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Citizens Union

Bias Violence On Staten Island


 

At the end of a long month of bias-based violence on Staten Island (for details, click on "Links In the News"), the City Commission on Human Rights on September 24 opened up its first permanent office on the island in the commission's 48-year history. The office was long-planned, says Human Rights Commissioner Pat Gatling. But the Bloomberg administration is clearly concerned. New York City mayoralties have been made and unmade by responses to bias violence.

In the summer of 1989, when Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, visited the mostly white Bensonhurst neighborhood in the borough, a mob of white youth killed him. That incident marked the end of the re-election bid of three-term Mayor Ed Koch, who had often been viewed as insensitive in racial matters. It also catapulted Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins into City Hall, the first African American to be mayor.

Just one year later, black New Yorkers rioted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a car in a Hasidic motorcade sped through a red light and killed 7-year old Gavin Cato. Shouts of "Kill the Jew" went up and Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year old Australian rabbinical student, died from stab wounds inflicted by Lemrick Nelson in a case that was only recently resolved in the courts. The fact that it was not resolved in 1993 when Dinkins ran for re-election and Governor Mario Cuomo released a critical report on the matter during the campaign, contributed to Dinkins's narrow loss to Rudy Giuliani, who had been quite vocal in accusing the mayor of holding police back during the riots.

The first incident this past month occurred in a playground late at night Labor Day in Eltingville on Staten Island, when a mob of some 17 white men and women reportedly confronted an 18-year old black woman named Rachel Carter visiting from New Jersey. They uttered racial slurs and told her she didn't belong in the neighborhood. Then they attacked her and her five companions (who were white, black and Latino), using a sickle and a broken bottle --ugly stuff made worse because the police from the 122nd Precinct tried to discourage the victims from filing complaints. Eleven arrests have been made so far in the Labor Day attack.

Two weeks later, there were nine bias incidents citywide reported on a single weekend, including several on Staten Island, such as a black man accosted by a white mob in a Staten Island deli and a black man shooting at white teens. The cycle of bias violence continued on Staten Island a week after that, when one of the alleged perpetrators in the Labor Day attack was himself assaulted by three Latino men in what law enforcement officers reportedly described as a "retaliatory assault." All in all, in the month after Labor Day, there were a dozen suspected bias incidents on Staten Island alone. Some newspapers began painting Staten Island as a hotbed of bigotry.

None of these incidents are as incendiary as the bias murders of Yusef Hawkins and Yankel Rosenbaum. But the administration is careful to show their concern. At the opening of the human rights office on Staten Island, Commissioner Gatling said, "Mayor Bloomberg and the commission are committed to using all of our resources to ensure that the people of this city do not become hostages to prejudice. This new office will be used to educate, mediate, and enforce the strongest anti-bias laws in the country. Our message is a simple one: Discrimination will not be tolerated in our city." One action already taken is the disciplining of three police officers in connection with the handling of Rachel Carter's Labor Day complaint.

But it's not just individual police officers who are being criticized for their failure to take such civil rights violations seriously. The commission itself is under attack from the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York for not fulfilling its responsibility to enforce the city's human rights law. In a scathing report, attorney Craig Gurian, director of the non-profit center, said that the commission "had eliminated a decades-long backlog of cases in part by a newfound determination to do so, and in part by what the report refers to as 'the Big Case Dump.'" The report charges that the commission found no probable cause against discriminators in more than 98 percent of cases, leveled civil penalties just once, conducted only two trials, almost always failed to interview those accused of discrimination, and "failed to understand and apply basic principles of discrimination law."

Commissioner Gatling responded in the Times that the report "demonstrates a lack of understanding of the commission's objectives and practical application of the city's Human Rights Law," whatever that means. (She didn't elaborate.)

For all the criticism, the mayor has insisted that Staten Island is getting an unfair rap - that the incidents of bias have actually decreased by 25 percent on the island. Of course, these are the official statistics, based on people actually filing complaints - which, as evident from the police reaction to the Labor Day incident, is not always encouraged. But in a way, the mayor surely has a point in asking that Staten Island not be singled out. The truth is, bias violence is not restricted to one part of the city, nor targeted just at one group.

The New York City Gay and Lesbian Project has documented a 52 percent rise in attacks on people who either are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. A recent weekend saw three reported incidents, including six men beating a man after he exited a subway stop in Chelsea.

