Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Just Keep It Peaceful, Protesters; New York Is Offering Discounts

August 18, 2004


Thinking about smashing windows or overturning cars during the Republican National Convention? Think again: that will cost you a discounted buffalo chicken salad from Applebee's or a cheaper ticket to see "Tony n' Tina's Wedding."

In a transparently mercantile bid to keep protesters from disrupting the Republican National Convention later this month, the Bloomberg administration will offer "peaceful political activists" discounts at select hotels, museums, stores and restaurants around town during convention week, which begins Aug. 29.

Law-abiding protesters will be given buttons that bear a fetching rendition of the Statue of Liberty holding a sign that reads, "peaceful political activists." Protesters can present the buttons at places like the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Sex, the Pokémon Center store and such restaurants as Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too and Applebee's to save some cash during their stay.

If only the Romanovs had thought of this.

"It's no fun to protest on an empty stomach," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday, when he announced the program at NYC & Company, the city's tourism office, which will distribute the buttons to all comers to its Midtown office.

Protesters can also get the buttons from groups that have a legal permit to rally. But Mr. Bloomberg conceded yesterday that not everyone who wore a button would be strictly vetted for his or her peacefulness. "Unfortunately, we can't stop an anarchist from getting a button," he said, though he doubted any of them would want to wear one.

The discount program comes at a time when Mr. Bloomberg is under increasing pressure from the largest protest group, United for Peace and Justice, which is demanding the right to protest in Central Park, a request the city has repeatedly rejected. As a result, the city faces the prospect that the largest rally, planned the Sunday before the convention, will be an illegal gathering.

A spokesman for the group, Bill Dobbs, dismissed the discount program yesterday as a publicity stunt.

The city contends that it wants to give as warm a welcome to protesters as to delegates. "Most times, people try to keep protesters from coming," the mayor said, "and they certainly don't go out of their way to accommodate them."

In offering the discounts, the city also has its economy in mind. Officials want to make sure that hotels and restaurants are as fully booked as possible during the convention week; many have reported that reservations are slow for that week.

The discount program for protesters is modeled on one for delegates to the convention, and there are some notable differences. Protesters are offered $5 off admission to the Museum of Sex, while delegates are not. But delegates get $3 off the space show at the American Museum of Natural History, a discount not offered to protesters. The Republicans get "Rent," the people who oppose them get "Tony n' Tina's Wedding."

Bloomberg administration officials say the list of offerings for protesters may grow. An up-to-date list appears on; visitors to the site can click on "Welcome peaceful political activists." There, the discontented but hungry can also find information about the city's history and tour guides for the "politically minded visitor."

Mr. Bloomberg also said that the police officers and firemen who had been holding loud demonstrations at his public appearances in the past few weeks would qualify.

Yesterday, outside the mayor's news conference, Joe Miccio, a firefighter who came to hector the mayor, fingered the button presented to him by a reporter with some confusion. "We are peaceful political activists," he said, puzzling over the notion of discounted hamburgers and office supplies (at Kroll's Office Products, free magic marker included). "We'll take a look at it."

The city says it expects at least 200,000 people - both out-of-towners and aggrieved New Yorkers - to protest around the city between now and the end of the convention on Sept. 2. And, as Mr. Bloomberg pointed out, they will need to eat.

With the convention a week and a half away, there are already some who may not qualify for the discounts. Yesterday, four members of Code Pink, a women's protest group, were arrested for trying to dangle a 40-foot-long banner from their ninth-floor window at the Sheraton Hotel across from Mr. Bloomberg's news conference, the police said.

Jodie Evans, a co-founder of the group, identified the women as Andrea Buffa and Colleen Galbraith of San Francisco, Claire Varoney of Los Angeles and Danielle Feris of New York City. The charges against the women are pending, the police said yesterday afternoon.

Gary Ferdman, the executive director of Sensible Priorities, a business consortium, said yesterday that he came up with the idea for the discount program when the city decided it needed to reach out to protesters. "I'm afraid this Central Park thing is really going to blow up," he said after the news conference, perhaps speaking more bluntly than city officials about the motivations for the program.

In announcing the program, Mr. Bloomberg was joined yesterday by former Mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins. While Mr. Dinkins said that he might have handled the request to protest in Central Park "differently," Mr. Koch said he agreed with the Bloomberg administration's plan to keep the largest protest off the Great Lawn. That decision has angered many New Yorkers, particularly those who have ambivalent feelings about the convention, which Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly said will be an economic boon for the city.

Among more veteran protesters, the city's offer had a certain appeal. "Since we're both guests, New York City should treat us equally," said Aron Kay, who is also known locally as the Mad Yippie Pie Thrower. Mr. Kay is the organizer of a protest planned for outside Mayor Bloomberg's townhouse on the Upper East Side on Aug 22.

"Maybe we would like to eat in a restaurant or catch a play," he mused. Before or after haranguing the mayor? "I would say after," he said.