Thursday, August 26, 2004

Sunday in the Park with George 

David Lindorff recaps the latest pre-RNC wranglings between protesters and politicians in New York. City officials have granted a permit for a Sunday afternoon anti-Bush march -- expected to draw up to a quarter-million people -- from lower Manhattan up to Seventh Avenue and 34th Street. On Wednesday, however, a state supreme court justice sided with the Bloomberg administration in denying a petition to open up Central Park's Great Lawn for a massive rally to follow the march.

Which raises one obvious question: where is the crowd of 250,000 supposed to go?
A similar situation occurred in April 2003 during the height of the U.S. military's drive on Baghdad, when a march down Broadway terminated at Washington Square with no end-of-march rally, and no place for marchers to go. When marchers predictably began to congregate around the square on that occasion, New York Police took up offensive positions and began pressing in on the growing crowds, inciting needless confrontations and making arrests. On that occasion, there was no underlying tension to start with, as there will inevitably be this time because of the denial of the park permit and the presence at the march terminus of Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention will be about to commence.

There is some speculation that Bloomberg's intransigence regarding the park permit (which the mayor-ordinarily no environmentalist--has attributed to a desire to protect the sod on the Great Lawn), is really the work of the Bush campaign, which has made no secret its intention to portray any disorder or violence during Sunday's protests as the work of the Democrats.

In fact, march organizers have bent over backwards trying to meet the demands of police and city officials, who for months simply stonewalled.

Complicating matters, the police themselves are in a bitter dispute with the mayor. NYPD officers, despite being widely hailed as heroes after the 9-11 attacks, have been working without a contract or a pay increase since 2001, and police union activists have been demonstrating daily against the mayor, tailing him everywhere he goes (in a grand irony, the police union has been railing against anti-protest measures such as fences and video-taping that the police have been using against demonstrators themselves). While the city plans to have a record 37,000 cops on duty Sunday and during the four days of the convention next week, how officers will respond to the demonstrators if their own labor dispute has not been settled remains to be seen. There is even the possibility that cops could have their own job action-for example an outbreak of Blue Flu-on Sunday, with large numbers of unionized officers calling in sick.

Bloomberg also has to consider what the impact of a major confrontation between protesters and police could have on his own political future. Polls indicate that 75 percent of New Yorkers support the right of demonstrators to use Central Park as a rally site, suggesting that the blame for any problems might well be laid on Bloomberg's doorstep-and on the Bush campaign.
Rick Perlstein of the Village Voice limns a series of parallels between Chicago '68 and NYC 2004, and warns that violence in Central Park, should it erupt, might well carry Bush to a second term. "If resistance against Bush plays into Bush's hands," he asks, "is it really resistance?"
[In Chicago in 1968], as now, authorities were besotted with "less lethal" technology that's intended to prevent disorder (back then it was Mace), but actually increases disorder by lowering the threshold at which cops are willing to use force.

Then, as now, police officials argued that the ACLU and the federal judges were putting them in danger by "tying their hands." When the cops lose some of these battles—as they did this year, with rulings against four-sided pens for demonstrators and general searches of bags—they get more afraid. That yields itchy fingers at the triggers of less-than-lethal implements.

Then, as now: the strategic mobilization of "terrorists"—a word Mayor Richard Daley in 1968 used to describe the Black Panthers, who, some residents of the Cook County jail reported, were planning assassinations. The ever reliable FBI sent 60 extra agents, though the jailbirds had made it all up—which didn't prevent the city from announcing the "threat" to the press afterward as ex post facto rationalization for law enforcement's rampage.

Then, as now: hovering, ruthless Republican presidential campaign operatives ready to seize on any advantage to win, who suspect that arrant attempts to frame the election as a choice between George W. Bush and "chaos in the streets" will be enough, for some small margin of voters, to inch themselves to victory.

And, the most uncanny parallel of all: Events have seen to it—perhaps by Republican intention, perhaps not, it hardly matters which—that protesters this time, just like last time, have been rendered ready and eager to demonstrate, on the Sunday before the convention, in a physical location where the city has determined they may not demonstrate. Thus the stage may be set now—as it was then—for disaster.

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