Turf Wars


Police helicopters hovered overhead. Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied below. Top brass kept watch from mobile command posts. More than 5,000 cops—the largest contingent ever mobilized for one demonstration—patrolled. Even the ever conservative official crowd-size estimates broke the charts: Police said some 500,000 showed up in Central Park; another 250,000 took part in protests elsewhere in the city.

In a rare moment of harmony, cops and organizers agreed the huge event came off without a hitch.

“Everything we planned worked like a textbook exercise,” the police commissioner told the press. Traffic had moved through the city more smoothly than normal. He was “very, very pleased,” he said.

But that was another police commissioner, under a different mayor, talking about another rally, one held more than 20 years ago.

“I still believe there were more than a million people there that day,” said Leslie Cagan, who organized the massive June 1982 rally for a nuclear freeze. “That was a spectacularly successful event.”

All of the city officials who had to cope with that colossal and peaceful exercise of free speech are long gone from government. Cagan, a veteran organizer of scores of such rallies, is still leading them. She now spearheads a last-ditch push to overcome City Hall’s opposition to another massive demonstration in the park on August 29, the day before the Republican National Convention convenes.

The long fight over the rally permit has led to flip-flops on both sides. Last month, Cagan’s group, United for Peace and Justice, reluctantly accepted Mayor Bloomberg’s dictate that they rally not in the park, but miles away on West Street in Lower Manhattan. Last week, however, they reversed themselves, saying the logistics for the site were unworkable. Renewing their request for a parks permit, they suggested a different configuration for the rally, with part of the crowd massed in other parts of the park to ease the impact on the highly manicured Great Lawn.

The city’s rejection was instantaneous, leaving the group with few options other than to file a lawsuit seeking to compel the city to grant its permit request. Court, however, is one place the protesters have said all along they don’t want to go. Twice last year, federal judges—citing police security concerns—ruled in the city’s favor when Bloomberg refused to grant permits for a February march opposing the looming Iraq war.

Last week, immediately after the protesters signaled their intention to file a lawsuit, the mayor too began tailoring his arguments. No longer was the crucial issue the continued health of the park’s restored turf, the mayor told the media last Wednesday. Instead, the problem had become security.

“It doesn’t even have to do with grass. People get carried away. They’re going to trample the grass,” Bloomberg said. “But that’s not even the issue. The issue is you just can’t put that kind of crowd together where you can’t make sure that ambulances can get in and other people are trying to use the park at the same time, and we don’t want to take away their rights.”

“This is simply ridiculous,” Cagan fired back later. “Massive events have happened in the park, and emergency vehicles get in and out just fine.”

Organizers said it was the first they had heard that emergency access in the park was a major city concern. “In all our discussions with the police, that was not raised,” said Bill Dobbs, a rally leader. Asked about the mayor’s new concern, police spokesperson Paul Browne declined to address it, saying he was “not familiar with what the mayor said.”

It wasn’t the only point made by the mayor that was disputed by the group. Bloomberg insisted that prior to the organizers’ rejection of the West Street rally site, things had been going fine.

“I will say I’m surprised,” the mayor added, “because two days ago, the police department had another meeting with this group and to say it was a good meeting is an understatement. We really seemed to think, we thought we had worked out all the details and they were very happy.”

Cagan said the planning meeting with police officials had been very different. Basic issues of how metal barricades would be configured, where emergency lanes would be placed, even whether or not protesters would be allowed to bring umbrellas to shelter themselves from the hot sun had been left up in the air. “They said, ‘We’ll have to get back to you,’ ” said Dobbs.

“The mayor might have a much clearer sense of what goes on at one of those meetings if he attended them,” said Cagan. “If the police reported to him that all of the details were worked out, then they simply were not paying attention. None of the major or important details were worked out.”