NYC to First Amendment: Keep Off the Grass

On August 25, New York State Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Silbermann ruled that the activist coalition United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) cannot rally in New York’s Central Park this Sunday, stating that the more than 250,000 demonstrators expected to participate could cause damage to the park’s recently restored grass. The group intended to assemble in the park to protest the Republican National Convention.

UFPJ applied for the Central Park permit after accepting but later rejecting a permit to rally on the West Side Highway, a long route without shade and far from the Convention events. The city of New York had denied UFPJ’s requests to help provide transportation, drinking water and facilities.

According to the USA Today, Central Park has previously hosted massive gatherings, including crowds of 250,000 for a Garth Brooks concert in 1997 and three quarters of a million at a Paul Simon concert in 1991.

According to the Associated Press, UFPJ denounced the judge’s decision as a violation of the Constitution, and accused the city of "discriminating on the basis of content in allowing cultural but not political events."

Nevertheless, the national director of UFPJ, Leslie Cagan, said she would cancel the Sunday rally rather than hold it on the West Side Highway.

UFPJ still plans to carry out a permitted march starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 29, from 7th Avenue and 14th Street, leading past Madison Square Garden, the site of the RNC, then down 5th Avenue, Broadway and ending up at Union Square, without an organized post-march rally.

This is the second time that the city’s denial of a permit has caused UFPJ to partially cancel demonstration plans. After the city’s refusal to grant a march permit for the massive Feb. 15, 2003 antiwar rally, UFPJ decided to hold its planned gathering but not the march through Manhattan which the group had intended to hold.

Though UFPJ has given up on the idea of rallying in the park, many protesters planning to attend Sunday’s rally have not. Some have announced plans to march to Central Park anyway to reclaim the park as public space.

One such group, the Manhattan Libertarian Party, said the only permit they need to assemble in the park is the First Amendment. The party, like many others not associated with UFPJ, is altogether against asking the government for a permit to express themselves. "If you ask the government for permission to protest it, you deserve to be told ‘no,’" said the party’s chair, Jim Lescznyski, in a press statement. The Manhattan Libertarian Party describes itself as believing in individual civil rights and freedoms, including the right to private property.

Other groups are planning independent demonstrations in the park and thus far, New York Police Department spokespeople have told the media they have no plans to disrupt groups of demonstrators in the park as long as they do not interfere with the activities of other park-goers.

The New York State Supreme Court’s refusal to issue the Central Park permit to UFPJ came just one day after a similar verdict by the U.S. District Court in NY against the activist groups Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) and the National Council of Arab Americans (NCAA). It stands as one of many cases in recent months where courts have stifled the right to assemble and protest.

Many activists say late issuance of protest permits for the G8 Summit in Sea Island, Ga., resulted in difficult logistical organizing and low activist turnout and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Mass., were forced to rally inside pens ominously dubbed "free speech zones" by authorities.

According to the London Guardian, Bill Perkins, the New York City Council’s deputy majority leader, stated that "overzealous antiterrorism policing is creating an unnecessary burden on New Yorkers’ rights to assemble." Perkins added, "I am very concerned that we have such high regard for the rights of grass."

While limiting the spaces where demonstrators can rally with the city’s blessing, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week a plan to reward protesters who play nice. Bloomberg’s "Peaceful Political Activist Plan" would provide discounts to various local restaurants, plays and commercial outlets for demonstrators wearing a city-issued pin. Protesters could acquire the pins from organizers at permitted rallies or by showing up at the city’s Midtown Tourism Office.

Bloomberg touted his plan as evidence that the city is reaching out to demonstrators. "Most times, people try to keep protesters from coming, and they certainly don’t go out of their way to accommodate them," he said at a press conference.

Protesters were quick to respond that offering a few bucks off dinner was not going to make up for denying the right to peacefully assemble. "The whole thing is cuckoo," William Dobbs, spokesperson for UFPJ, told Newsday. "We don’t want discounts, we want our First Amendment rights."