The Blog

Everything Is Permitted

Manhattan Libertarians protest the rules about RNC protesters--and make a few bucks while they're at it.

8:15 AM, Aug 30, 2004 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Central Park, New York
AUGUST 29--"Whose park? Our park!" chants a crowd of about 25 people, clustered under a tree on one edge of the scorchingly sunny Great Lawn.

"I heard a few dissenters to that one," someone says in the silence after the cheer peters out. "'Our park' sounds too collectivist."

"Whoa, that makes those guys third-level dissenters," breathes the man next to me. He sounds worshipful when he says it, as if regretting that he hadn't figured out how to be quite so subversive himself.

Earlier this summer, when applicants from United for Peace and Justice were denied a permit for a large protest on Central Park's Great Lawn during the convention, the Manhattan Libertarian Party swung into action. Claiming that "the only permit we need is the First Amendment," they initiated an "unauthorized protest" movement. A press release was issued, announcing that "organizers will not be available to negotiate with the NYPD, because we don't have any organizers. Absolutely nobody is in charge. Libertarians are individuals, not a collective."

The other protesters, you see, are dissenting from the official RNC line, but the LPers have taken things a step further, dissenting from the "complacent attitudes" of ordinary protesters ("If you ask the government for permission to protest it, you deserve to be told 'no'").

Having painstakingly outlined this and other guiding principles, my source wanders off humming "This land belongs to you and me" to join the LPers in a new chant: "Amendment one for everyone," they shout. "Amendment two for me and you." There's a pause--apparently even the Manhattan Libertarians can't think of anything catchy to say about the third amendment, since no one has tried to quarter any troops in their homes recently. But they quickly recover and move on to "Amendment four, no drug war."

Holding signs suggesting that the government "Drop Taxes, Not Bombs," proclaiming "Gun Rights: The real homeland security," and yelling for "The Right to Marry, The Right to Carry" the crowd consists mostly of registered Libertarians. First among them is the Libertarian candidate for president Michael Badnarik, who declares: "Anywhere I am standing is a free-speech zone."

Many people in the small group wear black T-shirts. They bear the legend "Unauthorized Protester" on the front and "Permits? We don't need no stinking permits" on the back. Like good capitalists, the LP is hawking the shirts for $10 a pop. As Manhattan LP chair Jim Lesczynski accepts payment from a girl who later accessorizes with a skirt fashioned out of "Badnarik for president" posters, he jokes that he is "an anti-war profiteer."

Asked if his group has been hassled by the police, Lesczynski eyes the four officials from Parks Enforcement standing at a distance and says, "We've reached détente."

Détente, apparently, hasn't been achieved in other quarters. The growing crowd of Libertarians (and other protesters of a pinker stripe) has attracted the attention of a man selling sodas out of a cooler. "We've got an unauthorized vendor over here," says a parks official quietly to a small cluster of subordinates. "Get him away from the crowd. Go!" The soda salesman is already sweating from the sun, and his eyes grow wide when he sees the green and brown uniforms closing in on him.

As the vendor is ushered away, I ask LPer Joseph Dobrien if he is troubled by the injustice being done to an innocent entrepreneur. After all, the vendor has the same problem that the LPers do--no permit. But Dobrien's not biting. He'll only say: "I would be very reluctant to support restrictions on what can or cannot be sold." He concedes that "it's not what I would concentrate on if I were in charge of the parks." With some prompting, he agrees that if he were in charge of public parks he would probably concentrate be selling them off to private entities instead.

Other "Unauthorized Protesters" express solidarity with the vendor, but are unwilling to antagonize the park enforcers on his behalf. "Whoa, they shouldn't do that, man," one anti-permit protester observed as he polished off his Coke and dropped the can in the garbage. "That's not cool." Behind him, someone carries a "Pistols, Not Permits" placard.

Dozens of distinctly non-libertarian protesters have trickled in since the LP set up shop. One group, organized by a man who says he is from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, is forming a "Human No" on the grass. Nearby, a woman tries to sell The Workers' Vanguard for 50 cents per copy.

Two women in bikinis join the "N" in the Human No. They say they just came to the park to sunbathe but agree with the sentiments of the man next to them: "Damn it man, desperate times make for strange bedfellows."