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Donít march on the grass

When the Republicans hold their nominating convention later this month in New York, the biggest protest will likely be the one organized by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). An umbrella coalition of more than 800 anti-war groups, UFPJ hopes to bring together as many as 250,000 people for a rally, followed by a march to Madison Square Garden, on Sunday, August 29, the day before the Republican National Convention gets under way there.

Unfortunately, permission to gather on the groupís preferred site for the pre-march rally ó the Great Lawn of Central Park ó was denied. According to Megan Sheekey, a spokesperson for New York Cityís Parks and Recreation Department, the 1997 reconstruction of the park reduced the Great Lawnís maximum capacity to 80,000. If UFPJ were to gather a quarter-million there, Sheekey says in an e-mail, "the repair of the resulting damage in the park would be extremely costly and force all activity on the Great Lawn and surrounding areas to end during the period of repair." For example, she explains, Little League games next summer might have to be canceled.

The city suggested that protesters congregate instead within the lovely open asphalt and concrete of the West Side Highway, which will be penned in à la the protest zone at the DNC. "There is a sense that they are trying to take the park off the table for demonstration purposes," says Jeff Fogel, of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Itís looking like New York is saying the only place you can have demonstrations is on the edge of town, by the river."

In July, after fighting City Hall for months, UFPJ leaders finally gave in when faced with a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum from the New York Police Department. "We were completely bullied," says UFPJ national coordinator Leslie Cagan. On Tuesday, however, Cagan asked the city to reconsider. It turns out she had underestimated two things: the undesirability of the site, and the support of the public.

A number of potential participants have told Cagan that they wonít show if the event is held on the West Side Highway; indeed, medical personnel have warned that an open, unshaded, sun-facing rally in August poses a health hazard. "The elderly, and people with kids, are not going to stand out on the hot pavement all afternoon," Cagan says. The city has denied a request to provide water. Event coordinators also discovered that it will cost twice as much to set up the necessary sound and video systems there as it would on the Great Lawn.

Meanwhile, four daily New York newspapers have all editorialized in favor of letting the group rally in Central Park. And a late-July poll from Quinnipiac University showed that a whopping 75 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of letting protesters use Central Park during the convention. "Parks have been, since before the start of this country, the place where demonstrations took place," says Fogel.

Whether thatís enough to convince the city to reopen discussions remains to be seen. Regardless, Cagan says, the attention from the controversy has pretty much ensured a large demonstration, wherever it takes place.

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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