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Op-Ed: NYCLU: Right to Protest At The RNC Endangered (New York Newsday)

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — In about six weeks, hundreds of thousands of people may descend on midtown Manhattan for the Republican National Convention. Some will be delegates, most will be demonstrators, and one will be the president of the United States, there to accept his party’s nomination.

While the convention at Madison Square Garden may be a political event for some, for many it will serve as a key gauge of the extent to which 9/11 security concerns have eroded America’s commitment to civil liberties. And the right to protest is one of the most important of those civil liberties. After all, what separates our country from those our government so freely criticizes — indeed sometimes attacks — is our constitutionally protected right to take to the streets to protest our leaders and their actions without fear of persecution or worse.

Two events loom large over the protests likely to swirl around the convention. First and foremost is the attack of September 11, which not only prompted unprecedented security worries about the convention but also set the stage for the Iraq war, which has proved so unpopular and divisive that it alone will bring hordes of protesters to New York in late August. And as we learned from the police-protester clashes during the 1968 Chicago convention, the combination of an unpopular war and police efforts to stifle dissent can be disastrous.

Also casting a shadow over the upcoming convention is the debacle of the February 2003 anti-war demonstration here in New York City. Invoking 9/11-related security concerns, the NYPD banned a proposed peace march and limited organizers to a stationary rally on First Avenue, which was an unprecedented restriction that the federal courts supported.

On the day of the rally, police barricades prevented tens of thousands of people from reaching First Avenue, rearing police horses terrified the crowds simply trying to get to the event, and those who made it to the demonstration found that themselves penned in.

Until just a few weeks ago, there was ample reason to believe that the protest picture would be a grim one come August. However, the NYPD finally has started to issue permits for demonstrations, has disclosed that it will allow large rallies to take place relatively close to the Garden, and has announced street and sidewalk closings during the convention that appear to be reasonably moderate–at least so far.

Nonetheless, trouble may be brewing. At a June meeting with our organization, which represents nine groups planning convention protests, high-level NYPD officials and city lawyers rejected a march scheduled for Sept. 2, the day President George W. Bush will arrive. When pressed, the NYPD backed off from a total ban on marches during the four days of the convention, but the Police Department has only agreed to allow one march during that time, and many groups are likely to try to march — permit or not.

And then there is the ongoing controversy over the march and rally planned by United for Peace and Justice for Sunday, August 29, the day before the convention starts. Though police officials told us in a recent meeting that they expect this protest may be the largest in New York City history, the city has rejected the group’s request to hold its rally in Central Park, which is far and away the best place for huge outdoor events. Instead, city officials, with the full support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are forcing the UFPJ rally onto the street.

The prospect of this mega- demonstration stretching along miles of Manhattan pavement on a sweltering August afternoon raises the specter of a repeat of the February 2003 disaster over access, pens and horses. And given the fact that having this protest on the street places additional burdens on the police department when it already will have its hands full, the mayor’s obstinacy about Central Park is all the more difficult to understand.

And how will the NYPD and the Secret Service respond if some people unlawfully seek to disrupt the convention or the protests? One of the biggest question marks facing officials is the extent to which they will seek to use the provocations of a few to justify a broad crackdown on what promises to be an overwhelmingly peaceful protest. Working out of a storefront office near the Garden, a team of NYCLU monitors will help protesters to negotiate with the police if any issues arise.

As the whole world watches, the Republican National Convention will become one of those signature events that test our commitment to the fundamental liberties on which our country was founded. Come Labor Day, let’s hope that we can be proud of what we will have learned about ourselves and our city.

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