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 CafĂš 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.
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.
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