- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

NEW YORK — A group seeking to stage a massive anti-Bush rally later this month yesterday sued the city and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for blocking protesters’ access to Central Park.

“The only place in Manhattan to handle this crowd is Central Park,” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, a consortium that counts more than 800 groups under its umbrella.

She said the city has approved the Aug. 29 march under the banner “The World Says No to the Bush Agenda.” Organizers say it will draw up to 250,000 demonstrators.

Plans call for the group to meet at 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue, and march to Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention will open Aug. 30.

“We are happy that the plan to reach Madison Square Garden is in place,” Miss Cagan said. “But we are moving ahead with our planning for the rest of this march.”

The lawsuit asks the state Supreme Court for an injunction against the mayor and the city, as well as the city’s parks department and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

At a group planning meeting last night in a church near Washington Square, Miss Cagan told those in attendance that a Monday court date had been set and asked for support for the case, inviting people to come to the hearing.

“We need to let people know how serious we are about this demonstration on the 29th,” Miss Cagan said.

The complaint notes that public concerts have been held in the park for years, and “by discriminating on the basis of content, in allowing cultural but no political events on the Great Lawn … defendants have violated plaintiff’s rights guaranteed by … [the] Constitution of the state of New York.”

In an April letter refusing the march’s gathering in Central Park, an official with the city’s parks and recreation department stated that the size of the gathering would “cause enormous damage” to the park’s lawn.

Such a statement is a “pretext, a sham and an outrage,” said Jeffrey Fogel, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who filed the complaint.

“The people outside of Madison Square Garden have the same rights to express themselves as the ones inside,” Mr. Fogel said.

Mr. Bloomberg told reporters during his daily briefing yesterday that the city will not relent unless a court orders it to.

“We are not going to give a permit for Central Park for a quarter of a million people,” the mayor said. “The park can’t hold another quarter of a million people on a Sunday and we can’t provide security. We have given them the ability to march right by Madison Square Garden, no barbed wire, no pens. They can march right by Madison Square Garden and express themselves.”

The lawsuit is part of a continuing about-face by United for Peace and Justice, which originally had agreed to route the march past Madison Square Garden and on to a spot on the West Side Highway.

Protest organizers said they changed their plans last week when it became apparent that the space allotted on the highway would not accommodate its expected crowd.

Michael Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said, “We have worked with this group for months to find a solution that would allow its members to express their important First Amendment rights while also providing them with an appropriate place to protest. The group has reneged on its previous agreement with the city. In doing so, the group has waited far too long in trying to resolve this issue.”

The 55-acre Great Lawn, which was part of an $18.2 million park reconstruction in the late 1990s, was used for a 1982 anti-nuclear rally that drew nearly 700,000 people and a 1991 Paul Simon concert with an estimated crowd of 750,000.

If United for Peace and Justice is refused in court, “we would not march without a permit,” said group spokesman Bill Dobbs. “But you don’t know how many in that crowd would continue on in civil disobedience.”

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