washingtonpost.com  > Politics > Elections > 2004 Election

New York Vs. the Protesters

City Must Balance Freedom, Security

By Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page A01

NEW YORK -- Hundreds of thousands of antiwar protesters, abortion rights supporters, labor rights activists and anarchists are preparing to unfurl banners, march through the streets and rally in the parks, loosening a cacophonous roar of protest during the Republican National Convention.

As many as 250,000 people may march up Seventh Avenue by Madison Square Garden on the Sunday before the convention to protest the war in Iraq. Thousands of abortion rights and women's health advocates plan to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall Park. And the Hip Hop Summit Action Network will lead a march of low-income people to Madison Square Garden, the convention site.

Demonstrators aren't waiting for the GOP convention. At a block party in protest of the Bush administration last week in Brooklyn, performer Rasp Thorne depicts the American flag as a noose. (Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)

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That's not to mention the Paul Revere impersonators who plan nightly horseback rides down Lexington Avenue in Midtown (their warning cry: "The Republicans are coming! The Republicans are coming!"). Or the bell ringers who plan to encircle Ground Zero and ring 2,749 bells in memory of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001, and in opposition to the Iraq war.

Or Cheri Honkala, a welfare mother from Philadelphia, who says she expects to bring in 5,000 rural and urban folks for a purposefully illegal march across town to Times Square. "The police told us there was no way in hell they were going to give us a permit to march," she said. Honkala, who led a similar march at the Republican convention in Philadelphia in 2000, shrugged. "We have to mess it all up. . . . Poor people have been living with terror every day."

New York has a proudly oppositional DNA -- Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1 -- so protests come as no surprise. But at a time of terrorism alerts and deep liberal unhappiness with President Bush, the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 convention will test the government's ability to secure the safety of delegates while allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to raise a constitutionally protected voice of dissent, civil libertarians and city officials say.

This is a test, activists say, that several city and state governments have failed. In Miami, for instance, a county review panel found that police had instituted martial law and trampled the civil rights of protesters during a free-trade conference last November. In Georgia, county officials mandated small protest signs and state police kept protesters miles removed from the Group of Eight summit at Sea Island.

Boston officials, too, came under criticism for herding protesters at the Democratic National Convention into fenced pens.

"Dissent is a cornerstone of a democratic society," said Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It's how we measure whether we're an open society, and it's under a lot of stress now."

Tension is already evident. Marches will proceed under the eyes of a massive police, FBI and Secret Service presence, as more than 10,000 local officers will patrol the barricaded streets around the convention. Undercover police have infiltrated meetings of anarchist groups, and prosecutors are ready to process as many as 1,000 arrests per day.

The FBI acknowledged Monday -- after a report in the New York Times -- that agents have interviewed potential demonstrators across the nation. In some cases, protesters say they were asked about their political views. FBI officials insisted their agents conducted interviews only after learning of people planning disruptions at the conventions.

"The FBI conducted interviews, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, in order to determine the validity of the threat information," said FBI Assistant Director Cassandra M. Chandler.

Antiwar organizers here knew of no one who had been interviewed. But such interviews, they said, seemed intended to chill dissent. The National Lawyers Guild intends to distribute cards advising activists to say nothing if the FBI knocks. "It's a chilling reminder of the world we live in," said Tanya Mayo of Not in Our Name, an antiwar group.

Organizers of marches large and small complain of uncommon difficulty in obtaining permits from the city. The largest of the planned antiwar marches still has no terminus. Organizers with United for Peace and Justice, representing more than 100 antiwar, religious and social justice groups, sought to march through Midtown to a rally in Central Park on Aug. 29, the Sunday before the convention. Parks Department officials rejected this.

"You'll ruin the lawn," Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said.

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