Now that hopes finally quashed for a permitted rally in Central Park on Sunday, August 29, to cap off United for Peace and Justice‘s permitted march, the question remains: Where are an estimated 215,000 people supposed to go?
Answer 1: Union Square, then home, if you can get to either place.
Answer 2: The Park, anyway.
UFPJ’s permitted march, which assembles at 10 a.m. between 15th and 22nd streets, from 5th to 9th avenues, will loop up 7th Avenue past Madison Square Garden, then across 34th and back down 5th Avenue to Union Square.
“Your cooperation in dispersing the march once we reach Union Square is critically important,” wrote UFPJ in an e-mail to its members. “The area is far too small to accommodate even a fraction of the crowd we expect, and we need your help in moving people out of the area quickly, so that the march will not become stalled.” Though there will be a small sound system in Union Square, it will be used only to help disperse protesters.
The problem is, as anyone who was around for the protests at the start of the Iraq war remembers dispersing through crowded downtown streets is no easy task. In March 2003, I was part of a march of hundreds to Washington Square Park that turned dangerous when police blocked off side streets, allowing exit only up University Place at the eastern side of the park. The mood got ugly as young protesters mocked cops in riot gear by singing the “Imperial March” from Star Wars. Innocent bystanders were swept into a surging crowd that stretched several blocks up University, and police brandished batons to physically hold people back.
A better option on Sunday may be to slip away from the march and make your way to the Great Lawn, after all. No permit is needed to assemble there as long as there is no amplified sound. The A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition is currently distributing flyers advising people to gather in the park as “casual visitors” on Saturday at 1 p.m., with signs no larger than 2×3 feet, and various other groups are issuing calls to the park on Sunday.
Leslie Cagan, the leader of UFPJ, will be there on Sunday with a picnic lunch, she told Newsday. “In light of what we’ve seen and heard we’ll have legal observers up in the park,” Bruce Bentley of the National Lawyers Guild told me. “My sense is that the police will be exercising discretion. They’re not going to prevent people from assembling. Of course, it would have been much, much better to have a permitted rally in the park. It would have been easier for the police as well, in my opinion.” A police spokesman would say only, “There will be adequate police presence throughout the city.”