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

Under Assault And On The Ballot

(Oct '01) At a time when human rights concerns are on the minds of many in the city, particularly Arab Americans, the main office of the New York City Commission on Human Rights at 40 Rector Street, three blocks from the Trade Center catastrophe, has been out of commission. The agency has been operating out of its field offices in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and upper Manhattan, plus a makeshift headquarters at 2 Lafayette Street, on the 14th floor (telephone 212-676-2031).

Randolph Wills, the Deputy Commissioner for Law Enforcement, said that no windows were knocked out of the Rector Street office, but that incoming calls were still not being received there. As a result, despite the increase in Anti-Arab bias incidents that have been widely reported, the human rights commission has not seen a great rush of complaints coming in, according to Wills.

The Community Relations Bureau of the commission has, through the field offices, been doing outreach to merchants and religious groups in Muslim communities, to tell them about their rights and how to file complaints, Wills said. They are working closely with Community Boards 13 and 15 in Brooklyn, as well as with the police precincts in these areas with a visible Muslim presence, on how to use the laws for protection against bias-related harassment.

Three weeks after the catastrophe, a walk down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, famous for its Middle Eastern restaurants, confirmed a heightened uniformed police presence -- and whatever protection multiple American flags in store windows can provide. These windows also sport signs from the Arab American Family Support Center offering volunteers to run errands for or accompany Muslims fearful of reprisal when going out. The center has set up a hotline at (718) 643-8000 for those who need help or can volunteer to provide it.

Emad Meagoub, a Syrian who is a partner in the Waterfalls CafÚ at 144 Atlantic Avenue, said that business is down about 60 percent. On a Saturday night in his restaurant that can seat 40, there were four people dining. The non-Middle Eastern restaurants were doing much better, but nowhere near normal business in a period that has caused many New Yorkers to cling more to home.

The Middle Eastern restaurants in Manhattan, however, have been doing well in recent weeks, with liberal types eager to show that our quarrel is with terrorists, not Muslims. The owner of Ariana Afghan Kebab House on 9th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd confessed that his place had taken a rock through a small back window in the wake of September 11, but that business had not suffered since.

Schools Chancellor Harold Levy has emphasized that anti-Arab incidents have been few in the schools, and none have been violent. Anti-harassment curricula to head off such problems were quickly disseminated in a school system that has often agonized in the past about how to address intergroup relations.

(The broader issue of Immigrants Under Attack was laid out last week in a Gotham Gazette.)

Charter Issues on Ballot in November

In this period of tremendous fears and concerns about bias, voters will decide at the polls on November 6 whether to grant charter status to two city bodies that address human rights and immigrant rights. Among the proposals from this years Charter Revision Commission is one to make the Commission on Human Rights a permanent agency, with its powers of enforcement spelled out in the charter. Another would elevate the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affiars to a mayoral agency under the charter.

When charter revision was last voted on in 1999, these proposals were part of a big package that voters rejected two to one. Now they are separated out along with three other items for consideration.

Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which fought the package of charter revisions two years ago, calls these changes innocuous, but his group has not taken a stand on them.

Harvey Robins, the former director of the Office of Operations under Mayor David Dinkins, once proposed getting rid of the city human rights commission and letting its functions be taken up by the state commission. He has since abandoned that position, convinced by arguments that the city law covers more categories (such as sexual orientation and immigrant status) than the state and is, in general, a stronger statute. But he warns that putting any agency into the charter gives the next mayor less flexibility in shaping government.

Matt Foreman, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group, had not heard about the proposed charter reform, but the idea appeals to him. Human rights should be a charter agency, he said, adding that elevating it would mean no one can play politics with it. He said that even if state law did line up more with the city human rights law, we are better off dealing with an agency that is closer to home.

Art Eienberg, who deals with charter issues for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that they had not taken a formal position. It reduces executive authority, he said, "and I am not sure that is a bad thing. In a symbolic sense, it elevates the stature of the agency, but it may make reform more difficult." He said that administrative agencies require flexibility to address new issues. This may reinforce a structure that might work in 2001, but not in 2003.

On the matter of making the Mayors Office of Immigrant Affairs a mayoral agency through the charter vote, Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition said that her constituent groups are divided. Some are happy with what we have now, others would like to solidify the access that a mayoral agency can provide. But her real concern is that while this office is the one that voters will be asked to focus on in November, the most important issues for immigrants in the city, such as language access, are so complex that this office has not been able to address them.

Ready or not, voters must decide on these proposals on November 6. And nobody does seem ready. Despite the crises that face those concerned with these issues, few have gotten it together yet to take a stand.

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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