Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Accommodating the Protesters


July 6, 2004
Accommodating the Protesters

It does not require extensive polling to predict that when the Republican convention comes to New York, there will be a lot of protesters. If the city wants to be the host of a convention -- and Mayor Michael Bloomberg vigorously pursued this one -- it has to give reasonable access to those with alternative views. The city has not been forthcoming in its offers of protest sites, and it has been unduly dismissive of the free-expression interests at stake. It should do a better job of coming up with an acceptable site for the protesters.

For well over a year, a group called United for Peace and Justice has been seeking a Central Park permit for a protest that it expects could draw 250,000 people. The city offered a park in Queens, hardly appropriate when the convention is in Manhattan. Now it is offering the West Side Highway, but the organizers are understandably unhappy. A highway is hardly a natural setting for a rally. Since the space is narrow, a "rally" there could end up being a three-mile string of people, many of them unable to see the stage or hear the speakers.

The mayor has acted as if demonstrators are an annoyance, to be shunted as far away as possible. Recently, he unfairly accused organizers of trying to gum up the negotiations in the interests of getting publicity. But New York City has a long and proud history of welcoming peaceful protests and political dissent. This tradition, and the First Amendment, cannot be tossed aside simply because a political convention has come to town.

Both sides should work harder to forge a compromise. When the city rejected a permit to use the Great Lawn in Central Park, saying that costly renovation had made the site too fragile to handle a protest, organizers said they would take the North Meadow, but the city rejected that location, too.

All of Central Park should not be off limits. The city should consider whether there are ways to make it accessible, while limiting damage. If the park isn't feasible, the city should do better than offering the highway. One alternative is Times Square, a central location with a history of accommodating crowds.

The city is already rolling out the red carpet for the Republicans, with an ad campaign urging New Yorkers to "make nice" to the delegates. People who want to take exception to Republican policies are also a legitimate part of convention week, and the city needs to make nice to them, too.