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Taking free speech by the bullhorn, they face arrest

The Villager | May 25, 2005
By Lincoln Anderson

Last Saturday afternoon in Union Sq.’s south plaza there was the usual controlled chaos, with various groups staking out their space. On the east side, sitting in lotus position, were the Hare Krishnas, singing and chanting with their cymbals, drums and harmonium. On the west side was a jazz outfit, trying to play with some loud speakers for amplification, but being told by Park Enforcement officers they could not. There were some guys next to them kicking a Hackey Sack in the air. A breakdance crew called the Transformerz were set with their own small amps, waiting to start their show. Vendors ringed the edge of the plaza, hawking everything from anti-Bloomberg buttons to bootleg movie scripts. And, as usual, in the middle of it all with their inflammatory “The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11” banner — and being inflammatory, in general — was the No Police State Coalition.

The Coalition, which believes a sound permit shouldn’t be needed to use an electric megaphone, has helped set the tone in the plaza: Before they started their dance routine, the hip-hoppers, in a nod to the Coalition, announced what they were doing was all about “free expression.”

Geoffrey Blank, 30, one of the group’s leaders, has been arrested multiple times for using the bullhorn — as well as several times when he was just standing around without it, he claims. He patrols the plaza with a clipboard with Xeroxed copies of court decisions concerning the use of bullhorns and laminated newspaper articles and photos of them from The Villager and New York Times, and will readily engage anyone on the subject of free speech.

“Annoyance at ideas can be cloaked in annoyance at sound,” he read from one court case in favor of the use of bullhorns.

Pointing to a plaque on the ground behind him that notes Union Sq. is a national historic landmark, Blank said, “This is an urban square. It’s cement — or whatever it is. It’s always been that way. This isn’t a monument to free speech — it’s living free speech.”

He said, at first, the two-year-old group tried to apply for a sound permit, but were denied.

“After they didn’t give it to us, we decided we’re going to exercise our freedom of speech,” he said. “We’re not saying we want to stack up Marshalls like a Who concert. We want a reasonable amount of volume so we can be heard….. If you yell [without a bullhorn], how long can you yell for? Five minutes?”

Blank’s group routinely blasts the Bush administration and spins outlandish conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks. In their banner, a swastika replaces the “S” in Bush — which some people, including some police, have told them they find offensive. Former Mayor Ed Koch has called them “kooks.”

During the Republican National Convention, Blank’s and his cohorts’ mug shots were shown on a segment of “Nightline” in which they were reported as having been identified by police as “potentially dangerous anarchists” bent on disrupting the convention.

But he says he’s a socialist, and a Marxist, too, since, “Aren’t all socialists are Marxists?” In short, Blank says it’s not the bullhorn volume the powers that be object to, but their message.

Noting the Hare Krishnas’ singer was miked-up to a small amp, too, he said, “The police would gladly walk right over the Hare Krishnas to arrest us.”

Blank feels the sound ordinance is unfair, that a bullhorn at a certain level of loudness should be allowed. After all, no one can really hear it, anyway, with all the bus and truck traffic on 14th St., he said. And he’s sure no residents in apartments around the square can hear them. He said they don’t hold their speak-outs late into the night out of courtesy for residents, noting, “People have to get up and go to work the next day.” He’s a lifeguard in Rockaway himself when not on his soapbox.

Recently, however, police have been cracking down on them. There’s a new commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Michael McEnroy, at the 13th Precinct, and Blank says the C.O. personally told them he plans to be on them like white on rice. In the past two weeks, they’ve had four bullhorns confiscated and three members issued summonses, with one having to spend a few hours in jail.

But the Coalition isn’t about to back down.

“We’re getting these bullhorns bulk now,” Blank said. “We’re getting them off Craigslist for $30 apiece. This is expensive. We used to get it at Radio Shack for $100 — plus it takes eight ‘C’ batteries.”

“Go home! We don’t want to hear your conspiracy theories!” a young teen shouted at a Coalition member who was on the bullhorn. “The people are just sitting here on the steps — but they don’t want to listen to you!”

“Oh yes, you do need to hear it,” Blank retorted, then lamented about the political apathy of today’s youth.

“Freedom of speech isn’t to protect the speakers — we learn that in high school,” he said. “It’s to protect the listeners.”

 

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