To many New Yorkers who are engaged in the struggle for civil liberties, the signs lately are not so good. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, for example, sits on a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that used to be called the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and Civil Liberties. Now it’s just called the Constitution Subcommittee. “They dropped civil liberties,” he said.
“Today our most fundamental rights are in jeopardy,” Anthony Romero, director of the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a recent direct mail appeal.
But some also insist that, as they set their agendas for 2005, they see reason for hope. “At least on the local level, there is no attack that is not being met with resistance,” said New York City Councilmember Bill Perkins, who cites as an example the continued battle by demonstrators arrested at the Republican National Conventionthis summer to recover damages and preserve the right to protest.
Margaret Fung, director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, sees hope locally as well: “The entire nation will be looking to us for our leadership and example.”
Some other reasons they see for hope:
The City Commission on Human Rightsmoves into 2005 with its backlog of cases removed and a more aggressive posture towards new cases, actively sending testers out to uncover human rights abuses, particularly in the real estate market. They recently collected fines in excess of $50,000 in two such housing cases, the first time fines have ever been collected by the agency.
Bryan Pu-Folkes, a City Human Rights Commissioner and director of New Immigrant Coalition Empowerment, thinks it is hopeful “that many communities are responding favorably to immigrants in local elections,” and that local public officials are active in immigrants rights.
Perkins will be introducing a bill into the City Council in 2005 to give resident non-citizens the right to vote in municipal elections, the way they were able to in school board elections if they had children in the schools. “It’s another part of that historic movement toward all people participating in democracy and getting a say in how their tax dollars are being spent,” Perkins said.
At the top of Pu-Folkes’s agenda for next year is protecting the rights of immigrants in New York’s “underground economy,” particularly winning them access to health care and enforcing safety regulations on their jobs.
While most states now ban same-sex marriage, Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state gay and lesbian lobby, said, “One of the most hopeful things is that New York remains one of only a handful of states without a Defense of Marriage Act. That allows our conversation about our relationships and the rights connected to them to continue in New York. While other states are regressing, we’re moving forward slowly.” State Senator David Paterson is even talking about pushing a same-sex marriage bill in the state legislature.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is legally battling City Council legislation to expand domestic partner benefits to those who work for contractors, broke his string of rebukes to gay activists when he followed the lead of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and called on the city pension boards to recognize employees in the system who marry same-sex partnersin Canada or elsewhere as married.
Many anticipate the end of Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose abortion, as President George W. Bush gets to replace United States Supreme Court Justices expected to retire.
But Mary Alice Carr, director of advocacy programs for the New York chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League/Pro-Choice America, prefers to look for hopeful signs locally: “We’re lucky we have a city and state which regardless of party supports a woman’s right to choose.” She said that in 2005, “we’ll be working with the city to increase access to emergency contraception.”
Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “The good news is that the state legislature has reason to get the message that people are fed up with the lack of democratic process in Albany and the three-men-in-a-room system of governance.” She noted that the assembly has not “jumped to reinstate the death penalty and may refuse to jump on that issue given the massive evidence of discrimination and fallibility in the death penalty nationwide.”
On the other hand, there is just so far these civil libertarians go in looking at the silver lining that is New York. In 2005, Lieberman said, her top priority will have to be “fighting the Bush administration’s assault on fundamental rights that we thought we could take for granted.”
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM. Â