When Peace Is a Threat


The Bloomberg Administration’s refusal to let antiwar activists march in New York reflects a certain Orwellian logic: Because the turnout on Saturday is expected to be so large, marching past the United Nations, or indeed anywhere in New York City, has been deemed an “unacceptable risk to public safety.”

In other words, because so many people feel compelled to demonstrate against what they feel is a potentially catastrophic path to war in Iraq, peace activists have been labeled a security threat.

There will still be a stationary rally just north of the U.N. on First Avenue and 49th Street extending uptown as far as necessary. But the proposal by activists to assemble on First Avenue, march past the U.N., across 42nd Street, then up to Central Park has been nixed.

Testifying in court on Friday, Assistant Chief of Police Michael Esposito said, “The size of crowd, especially the size of the crowd that is unknown to us…was a large problem. That number marching through where they wanted, and not knowing how many would be there, would be very difficult to police.”

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones agreed, arguing in her ruling on Monday that the stepped-up terror alert in the city along with heightened security concerns after 9-11 are both valid reasons why a march of such “size and uncertainty” should not be allowed.

Opponents of war counter that it is the Bush Administration’s own insistence on invading Iraq that is precipitating this current terror threat. “Our most basic civil rights and liberties are being curtailed in the name of security and the rush to war,” charged Leslie Cagain, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, the national network of more than 200 protest groups that is coordinating demonstrations in New York and across the U.S. this weekend.

Civil libertarians called Monday’s court ruling unprecedented: the first time a court has ever upheld the denial of a permit for a protest march. “This is a watershed moment,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York City Civil Liberties Union, which filed an appeal of Judge Jones’s decision on Monday. “The Bush Administration is seeking to play on people’s fears in order to set back fundamental freedoms of free speech and protest that are at the core of our democracy.” On Wednesday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected UFPJ’s appeal.

Organizers for UFPJ may have hurt their case by waiting so long to begin negotiating with police for what is slated to be the biggest protest event here in decades. The permit application was not submitted until January 22, even though the idea for the February 15 demonstration had been circulating among activists for several weeks.

Still, the concerns raised by the city in court seemed exaggerated. In court, Esposito claimed an “uncontrolled peace march” would be more difficult to police than annual events like the St. Patrick’s Day and Puerto Rican Day parades because participants at those events “step out in a timed manner and proceed at a set pace,” allowing police to survey the crowd for terrorist devices. Since when were the Irish and Puerto Ricans known for being orderly and in-sync?

Judge Jones also warned that “a large crowd at the starting point could lead to dangerous surges . . . as participants vie to be at the front of the march. Police anticipate trouble controlling such surges throughout the entire march, creating a continuing risk of injury to participants themselves, especially children.” You’d think New York was bracing for a Rolling Stones concert.

In fact, Cagan testified that UFPJ has lined up 500 parade marshals, most of them union members who are experienced at hemming in crowds, along with scores of peacekeepers and legal observers.

Some suspect the Bush administration of pressuring the city to reject the permit, noting that the Justice Department sent two attorneys to the hearing on Friday and filed a court brief on Saturday that stressed security concerns and the responsibility of the city to provide safe access to the U.N. According to Steve Ault, an organizer with UFPJ, police officials had initially been willing to negotiate a parade permit up Third Avenue, then withdrew that offer a week ago. A spokesperson for the city insisted that security, not politics, was the basis of its decision, adding, “The world has changed since 9-11.”

Ironically, by refusing to let people march, the city may well make the task of policing Saturday’s demo more difficult. Faced with the prospect of being kept in pens on First Avenue, many groups are organizing feeder marches to the big rally. While most groups—such as the 5000-strong union march, led by members of 1199, DC-37 and the Transit Workers—have pledged to keep to the sidewalk, others like the festive Carnival bloc, the Anti-capitalist bloc, and the Student Youth bloc, aren’t making any promises.

“Depending on what the police do, I think you could see some civil disobedience actions breaking out, because a lot of folks aren’t going to stay on the sidewalk, no matter what,” says Kevin Skvorak, a member of the NYC group No Blood for Oil. “People feel they have a right to march, and they will demonstrate to defend that right.”

Related Article:

Cornered!: Marching in a Melancholy Time” by Richard Goldstein