[NYCLU Director] Donna Lieberman's testimony - City Council hearing on F15 rally

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Wed Feb 26 20:23:45 MST 2003

Donna Lieberman's testimony - City Council hearing on F15 rally
by NYCLU 7:33pm Wed Feb 26 '03 (Modified on 8:14pm Wed Feb 26 '03)

New York City Council
Committee on Government Operations
Testimony of Donna Lieberman
February 25, 2003
New York Civil Liberties Union 125 Broad St. NY,NY 10004 212 344-3005 fax 
212-344-3318 www.nyclu.org

New York City Council
Committee on Government Operations
Testimony of Donna Lieberman
February 25, 2003

Good afternoon. I want to thank to Councilmember Perkins for his leadership 
in defending fundamental rights in the context of the Feb 15 
demonstrations; for joining with the NYCLU and other city council members 
in the call for these hearings and for scheduling this initial hearing so 

On February 15th, in hundreds of cities around the world, millions of 
people took to the streets for peaceful demonstrations against the 
impending war with Iraq.

In only one city were they denied the right to march – New York.

Photos and videos show demonstrators around the world marching peacefully 
and freely in well-identified contingents. But not in New York,

<sum> where we have a double standard for free speech -- if the city likes 
the message you get a parade; but if it doesn’t, you don’t. If you’re the 
St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Israeli day parade, or the Easter Parade, you 
can march. But if you are a protester, you can’t.

<sum> where those who are able to get to the rally are herded into holding 
pens like animals, unable to come and go, look for friends and colleagues, 
or form into contingents;

<sum> where tens of thousands of people are barred at every turn by police 
from getting to a demonstration to criticize government policy;

<sum> where police, confronted with crowds they failed to anticipate, 
compensate for their own errors in judgment by attacking peaceful 
demonstrators with horses and pepper spray instead of allowing the overflow 
to spill in to the street; and

<sum> where people are arrested for trying to get to a rally, and are held 
in freezing paddy wagons, chained together and denied food, water, 
bathrooms, and medical treatment for hours.

There is something wrong with this picture – very wrong.

In this country, when there is strong disagreement with the actions of the 
government – actions taken in the name of the people – the people protest. 
Today, our president and his advisors seem intent upon going to war. This 
has stirred strong feelings – feelings of patriotism as well as deep 
opposition. There is a long, proud American tradition of “talking with our 
feet.” A city that claims to be a cultural and intellectual capital of the 
world cannot be a place where protest marches are a thing of the past.

But the City decided that we could not march and the Courts said that was 
okay. And both decisions have diminished the Constitution.

In attempting to negotiate a march past the United Nations, the police 
department first stalled, promising an alternative route. We agreed, at the 
city’s request, not to file a lawsuit. The NYPD finally put an alternative 
route on the table, but then withdrew it. At that point, the demonstration 
date was nearing and we were compelled to go to court.

In the process of the litigation we learned, through the sworn testimony of 
a police department official, that the police department has had a 
practice, perhaps a policy, of denying permits for political demonstrations 
involving more than one thousand people. We also learned that a new police 
department regulation bans all “new demonstrations” down Fifth Avenue. The 
large, raucous traditional parades, known for their rowdiness and 
occasional violence, will continue to be permitted. But the less 
well-connected proponents of peace or civil rights will have to take their 
speech elsewhere.

Is this a matter of public safety, or the suppression of dissent? Concerns 
about unspecified acts of terrorism simply cannot justify a blanket 
prohibition on all political marches for the indefinite future.

The permit process was deeply flawed and, we believe, unconstitutional.

Nonetheless hundreds of thousands of people came to NY to demonstrate for 
peace – and to demonstrate that they may have taken away our right to 
march. But the voice of dissent has not – and will not – be silenced.

But notwithstanding the huge numbers, let there be no mistake, the police 
conduct on February 15th constituted a serious violation of the fundamental 
constitutional right to dissent – diminished the numbers, undermined the 
strength of the message, and inflicted serious harm on lawful protesters. 
And when peaceful protestors are treated this way it inevitably has a 
chilling effect on future activity.

During the demonstration we received numerous calls from legal observers 
and marshals and demonstrators outside the rally site about problems with 
the police. We had no idea of the breadth and gravity of the problem until 
after the rally had ended. The NYCLU sent out an email request for reports 
about problems people encountered in conjunction with the demonstration. 
Within a few days we received over 250 written complaints, and more arrive 
each day. The NYCLU is only in the very early stages of collecting and 
analyzing complaints from participants in the February 15th demonstration. 
We will produce a written report in the near future that fully describes 
and analyzes the events of that day, and also to make available to the 
public some of the video and photographic material we have received from 
participants and observers.

Today, I will simply state for the record some of the clear issues that 
have emerged.

In reviewing the complaints we have received, we have identified 4 types of 
problems which severely undermined New Yorkers’ freedom of speech, 
association, and assembly:

<sum> First, the inability of protesters to reach the rally on First Avenue 
and 51st Street because of police actions.
<sum> Second, the numerous documented instances of abusive conduct by the 
<sum> And third, the conditions at the rally itself.
<sum> Finally, the harsh treatment of those arrested for minor offenses and 
violation of their fundamental rights.

Based on the complaints we have thus far received and on our own 
observations, I think it is fair to say that tens of thousands of 
protestors were prevented by the police from ever reaching the rally. 
Instead, tens of thousands of protesters were confined either to Third 
Avenue or Second Avenue where they were forced to walk to higher and higher 
streets seeking an open cross street. It appears that as early as 11 a.m., 
one hour before the rally was to begin, cross streets between 33rd and 63rd 
were closed by well-guarded police barricades. One protestor wrote:

“I was a demonstrator trying to reach the rally site from 11 a.m. As I 
walked up 2nd Avenue from 33rd Street expecting to be able to approach the 
rally site somewhere along my route by turning east on a cross street, I 
was directed by the police blocking every cross street to proceed to X 
street where a crossing would be allowed. Each time I reached that cross 
street it had been sealed off and we were directed to the next until the 
stream of protesters grew to a size that could no longer be kept along the 
sidewalk. We filled in the avenue and eventually reach 63rd Street where we 
were told we would be able to cross over to First. Ave. Again we met a road 
block of at least 12 to 16 police.”


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