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Yetta G. Kurland on civil liberties and civil rights
by Yetta G. Kurland, Attorney at Law
October 5, 2010
Dear Readers;

In lieu of my regular column and in honor of a Gay Pride without a Heritage of Pride Rally afterwards for the first time since who knows, maybe Stonewall, I would like to dedicate this month’s ‘Dear Yetta’ to a reflection on the changing climate of the politics and priorities of the world we live in how this effects us queer New Yorkers.

This piece is entitled ‘if you think broader civil rights movements and civil liberties issues aren’t queer issues, think again’…

The change in the landscape of our day to day civil liberties and the erosion of our ability to use public space in New York City became, in recent years, first noticeable during the February 2003 Peace March protesting the Iraq war where police forced protesters down streets they could not possibly fit into, barricaded them, and then summarily arrested them for being where they were told to be.  They also came up with a plan whereby they would charge mounted police officers on horses into the crowd and then arrest people for “resisting arrest” and assaulting the horses and police officers.  A far cry from the fun and empowering protests I and many others had attended in past years, I watched as fellow protesters clutched their creative puppets and other party gear close, under the glare of the new young police officers, fresh out of the academy and coming of age under the Patriot Act and post 9/11.  I remember feeling relieved that I hadn’t brought my niece to the protest as I watched people randomly targeted and grabbed from crowds, kicking and screaming and dragged into police vans, plastic cuffs in place and extra tight, as part of a preemptive crowd control tactic.

These issues again poked their ugly head through the national shroud of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ oops, err, I mean ‘national security issues’ here in New York when it became painfully apparent that the City had a new directive and plan for disposing of those pesky 1st Amendment rights during the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004. 

Mayor Bloomberg calmly explained, with no intent of comic satire, that he would not allow protestors to peacefully congregate in Central Park, as they had requested (an area that would have more than adequately accommodated the hundreds of thousands of folks who were left to organize smaller demonstrations throughout New York), because protestors might harm the newly planted grass…

Instead, cops took to rounding up and arresting both protestors and many uninvolved passersby by throwing Spiderman-like orange nets over huge groups of people, making it easier to avoid those silly due process and probable cause issues that had gotten in the way before, and then hauling them off to a bus depot on Pier 57 for the weekend.

The City also started targeting a bunch of well intentioned environmentalists on bicycles riding the streets of New York called ‘Critical Mass’ who were attempting to invite New Yorkers to find more sustainable and environmentally sounds ways to commute.  I and many other New Yorkers appreciated the smile they would put on our faces as they rode by our office or neighborhood or home each month. 

All told, between the RNC and subsequent Critical Mass rides, thousands were arrested and charged with parading without a permit.  In other cities, like Washington, D.C., police abuse of similarly heavy-handed mass arrest and prosecution tools have led to legislative reform.  Based on legislation encouraging best practices in the area of planning for and policing First Amendment assemblies passed in D.C. in 2005, a broad coalition of groups, Assemble for Rights NYC (http://www.a4rnyc.org) , assisted in drafting and proposing a New York City First Amendment Act, which was taken up by a number of City Councilmembers in 2006 and 2007.  According to civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver, who has been involved in the process, “The Act has languished on the Speaker’s desk for almost a year now – it’s in her hands to move the process forward.”

All of this is the background to recent “developments” by the NYPD and their new “interpretation” of the City Council’s laws governing issues around parading, which in its first round of changes proposed that any group in excess of “2 to 3” people would need to apply for a permit to “parade.”.  This could obviously include a group of us on our way to Cattyshack on a Friday night or a family walking down the street on any given day in any given neighborhood.  In response to loud public outcry, the NYPD tinkered with its proposed changes to the City Council’s parade permitting law, eventually approving rules defining unlawful parades as slightly larger “recognizable groups” of persons, vehicles, or herded animals “proceeding together.” 

The City’s tactics for denying New Yorkers the right to show up and disagree with policy or otherwise use public space as we see fit has become more and more surgical and refined.  It also unfortunately effects all of us. 

In an unprecedented move this year, the newly appointed person in charge of the newly “interpreted” permit rules in City Hall decided to deny Heritage of Pride’s application for a rally after the Gay Pride Parade.  Why would a seemingly innocuous gay pride rally be necessary to curtail or deny?  Well, the answer is because civil rights are just that.  They are for civilization, and they are not capricious or available only to a few.   It is easy to turn our heads and pretend our neighbor’s issues are not our issues, and that their problems are not ours, until we find ourselves rounded up under orange Spiderman nets, deprived of the most basic human rights.  The tragedy is that at that point, there is little we can do.  The good news is that many of our elected officials like Comptroller Bill Thompson, Councilmember Rosie Mendez, Senator Tom Duane and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried came out strong to support Heritage of Pride and civil liberties and I know our out lesbian City Speaker will also take this opportunity to continue the fight.  I wish you all a joyous gay pride full of liberty and unity. And remember:  civil rights are queer rights.

Email questions to kurland@helloworld.edu or call 212-253-6911*

*This column is not a consultation with an attorney and should in no way be construed as such or as a substitute for such a consultation.  Anyone with legal issues or concerns should seek the advice of her own attorney.
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