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Protesting Too Little?

Homeland Security wants to cage dissent at this summer’s political conventions

BY Dave Lindorff

Recent U.S. protests against the Bush administration, war and globalization may have been disappointingly small, but don’t write off the movement. Activists are planning big things for the two conventions this summer—especially the marches, demonstrations and actions slated for the Republican convention August 30-September 2 in New York.

“Of course it’s still early. We have more than two months of organizing left,” says Leslie Cagan, veteran organizer and national coordinator with United for Peace and Justice (UPJ), one of the major organizers of Republican National Convention protests. “But I think the August 29 march and demonstration will be one of the biggest protest events we’ve seen in New York.”

“People are really focused on opposing the Bush agenda,” she says. Current plans call for everything from a mock war crimes tribunal to a mass flashing of underwear sporting anti-Bush slogans.

Organizers want to step off from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, go past the Madison Square Garden convention site and end up at the Great Lawn. The New York City Parks Department has indicated it is unwilling to issue UPJ a permit for Central Park’s Great Lawn, however, long a venue for large rallies. The department claims that after spending $20 million on renovations it doesn’t want the lawn damaged by a “large crowd,” defined as more than 80,000 people. As a result, the NYPD, which handles march permits and gave convention protesters a June 15 permit application deadline, has been unwilling to discuss routes because there is no permit for a rally at the march’s proposed end.

“We assume the federal government is behind the permit problems,” Cagan says. “After all, the Department of Homeland Security has declared both the Democratic and Republican conventions to be ‘national security events.’ ”

Protest organizers, activists and police departments in several cities have revealed that, throughout the Bush administration, Secret Service and White House advance teams secretly instructed local police to keep protests at bay—even caged—during presidential events.

The Republican National Committee, during negotiations to bring the 2000 Republican convention to Philadelphia, got city officials to allow them to pre-book a master permit for all available assembly locations, forcing protesters to use a remote, sunken “protest pit.” The deal was a fiasco, leading to a number of non-permitted marches and rallies, conflicts with police and widespread arrests, nearly all of which were later thrown out by the courts.

At the recent G-8 summit, the Bush administration, with support from Georgia’s Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, used draconian methods first tried in Miami last year to dissuade protesters. These included having the area declared a national emergency site, sending in heavily armed National Guard troops in Humvees to patrol streets, granting additional powers to local police and witholding protest permits until the last minute.

Cagan says the August 29 demonstration against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq will go on, regardless of what New York officials do. Other groups planning actions during the course of the convention are similarly resolute.

“We’re going to march and demonstrate, and we’re not going to be intimidated,” says Dustin Langley, a Navy veteran and volunteer at the New York City International Action Center, part of the A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition that is planning several events for that week. “Bush and the RNC can’t come to and exploit the 9/11 tragedy and then tell us we can’t protest in our own city.”

Organizers predict large numbers of demonstrators in Boston, where the Democrats are meeting, and New York because protest organizations are cooperating to an unusual degree. “We’re all working together,” says Cagan. “It’s quite pleasant really—maybe a sign of a new maturity” in the movement.

Boston A.N.S.W.E.R. organizer Peter Cook agrees. “We’ve all been trying to find ways to work together despite our differences,” he says. “The best way to fight back is to have a strong, unified antiwar movement.”

Dave Lindorff, an In These Times contributing editor, is the author of This Can't Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy. His work can be found at This Can't Be Happening.

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