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Judge blocks RNC protest in Central Park

From Jonathan Wald

An aerial view of New York's Central Park.
New York
Republican National Convention

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Representatives of an Arab-American group and an antiwar group say they are urgently conferring with their attorneys on what steps to take after a federal judge turned down their request to gather in New York's Central Park and stage a protest before the Republican National Convention.

The antiwar ANSWER coalition and the National Council of Arab Americans (NCAA) filed a lawsuit on Aug. 13 in Manhattan's U.S. District Court claiming they were unfairly denied a permit by New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation for 75,000 people to attend an Aug. 28 rally

"This court cannot blind itself to the daunting security concerns facing this city during the Republican National Convention," U.S. District Judge William Pauley III ruled Monday. "There are serious questions whether the Great Lawn can safely accommodate the proposed rally at this point."

Brian Becker, a national coordinator for the ANSWER coalition, blasted New York City officials.

"The ANSWER Coalition, the NCAA is not only disappointed with the ruling," Becker said, "but we condemn the city for presenting to the court a completely false brief and making in court false representations, which on the face contradict themselves."

Lawyers for New York City have said that the rally could destroy the Great Lawn, which was restored in 1997 at a cost of over $18 million, as rally organizers did not give them a contingency date in the event of rain and did not guarantee them a limit of 80,000 people would not be exceeded.

The two plaintiffs argued the city's decision to refuse them a permit was a violation of their right to free speech and said tens of thousands of people gather on the lawn several times a year for musical concerts.

The purpose of the rally, scheduled for the 41st anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr., is to affirm "the civil rights of Arab-Americans and Muslims, targeted communities, that have been under assault by the Bush-Ashcroft Justice Department, with particular vengeance since September 11, 2001," Becker said.

Suggestions by New York City officials and Judge Pauley to relocate the rally outside of Manhattan left the organizers unimpressed.

"This is the first time ever that Arab-Americans are assembling and presenting their ideas collectively on such a scale," said NCAA spokesman Elias Rashmawi. "There is no better place and there is no more welcoming place than Central Park."

"We are offended that they are offering us a location outside of Manhattan, as if we are being made to ride at the back of the buses," Rashmawi said.

The judge said he was "convinced" the two sides could "bridge their differences." If the groups insisted on rallying on the Great Lawn, then they should "propose a workable cancellation policy and formulate a plan to limit access to no more than 80,000 people,'' he wrote.

Another antiwar group, United For Peace and Justice, has also sued the city for denying it a permit to protest on the Great Lawn on Aug. 29, the day before the convention begins. UFPJ sought a permit for as many as 250,000 people and will argue in New York State Supreme Court on Tuesday for a permit to hold the rally.

"If we win our court case, we will march to Central Park for an exuberant rally," the UFPJ said in a written statement. "If we lose in court, we will negotiate with the City for a safe, peaceful, and orderly closure of the day's events."

After they were refused a permit to gather in Central Park, UFPJ agreed last month to the city's offer of a rally on the West Side Highway. The group changed its mind two weeks ago when they found that the highway would not have shade, tap water, the capacity to project sound or access to mass transit.

"We agreed to use the highway if the police resolved these issues and they didn't -- we won't go to the West Side Highway, even for all of Mayor Bloomberg's money," said UFPJ spokesman, Bill Dobbs.

The mayor of New York City is Michael Bloomberg.

The group submitted a new application to use three Central Park locations -- the Great Lawn, the East Meadow and the North Meadow -- to stage the rally.

UFPJ will march on Aug. 29 up 7th Avenue from 14th Street to 34th Street, alongside Madison Square Garden, where Republicans will hold their convention.

The battle between New York City officials and protest groups has led some antiwar activists to recommend gathering in Central Park without a permit, risking arrest.

But Bill Dobbs says the UFPJ wants "a family friendly, antiwar rally" where participants can demonstrate without fear of being arrested.

Court battles in recent weeks before the convention have left plans uncertain both for protest organizations and the police assigned to maintain order.

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