All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

The GOP convention is days away. Where will all the protesters go?

| Thu Aug. 26, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

This Sunday, up to 250,000 protesters plan to give George W. Bush and his Republican Party a true New York welcome -- in the form of loud and colorful dissent from the policies of the past four years and outrage at Bush's bid to hijack the symbolism and raw memory of 9/11 for partisan advantage. Which is as it should be. But let's hope the protesters don't end up giving Bush a post-convention bounce.

In the most recent pre-convention development, the umbrella organization United For Peace and Justice, which stands against the "government's policy of permanent warfare and empire-building" lost out yesterday in its legal battles with the City of New York and will not be allowed to conclude its "The World Says No to the Bush Agenda!" march in Central Park.

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Having rejected an alternative location offered by Mayor Bloomberg, the organizers say the march will still go on along the planned route by Madison Square Garden. Trouble is, it's not at all clear where the march is going to end. United for Peace and Justice web site insists that "a safe, peaceful, and orderly closure of the day's events" is being worked out, but that is hardly reassuring. A quarter of million disorganized anti-Bush protesters—peacefully intentioned though they maybe—stuck in the middle of a big (and heavily policed) Bush pre-party on a hot, August day is going to make for a combustible mix.

So who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs? As a New York Times op-ed put it:

"There is plenty of blame to go around, and much of it should be directed at Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The convention is most likely to cost the city a lot in both money and general inconvenience. Having decided to pay that price, the mayor should have been willing to risk damage to the grass in Central Park to provide protesters with an appropriate rallying point."

While Mayor Bloomberg has behaved irresponsibly in this case, so have the organization's leaders. First, they agreed to conclude the march at West Side Highway, then decided that it couldn't be held anywhere but Central Park, and dragged the city to court. In her decision, State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann found the organization "guilty of inexcusable and inequitable delay" in bringing its case against the city, denying "an opportunity for the city to formulate an appropriate plan to ensure the safety of the public and to protect the city's parkland from what likely would be irreparable damage."

This is the third time an organization has been denied a permit to hold a rally in Central Park, and many suspect that politics—not concern for the absence of proper facilities or the condition of the park's grass—had a lot to do with the outcome. That may be the case, but having agreed to West Side Highway as a protest site before, it is irresponsible for United for Peace and Justice’s leaders to say that it is a completely unacceptable site now. One sure hopes that Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice changes her mind about canceling the end-rally, but marching anyway, adding "We don't believe this will degenerate into chaos and violence…We're coming to this demonstration committed to peace." If only good intentions inevitably guaranteed good outcomes that wouldn't be a problem, but seeing that they rarely do, Cagan’s stance is both naïve and irresponsible.

Some fear a repeat of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago—where Vietnam War protesters clashed with the police, and instead of eliciting public sympathy for their cause, helped Richard Nixon win the election. As Rick Perlstein points out in the Village Voice:

"Events have seen to it—perhaps by Republican intention, perhaps not, it hardly matters which—that protesters this time, just like last time, have been rendered ready and eager to demonstrate, on the Sunday before the convention, in a physical location where the city has determined they may not demonstrate. Thus the stage may be set now—as it was then—for disaster.
It is only inane arrogance that gives someone the confidence to pronounce that, magically, 'people will understand.' They might not understand at all. Instead, what they might understand is: 'Bush is better than anarchy in the streets.' It ain't fair. But if it all goes down as unplanned, there'll be a whole lot more unfairness coming down the pike in the next four years."

It's unfortunate and unfair that Mayor Bloomberg is set on making Central Park off-limits to the demonstrators. But if United For Peace and Justice is serious about changing the policies of the Bush administration, it will swallow its pride and take the West Side Highway.

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