By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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Responding to signs of mutiny in the ranks of protesters, organizers with United for Peace and Justice say they will reopen the battle for the right to gather in Central Park on Sunday, August 29, the eve of the Republican National Convention.
At a packed press conference on Tuesday at UFPJs midtown offices, national coordinator Leslie Cagan announced that the group had reapplied that morning for a permit to use the Great Lawn as well as Central Parks East Meadow and North Meadow, acknowledging Parks Department concerns that the Great Lawn is too small to handle a crowd of up to 250,000 people.
Cagan said the group would wait for the city's response, although she did not rule out a lawsuit if the Parks Department refuses to grant them a permit.
"We are exploring all our options, including legal options," Cagan said. "But let me be clear, we are not going to the highway."
The move marks a dramatic turnaround. Three weeks ago, UFPJ grudgingly agreed to use the West Side Highway for its closing rally after more than a year of bickering with city officials, who refused to issue a permit for the group to mass in the park or to consider alternative sites, such as Times Square and Third Avenue.
Cagan cited the Police Departments refusal, thus far, to spell out plans for police barricades, the added cost of mounting a sound system capable of reaching a crowd strung out for up to 40 blocks along the highway, and concerns that demonstrators would be dropping from heat exhaustion on the shade-free asphalt.
"Its impossible to exercise our constitutional right to free speech on that highway," said UFPJ spokesperson Bill Dobbs. "To be putting all that money into a route thats not safe, thats not cool, and is viewed as so awful that people didnt want to go there just didnt make sense. So we intend to fight for the only place where such a large crowd can freely assemble, which is Central Park."
Among those speaking out at the press conference was a physician who accused the city of being irresponsible by asking demonstrators, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities, to stand out in the sun after walking what would be a nearly five-mile route from midtown to the rallys stage on the highway, just north of Chambers Street. "You have all the conditions for heatstroke," said Dr. Richard Brown, adding, "This is dangerous."
But organizers also acknowledged a groundswell of opposition to the highway plan, not just from militants but newspaper editorial boards and everyday New Yorkers: a recent poll showed three out of four city residents support the right of protesters to rally in Central Park during the convention.
For many activists, fighting for access to the citys largest park has become a point of principle. "I think this was a case where the people led, and the leaders followed," says A.K. Gupta, an editor at The Indypendent who's been monitoring activist calls to retake the park. The Web has been awash in talk of revolt, from anarchists lambasting UFPJ as "liberal sell-outs," to the libertarians whove called for a noon rally on the Great Lawn under the banner, "The only permit we need is the First Amendment."
Just where everyone will end up now that UFPJ has flipped the script is hard to predict. UFPJ says it is sticking to its plan to assemble on Seventh Avenue south of 23rd Street and march north past the convention site at Madison Square Gardena path the Police Department has already approved. But if the city refuses to budge on the park or any other location for a closing rally, that could mean the prospect of a large and angry crowd marching across 34th Street then dispersing on the edge of midtowns "frozen zone."
Organizers say they dont intend to lead people into the park without without a permit, citing the concerns of families and in particular immigrants, for whom getting arrested could mean being deported. The park battle has only fueled the zeal of the direct actionistas, who are now vowing to turn all of Manhattan into a "free speech zone"-starting at 4 p.m. on August 29, when a "mouse bloc" plans to confront Republican delegates attending Broadway shows with everything from guerilla theater and samba bands to lockdowns. "If one mouse can scare an elephant," reads the call, "what can thousands do?"
More to the point, if an elephant the size of 250,000 people decides to go somewhere, what can the city do?
WEB UPDATE: City Hall responded today to UFPJs announcement that it would fight for the right to rally in the Central Park by telling the group to "stop the theatrics."
In a press statement, Mayoral spokesperson Ed Skyler wrote:
"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. UPJ [sic] has already agreed to a route which will take them right by Madison Square 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."
Also today, the Parks Department summarily rejected UFPJ's permit application for all three areas in the park, saying it was essentially the same as the group's previous application.