Demonstrations against the impending pre-emptive war by the United States of America against Iraq marched past the Coliseum in Rome, the Houses of Parliament in London, the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on February 15. But when they tried to march past the United Nations in New York, they were stopped by the city with the backing of the federal government.
The New York Police Department said that they could not handle a march for security reasons and the federal courts and the editorial boards of the daily newspapers in the city accepted this. With the country on an "orange alert" from the United States Department of Homeland Security, the demonstrators were restricted to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on a side street north of the United Nations and some surrounding streets and this was accepted as a necessary concession to security by many opinion makers in New York, while bitterly contested by the demonstration organizers from United for Peace and Justice and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Some City Council members were concerned enough about the denial of a march permit to call public hearings on February 25 before the Government Operations and Public Safety Committees.
The organizers of the demonstration have been criticized for not laying out their plans for a march well in advance. Beyond the fact that this was a response to recent developments in the United States campaign to attack Iraq, many demonstration organizers in New York no longer go to the Police Department for permits for large demonstrations because they end up in negotiations leading to a late selection of a route or site that, they feel, defeat the purpose of their action.
While much public attention has been focused on the restrictions on this anti-war demonstration, protests in New York City were steadily hemmed in during the Giuliani years. Mayor Giuliani did everything he could to close City Hall Plaza not just to protest demonstrations, but also to press conferences. Only after repeated lawsuits by Housing Works, an AIDS housing advocacy and service group, did groups win the right to press conferences and demonstrations, albeit severely limited.
In the not too distant past, the steps of City Hall were once as democratic a place as Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park in London, with two or three ad hoc press conferences or actions competing at the same time. Now behind iron gates and a metal detector just to get into the plaza, it is a much less dynamic area and infinitely more restrictive of free speech.
The argument of the police, often hailed as the finest in the world, that they cannot handle certain marches and demonstrations is also nothing new. When members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization wanted to march up Fifth Avenue in 1993 to protest their exclusion from the St. Patrick's Day parade prior to the big event, the police made the same argument -- that they couldn't handle more than one parade that day, even at different times. (The police can and do handle more than one parade when they are led by different ethnic groups at the same time.) The gay group sued the police and Mayor Dinkins in federal court and lost. Their protest march on the morning of March 17, 1993 was stopped by the police who then proceeded to arrest more than 250 demonstrators, a procedure that arguably took a lot more time and trouble than letting them proceed up the avenue before any of the other St. Patrick's parade participants were scheduled to take it.
When a gay Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepherd, was brutally murder in 1998, there were marches in sympathy and outrage across the land. The New York demonstrators, however, were not permitted to march down Fifth Avenue from outside the Plaza Hotel on W. 59th Street. Police arrested most of the organizers at the outset and the demonstration, filled with anger at Shepherd's death and police tactics, turned into a chaotic mess leading to many arrests and injuries, not to mention many more traffic tie-ups all over the West Side than would have occurred had the march been allowed to proceed.
If the cause is more politically sensitive, marchers have been able to go forward. When Amadou Diallo was killed by police with 41 bullets in 1999, a huge protest march against the police was allowed to proceed across the Brooklyn Bridge into a demonstration area near City Hall. It all depends whose ox is gored.
Ann Northrop, an AIDS activist who is a veteran of many of these marches, said of the February 15th anti-war demonstration, "It's the most shameful thing that Bloomberg has ever done. It could have been a peaceful huge march with no problems." Instead, people were herded onto side streets and made to walk blocks and blocks away from the rally. A police source said that orders came down from the top of the Bloomberg administration that New York was not to be seen as a center of protest and the police should therefore interfere with the ability of protesters to get to the rally by telling them that there were terrorist threats. People were being turned away as they arrived at Grand Central Station in some cases.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is determined to reverse the trend on restrictions on demonstrations in New York, just as the police are determined to continue using this method of penning demonstrators in (as they pen in revelers on New Year's Eve in Times Square). "As long as the judiciary goes along with this," Northrop said, "we're stymied. But as long as we turn out in huge numbers, no matter what they do to us, we'll be successful. We have to keep the pressure on. That's what stopped the Vietnam War."
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.