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London and NYC Compared On Surveillance, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, etc.

by Andy Humm, Mar 23, 2006
 

I just spent a week in London where I was photographed about 300 times a day. No, the paparazzi were not interested in the civil rights topic page writer for Gotham Gazette. That is the average number of times someone in London is captured daily on closed circuit television cameras – whether in the Underground (their subway), driving into the city, or just walking along the street. The police force for the city’s square-mile financial district (called, confusingly, the City of London), photographs every person and every vehicle that comes within its boundaries.

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Now, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has announced that the city will use $9.1 million in federal homeland security funds to install 505 surveillance cameras in 253 locations around the city -- and will be pushing to do what London has done, create what the department is calling a “ring of steel” around the financial district in downtown Manhattan, photographing every person and vehicle coming south of Chambers Street.

This is far from the only idea that New Yorkers have taken from our sister city -- or that some New Yorkers are advocating -- on a range of matters from transportation to security. A high number of them seem to involve civil liberties in one way or another. But in recent incidents touching on such matters, the cities are not exactly clones of one another -- and the contrast in their approaches may be instructive.

Recognizing Same-Sex Relationships

London has leap-frogged New York in the recognition of same-sex relationships, performing more than 700 “civil partnerships” in just a single month after they became legally available on December 21. The new United Kingdom law accords gay couples most of the rights of marriage, unlike the limited rights New York City has granted through domestic partnerships starting in the early 1990s.

New York City does recognize same-sex marriages -- but only if they have been performed legally elsewhere such as Canada. Mayor Mike Bloomberg is in court fighting against the obligation of the city to give marriage licenses to gay couples, a case that will be heard by New York State’s high court on May 31 in Albany. If the gay couples prevail, New York will still not catch up to London because the United States prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages no matter what the states may do.

Mayors And Free Speech

While Republican Bloomberg was chastised by civil libertarians for his approach to free speech when he curbed mass demonstrations in New York against the Iraq War in March 2003 and the Republican National Convention in 2004, Mayor Ken Livingstone of London, a Socialist in the Labour Party, participates in his city’s protests of the war policies of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. Now Bloomberg is scoring points with First Amendment protectors by refusing to fire the Correction Department’s top chaplain, Imam Abdul-Jalil for anti-Zionist remarks he made outside of work.

Perhaps the strangest debate over free speech is being waged over something Livingstone said that prompted a quasi-governmental board to order his suspension from office for a month beginning March 1. He appealed to the courts and the suspension was stayed.

In February 2005, Livingstone got into a verbal contretemps with a reporter he despises from the Evening Standard newspaper. He asked the reporter, Oliver Finegold, whether he had ever been a "German war criminal." The Guardian reported, "On being told that the reporter objected to the remark and was Jewish, the mayor said: 'Ah, well you might be but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren't you?'''

The Board of Deputies of British Jews complained to something called the Adjudication Panel, "the government body which deals with serious disciplinary cases involving local government," the paper wrote. They judged the mayor's remarks "insensitive" and sanctioned him because he was unapologetic.

Richie Nimmo of Manchester wrote to the Guardian, the suspension "is just the latest example of a creeping orthodoxy in British public life, according to which you cannot say anything that offends anyone if it can be construed to be in any way connected to their ethnic or religious identity. The placing of community relations above freedom of expression, satire and vigorous argument, whether in the form of the cancellation of a theatre production in Birmingham, the self-censorship of cartoons across Britain or the suspension of an elected representative in London, is a sinister development."

In his own essay in the same paper, Livingstone wrote, "The fundamental issue in this whole affair is not whether or not I was 'insensitive,' it is the principle that those whom the people elect should only be removed by the people or because they have broken the law."

If New York mayors could be suspended for "insensitive" remarks, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani might not have served more than a few weeks between them. Koch used to brag about "giving ulcers, not getting them." And Giuliani did things like calling an innocent man killed by the police "no altar boy," based on sealed juvenile records he was under no authority to release. Both mayors suffered a dip in the polls attributed to such off-the-cuff remarks.

Recently, Giuliani called upon his fellow Italian Americans to lighten up about their criticisms that one of his favorite TV shows, HBO's "The Sopranos," defames their ethnic group. "You could spend your whole life wanting to be insulted," he told the New York Times. "Why?” Of course, Giuliani acted deeply offended when a portrait at the Brooklyn Museum of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was displayed because it contained elephant dung. He tried to get the city to reduce the museum’s subsidy, an effort blocked in court because it involved government censorship.

