“Wall Street” Protests: Protecting Rights While Protecting Lives

I recently attended the protest being held across the street from the world trade center site in Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan. I spent a couple of hours walking through the small park where several hundred protesters were gathered to express their concerns about economic conditions in America and the rest of the world. The protesters believe “Wall Street” to be the principal offender if not the exclusive cause of the massive and prolonged unemployment afflicting so many of us. The demonstrators have a number of other issues they believe to be associated with the economic crisis and they are voicing their views about inequities in our immigration policies, as well as concerns about affordable housing, health care, college costs and our prolonged involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were for the most part orderly and self restrained as they make their arguments while searching for wider support from a curious public. The protesters held up their signs and banners and spoke without the bitterness and rancor I had seen in other street protests decades ago, some not far from Zucotti Park. But those protest too started off in atmosphere of optimism and good fellowship.

In the 60’s and 70’s, as an aide to New York City mayor John Lindsay, I was thrust into the middle of similar protests in the city’s streets and parks. America back then was impacted by an unpopular war in Viet Nam, intense racial unrest at home, and a dramatic surge of “anti-establishment” sentiment, especially among college age and younger members of society who believed that America was on the wrong path. They too were sometimes unfocused on how to best redress their grievances but they sensed something was wrong and that we needed change; familiar sentiments almost half a century later. It is worth noting that then like now similar unrest was taking place around the world with a focus on the United States in general and Wall Street in particular as the target of protestors’ ire. It is also worth remembering that despite the chaos, destruction, and deadly confrontations that grew from what started as limited street protests, as a society we began to deal with societal wrongs which had not before been addressed in earnest.

Today, street demonstrations taking place in major European cities and in the Middle East as well are a far cry from the orderly protests we are witnessing in some American cities. For those of us who remember the tumultuous and often violent demonstrations that occurred in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles and elsewhere across the nation, we remain watchful, remembering the small rallies and marches which ultimately ignited the violence and destruction which left some communities permanently destroyed. In that era war and race were the issues that mobilized so many Americans, often on the campuses of our best-known colleges and universities, and then seemed to spill into living rooms and neighborhoods in every region of the country. Those issues raised with them the collateral questions of educational and employment opportunity, mandatory military service, freedom of expression and poverty for so many members of our society; those questions were destined to become part of our national dialogue and ultimately give rise to a concerted effort to right some many of the most egregious wrongs that characterized the times

An overriding question for government then as now, is how do we allow for the expression of controversial views and sentiments, the widespread use of public streets and facilities while protecting the public from foreseeable risks of harm. While we have well recognized standards involving time, place and circumstance for permitting public gatherings for the expression of popular as well as unpopular views, history has taught us that some issues, especially those steeped in politics, are required to receive special consideration in how we use our police powers in protecting the public while allowing for broad latitude for the expression of first amendment rights. But unlike any other time in our history, we have a paramount concern over terrorism in our big cities, and the Wall Street area is perhaps the nation’s leading target. How much latitude can we provide for street demonstrations under such unique circumstances, even when a high priority of first amendment rights is involved? At what point will the number of demonstrators become too large for effective control, or their route of march become too provocative to be allowed to continue. At what point will our well-drilled admonition: “See Something Say Something” be so overwhelmed as to become totally ineffective. At what point will a once peaceful demonstration become an angry mob, out of control and a convenient vehicle for infiltration by any one of the many terrorist groups already being monitored by NYPD.

As “Wall Street” continues to evolve as the rallying cry for Americans facing our greatest economic crisis since the 1929 crash on that very street, it is necessary for responsible members of government to recognize the potential for a series of devastating calamites that may emerge from encouraging street protests in the midst of massive unemployment, our involvement in hot wars, world-wide religious strife, devastating natural disasters and a lack of any cohesive plan for improvement. It is equally important to redirect our protestors away from public gatherings in places where we are unable provide adequate protection for the public. In a community where you cannot enter a public or even most private buildings without being screened, holding large gatherings out in the public for purpose of promoting protest with no control over who is present and what they are carrying presents an unreasonably foreseeable risk of harm calling for the encouragement of protests in less vulnerable places and under conditions where reasonable security for all can be provided.

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