January 21, 2010
The pavement outside of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse became a battleground in two fights this afternoon — one against school closures and another for the right to protest against them on a public sidewalk.
A group of parents, students and teachers sued in federal court last week for the right to demonstrate on both sides of the street outside of Bloomberg’s home. They said their protests at Tweed Courthouse — home to the Department of Education — had fallen on deaf ears.
On Friday, the protesters won their case. But the city appealed, and this morning a panel of circuit court judges overturned the first decision, ruling that the demonstrators had to stay on the south side of East 79th Street, across the street from the mayor’s door.
And so protesters, who had vowed to demonstrate regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome of their lawsuit, took their chants of “Phase out Bloomberg” to just the south side.
“The north side becomes a ‘no First Amendment’ zone,” said the civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who argued the case for letting protesters gather directly in front of the mayor’s residence. “What are they afraid of? Are they afraid of criticism?”
“It’s not for the government to choose where the protest is,” Siegel added.
Police allowed about 150 protesters onto the mayor’s block at a time, and the remaining demonstrators circled in a staging area at the corner of 79th Street and Central Park. At its height, roughly 300 protesters gathered on the block and in the staging area.
City attorneys argued that security concerns on the sidewalk directly in front of Bloomberg’s townhouse justified the city in keeping protesters across the street.
Siegel said it would be up to the plaintiffs in the suit, two students at Maxwell High School and a parent and teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15, to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling. To appeal, the plaintiffs would have to organize a second protest.
“From my perspective, I would absolutely like to,” said Julie Cavanagh, the P.S. 15 teacher who was one of the plaintiffs. “This is metaphorical for a lot of things in this city. This is a mayor who thinks a public street is his private street.”
Many demonstrators came to oppose the expansion of the city’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. A large contingent of parents and teachers came from Cavanagh’s school, P.S. 15, to protest a city plan to allow a charter school expand in their school building over the next five years.
Most protesters came to oppose the city’s plan to shutter 20 schools. Groups of teachers, students and parents traveled to the Upper East Side from Columbus High School in the Bronx, Maxwell High School in Brooklyn and Queens’ Jamaica High School, among several others, to protest plans to close those schools.
“They didn’t even try to fix the school,” said Lashaune Gordon, 16, a sophomore at Maxwell.
“Is closing the school making anything better?” asked Gordon’s friend Devante Kendall, also a 16-year-old sophomore. “Everybody at our school, we’re doing better now. I think they should wait to see what happens.”
The students’ math teacher, Ed Ludde, accused the DOE of setting the school up to fail when the school received an influx of high-needs students after the city shuttered nearby Jefferson High School. “They designed a system that would implode upon itself,” he said.
The students said they were skeptical that the city’s plan to phase in a new school on Maxwell’s campus as theirs phased out would go smoothly. And they said that the gradual phase-out of their own school would hurt morale. “If there are no 9th graders next year, there will be no 9th grade girls to talk to,” joked Kendall.
More seriously, they said plans for the school’s closure put a damper on their ambitions to share their future successes with their alma mater.
“We would like to come back 20 years from now, when we’re rich,” Gordon said.