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Charge Or Release!

by Udi Ofer, May 23, 2005
 

When I graduated from Midwood High School a dozen years ago, the community surrounding it represented what is best about the city - the diversity of everyday living - something that was evident each time we ate at the diner at Flatbush Junction with its predominantly African American customers, or walked through the tree-lined streets of the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, or caught the bus at Little Pakistan on Coney Island Avenue

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A decade later, Little Pakistan, one of the communities that make up the neighborhood of Midwood, Brooklyn, has undergone an arresting change. The Pakistani Embassy estimates an exodus of as many as 15,000 within the past few years, with formerly bustling stores reporting a 40 percent drop in business, and mosques once so overcrowded during services that worshippers laid their prayer rugs on the sidewalk now one-third empty on Fridays.

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Midwood's residents fled as a direct consequence of the government's new antiterrorism policies. The impact on this one community is part of a larger narrative on the impact of these policies on many lives, in particular those of people guilty of no crime. But this will not end with Midwood's Little Pakistan.

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Since 9/11 the government has resurrected an old and disproved formula to violate civil liberties for a temporary sense of security. Widespread ethnic and religious profiling of Arab, Muslim and South Asian men living in the United States, and a relentless attack on immigrants' rights are commonplace today. Thousands of New York City residents have been detained, deported, or interrogated by the federal government.

In New York City, what began as profiling and detentions in Midwood, quickly spread to attacks on other rights and liberties, including the right to freedom of speech, expression, and association guaranteed to us all by the First Amendment. During last summer's Republican National Convention, city officials once again used the national security card to curtail New Yorkers' right to political expression and association. Just some of the tactics used by the police that left a chilling impact on New Yorkers' First Amendment rights include the closing of Central Park to political rallies; the mass arrests of hundreds of innocent individuals; the lengthy detentions of individuals charged with minor violations; and the widespread police videotaping of lawful protest activity.

Particularly disturbing were the cases of hundreds of individuals detained by the police with no access to a judge for excessive periods beyond what's permitted by law. During the Republican National Convention, hundreds of demonstrators were detained for 30, 40, or even 50 hours without arraignment after arrest for protest-related activities. As the months progressed and the overwhelming majority of the 1,800 arrests at the convention were dismissed, advocates began studying the issue and looking for ways to solve the problem once and for all.

That is why the Charge or Release bill is scheduled to be introduced in the City Council this week by Councilmember Bill Perkins. The legislation will address the serious injustice caused by prolonged detention without arraignment -- injustice not limited to immigrants. It is a response to the general attack on civil liberties post-9/11, and to problems faced by communities of color in New York City on a daily basis.

Each month in New York City, thousands of individuals are detained by the police for periods exceeding the 24 hours permitted before seeing a judge. A recent study by the NYCLU and its Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, a project I direct, found that during the months of October and November 2004, more than 16,000 individuals were held for longer than 24 hours. In Bronx County, 62 percent of arrestees were arraigned after 24 hours of detention, in violation of New York case law.

To understand the severity of the issue one must understand that bringing an arrestee before a judge for arraignment is more than a technicality of the law. The arraignment is the first time since the arrest that individuals are formally informed of the charges against them, their right to counsel and their right to seek bail. It is the first time that individuals who have been held for hours incommunicado may finally communicate with their counsel, family and friends.

Adding insult to injury, the majority of those detained in violation of the 24 hour mandate are charged with low level offenses, such as misdemeanors or violations, and would likely face no jail time if convicted. Yet while they wait unnecessarily in often overcrowded detention facilities, many are forced to miss work or school, or must urgently attempt to locate child care. Moreover, the prolonged detention of political demonstrators keeps them from taking part in ongoing protests and discourages others from participating in future demonstrations. This chills our right to freedom of speech and association.

The Charge or Release bill will require that the New York Police Department and the Department of Correction fulfill their arrest processing duties in an expeditious and timely manner to ensure arraignment by a judge within 24 hours of arrest. The bill also provides the New York City Council oversight over the arrest-to-arraignment process. It will create transparency where this is little now. (The bill only addresses problems faced by arrestees in New York City detained by the local police; it does not address the detention of immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, which are federal agencies.)

Future generations will remember the post-9/11 era as a time of great controversies in the United States. It didn't begin this way. Right after 9/11, New Yorkers and people from the across the country were united in their remembrance of the victims of those terrible attacks, and in a resolve to prevent future attacks from happening. Yet today, the post-9/11 era has come to symbolize opportunism and a time when civil liberties are placed in danger by ineffective government measures that do little to protect the nation, yet threaten our core values. The Charge or Release bill will restore some of those rights that have been needlessly lost.

Udi Ofer is the director of the Bill of Rights Defense Campaign for the New York Civil Liberties Union

 


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