Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Mayor Mike gives First Amendment a bad name (bad name)

In the summer of 2004, protestors wanting to demonstrate against the policies of the Bush Administration during the Republican National Convention’s visit to New York City were denied a permit to gather on Central Park’s Great Lawn. The city, we were told, could not afford the cost of repairing the damage done to the lawn by such a large crowd.

I didn’t buy it—no one really did—but the city could at least point to the $130,000 worth of damage that happened as a result of a 2003 Dave Matthews concert as some sort of object lesson. Concert crowds were bad for the lawn, protest crowds were bad for the lawn, crowds were just bad for the lawn, or so the story went. . .

. . . until Monday:

The rock band Bon Jovi will give a free concert on July 12 to as many as 60,000 people on the Great Lawn of Central Park in honor of Major League Baseball’s 79th All-Star Game, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced at a news conference on Monday afternoon. . . .

At a City Hall news conference, the mayor, who has been trying to drum up excitement around the July 15 All-Star Game in the last season at the current Yankee Stadium, pointed out that it will coincide with a baseball convention at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and a July 15 parade on the Avenue of the Americas, with Hall of Famers like Yogi Berra and Willie Mays. Mr. Bloomberg said that Bon Jovi would be “following in the footsteps of Simon & Garfinkel, Barbra Streisand, Garth Brooks and the Metropolitan Opera.” (Actually, Mr. Brooks performed on the North Meadow, not the Great Lawn, in 1997.)

Garfinkel, Garfunkel, whatevs. . . . What Bloomberg was really saying is that the lawn can be used for private commercial ventures dressed up to look like public events, but real public gatherings—the kind that this country was built on—are strictly verboten.

“Getting together to shout and hold up signs about some politicians you don’t like,” remarked the mayor, “what’s the point in that? How does the city benefit? I mean financially benefit.”

OK, Mike Bloomberg didn’t really say that, but if he had, it would have been wholly consistent with the way he has governed the city so far. So, instead, we will have tens of thousands from Bon Jovi’s mostly white, mostly suburban fan base getting together on the Great Lawn to shout and hold up signs declaring their love for a band that is two decades removed from its heyday.

It is mostly irrelevant, totally whitebread, and blatantly commercial—much like the mayor himself.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on John Bon Jovi—he may be a perfectly nice guy, with progressive politics maybe even (I don’t really know)—and I don’t want to dismiss his importance as a cultural icon (well, OK, maybe I do), but the issues at hand are: Who has a right to Central Park, what constitutes a gathering worthy of the damage and clean up costs, and since when does a mayor get to mete out the people’s First Amendment right to free assembly based on his idea of what’s good for his image?

Of course, the NYC Law Department sees it some other way. There is a convoluted paragraph in the NYT piece I link to above that supposedly spells out a policy. The Bloomberg Administration calls it a set of formal rules designed to protect the park’s grass, but I think we all know it’s just a pile of fertilizer.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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