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Judge Blocks Central Park Protest
Published on Wednesday, August 25, 2004 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Judge Blocks Central Park Protest
Wire and staff reports
 

NEW YORK - A judge has denied a protest group's plea to rally in Central Park during the Republican convention.

Earlier, before the judge's ruling, the group indicated it would go forward with the Sunday demonstration even if the it was barred from the park.

"Whatever the judge rules about the rally site, United for Peace and Justice is continuing with our planned protest march," the group said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.


The Great Lawn in Central Park, where anti-GOP groups are seeking to protest during the Republican National Convention.
(Newsday Photo/Julia Gaines)
United for Peace and Justice's national director, Leslie Cagan, said during testimony at a hearing in State Supreme Court yesterday that she would cancel the scheduled Sunday rally rather than hold it on the West Side Highway, the one location the city has suggested as a viable spot. If the rally is canceled, it is unclear where the 250,000 protesters would go once they finish marching past Madison Square Garden.

The group said that in a meeting with police this morning, the 250,000 protestors will assemble for the march this Sunday starting at 10 a.m. at 7th Avenue and 14th Street. They would begin marching at noon, travelling up 7th Avenue past MSG.

Despite the crushing time constraints, Cagan said yesterday she and her organization are optimistic an eleventh-hour arrangement can be worked out with the city.

"We remain hopeful, as strange as that might sound," she said at a news conference outside the courthouse Tuesday.

The city's lawyer, Jonathan Pines, said the Parks Department argument that Central Park cannot accommodate the quarter million people expected to attend the rally is now trumped by a more pressing concern: time.

"We shouldn't even have to go there," he said in his closing arguments. "At this point, it is too late in the day. There is simply not enough time here."

He said the city would not be able to handle the anticipated crowds if the judge ruled in the protesters' favor.

"We're talking about 250,000 people here. We're not talking about a walk in the park," Pines said. "We could've been here in May when the Parks Department first denied the permit."

The group had filed its permit request to use the park more than a year ago.

Christopher Dunn, associate legal director with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said arguments about freedom of expression aside, the cost of staging the rally on the West Side Highway would be prohibitive to event organizers.

"They can't afford it," he said, referring to the $631,000 price tag for sound equipment and jumbotrons. Event organizers estimate that it would cost less than half - or $250,000 - if the rally were held in Central Park.

In an attempt to undermine the city's contention that the Great Lawn could not sustain the crowd, Jeffrey Fogel, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, drew a comparison to a nuclear disarmament march in 1982 that drew a much larger crowd - at least double the number expected Sunday.

But Judge Jacqueline Silberman, who is hearing the case, cut Fogel short. "The park was different and the world was different," Silberman said.

In the mostly quiet courtroom yesterday, the raucous din of dozens of disgruntled protesters outside drifted into the hearing, at times drowning out the testimony.

The contrast in moods reflected the divergent views about the purpose Central Park serves. Rally organizers view the park as the city's town square, a public forum with a rich tradition of acting as an assembly space for divergent political ideas and voices.

On the other side of the spectrum is Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Parks Department, which see the park more as a safe haven for New Yorkers, as important for recreation as for exercising rights.

Fogel said closing the park to the rally would be akin to silencing it for dissent in the future. "We do live in a different era," Fogel said. "The question is, are we going to remain a democracy?"

© Copyright 2004 Newsday, Inc.

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