PROTESTS & THE NYPD
By RAY KELLY
July 21, 2006 — ONCE again, the usual critics are charging the NYPD with undermining free speech – and, once again, the facts say otherwise.
The charges center on the department’s recent clarification of its rules on protests, marches and parades – clarifications suggested by Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Stallman.
The NYPD had sought a restraining order to prevent reckless mass bike-rides that jeopardize public safety. The judge told us that the department’s rules were vague and recommended that we be more specific in defining what constituted a parade or a march. “For many reasons,” wrote Justice Stallman, “it would be sensible . . . to develop and promulgate criteria for what constitutes a parade or procession, as a function of its size.”
So we did. Where the rules didn’t specify numbers, the amended version now stipulates that groups of 35 or more would require a permit for a march along a sidewalk. Groups of 20 or more using bicycles, or other vehicles, would require a permit. Smaller groups obeying traffic regulations would not.
None of the clarifications in any way impinge on free speech or the message behind a march, parade, or protest. They impose no new penalties or punishments, and are in complete conformity with the conceptual framework of existing law. In short, the NYPD is simply providing the clarity to its regulations that the courts indicated was lacking.
The “bicycle protests” that triggered all this had become a real public-safety problem. In years past, these consisted of cyclists who stopped for lights and otherwise observed traffic regulations, riding in groups in Manhattan to advocate alternatives to cars or for the sheer fun of it. In many instances, organizers would advise the police in advance of the routes they planned to take. But, beginning a few months before the 2004 Republican National Convention, the rides were hijacked by those apparently intent on commandeering the streets for themselves.
Participants took it upon themselves to block crosstown streets so they could run lights and have the avenues for bikes alone. They posed grave risks, not only to the sick and injured waiting for an ambulance to arrive, but to others. A news helicopter captured the image of one of the cyclist “corkers” punching a motorist who had sought to breach an ersatz blockade.
The Police Department’s permit process effectively allows activities that would otherwise be illegal – such as disregarding traffic signals or blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic – to go forward, with the police making accommodations such as rerouting traffic. The NYPD’s standing offer to work with groups to accommodate these rides has been refused.
Every day, the department performs the great juggling act of accommodating street fairs, protests, parades and performances of one sort or another – while also safeguarding the participants and the public, and without letting the rest of the city grind to a halt.
That means that, when a demonstration fills blocks of the East Side of Manhattan, we make sure the radioactive isotopes or human organs that medical centers in the vicinity need still arrive on time. It also means we provide emergency lanes for ambulances or fire trucks that might otherwise be delayed in the added congestion that such events inevitably cause. (Similarly, the police accommodate sidewalk pickets while allowing everyone else to get to their apartment buildings, hotels, or places or work.)
This give-and-take proceeds daily without incident in the vast majority of cases. Last year, the NYPD assigned special police details to accommodate over a thousand of such events below 59th Street alone.
By responding to the courts’ concerns about specificity, the department clarified the rules on parade permits without undermining, in any way, the public’s right to voice dissent or any other opinion.
Ray Kelly is New York City Police commissioner