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 Civil Rights Agendas in 2002

Civil rights advocates are hopeful about the changeover in city government. They see an outgoing mayor who became involved in lawsuits on everything from the content of museum exhibits to the right to hold press conferences on the steps of City Hall. They note an incoming mayor who has already indicated that he hopes the city will get involved in fewer such lawsuits during his tenure.

And they see a new City Council that is itself full of members with roots in civil rights movements. Robert Jackson of West Harlem's District 7, for example, was the plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's lawsuit against the state seeking more funding for City schools; Hiram Monseratte of Jackson Heights' District 21 who is a board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"We hope that the City Council and new administration will usher in a new era in government policy," says Donna Lieberman, who just officially became the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union . (She had been the acting director since Norman Siegel departed to run for Public Advocate). Lieberman has a full agenda for New York's new elected officials. "There are issues about policing, Civilian Complaint Review Board effectiveness, ending racial profiling, and openness in government," she said.

Esmeralda Simmons, longtime director of the Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice, said that their priorities going into 2002 include fighting tuition vouchers, "participating in the freedom and security debate," criminal justice issues, and seeing to it that adequate funding is maintained for lawyers for indigent defendants. "We have our work cut out for us."

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the biggest gay and lesbian lobbying group in New York, will continue under new executive director Joe Grabarz (a former state senator from Connecticut) to pursue two immediate objectives -- a transgender rights bill and another to require contractors to provide domestic partner benefits."Bloomberg supports both bills, but he has spoken out for exemptions for religious groups "and possibly others" on the contractors issue.

Most of these issues will be tackled by Bloomberg's new deputy mayor for policy, Dennis Walcott, the longtime head of the New York Urban League, whose organization was in the thick of the civil rights movement under Whitney Young in the 1950s and '60s, but has become "more service oriented" in recent years, as Walcott explained on the day of his appointment. "We've always been involved in police-community issues," though, he added.

But the members of the City Council say they will pursue a civil rights agenda of their own as well - and not just the representative from the Upper West Side, though certainly her. Gale Brewer, from district 6, is pleased with Bloomberg's choice of police commissioner, Raymond Kelly. "I think there'll be a different relationship between the police and the community." Brewer, a veteran of the women's movement, also has concerns about gay issues, domestic violence, and the availability of safe abortion in City hospitals.

Simcha Felder is the new representative from Borough Park's District 44 in Brooklyn and said, "Despite being very much in favor of police, the Gideon Bush issue taught us that we have to resolve the way the police handle the emotionally disturbed." Bush, an orthodox Jew, was shot dead by police when he brandished a hammer as they tried to arrest him several years ago.

Michael McMahon of district 49 on the north shore of Staten Island, is proud of the community policing in his district, but did cite "complaints about real estate brokers refusing to show people of color houses in certain neighborhoods," a matter for investigation by the Human Rights Commission.

Other issues cited range from environmental racism to racial profiling to workers' rights.

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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