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Human Rights Law: Will It Become An Issue In The Mayoral Campaign?

by Andy Humm, Sep 16, 2005
 

The most comprehensive strengthening of the city’s human rights law in 14 years was passed overwhelmingly on September 15, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who opposed the bill in public hearings -- is not saying whether he will sign it or not.

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“This bill broadens the scope of the city’s human rights law, and adds protections for people who may currently be slipping through the cracks: couples who have entered into domestic partnerships and people who have experienced retaliation for reporting violations of the human rights law,” said Councilmember Gale Brewer, the chief sponsor of the legislation, The Local Civil Rights Restoration Act, Intro 22-A. “Perhaps more importantly, it clearly acknowledges that the city’s law often provides more protection than state and federal law." The bill would require the application of the stricter standards of city law when someone is discriminated against illegally in New York City.

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"Intro 22-A sets the city human rights law free from being treated as nothing more than a carbon copy of its ever-narrowing state and federal counterparts," said Craig Gurian, a former staff member of the city's Human Rights Commission who is now executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York.

The vacancies on the United States Supreme Court were much on the mind of the bill’s sponsors. "Years of Republican administrations have taken their toll on state and federal laws designed to protect people from discrimination," said Councilmember Bill DeBlasio. "We have every reason to believe that the assault on civil rights will continue as President Bush continues to appoint conservatives to the federal bench.”

Almost a month ago, Avery Mehlman, the Human Rights Commission’s Deputy Commissioner for Law Enforcement, said they were “reviewing the latest form” of the legislation to see if it is acceptable to the Bloomberg administration. When the bill passed, he referred comment to the mayor’s press office where Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said, “We’re still reviewing it.” The mayor had 30 days to review after the bill's passage.

The timing is such that this legislation could become an issue in the mayoral campaign. Fernando Ferrer “strongly supports it,” according to his press office. "The Civil Rights Restoration Act is an important step towards ensuring that the civil rights of New Yorkers are construed by courts in the broadest possible terms," Ferrer said in a statement. "Equally important, we must ensure that we both strengthen the protections against retaliation for those who bring discrimination suits and increase the potential penalties on those who violate the law. Finally, I believe that it is simply the right thing to do to make clear that discrimination against domestic partners will not be tolerated in this city."

Ali Davis, legislative director for Brewer, said that the revised bill “came out of negotiations with the mayor’s office.” If Bloomberg does decide to reject the bill, she said, “the Council is willing to pass it over his veto."

Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling testified against many of the key provisions of the legislation in April. When I wrote extensively about the bill in June, the administration was outright opposing it, though the administration does support a clause forbidding discrimination on the basis of “partnership status,” a compromise provision.

“This legislation poses a simple choice for the mayor," says Craig Gurian. "Align himself with progressive legislation supported by more than three dozen civil rights organizations, or facilitate the anti-civil rights agenda of the Bush and Pataki administrations. We hope the mayor abandons his opposition to the bill.”

Intro 22-A was backed by a coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Disabled in Action, Habitat for Humanity (New York chapter), Lambda Legal Defense, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

NYCLU v. NYPD

One year after the protests and mass arrests at the Republican National Convention here in New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a 64-page report (in pdf format) critiquing police practices that week and calling for the creation of an “independent City agency to oversee the planning and management of large demonstrations.”

“The historical account provided by ‘Rights and Wrongs at the RNC’ is particularly important since the NYPD has defended all of its actions during the convention and has insisted it made no mistakes,” said Donna Liberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The performance of the police was a decidedly mixed one. While hundreds of thousands of people were able to make their voices heard, the right to protest was severely undermined by the mass arrests of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and bystanders, the pervasive surveillance of lawful demonstrators, and the illegal fingerprinting and prolonged detention of nearly 1,500 people charged with mostly minor offenses. This compromised the Constitutional right to protest.”

More than 1,800 protesters and bystanders were arrested by the police during convention week. More than 87 percent of them were “found not guilty or had their cases dismissed or adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” the New York Times reported. Some of those who believe they were falsely arrested are pursuing lawsuits against the city.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the Times that police conduct during the convention was “a model of expert planning, professionalism and restraint.” He did not respond to the call for a new agency to deal with demonstrations, but did call the complaints catalogued in the report “a collection of old, untrue assertions and uncorroborated, self-serving statements by individuals who were arrested.”

Chris Dunn, associate legal director at Civil Liberties, told Newsday, “Protests are not a criminal event. They should not be treated as a law enforcement problem.”

 


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