Why Mike Banned the March

Bloomberg Talks About Iraq, Protest, and His Own Myopic Youth

Mike Bloomberg was 61 years old on February 14, Valentine's Day. Maybe that's why he's often such a sweetheart. But in all his years, by his own account, he's never participated in a demonstration. Maybe that's why he was such a stinker on February 15. He allowed the NYPD, for the first time in modern history, to stop a massive march in its tracks. For a mayor whose openness changed the tenor of the town overnight, it was a perplexing miscalculation.

Bloomberg tried to explain it in a Voice interview two days before the demonstration last Saturday. Asked what his position was on the war in Iraq, he said, "Let me duck that question. I don't think it's the function of the city to get involved in national policy. I focus on what's right for the people of the City of New York. I don't know whether it's right or wrong. I don't have the intelligence information they do." The mayor, who recently convinced the Bush administration to hold the 2004 Republican Convention in NYC, has previously declined to comment at all when questioned about the war.

Pressed about whether the war would likely increase the terrorist threat to New York and, consequently, the police and related costs to the city, Bloomberg said, "I don't know if it heightens security risks. I know it heightens security concerns. I'm sure that as security concerns increase, expenses here will increase with it." Ironically, one argument against the march that Bloomberg's attorneys made was that the NYPD would have to pay overtime for 1500 additional cops if anti-war demonstrators were allowed to march, slightly more than the 8000 cops it deployed for the stationary rally permitted at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

The mayor and his chief of communications, Bill Cunningham, laid out the internal process that led to the decision to ban the march. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly met with Bloomberg and chief of staff Peter Madonia. "The NYPD suggested sites far removed from the United Nations area," said Cunningham. "But the mayor felt the demonstrators had a right to be in some proximity of the UN. The police had to come back and redraw the plans." Cunningham added that it was the mayor who "insisted that the East Side would be the site of the protest," suggesting that the NYPD wanted it elsewhere.

Cunningham would not say what some of the department's alternative sites were, but an administration insider said that Central Park was one (and a city attorney said in court that Randalls Island was another). Bloomberg said he rejected any potentially damaging use of the park. "From day one when I talked with Kelly," he said, "I wanted the demonstrators to be able to get as close to the place they wanted to go as possible. It's Kelly's job to provide security. It's my job as mayor to balance the other needs of the public. Kelly's certainly not opposed to free speech. But I said they have to do it in midtown; otherwise they can make the case that they're inhibited from getting their message across. We certainly have no objections to marches. But this is just a few weeks before a potential war. It might've been very different in the summer. It doesn't seem to me that you're sacrificing very much so long as you can assemble. Is it less effective in getting your message out? Probably marginally. But it's a reasonable compromise."

Cunningham cited the hip-hop march to protest school budget cuts organized by Russell Simmons and the teachers union last June—with 20,000 people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to rally at City Hall—as an example of a moving demonstration permitted by the Bloomberg administration. The transit workers did the same—albeit with fewer marchers—just a few weeks ago. But Bloomberg, Cunningham, and the city's legal papers argued that the orange alert, linked to the war, and "the size of this anticipated crowd" made it too dangerous a time for this march, which the police said was more difficult for them to control.

The mayor said this judgment was supported by two wins in federal court, especially the unanimous ruling by a three-judge circuit court last Wednesday. What the courts were absolutely clear on was that the city had a right to deny a permit for a demonstration between 42nd and 47th streets, directly in front of the UN, which has been identified as a prime terrorist target. Even the attorneys for the demonstrators backed off that demand. But while saying that the city also had a reasonable basis for rejecting any alternative route for this march, the appeals court set limits on how far it should take that prerogative. "We do not imply that a prohibition against marching would be constitutional in circumstances other than those presented here," the panel ruled. "We caution that, while short notice, lack of detail, administrative convenience and costs"—the rationales offered for denial by city lawyers—"are always relevant considerations, these factors are not talismanic justifications for the denial of parade permits. Likewise, simply offering an alternative of stationary demonstration . . . may not completely serve the constitutional interest at issue."

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