NEW YORK -- A white-haired man from United for Peace and Justice had some surprisingly good news last week for the 150 activists gathered in a steamy East Village church to plan their protests for the coming Republican National Convention.
The New York Police Department, which many of those consider an agent of repression, had agreed to allow a major march to pass by Madison Square Garden on Aug. 29, a few days before U.S. President George W. Bush is formally nominated there.
But after a brief round of cheers, veteran organizer and logistics co-ordinator Steven Ault delivered the bad news: The mayor's office and the city's parks department still refused to issue a permit that would allow the anti-Bush march to culminate with a demonstration in Central Park, one of the few places capable of holding the huge crowds expected.
Without the permit, the protesters will be penned into barricaded Manhattan streets and dispersed over dozens of blocks, making it difficult for television cameras to convey the rally's true scope.
"We are not giving up," Mr. Ault said.
The permit battle speaks glaringly to the tensions in this overwhelmingly Democratic city over the invasion of thousands of Republicans at the end of the summer.
The planned Democratic convention has caused its share of problems in Boston, where candidate John Kerry refused to cross a police union picket line last week.
But in addition to New Yorkers' concerns about terrorist threats and snarled traffic, many worry that their city will become the latest political battleground in the country's bitter culture war.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, invited the party's national committee to select New York for this year's convention. The timing -- the convention will run from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 -- has been pushed back from the usual time, July, to conclude just days before the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center.
The Aug. 29 rally is expected to be the largest of several against Mr. Bush's policies, including marches organized by the Central Labor Council and Planned Parenthood.
Activists are also distributing maps highlighting the headquarters of major U.S. corporations that are profiting from the war in Iraq.
Mr. Bloomberg and other city officials have said they support people's right to demonstrate, but they need to ensure security and minimize disruptions. The city's parks department says a 250,000-strong rally in Central Park would destroy the newly renovated Great Lawn, which has an official capacity of 80,000.
The Peace and Justice group said it has offered to relocate within the park, and activists believe Mr. Bloomberg and the Republican organizers want to mute their demonstration by spreading it out and keeping it away from the news media. They cite last year's anti-war protest, where police kept demonstrators hemmed between barricades and tied up by pre-emptive arrests. Mr. Bloomberg's office refused to comment on those complaints.
At the "RNC Not Welcome" organizing meeting at St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery Episcopal Church last week, suspicion was as palpable as the building's dank air.
Moderator Daryle Lamont-Jenkins warned attendees that the meeting was open and they should assume undercover police officers would be present. "We can't force them to leave, so be careful," he said.
They were also asked to assume that hostile reporters would be present, eager to portray any expression of anger or aggressiveness as an indication of impending violence.
Mr. Lamont-Jenkins advised speakers to censor their comments accordingly, avoiding mention of specific tactics or targets.
Participants were largely veterans of the anti-globalization and anti-poverty movements that protested in Seattle at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting and in Miami last November against the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement.
Their numbers were buttressed by anti-Bush activists who are among the new foot soldiers in America's liberal-conservative culture war.
Their enthusiasm was buoyed by the knowledge that Americans are deeply concerned about the war in Iraq: Slightly more than half now say that the financial and human cost is not worth the effort, and that the President exaggerated the threat to justify the invasion.
Despite Mr. Lamont-Jenkins's warnings, it was clear from the tone of the meeting that at least some activists are expecting confrontations with police.
Most were planning protests designed to avoid confrontation: bell-ringing displays, street theatre, efforts to drape the city with peace banners and anti-Bush signs.
A representative of the Anarchist Law Collective offered legal training and support to activists; a spokesman for the National Lawyers Guild urged groups to let it know about plans for "direct action" so it could have advance warning about where legal services will be required.
Cheri Honkala, an intense 20-year veteran of the anti-poverty movement from Philadelphia, said her organization is already constructing "Bushville" tent settlements for the homeless in New Jersey.
The group plans to stage a march from the United Nations building, at First Avenue and 44th Street, down to Madison Square Garden at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue.
"We're marching with or without a permit and we're sticking to our route," said Ms. Honkala, who boasted that she was among the first arrested during the WTO protests in Seattle.
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