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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

GOP Protesters Must Keep Off the Lawn

To protect the grounds, a judge rules that an antiwar rally can't wrap up in Central Park.

August 26, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Hours after a judge turned down a bid by protesters to stage an antiwar rally in Central Park, organizers met Wednesday with police to map out a peaceful conclusion to the march through Midtown Manhattan by an expected 250,000 demonstrators on the eve of the Republican National Convention.

Activists blasted the ruling, saying it violated their free-speech rights, and vowed that the march past Madison Square Garden, site of the convention, would still take place Sunday.

A number of protesters said they planned to head for the park after the march. Law enforcement officials have not said how they would respond to such actions, but pledged to work with organizers on details for a final march route that was expected to be announced today.

"We are quite upset with the court decision and think it's a slap in the face," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella group that was planning the march and rally. "But we've still got important work to do here, to make sure that things end on a peaceful note."

The 13-page decision by state Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline W. Silbermann criticized protest organizers for "inexcusable and inequitable delays" in bringing their lawsuit to win a rally permit in the days before the convention.

The judge agreed with city officials who had said the proposed rally could damage Central Park. She criticized organizers for backing away from a previous agreement to hold their event along 9A, the West Side Highway, in Manhattan.

"Indeed, even after [organizers] reneged on that agreement," Silbermann wrote, they "waited an additional week to bring suit." She said there was no evidence, as some protesters had charged, that they were denied a permit to rally on the Great Lawn in Central Park because of their political views.

Instead, the ruling upholds the principle that the park belongs to everybody in a city where few people have backyards, said parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "Central Park is New York's backyard, and we have to work very hard to protect it," he said.

Wednesday's court decision was a victory for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who repeatedly has rejected arguments that demonstrators have a right to rally in Central Park. The 55-acre Great Lawn, he has said, is not an appropriate place to bring so many people -- even though the area has been the site of huge public events in past years.

This week, a federal judge turned down a request for another rally in Central Park by the National Council of Arab Americans and the ANSWER coalition, citing similar environmental concerns. The city has granted a permit for a Central Park rally, for about 50,000 people, during the National Organization of Women convention.

"We are not opposed to free speech," Bloomberg said. "We have offered these [antiwar] demonstrators a fine alternative -- we offered to help them -- and they decided not to proceed with that offer. That's really what this controversy has been all about."

Now, the city must make sure thousands of activists peacefully disperse when the march ends near Madison Square Garden. Otherwise, traffic could be disrupted for dozens of city blocks.

Protesters who had expected to assemble in Central Park voiced anger Wednesday.

"I'm ... very angry that this happened," said Marisa Handler, a San Francisco writer who held a sign outside the state Supreme Court building reading "Protest the Republican Convention." She said the dispute involved "the rights of free speech versus the rights of lawn care, and the wrong side won."

Handler hasn't decided whether she will march on to Central Park on Sunday. But the idea is enticing, she said, because "people don't need permits from police or politicians" to enter a public park.

Others said they would assemble on the Great Lawn regardless of the judge's decision.

"I felt for some time that we should try to disrupt the march at some point, and urge people to enter the park," said a veteran protester who called herself "Bork" -- explaining "that's the arrest name" she gives.

James Lesczynski, chairman of Manhattan's Libertarian Party, said he would encourage people to enter the park. Demonstrators don't need permission to enjoy their rights, he said.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference that he expected to work out a peaceful plan with organizers on policing and wrapping up the march.

Even though the police would have a significant presence in Central Park, he said, "The park is open to everybody."

But protesters "have to abide by the rules," he said. And the rules are that "no major sound devices are allowed in the park. People need a permit to do that."

Times staff writer John Goldman contributed to this report.

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