“In 2004, the Republican National Convention came to New York City. Outside, the NYPD perpetrated some of the worst offenses against civil liberties in the city’s history. Cops rounded up 1,800 protesters in a single day, most of whom were demonstrating peacefully.”
New York City’s union leaders have thrown their support behind Mayor Eric Adams’ bid to convince the Democratic National Committee to host its 2024 convention in Manhattan.
And why not?
It’s a logical ask for the organizations that represent the city’s working people, because a convention would draw thousands of delegates, officials and journalists, providing a powerful shot in the arm for the hotel and tourism sectors that were so damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And saying yes to New York’s bid would be a logical move for the DNC, too. Despite propaganda to the contrary, ours is the quintessential American city, with its diverse population, innovative businesses, cultural offerings from the sidewalk to the symphony, and natural beauty.
Before the sidewalk stands start selling Convention ’24 t-shirts, however, we need to hear from the city’s boosters about how New York will handle an essential element of any modern convention: dissent.
Because the last time we hosted a national nominating event, that part didn’t go so well. In fact, it was a disaster.
In 2004, the Republican National Convention came to New York City. Inside Madison Square Garden, the party of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney engaged in four days of bellowing self-congratulation for the Bush administration’s defense of freedom and liberty around the globe. Outside, the NYPD perpetrated some of the worst offenses against civil liberties in the city’s history.
Cops rounded up 1,800 protesters in a single day, most of whom were demonstrating peacefully. In one especially egregious incident, officers used construction netting to sweep up dozens of people protesting in lower Manhattan. Detained protesters were in some cases held for more than two days before seeing a judge, kept in crowded pens at a decrepit former bus depot. Even before the convention, undercover NYPD detectives infiltrated protest groups, including some based in other states, casting a broad surveillance net over people who overwhelmingly intended to exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully.
Those high-profile offenses were likely accompanied by smaller affronts to the ideals that are supposed to underpin U.S. democracy. I covered the ’04 convention for CBS News, and I remember seeing a solitary young man standing silently at a subway entrance near the Garden one evening holding a photograph of one of the abused Abu Ghraib detainees. He wasn’t blocking the way or saying anything; he was just silently protesting an egregious violation of human rights overseas. Two plainclothes law enforcement officials accosted him, demanding he give them his name or stop protesting. He refused, so they forced him to move on. At one point, a uniformed cop standing nearby ordered me to stop watching the scene. Move along. There was nothing to see there.
Taken together, the litany of offenses during the 2004 convention were a Constitutional affront and a civic embarrassment. And while it is tempting to dismiss these incidents as relics of the Bloomberg administration’s atrocious record on civil liberties, or to note how much the NYPD has changed since then (it has made some progress, really), the city must provide more concrete assurances that this time would be different.
The fact is, political conventions and the protests they attract have long posed a challenge for host cities. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago is the exemplar, but there have been far more recent examples, like the 2000 RNC in Philadelphia, where there was a notably heavy-handed police response to protests. Those other examples don’t let New York off the hook for what occurred in 2004. They merely reinforce the idea that, no matter how much time has passed since those tense summer days 18 years ago, the onus is still on Adams, the city’s Law Department and the NYPD to explain how they plan to to handle—not stifle, or undermine, or punish, but handle—protests during the DNC.
Admittedly, it’s not an easy task. High security is a must at conventions attracting much of the nation’s leadership. Large numbers of conventioneers need to be moved into and out of the event space. A small minority of protesters do act violently, sometimes in hopes of triggering an aggressive police response. Meanwhile, keeping the peace among protesters themselves is also a challenge. Not everyone throwing their fist in the air is fighting for the same thing.
Indeed, it’s important to remember that it’s not just the voice of the Left that would be stifled by a heavy-handed response: When Boston held the Democratic convention in 2004, it relegated protesters to a designated “free speech zone” located blocks from the convention and demarcated by jersey barriers and chain-link fence. Behind the barricades, leftists who opposed the role of corporate money in Democratic party politics held signs mocking big-money donors, while anti-choice demonstrators from Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust wore gags to protest the squelching of dissent. The 2024 DNC is also likely to attract protests from both sides of the spectrum, and they all have the right to be heard and seen.
There are cogent cases to be made for the other cities that have emerged as finalists in the bidding for the 2024 convention. Chicago’s location in the midwest puts it in the same orbit as crucial rust belt states like Wisconsin and Michigan that Democrats dare not take for granted, and the Windy City also would signal the DNC’s desire to be more than a bicoastal party. Atlanta anchors the new swing state of the South, and its prominent place in Black American political history would make its selection a powerful signal to that crucial Democratic constituency.
New York’s case for the convention is even stronger. From Gun Hill Road in revolutionary times to Ground Zero in more recent memory, New York’s story is America’s story, and a national convention would remind locals and visitors alike of our shared past and common destiny. Its bid should win, but only after the mayor and his police leadership assure the DNC—and those of us who might take to the streets on those summer nights—that it is capable of protecting everything that story stands for.
Jarrett Murphy, a registered nurse, is a contributing editor at City Limits, where he was an editor from 2007 to 2021.
One thought on “Opinion: If NYC Hosts the Democratic Convention, It Must Do Better Than ’04—At Protecting Free Speech”
Excellent points. 2004 was traumatic. The City invited the GOP to town and gave the NYPD permission to treat our residents a little like dissenters under a South American dictatorship. I always point to the case of Alexander Pincus, a man arrested miles away from the convention site when he rode his bicycle into an NYPD trap.
However, I think New York will never, ever host a political convention again. The DNC should be in Maricopa County in 2024. The hottest battleground is urban Arizona.