Tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully on Saturday, filling 23 blocks of official, fully permitted, rally-ready blocks on First Avenue beginning near the United Nations headquarters to protest a war against Iraq.
But tens of thousands more never made it, thronging Second and Third Avenues in what some described as a vain and baffling attempt to reach the protest that people had bundled up, ridden buses or skipped brunch to attend. Of about 15 would-be demonstrators interviewed yesterday across the city, only 3 said they had succeeded in reaching First Avenue.
The pedestrian traffic jam led to accusations yesterday that the police were unprepared, aggressive or even threatening, plunging through crowds on horseback or suddenly sealing off sidewalks. Organizers of the rally seized on those reports, saying that officers mistreated people that they took into custody and unnecessarily militarized the event.
The Police Department, on the other hand, gave itself high marks, saying that the huge event had resulted in only 257 arrests on mostly minor charges, no major injuries and no formal complaints of police misconduct. The police estimated the crowd at 100,000, but organizers of the protest said it was more like 500,000.
"For the number of people here, it was orderly," Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Saturday. "The vast majority of people were cooperative."
Conflict between the rally organizers and city officials began well before the rally itself, when the city denied a request for a permit to march. With the nation under a heightened terrorism alert, a judge agreed, and ruled that the demonstration would have to be stationary.
Organizers stopped short of accusing the city of discouraging antiwar demonstrators as a favor to President Bush — though they admitted that the thought had crossed their minds. Mostly, they criticized what they saw as an oppressive approach to crowd control, noting that the police had even refused to allow portable toilets on the demonstration site, citing security concerns.
"The only real problems of the day were created first and foremost by the fact that the police refused to give us a permit for the march," said Leslie Cagan, co-chairwoman of United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group that planned the event. She offered her opinion that a moving demonstration would have improved the flow of traffic.
Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the police moved the entrance to the rally northward as each block of First Avenue filled, progressing from 51st Street up to 74th Street. The bulk of those arrested were people who ventured northward on Second or Third Avenue, hoping to eventually turn eastward and reach the rally, Ms. Cagan said.
A spokesman for the Police Department was unable to provide exact arrest locations yesterday.
Eric Goldhagen, a 36-year-old technology consultant, was walking up Third Avenue shortly after noon between 56th and 57th Streets when he found his way blocked on all four sides by police officers or barricades, he said, calling the halt to pedestrian traffic "an intimidating show of force."
"I couldn't go north, couldn't go south, couldn't go east, couldn't go west" for about 45 minutes before the police allowed people to leave, he said. "It got to the point where we were all chest to back. Having not properly planned for the situation, the cops decided to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from attending a legal demonstration."
Michael O'Looney, the Police Department's chief spokesman, denied that the police had blocked northbound traffic. Still, congestion was so bad that the police temporarily closed the 59th Street Bridge and the subway station at Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street. There were reports that the police used pepper spray, but a spokesman said he could not confirm or deny them.
Some demonstrators said the heavy police presence was distracting from the message of peace; others chafed at the tight security. "My friend had stayed up all night the night before, making a poster, and it was mounted on a little stick the size of a chopstick," said Ann Goldman, a massage therapist from the West Village. "The policeman made us break the stick and throw it away."
Police officials acknowledged that with so many people, it was difficult to predict traffic flow. They said that of the arrests made, five were felony assaults on officers. One police horse took a punch in the face, they said.
By and large, though, organizers and officers agreed that the protest had been peaceful. "The message still came through loud and clear about the broad communities of people that oppose the Bush administration's plan for war," Ms. Cagan said.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company