The Flap Over “My Name is Rachel Corrie"

While not a civil liberties issue because it does not involve censorship by the state, one of the most direct contrasts between London and New York involves a play called "My Name is Rachel Corrie." When it was mounted at the Royal Court Theatre in London, it was a sold-out hit. But a planned production of it at New York Theater Workshop was postponed, provoking much debate over self-censorship in the arts.

The play, by noted actor Alan Rickman and Kathleen Viner, is drawn from the diaries of Corrie, a 23-year old American who three years ago “was killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in the Gaza Strip as she tried to protect a Palestinian home,” the New York Times reported. After James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, spoke to "friends and colleagues in the artistic community and to religious leaders as well as to representatives of the Jewish community, because the play involved Israeli action" (as he explains in a note on the theater company's Web site), he made the decision to postpone the production: "As we listened to various opinions and read thousands of entries on websites and blogs, we realized we needed to find ways to let Rachel’s words rise above the polemics. We regret that requesting more time to achieve that goal was interpreted as failing to fulfill a commitment and, worse, as censorship."

"I don't think we were worried about the audience," he told the New York Times. "I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments.”

Nicola has been attacked by everyone from 2005 British Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter to Tony Award winning playwright Tony Kushner, whose work is often produced at the Workshop. Viner, writing in the Guardian where she is an editor, said, “Since when did theatre come to be about those who don't go to see it? If the play itself, as Mr. Nicola clearly concedes, is not the problem, then isn't the answer to get people in to watch it, rather than exercising prior censorship? With freedom of speech now at the top of the international agenda, and George Clooney's outstanding ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ reminding us of the dangers of not standing up to witch-hunts, Americans should not be denied the right to hear Rachel Corrie's words -- words that only two weeks ago were deemed acceptable.”

The play will now get a West End (their equivalent of Broadway) production in London starting on March 28, and the search for another American producer is currently underway.

The Right to Protest

London is an easier place to protest publicly, despite all the security. Anti-war demonstrators are virtually camped out 24 hours a day on the sidewalk directly across from the entrance to Parliament, unthinkable these days either at City Hall or at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. During the world-wide protests at the start of the Iraq War in February 2003, demonstrators in London had the run of the town and paraded right past the Houses of Parliament. In New York, the police department prevented marchers from going past the United Nations and even from joining the demonstration on the side streets to which it was restricted.

When I was in London, I passed a peaceful anti-war vigil of about 40 people in Trafalgar Square one evening. There were no police in sight. In New York a few months ago, by contrast, a small picket of housing activists working for home rule on rent regulation laws was not only prevented from marching past the home of Mayor Michael Bloomberg on East 79th Street, but there were swarms of cops and virtually everyone in the demonstration was photographed and videotaped by a police unit.

On the other hand, there may have been no effective difference in the surveillance: After all, the London demonstrators were no doubt picked up by the omnipresent closed circuit cameras.

Surveillance, Security and Civil Liberties

New York frequently follows London’s lead in instituting security measures. It wasn’t directly after 9/11 or when Spain’s commuter trains were bombed by terrorists in 2004 that New York began making spot bag checks for people entering the subways; it was when London was attacked this past July.

And now the New York Police Department is proposing to take London's lead in saturation surveillance of Wall Street, and reportedly contemplating similar treatment for midtown Manhattan as well. There is also a plan to install closed circuit cameras throughout our subway system, which is scheduled for completion in 2008.

Those who advocate for such heightened surveillance echo the sentiments of Jack Gin, who heads a private security company in Great Britain called Extreme CCTV: “I suggest that without security, we would lose the foundation upon which civil liberties exist," he said shortly after the London bombings. "Without security, we would have no freedom."

The New York Civil Liberties Union sees it differently: “What's next? A GPS [Global Positioning System] tracking device on every bumper? Cameras in our living rooms? Where does it end?” Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union asked in the Daily News.

Critics point to a 2005 study of closed circuit TV surveillance in 14 British cities, which found that it had no significant effect on crime in 13 of them, mostly due to understaffing of monitors and poor images at night. They did play a key role in identifying the July 7 Underground and bus bombers, but only after they had done their deeds.

Liberty, the British equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, is wary of the misuses of images captured by all the TV cameras. But the organization is more stirred up about proposals for the future -- a national identification card and a national registry, which, it says, " will fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state,” intrude on privacy, and adversely affect race relations without having a real impact on crime and terrorism.

But if in some ways London has instituted, and is contemplating, stricter security measures than those in New York, in other ways they are less strict. Bag checks are not a routine experience in London. The British Museum and most others do not ask to look into the bags of people entering, whereas guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York always do so now.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. 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.  


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