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Thursday, August 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist
Trashing Central Park is not a protest statement


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Some protesters-in-waiting seem to think that their right to free expression can't be separated from the right to trash New York City's Central Park. The park's Great Lawn has been restored at great expense. And that's the reason why — the only reason why — the city won't let a group called United for Peace and Justice hold a mass rally there before the Republican National Convention.

Central Park is a green oasis in the concrete chaos of Manhattan. The Great Lawn is a gem of the urban environment. Damaging it would be akin to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Central Park provides many poor New Yorkers their only brush with nature. So it seems odd that leftists who claim to be friends of the people are demanding a permit to wreck the people's park.

Why would the group even want its demonstrators — whose numbers could reach 250,000 — stomping every blade of the Great Lawn's grass into compost? The answer is simple: They want it because ... because ... because people in authority told them not to. The authorities in question are the jackboots at the city Parks Department, backed by the dark forces of the Central Park Conservancy.

(To see what the Great Lawn looked like before and after the $18 million restoration, check out the conservancy's Web site at www.centralparknyc.org. Click on "News Archive," then "The Right to Rally ... ")

The city has given the group permission to parade this Sunday right past Madison Square Garden, where the Republicans will be meeting. And it has offered the West Side Highway for the group's big rally. So the marchers are not exactly being fenced in at a Staten Island landfill.

Meanwhile, another group of possibly 75,000 protesters wants to trample the Great Lawn on Saturday. A federal judge in Manhattan has just told the organizers — the National Council of Arab Americans and the Answer Coalition — that they can't. The Arab-American group said it chose the park location because it provided an "unconfined, family-friendly mass-rally venue," where its members would feel comfortable. Too bad they aren't similarly concerned about New York families who need a nice place to picnic.

A sympathetic Judge William Pauley noted that for this group, the gathering was about "acceptance and equality of Arab Americans." His wise decision to not overturn the city's position, however, was also about equality: Arab Americans are equally not allowed to hold mass rallies on the Great Lawn.

In their defense and to their credit, some leaders of United for Peace and Justice want to keep their rally respectable so as to attract respectable people. That means behaving well and not gathering on the Great Lawn without a permit. But others vow to defy the law and descend on the greensward.

They will recite their justifications in the usual self-dramatizing way. In a world full of war, hunger and gentrification, a few acres of grass should not matter. The anarchist fringe may actively seek confrontation with police trying to keep them off the lawn. The radicals got a lot of attention when they violated Seattle's downtown during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting. And there was more street action a year later at the Republican convention in Philadelphia. They might see making a mess in New York as another notch on their belt.

Of course, any violence would be counterproductive to the demonstrators' chief goal, presumably to replace President Bush. Wobbly independents might be reminded of why they dislike the left.

But civil disorder that damages a public treasure would also stir contempt in the hearts of New Yorkers, few of whom are big Bush fans. The city still shakes from the tragedy of 9/11. Police are already beefing up patrols in the train stations against possible terrorism. Drawing law-enforcement resources away from vulnerable locations to deal with demonstrators needing to act out in Central Park would be an offense against the people of New York.

It's hard to tell whether the fringe elements even care. They may have no feelings about ruining a green haven in a code-orange city, then returning to the security of Austin, Madison or Eugene. But no leftist with any class (working or otherwise) would want to do this. That it's even an issue gives one pause.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com

Copyright 2004, The Providence Journal Co.

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