadow and East Meadow — which the protesters have also requested for the rally — for the 250,000 protesters that U.F.J.P. is anticipating. Koch thinks the protesters should rally on the West Side Highway.

“The Great Lawn is absolutely one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he said. “If the protesters go there, it’ll be destroyed. They’re not going to get it unless a judge orders it.”

U.F.P.J. has suggested looking at the use of the Mall in Washington, D.C., to see how demonstrations and the impact on the grass are handled there. Leonard Lee, a member of the permit department for the National Park Service for the National Capitol Region, said that the Mall has a dual mission, which is a challenge.

“The mission is to conserve and protect, but at the same time, also to provide access. We have to walk that fine line,” Lee said. Use of the Mall for an event generally requires a bond of anywhere from $1,000 to $300,000, he said. He said there is generally a “resting period” of from two to three weeks between big events. He said that “just people assembling” would not be very hard on the grass, but that damage can be caused by equipment, such as Jumbotrons, a stage, lighting and so forth. He said that there are some areas of the Mall that are “damaged,” as in without grass at the moment, as a result of “compaction,” and in need of repair.

Told that in New York City, the debate is over one large protest to be held in the park on one day, as opposed to multiple events throughout the year, Lee said, the impact on the grass probably wouldn’t be significant: “You would think if there’s not a history of repeated events, there would be relatively little, if any, adverse impact. It would seem that would be less of a factor.”

Lee said the Mall has an underground irrigation system — like the Great Lawn — but that this is not damaged just by lots of people standing on the grass. The pipes could be damaged by tent stakes being driven into the ground, however, he said. Told that one would think it would take an elephant standing on the Mall to dent an underground irrigation pipe, Lee agreed, “So would I.”

Former Mayor Koch said the bond for use of the Lawn should be $16 million, since that’s what it cost to renovate it in the mid-1990s. But Lee said that sounds extreme.

“Sixteen million would mean tear it all out and put it in all new,” Lee said.

On Wednesday night, after the lawsuit had been filed, hundreds of organizers gathered at Washington Square United Methodist Church in the Village for U.F.P.J.’s final organizing meeting before the march.

Carlito Robira, the head of security for the march, said they plan to do their best to assure it will be peaceful.

“There is not going to be any violence. We’re not wackos,” said Robira. “We’re very serious. There’s going to be some damage — and that damage is going to be political.”

Leslie Cagan, U.F.P.J.’s national coordinator, said, as per the permit granted by the city, they still plan to assemble on Aug. 29 between 14th and 22nd Sts. on Seventh Ave. and march up past Madison Sq. Garden, the convention site.

“Everything after that is up in the air. Except one thing — that we will not go to the West Side Highway,” she said, as the crowd cheered.

Cagan said a large turnout at court on Tuesday would help their case, and from the rumbling sound of agreement from the capacity crowd it sounded as if many planned to follow her advice.

“Oh, yeah!” said one man with relish.


WWW Downtown Express