by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — What a difference a year makes. Saturday’s large anti-war demonstration in midtown Manhattan was met with cooperation and flexibility by the New York City Police Department, which helped make the event a peaceful and successful one. This marked a dramatic departure from the NYPD’s handling of antiwar protests last year and is a welcome sign for the large demonstrations expected for this summer’s Republican National Convention. Thirteen months ago, NYPD actions deeply marred the huge antiwar protest that took place on February 15. First, the Department refused to allow a march anywhere in Manhattan and instead only approved a stationary rally on a remote section of First Avenue. Then on the day of the event and without notice to the public, the Department barricaded cross streets and sidewalks leading to First Avenue near the rally. Tens of thousands never made it to the demonstration, and hundreds of New Yorkers -- including parents with young children -- found themselves trapped in crowds into which police officers recklessly rode horses. Meanwhile, the throngs that did make it to First Avenue were herded into four-sided “pens” constructed of interlocking metal barricades. People could not get out of the pens, either to leave the event or to get food, go to the bathroom, or simply seek shelter during the many hours of that extremely cold day. And many complained that police officers were rude and hostile. The NYPD’s actions resulted in hundreds of arrests, a blizzard of criticism, and a batch of lawsuits. Happily, City officials seemed to have learned important lessons from that day and from the public’s reaction. And those lessons were evident this past Saturday. Not only did the Department agree to a large march, but it allowed it to go through the center of midtown and end with a large rally on Madison Avenue. Access to the event was greatly improved, as side streets remained open to allow people to assemble for the march, Commissioner Kelly held a press conference to publicize the best ways for people to get to the event, and the Department took the unprecedented step of posting access information on its website. As for pens, the four-sided enclosures were gone. Instead, one end of each block of Madison Avenue was completely open to allow people to leave, and barricades lining the curbs on each block had at least one opening to the sidewalk and nearby stores. Finally, the behavior of the police was noticeably improved, with many people commenting on the friendly and helpful demeanor of officers on Saturday. These changes – and the different attitude they reflect – make demonstrations easier and safer for everyone. And with negotiations now under way over the large demonstrations scheduled for this summer’s Republican National Convention, the fact that NYPD officials and event organizers both were pleased with Saturday shows that large protests in New York City can be policed without trampling on the right to protest. Christopher Dunn is the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Donna Lieberman is the NYCLU’s Executive Director.

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