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

Discrimination at Brooklyn Eatery

The way Dana Monroe tells it, she went to the Silver Dragon Restaurant in Bensonhurst to order some take-out food, and the proprietors demanded that she pay before they would send the order to the kitchen. When she refused to pay in advance, they refused to send the order. But then Monroe noticed something that outraged her. Other patrons were not asked to pay in advance. What was the difference? They were white and Asian. Dana Monroe is African American.

In March, Monroe filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Using a simple practice that got little if any use during the last administration, the commission sent two investigators to the Silver Dragon to test the complaint.

Sure enough, the African American investigator was asked to pay upfront and the non-African American tester did not have to pay until picking up the order. Finding a pattern of discrimination against African Americans, this month the commission issued a "probable cause" finding in the case. The owners of the restaurant face fines and damages if found to have engaged in unlawful discrimination.

The owner of the restaurant (who would not give his name to a reporter from WNBC-TV News) claimed that the restaurant did not have a discriminatory policy and that it was up to the customer to decide whether to pay before or after the order comes. But the testers found otherwise.

Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling said, "Everyone must be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin. We will continue to investigate and vigorously prosecute these types of cases until people finally get the message: discrimination is against the law and will not be tolerated."

Still Twelve Vacancies

Now that Bloomberg has his 13-member Panel for Educational Policy going, he may finally turn his attention to getting the City Commission on Human Rights up to speed. Of course, the education panel only has an advisory role and the 15 human rights commissioners have the responsibility of making final determinations in cases that are heard there. Bloomberg appointed Patricia Gatling the chair of the commission early this year and there are two holdovers, but 12 spots remain open. A mid-October announcement of the new appointees is expected.

Contracting Bill on Domestic Partners

"Equal employment benefits to the employees of city contractors." That's the title of a bill, also called Intro 271, that was submitted to the City Council and referred to the Contracts Committee on September 25. It sounds no more controversial than a street name change, but it may prove to be one of the more contentious issues taken up by the new council because it requires those who do business with the city to provide domestic partner benefits if they already provide spousal benefits. But the mayor did not support it during his campaign last year and it is likely to encounter strong opposition from conservative religious contractors and some businesses.

Domestic partners have been able to register since the Dinkins administration in 1991. The city has provided benefits to the domestic partners of its employees since 1993 when a suit was settled with the Gay Teachers Association. Mayor Giuliani codified that settlement into law in 1998.

While many private companies have been providing such benefits since the Village Voice started doing it in 1984, there is no law here requiring them to do so.

While the gay and lesbian community is the main force behind this legislation, seventy percent of the domestic partners are male-female couples. Any two unmarried adults who live together in a mutually supportive relationship can register. This includes older and disabled people who cohabitate to share expenses.

The bill is not a new concept. It has been the law since 1997 in San Francisco, where even the Catholic Archdiocese complies with the law in order to keep its contracts. But while the Archdiocese of New York has yet to take an official position, Cardinal Edward Egan has already tangled with Albany over the women's health bill, demanding a "conscience clause" exemption from providing insurance coverage covering contraceptive devices. (He did not get as strong an exemption as he wanted. It only covers employees who are involved in religious activities.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has yet to take a position on the specifics of Intro 271, but during his 2001 run for mayor he said he wanted "carve outs" for religious groups and "maybe others." But Comptroller William Thompson, who helped draft the bill, and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum are fully supportive of it.

The Equal Benefits Bill applies only to those with contracts that are over $100,000. The contractor must extend benefits to its employees who work in the city or, if an out-of-town contractor, those who work on the city contract. The employer does not have to pay more for a domestic partner policy than the cost of a spousal policy -- and may just give the employee the cash equivalent of a spousal policy if a domestic partner policy cannot be obtained through his or her insurer.

The business community has yet to weigh in on the bill, though business groups tend to oppose government restrictions on their contracts. The mayor has shown an aversion to imposing additional regulations on contractors. But State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Chelsea), who intends to introduce a similar contractors bill in Albany, said that passage would help "attract the most highly qualified and motivated people to the city."

For more on this story, see my piece in the Gay City News, "Quinn Proposal Could Shake Up American Workplace."

New Appointment

Dennis de Leon, who was the chair of the City Commission on Human Rights in the Dinkins administration (1990-93), has just been recommended by the Rules Committee the City Council to be the Manhattan representative on the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Since 1994, he has been the president of the Latino Commission on AIDS where he has fought for more resources to stem the HIV epidemic, which has disproportionately affected Latino/a New Yorkers.

An attorney and longtime civil rights activist who is originally from California, de Leon is Latino, gay, and living with HIV, statuses that give him a unique perspective in monitoring police misconduct. As the City's Human Rights Commissioner, he chaired weeks of hearings on police-community relations that focused on the "Us vs. Them" mentality that hinders public safety and effective police work. (I was on the Commission myself at that time.) Police Commissioner Lee Brown, now mayor of Houston, asked us not to conduct the hearings, but the Human Rights Commission proceeded to take testimony from a broad range of New York communities frustrated with the wall that often exists between police and the policed.

De Leon said that he is taking on the Civilian Complaint Review Board "because I think that with my experience with the City Commission on Human Rights and working with police misconduct at the City Law Department [in the Koch administration], I have something to offer. I want to see if the Civilian Complaint Review Board is a vehicle for bringing about meaningful reform."

Civil Liberties Union Calls for Videotaping Interrogations

In the wake of revelations that the young men convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case may not have been the perpetrators of that crime, the New York Civil Liberties Union is making a renewed call for videotaping police interrogations. In an op-ed piece in Newsday now on the group's website, Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman of the Civil Liberties Union look at the case, under review by the Manhattan District Attorney until October 21. They say videotaping is the best defense against coerced confessions and note that when police officers are accused of wrongdoing, such taping is required.

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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