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 Commissioners

It took him more than ten months to do it, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has filled eleven vacancies on the New York City Commission on Human Rights with some of the leading civil rights leaders in the city. Among those named were two college presidents, five attorneys, and eight people with doctorates. They are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and sexual orientation. But it is their depth of experience working for civil rights that makes this perhaps the most high profile panel in the commission's history.

In alphabetical order, they are:

Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and President of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, has been one of the leading voices against racism in the city for decades. While he has taken his fight to the boardrooms of New York, he has also engaged in such street actions as whitewashing billboards promoting malt liquor to people of color in his community.

Matt Foreman, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's leading gay and lesbian lobby group, also once led the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. He just negotiated with Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to get a commitment that they would finally vote on a state lesbian and gay rights bill next month. He said that he wants to focus on "policy and systemic issues around discrimination" through the commission.

Edison O. Jackson is the President of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and serves on the board of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York. He has "written extensively on issues of concern to educators with particular concentration on minority students and the community, academic preparation and student performance," according to his biography from the Brooklyn-based college.

Rabbi Haskell Lookstein is considered a leading centrist in Orthodox Judaism. Since 1959, he has been the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jesurun and since 1966 the principal of the Ramaz School. He is the author of "Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?" about the horrors of the Holocaust. He is not afraid of controversy. Earlier this year, he was in the news for calling for a boycott of the New York Times over their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Grace Lyu-Volckhausen, an adviser to Council Member John Liu (D-Queens), is active in several Korean-American groups including Koreans for Civic Action, the Coalition of Korean American Voters, and the Black-Korean American Mediation Project. With Vicki Alexander, she wrote in Ms. Magazine about "Black/Asian Conflict: Where do We Begin?" back in 1991 about two feminists, one Asian American and one African American, who "sit down as strangers to discuss the conflicts between their communities." She is president of the Tiger Baron Foundation and a board member of the Asian Pacific American Women's Leadership Institute.

William Malpica, an attorney in private practice, does pro bono legal work for the NAACP. He is also on the Junior Advisory Board to the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, the group dedicated "to improving the quality of life of Latino children and families."

Omar T. Mohammedi is also an attorney, among whose specialties is discrimination law. He is the president of the 9/11 Coalition for Constitutional and Human Rights and of the New York Area Muslim Bar Association. His work as general counsel for the Council on Islamic Relations has drawn some fire and that group has sent out an action alert saying that "representatives of the pro-Israel lobby are pressuring officials to withdraw the appointment of Omar T. Mohammedi." The alert does not specify which groups are doing the pressuring. It should be noted that while the chair of the commission serves at the pleasure of the mayor and is compensated, these other commissioners get three-year unpaid terms and may not be removed except for failure to perform their duties.

Bryan Pu-Folkes, who describes himself as Jamaican-Burmese American, is the president of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Queens, working on helping new immigrants as well as building bridges between longtime residents and new arrivals. He wrote about his mission in an article for Gotham Gazette called "Nice But Not Easy" this past February. And last October, he was presented with the 2001 Brooke Russell Astor Award from the New York Public Library recognizing "unsung heroes who have contributed substantially to improving the quality of life in New York City."

Lisa Quiroz is the publisher of "People en Español" and is a member of the board of both the Hispanic Federation and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute, dedicated to engaging "the public sector in support of Latino higher education achievement." Quiroz told Gotham Gazette, "The reason I took this appointment is that as a lifelong New Yorker, I saw this as an opportunity to make a difference for the communities I care about. I got the sense that there will be renewed focus at the commission. The new chair is terrific and she is intent on getting things done, especially around housing and education rights. Don't see it as a ceremonial post, but as a chance to get things done."

Jenny Rivera was once an Administrative Law Judge for the New York State Division on Human Rights and associate counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She is now associate professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law. She concentrated on constitutional and feminist law at Columbia Law School. She has testified on legislation concerning discrimination and domestic violence against Latinas and was an observer at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

And Susan R. Scheer is a longtime disability activist. She is now the director of Disability Services for Columbia University. She has been executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York Independent Living Services and was once the deputy director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. Bloomberg announced that Matthew P. Sapolin is the new executive director of his Office of Disabilities. He had been the co-executive director of the Queens Independent Living Center.

All in all, just putting this diverse group of people into the same room has the potential of building some bridges in New York that were not there before. When conflicts between communities arise as they inevitably do in New York, they can be eased through the kinds of relationships among commissioners that are fostered at meetings.

Commissioner Patricia Gatling said that she and her staff have reduced the backlog of complaints from 5,000 to 2,000. She also said that despite the new round of budget cuts anticipated at most city agencies, since most of the commission's money comes from federal "community block funding," the Human Rights Commission is not being asked for more cuts. Gatling said that the agency took an 83 percent cut under the previous administration.

Gatling ticked off several cases that were as much as 12 years old that had recently been settled. These eleven new commissioners' only official duty is to be the final arbiter of cases, which are first decided by an administrative law judge. When busy people like these give up their time for such work, without compensation, the odds are they are not doing it just to get called "commissioner" and put "Honorable" in front of their names. They now have a position from which to seriously enhance intergroup relations in this most diverse of cities. How far they go with that mission is entirely up to them.

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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