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.”
Indeed, the most disturbing action the city took was to withdraw a tentative proposal made by its chief NYPD negotiator, Mike Esposito, to permit a march up Third Avenue from 14th Street that ended at the same Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Chris Dunn told the circuit court—uncontested by the city—that when the demonstrators asked for an alternative route, Esposito came up with the plan himself, saying he had to go back to get final approval for it from higher-ups. Several days later, without explanation, the city took Esposito’s plan off the table and rigidly insisted that no march would be allowed. Cunningham said City Hall knew nothing about the Esposito proposal.
One of the appeals judges, Lewis Kaplan, said from the bench after Dunn presented this account, “Oh, I can understand that you feel you were sandbagged because the city didn’t behave the way it usually behaves. I do understand that.”
The NYCLU focused on parallels like the St. Patty’s Day Parade and the Puerto Rican Day Parade, pointing out that these cultural celebrations are permitted though 300 to 400 arrests usually occur, in contrast to the more peaceful history of peace marches. But the starker parallel is the annual Salute to Israel Parade, which goes down Fifth Avenue between 56th and 79th streets and drew 100,000 marchers and 800,000 spectators last May. With the Jewish community acknowledged as a primary terrorist target, and a massive police presence necessary, the city’s willingness to permit this march appears particularly inconsistent with its anti-war march rebuff.
Mike Bloomberg marched in that parade himself. He told the Voice, though, that he was “never politically active” and “doesn’t remember ever participating in a demonstration,” adding that “the civil rights movement was pretty much over” by the time he came of age (actually he was 21 when the 1963 March on Washington occurred, and making money at Salomon through the tumultuous later ’60s). He didn’t seem to know what the Voice was talking about when asked why his police department was continuing the Giuliani-invented practice of herding demonstrators into penned-off areas, corralling them in small groups behind metal barricades about 12 feet long and four feet high. Pressed about why these pens replaced the familiar wooden sawhorses long used by the NYPD to merely establish a broad police line, Bloomberg said he had to leave tactics to the professionals.
But if those who see this war as a life-or-death matter can’t march against it, splitting them into hundreds of stand-still holding cells is just one more way of demoralizing protest. A mayor who has done so much in a single year to let his city breathe again, ending the era of government by unexplained edict, should see the significance of these no-march and pen-’em-up policies. They make it hard for the thousands who protest to see his sweetheart side.
Research assistance: Cathy Bussewitz, Alexa Hinton, Felicia Mello, Solana Pyne, E.B. Solomont, and Steven I. Weiss
“New York City Labels Anti-War Marchers a Security Breach” by Sarah Ferguson
“New York Rally Shows Mainstream Opposition to War” by Alisa Solomon
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 18, 2003