Gotham Gazette

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Jury Still Out On De Blasio Era Protest

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Protestors and NYPD during 'Flood Wall Street' (photo: Azi Paybarah)

The de Blasio administration's handling of the People's Climate March and Flood Wall Street protests has been widely praised by many leading critics of the NYPD.

On Sunday, NYCLU head Donna Lieberman tweeted that the non-confrontational approach taken by Bratton's forces was "#change we can believe in." And writing in Gotham Gazette Tuesday, Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale suggests that the improved relations between the NYPD and protesters at both Sunday and Monday's events meant that "the First Amendment scored a major victory this week."

But in the spirit of that same amendment, I shall dissent.

Consider the intended locations of both events. Organizers of the People's Climate March sought to make their statement in Times Square, not on the streets surrounding it. And as the name alone indicates, "Flood Wall Street" was neither aimed at lower Broadway, nor the entire financial district.

Forcefully manned NYPD barricades ensured that no demonstrators would gain access to either iconic location during this week's protests.

While some may be tempted to cue up a certain Rolling Stones song, others may wonder about the precedents now set. The next time protest organizers seek access to Times Square, city officials can point to the ill-defined Climate March route as an established alternative.

Vitale suggests that the NYPD may seek for it to be an "apolitical" place, but Times Square does remain public space. At the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in October of 2011, police allowed a march route from Washington Square to the edge of Times Square, knowing that activists would seek confrontation there.

While it was indeed surprising that Monday's Occupy-style event led to the shutdown of lower Broadway, most observers paid little attention to the fact that Wall Street itself was barricaded throughout the day. If the NYPD allowed a lunch-hour sit-in on Wall Street, that likely would have been less disruptive to business as usual in the area than letting activists control a major artery throughout the entire afternoon.

Both protests thus illustrated the NYPD's growing insistence on insulating the city's most "sacred" spaces from political demonstrations. Is this really a victory for the 1st amendment?

It's also a mistake to see these two events as clearly establishing a definite pattern. After all, as veteran Occupy organizer Stefan Fink told Al Jazeera, they occurred precisely as the "eyes of the world" were on New York City.

Mayor de Blasio was one of the many leading political figures who took part in the Climate March, and he was also slated to address the U.N. climate summit the following day. A hostile approach to a climate change demonstration was clearly not in his best interest.

The mayor's noble proclamations about the 1st amendment also need to be read against the backdrop of his own arrest in the effort to save Long Island College Hospital last year. Many now see that as simply a campaign stunt, but it also makes it hard for the mayor to object to direct action.

Finally, given his lack of leadership on other ongoing policing controversies, a gentler approach to protest also may benefit the mayor politically, since it may calm activists' ire.

Thus, while this week's events indeed suggest a "change" in the climate of protest, it's wiser to reserve judgment until the next large demonstrations take shape—on whatever street they may arise.

Theodore Hamm (@HammerDaily) is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

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