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We Can’t Lose the Right to Protest in the Age of Coronavirus

Concerns about the spread of coronavirus are legitimate, but the right to public protest must be upheld through the crisis. Unfortunately, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has done the opposite, eroding our rights to assembly during the pandemic.

Forty Second Street stands mostly empty as much of the city is void of cars and pedestrians over fears of spreading the coronavirus on March 22, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

From Emma Goldman’s fiery speeches at Union Square during the Gilded Age through Occupy Wall Street in the Bloomberg era, the New York City left’s fight for social justice has often encompassed a simultaneous battle on behalf of the First Amendment right to protest.

Yet amid the current pandemic, the city’s progressive mayor, Democrat Bill de Blasio, has deemed public protests “non-essential” gatherings, and NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea (a registered Republican) is enforcing the ban.

Last week cops dispersed a gathering of LGBTQ activists speaking out against the alliance between Mt. Sinai Hospital and Samaritan’s Purse, an anti-gay, Islamophobic evangelical organization. The event’s participants adhered to the city’s social-distancing guidelines.

A few days prior, large crowds had gathered across the city to watch a decidedly non-essential flyover by the Blue Angels, and although many onlookers did not practice social distancing, there was no NYPD enforcement.

Meanwhile, another prominent Islamophobe, blogger Pam Geller, has sued de Blasio and Shea, arguing that the city’s ban violates her right to organize an event in support of reopening the economy. Geller’s protest likely would echo those witnessed in Michigan and Pennsylvania, albeit with fewer guns. On Saturday, the NYPD arrested nine of twenty protesters gathered near City Hall calling for the city to reopen.

Rather than let the far right seize the mantle as First Amendment champions, New York’s Left should restore its leading role in fighting for the right to peaceably assemble.

Until his recent actions, de Blasio’s record regarding protest had been a mild improvement compared to his two predecessors. In the nineties, Rudy Giuliani declared the steps of City Hall off-limits to protest. Led by iron-fisted NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, the Bloomberg administration continued Rudy’s assault on the First Amendment.

One month before the Iraq War began in 2003, Bloomberg denied a permit for a march past the United Nations on the February 15 global day of protest. In order to prevent the anti-war movement from making a powerful symbolic statement, the city only allowed a stationary rally a few blocks away from the UN. The crowd, estimated by organizers to reach 500,000, also struggled to move around endless police barricades, a common protest control tactic of the Kelly regime.

Although Bloomberg allowed a massive march against the Bush regime to proceed the day before the 2004 Republican National Convention, the then-Republican mayor’s administration denied a permit for a rally on the Great Lawn at Central Park. That week, the city illegally detained over 1,800 activists swept up by the NYPD during the convention.

The NYPD’s hostility towards protesters helped build public support for Occupy in the fall of 2011. The Bloomberg administration initially allowed the encampment at Zuccotti Park but eventually crushed it, with the NYPD seizing and dumping most of the People’s Library.

After taking office in 2014, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton softened their predecessors’ hostility to protest but continued to steer demonstrations away from iconic landmarks. In the Eric Garner protests in late 2014, activists thus initiated unpermitted marches on the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges, sparking clashes with cops.

Shutting down protest completely is something not even Giuliani suggested after 9/11. Amid the pandemic, it’s most unlikely that many thousands of people will attend a rally. But as the New York State Nurses Association showed last week, even a small number of demonstrators can help call attention to problems like the PPE shortage at Rikers.

Mayor de Blasio at his press conference on Sunday illustrated why elected officials should not determine who gets to exercise Constitutional rights. “I’m a huge believer in the First Amendment,” the mayor said before declaring that “to gather in the middle of a pandemic” is “idiotic.” He insisted that all activists should seek to call attention to issues online.

But as leading civil rights attorney Norman Siegel told the Indypendent, “COVID-19 could be with us for a couple of years or longer, so we need to speak out. We should use [our] rights. If we don’t, they’ll atrophy. And then one day we’ll wake up, and we won’t have them anymore.”