New York City on High Alert for 2004 Republican Convention

New York City on High Alert for 2004 Republican Convention

Original Article on Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — The twin threats of terrorism and protest violence have put the New York Police Department in the global spotlight again on the eve of the Republican National Convention, and New York’s finest appeared well prepared for the task during Sunday’s march by more than 100,000 protesters.

While the nation well remembers the heroics and sacrifice of New York’s police and firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, the NYPD faces some tricky public relations challenges in keeping its image exemplary while dealing firmly but humanely with protesters — as well as policing the convention amid heightened threats and unprecedented security for such a national political gathering.

In the months leading up to Sunday’s march, New York police commissioner Ray Kelly had emphasized that rather than street protests, his greatest concern was terrorism.

Yet the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice had repeatedly warned as well that the city should not use Sept. 11 or threats of terrorism to curb constitutional rights to protest.

By day’s end, Kelly was applauding march organizers for what he called an event that ‘‘by and large was peaceful and orderly.” Though about 200 people were arrested, most for disorderly conduct, Kelly stressed that most of the arrests occurred far off the parade route.

‘‘The organizers for United for Peace and Justice ought to be commended for keeping their word: They pledged that the demonstrators would follow the march route, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said.

Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a key march organizer, said that during the nearly six-hour march both police and protesters acted admirably. ‘‘What really helped was that the protesters wanted things to be peaceful, and the cops for the most part were extremely well behaved,” he said.

As groups of protesters were beginning to mass along Seventh Avenue Sunday morning, police Inspector Joseph Riley shook hands with Dunn and went over logistics for the march.

It was a friendly if guarded greeting of two men who had talked many times over the past six months as the city and the antiwar coalition negotiated the route of the march.

‘‘We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but there’s been a real effort to coordinate our activities,” said Riley.

The day went much as expected. Thousands of people — The Associated Press reported 100,000 while march organizers estimated 400,000 — marched for six hours through midtown Manhattan past Madison Square Garden, the convention site.

Still fresh in the minds of march organizers was the antiwar rally held on Manhattan’s East Side on a cold day in February 2003. Organizers charged afterward that the city had abused the use of so-called ‘‘pens,” interlocking metal barricades that police have used since the mid-1990s to control crowd movements. Later the New York Civil Liberties Union later sued the police department, leading to a July court order to modify policies regarding restrictions on access to events and searching of demonstrators.

At Sunday’s march, Dunn said, the use of pens had been so heavily modified as to have been all but eliminated. ‘‘They got beat up by the February ‘03 event, and to their credit they made some important changes,” he said.

For the NYPD, the greatest concern was — and remains — a terrorist attack.

Helicopters hovered high above the rally while more than 10,000 police — about one-fourth of the city’s force — worked the march and the convention site, and prepared to protect other public events this week, such as the start of the U.S. Open tennis tournament and baseball games of the Yankees and the Mets.

The large police presence, said George Bauries, crisis management director for Criterion Strategies, an international security firm based in Manhattan, ‘‘set a tone that if any terror group was going to take advantage there would be second thoughts to that.”

In the days leading up to the march, police stepped up their rounds at the city’s major transportation spots, its subway system, train terminals, bridges and tunnels. New equipment such as metal barriers to halt a speeding vehicle and ‘‘sally ports” to inspect trucks were positioned around Madison Square Garden.

Police clearly were bracing for many more arrests. In the event that large numbers of protesters had to be detained, the city recently erected a facility on a Chelsea pier that could hold as many as 1,000 people. Courts had also been readied to process large numbers.

‘‘The department is very mindful of its image,” Bauries said. ‘‘There can’t be an overwhelming hand that would crush demonstrators, but at the same time, we have to be sure that groups such as al-Qaida don’t take advantage of weakened security.”