The first protest I sorta participated in (in NY) was the AIDS rally in ‘92, during the Democratic convention. Peter probably remembers (noted only because some perspective about his point on Obama/Clinton divergence and corporate pandering) - it was the first large ‘legitimate’ AIDS-related protest. And it was fucking huge. Times Square, as filled as it gets on New Year’s.
What’s interesting about it was that one of the groups most responsible for it — ACT UP — was excluded. The reason being was they refused to stand peacefully in the pre-established pens (another innovative moment in the history of protests in the city), and it was this unwillingness to be carefully staged is the same reason why Obama will say nothing supportive about the people in Corporate Branded Park downtown.
So ACT UP crashed the party when Hillary Clinton was talking, just like everyone knew they would. The NYPD did exactly what everyone expected, forcing the march on to side streets, trying to split the mass into smaller rivulets. For a while, it didn’t work, the majority snaking off to Sixth Ave and back, but as they got close enough to be a visible presence, the police stepped up their interference, insuring that someone would get pushed, or fall, or something, and the arrests would begin.
I was riding my bike with the head of the pack, so wasn’t in direct danger (I was riding legally in the street, and the protestors mostly stayed to the sidewalk — remember this predated the permit rules, so it would take physical confrontation to precipitate an arrest). One thing that really did impress me was the quality of undercover outfitting. ACT UP in 92 looked really just like you expected it to. And the number of badges that came out of nowhere when the showdown happened really shocked me — and made me really suspicious of how confrontation is incited.
All this said, my point is: how could anyone start marching up the Brooklyn Bridge roadway without expecting arrests?
This reminds me of a discussion we had in the organization theory class I TA’d for and later taught as a summer lecturer at UCI.
UCI has what they call “Free Speech Zones.” I’m sure you’ve heard of them - other universities have them, and I think they’ve been set up in cities and even other countries. At UCI, you can only hold political gatherings and protests in these zones, during particular times, and with prior official approval. The greatest restrictions are placed on gatherings and protests with amplified sound. In other words, it’s like getting a protest permit from the city of New York and having the pre-established pens, only the “zones” are always in the exact same place, no matter the protest.
So we’re talking about it in class and I ask the students what happens when there’s a protest. They tell me you have to get a permit, and you have to hold it in the pre-approved area, and so forth.
I say to them, Ok, so what you’re telling me then is that you need to have bureaucratic approval of your protest, right?
They all respond that yes, that’s right.
I ask them, Did you hear what I just said? Bureaucratic approval of your protest. Isn’t that defeating the purpose? Sure, free speech and all, they can’t technically deny your right to have a gathering, but think about how they can constrain it, like if they allow some groups to participate and not others, or offer precedence to some gatherings, or there’s a show of force in some cases where there isn’t in others. And once they approve it, aren’t you now a part of the system? Haven’t they put you right in line and haven’t you let it happen? How exactly is that a protest? How exactly are you bucking the system?
They thought about that one for a while.
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- brianvan said: true. They’re not from around here, though! They don’t know how seriously NYPD considers traffic to be, above all things including sanitation, public health and criminality.
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