NYC Cracks Down on Dissent

City would ship gay family event to Queens on Eve of GOP Convention

With the Republican National Convention just a few months away, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is rolling out the red carpet for the delegates and giving the bum’s rush to those who want to send a message different from the one expected to come out of Madison Square Garden.

The city is trying to make it difficult to protest anywhere near the convention and making a special effort to prosecute to the hilt some of the town’s most energetic protesters for past activities in what the defendants call an effort to inhibit protest against the president.

Organizers of the Summer of Love ’04, expected to be the biggest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) event of convention week, want to have their star-studded concert on the Great Lawn in Central Park on Saturday, August 28—two days before the start of the GOP confab. But Scott Robbe, who conceived of the event to celebrate the diversity of family life in the wake of President Bush’s call to write gay families out of the constitution, said that city officials are asking them to consider Flushing Meadow Park in Queens or Randall’s Island.

“We have told them those locations are unacceptable,” Robbe said.

The group is in the process of “forming a delegation to meet with the mayor and appeal on behalf of all New Yorkers and the loyal opposition for the right to celebrate in music and free speech the diversity that makes New York such a great place to live.”

Summer of Love has already attracted the support of Rosie Perez, John Cameron Mitchell, Lainie Kazan, POZ founder Sean Strub, political consultant Ethan Geto, Jackie Hoffman of “Hairspray,” restaurateur Florent Mollent, concert promoter Chip Duckett, author David Rakoff, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and all three out Councilmembers—Philip Reed, Christine Quinn, and Margarita Lopez—as well as a host of LGBT and AIDS groups. Many of those involved are entertainment industry insiders who expect to line up top-drawer talent for the event.

United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), organizers of massive anti-war demonstrations this year and last, have already been turned down by the Parks Department for a permit to use the Great Lawn on Sunday, August 29 and the Police Department is trying to route their march away from Madison Square Garden.

Steve Ault, logistics coordinator of UFPJ, said that the parks people told the group that the Great Lawn could only hold 80,000 people and that their event would damage the renovated lawn.

“Banning its use for big events is unacceptable,” Ault said. “In London you have Hyde Park, in D.C. the Mall, in Boston the Common, and in New York the Great Lawn. It is the only place in New York configured for a mass-focused event.”

In 1982, more than a million anti-nuclear marchers rallied on the Great Lawn, and corporate-sponsored pop concerts have been held on numerous occasions.

“Bloomberg wanted the convention here, doesn’t want the Republicans embarrassed, and may be stifling dissent,” said Ault, a longtime gay and peace activist who was one of the lead organizers on the first three national LGBT marches on Washington starting in 1979.

The anti-war protesters are being told by police that they can’t march up Eighth Avenue past the Garden, even though the convention will not be in session. The cops want them to go over to Tenth Avenue. During the Democratic conventions in New York in 1980 and 1992, demonstrations—including by gay groups—were held right behind the Garden on Eighth Avenue during the convention.

Editorials in the relatively liberal New York Times and avowedly conservative New York Post have condemned the city for resisting the use of the Great Lawn for mass demonstrations during the convention.

“‘Keep off the Grass’ appears nowhere in the First Amendment,” wrote the Post in an editorial. The Times wrote, “City Hall may want to declare Manhattan to be a no-free-speech zone for convention week, but critics have a right to gather in the same borough as the conventioneers they are protesting. Making a parade route available in Manhattan is not enough. The demonstrators have a right to a central rallying place in which they can speak and be heard. Depriving them of that would also present a far greater threat of spontaneous protests the police might not be able to control.”

If the city continues to stonewall the group, UFPJ is “going to mount a campaign for as much community support as possible,” said Ault. He is urging supporters to call the mayor at 212 788 3000 and Park Commissioner Adrian Benepe at 212 360 1305 to call for a route past the Garden and a rally in Central Park.

Even before the conventions get started, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau seems to be sending a message that protesters will face more than a slap on the wrist if they get out of line during the convention. His office is vigorously prosecuting 16 people, many of them veterans of ACT UP, who sat down in Fifth Avenue on March 26, 2003 to protest the war on Iraq as well as an Israeli tank that ran over and killed Rachel Corrie, a young American activist.

In an extraordinary move, the DA got the judge to unseal records of the protesters to show that many have been involved in this kind of activity before and deserve jail time. Activist Ann Northrop, who has been observing the legal proceedings, said that the protesters had “no convictions, just arrests,” and that it is unprecedented to open their records of an Acquittal in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD) unless they commit a similar infraction within six months.

Assistant D.A. Larry Glasser wrote the judge that “the defendant’s crimes endangered lives” by tying up traffic—something that the Republican convention or any presidential visit will do in spades.

On Wednesday, 12 of the 16 were sentenced, with ten given seven days of community service and two given ten days of service plus $500 fines. Those two had ACDs that fell within the six-month period. Judge Robert Stolz, appointed to the bench by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, called political protest “an imposition” of the demonstrators’ opinions on “the people of the City of New York.”

“For our nonviolent protest, we are being punished more severely than the police officers who murdered Amadou Diallo,” said defendant Lysander Puccio, an activist in the LGBT community.

The remaining four defendants face up to a year in jail. Kate Barnhart, a veteran AIDS activist, is one of them and their next court date is May 26.

“It’s no coincidence that the cases are coming up in the months before the convention,” she said. “They’re also punishing unpopular messages. All of the people targeted have a history of involvement in ACT UP.”

Barnhart also faces charges for her participation in a Homeland Resistance protest a year ago in Federal Plaza, protesting the detention of people of Arab descent.

Barnhart said that 90 days is the most likely sentence, which would put her in jail during the Republican convention.

“They’re trying to scare and intimidate newer activists not to risk arrest and take out the leadership,” she said. “Instead of training new people, we’re in court.”

At a press conference with the defendants last week, Councilmember Lopez said, “If that’s what it takes to protest the Republican National Convention, I am ready to be arrested.”

“The power of civil disobedience is that we are risking our bodies and our freedom, so the fear of jail should not keep us from standing up on these things and going to jail for a period of time,” Barnhart said.

For more information on the prosecution of last March’s anti-war demonstrators, visit M26.org; on the Summer of Love ’04 Concert, summeroflove04.com, on United for Peace and Justice, unitedforpeace.org.

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