Civil Rights
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The Topic
Civil rights refers to the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, and to the laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, and many other criteria.
The Context
New York is the most diverse city on the planet, home to people of every race, nationality, language group, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, and to some of the world's premiere human rights groups. There have been intense intergroup conflicts throughout the city's history, from the Draft Riots of 1863 to the Crown Heights riots of 1992. But more amazing is how well such varied peoples have gotten along for hundreds of years.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created a Committee on Unity after some race riots in 1943, in order "to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality." Eventually, the city and state governments passed laws against discrimination and established agencies to enforce them.

The Reporter
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Civil Rights.

by Andy Humm

The New Human Rights Commissioner

Patricia Gatling, the new chair of the City Commission on Human Rights, made her first appearance before the City Council's General Welfare Committee, outlining her vision for an agency that now enjoys charter status but that has seen its resources trimmed by more than three-quarters over the last ten years.

"The mayor is committed to the vigorous enforcement of the Human Rights Law," Gatling told the committee, but her agency has only been given the money to hire seven new lawyers, which would bring the total to 22. While other agencies are reeling from cuts, there may not be much clamor for restoring Human Rights to its pre-Giuliani staffing levels--especially since it is getting a modest increase this year.

"Seven more attorneys is the right direction," said Craig Gurian, author of a scathing report from the Bar Association of the City of New York documenting the chaos at the commission and offering a blueprint for its rebuilding. "But if they're going to litigate cases, they need substantial new funding." He puts the minimum necessary at $20 million annually, up from the present $3.1 million, calling it "what the Police Department spends every nine hours" and reminding us that human rights is a law enforcement function. Some of the funds necessary could come from the commission assessing penalties of up to $100,000 on discriminators, something the previous commissioner was loathe to do. "There will be a price to pay for discrimination," Gatling said. "The commission will not shy away from imposing and publicizing these penalties to maximize their deterrent value." But she told the council that she could not "give a bottom line of how we will be revenue producing."

"After I read the Bar Association report, I was really scared," Commissioner Gatling told Gotham Gazette, in particular about the backlog of 4,500 cases. But those 4,500 are not really all "cases," she said; most of the backlog consists of old "complaints" that have not yet become cases, and may not turn out to be. She is working with the staff to resolve the backlog quickly, having disposed of a thousand in her first few weeks on the job--even as new complaints continue to come in to an agency that has not had a high profile in recent years. "Our goal is to have a maximum one-year limit between the initiation of a complaint and its just resolution," she testified.

New Yorkers with unresolved complaints at the agency are getting detailed letters from the commission. She said that many are grateful to get any kind of acknowledgement. But it will take time to determine if those who believed they were victims of illegal discrimination feel that they have gotten justice under the law. Gatling noted that those who do not agree with the dismissal of their complaints can appeal them to the commission.

Gatling testified that "the commission is a law enforcement agency and as a former prosecutor, I understand this." Two of her chief deputies, Avery Mehlman, for Law Enforcement, and Cliff Mulqueen, for Investigations, came with her from the D.A.'s office. Gurian noted, "They don't have civil rights backgrounds, but they are interested and serious about investigating and prosecuting these cases."

The commissioner also acknowledged their responsibility to educate the public about the agency and to "improve relations among the city's diverse populations." The ability of the commission to do that job can best be assessed when there is another flare-up in inter-group relations, as the city has witnessed in such incidents as the Crown Heights riots of the early 1990s and the attacks on Arab- and Muslim-Americans in the wake of September 11th. She also committed herself to "initiating investigations," the kind of work that looks at systemic discrimination in a particular sector.

General Welfare Chair Bill DiBlasio (D-Brooklyn) pressed Gatling on the backlog of cases. "I'm an experienced prosecutor," she said, invoking her work in narcotics at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, "and I'm used to dealing with backlogs." She also told DiBlasio that she wanted to start "a more constant testing effort, so that anyone who thinks about discriminating knows that there will be an investigation."

Shortly after the hearing, the Bar Association's subcommittee on human rights met with Gatling and her deputies. Gurian, the chair, said that the commission is now committed to reviewing its backlog by the end of May. "If that does happen," he said, "it doesn't mean that they all will have gone away, but an important triage function will have been done. Meritorious cases or those that need investigation will see the light of day." He also said that Gatling intended to move toward having some non-enforcement staff members take on enforcement functions.

Gurian said that the present plan is for each lawyer to handle 50 complaints a year, some of which will turn into real cases. "That's unrealistic," he said. He believes that when the commission gets a new reputation for taking complaints seriously, the cases will become more complex and time-consuming. He said that plaintiff attorneys will start referring clients such as those with disabilities who were denied reasonable accommodation where the damages may not be that high, but an administrative process at the commission could resolve it.

"They said that they're eager for good cases," Gurian said. "They've started to do testing." The commission hasn't looked for discrimination in recent years. But when it does start finding bias, according to Gurian, "they can't think you can cap the amount of resources" devoted to securing justice. "They understand that they are coming into a situation where the reputation of the agency is sub-optimal. They will have to fight hard to be taken seriously."


Recommended Links:

  • New York City Commission on Human Rights - 40 Rector Street, New York, NY 10006; (212) 306-7500 The Commission enforces the City's Human Rights Law which prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage orcitizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation, status as a victim of domestic violence, disability (including HIV/AIDS relatedconditions), lawful occupation, arrest or conviction record, marital status, family status, and retaliation. The Law prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, as well as bias-related harassment.
  • New York State Division of Human Rights - One Fordham Plaza, 4th Floor, Bronx, New York 10458; (718) 741-8400 The State Division of Human Rights serves as an alternative to the court system for resolving discrimination claims--in employment, in places of public accommodation, resort or amusement, in educational institutions, in commercial space and in credit transactions and to take other actions against discrimination. The agency is responsible for developing civil rights legislation and policy for the State of New York, and for promoting awaren essof civil rights issues and remedies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004 "The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is our nation's guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson Street, 12th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 966-5932 is "the first organization on the east coast to defend and promote the legal rights of Asian Americans through litigation, legal advocacy, community education, leadership development and the position of free legal assistance to low-income and immigrant Asian Americans."
  • Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor, New York, NY 10118-3299 USA; (212) 290-4700 "Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice."
  • Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund - 120 Wall Street, Suite 1500, New York, NY 10005-3904; (212) 809-8585 The nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-1900 "Committed to staying on the cutting edge of the movement for racial justice."
  • National Organization for Women/NYC - 150 W. 28th St., #304, New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-9895 NOW/NYC "works towards equality for women with a focus on several key issues: battling racism and violence against women, guaranteeing reproductive rights, advocating lesbian and bisexual rights, fighting for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and generally working towards economic, educational, and political equity. The chapter provides educational outreach and takes part in political lobbying, zap actions and demonstrations in response to various social situations. The Service Fund of NOW-NYC also offers referrals, support groups, and clinics for women in need."
  • New York Civil Liberties Union - 125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004; (212) 344-3005 The NYCLU is "a statewide organization dedicated to the protection and enhancement of New Yorkers' civil liberties as enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York."
  • Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund - 99 Hudson St., 4th floor, New York, NY 10013; (212) 219-3360 "Through litigation, policy analysis and education, the Puerto Rican Lega lDefense and Education Fund works to secure, promote and protect the civil and human rights of the Puerto Rican and wider Latino community."

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