Gotham Gazette

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Pope John Paul II's appearance in Central Park (left) was the last event to attract huge crowds to the Great Lawn, which has now been restored (right).

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The Rally Threatens The Beautifully Restored Lawn
by Henry Stern

New York City and the Department of Parks and Recreation have denied United for Peace and Justice a permit for approximately 250,000 people to protest the Republican National Convention and hold a rally on the Great Lawn in Central Park on August 29.

As an organizer of the rally, I understand that the city faces a tremendous challenge with the Republicans coming to town. We are mindful of this and feel that we have proposed the simplest, most clear-cut and safest way for New Yorkers and people from across the country to exercise our First Amendment rights.

The convention will be at Madison Square Garden. We filed for a permit that would allow us to march up Eighth Avenue past the Garden and then continue to Central Park West and into Central Park.

There are few open spaces in Manhattan where large groups of people can congregate within walking distance of Madison Square Garden. The Great Lawn is ideal. This area of the park can handle large crowds. It has held concerts by the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, and other events like a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1995.

We are seeking a permit for the entire Great Lawn, not just the oval in the middle. Around the oval are six ball fields and room for people to gather and hear the rally.

The city has suggested that we move the march to Flushing Meadow Park in Queens. This is not acceptable. We should be allowed to protest near the convention and make our concerns heard.

The fact that we were denied a permit, although upsetting, is not surprising. When we were organizing the February 15, 2003 rally against the war in Iraq, we put in a request to march past the United Nations on First Avenue. The city adamantly refused to grant us the right to march anywhere in Manhattan.

I still do not understand the logic of that decision from a safety or a public relations point of view. The only explanation I can imagine is that officials were trying to confuse people and undermine the effectiveness of the demonstration.

I am not saying that the city is doing the same this time, but we are concerned about the city’s political agenda. In the last several years, it has become more difficult to get permits to march in New York City. And the dynamics between police and demonstrators have grown worse. Is it just a coincidence that a Republicans are coming to town and our Republican mayor has denied a permit to march?

My hope is that city officials will come to their senses and allow us to march and rally. We have already launched a national campaign to put pressure on the mayor, who should recognize that this is the best plan for the day.

But one way or another we are going to protest. They will not silence us.

Leslie Cagan is a co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.