Clarence Patton of the Anti-Violence Project attributed the rise in anti-gay incidents to the massive increase in the visibility of gay people in the news and on TV entertainment shows, contributing to a backlash. He also cited the downturn in the economy and tensions over the war with Iraq.

Commissioner Gatling is also conscious of these factors. The main perpetrators of bias violence, she says, are young people 17 to 22 years old for whom "the economy looks bleak" and for whom there are fewer after-school options in the economic downturn. But even while acknowledging these factors in play, she said that New York is experiencing less bias violence than cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. "We don't have it like they do," she said.

Even while playing down the dimensions of the problem on Staten Island, Gatling said she has spoken to the superintendent of schools there about stepping up conflict resolution and tolerance programs, some of them offered by the commission itself. "I'm a big proponent of peer mediation," she said.

The commission and its critic, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, do agree on testing neighborhood tolerance in at least one concrete way. They are both sending out testers to pose as people looking for a job or a home, to see if local real estate agents and employers treat all comers equally. Most often, a white tester and a black tester who pose as similar applicants (same educational level or same income level) approach the same employer or real estate agent at different times to see if they receive the same treatment. One finding so far: In Howard Beach, both testers were treated the same. This might be surprising to those who see the Queens neighborhood as a bastion of bigotry because of past incidents, most notoriously in 1986 when a gang of white youths attacked three black men, killing one of them.

Mayors and mediators, boosters and borough presidents like to say that New York, which is probably still the most diverse city on earth, is a largely successful experiment in peaceful coexistence. One question provoked by the latest incidents is whether New Yorkers get along as well as we do only as long as all members of each group stay in their own neighborhoods. This is a city that, as Gotham Gazette's demographics columnist Andrew Beveridge has pointed out, "remains among the most segregated areas of the United States" - or, as one observer famously said, the only place New York is integrated is on the subway.

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.

Employing Non-Citizens


You are an employer in the city and you want to follow the law. You know that it is illegal to employ anyone not authorized to work in the United States; that is why they are called "illegal aliens." So, you put a "citizens only" restriction in your help wanted ad.

If you did that, you yourself would be breaking the law.

It is illegal in New York City to discriminate on the basis of national origin or citizenship status, and, while employers are required to verify that employees are authorized to work in the U.S., it is also illegal to so overdo the verification process that it effectively discriminates against the applicant.

The issue of non-citizen employment is clearly a minefield for employers, which is why the City Commission on Human Rights recently held a forum for employers entitled "Preventing Immigration-Related Employment Discrimination."

Many industries in New York employ more non-citizen immigrants than American citizens. This is certainly true of hotels. But other affected employers include those in the car rental business, home cleaning services, city agencies, YMCA, tour bus companies, housing complexes, banks, credit unions, nursing homes, hospitals, and a television station. All of these showed up for the forum.

"We're trying to make them aware of the law," said Betsy Herzog of the commission. "Even with immigrant employers, they don't always know the law. The paperwork is complicated."

Since 1986, all employees have been required to fill out I-9 forms for Employment Eligibility Verification. It lists 10 documents, such as a U.S. passport or Unexpired Employment Authorization Card that on their own establish identity and employment eligibility. Problems arise when an employer insists on one form of verification to the exclusion of others or insists on multiple documents when one alone will do.

Rachel Pomerantz, a law enforcement attorney with the commission, said, "The more you know as an employer, the less likely you are to have someone sue you for employment discrimination." She noted that the city human rights law covers more than the federal law does.

Pomerantz told the employers that it is never a good experience to have a complaint filed against you, even if there is no finding of discrimination, and said that the commission will "try to intervene before the complaint is filed," because sometimes "it is a matter of hurt feelings and can be resolved with a call." She noted that the city's human rights law and rules of practice for administrative hearings can be read online. She warned employers who have a complaint filed against them not to compound the problem by retaliating against the aggrieved employee. "We're here as a resource," she said, and urged them to call the Law Enforcement Bureau at 212-306-7450 when a question arises.

Common complaints from immigrants include discrimination based on their accents, unless it would interfere with their ability to do a particular job. "Exceptions are narrow," she said. ""You can't refuse to hire someone because you don't think that your customers will like the accent." It is also illegal to enforce English-only rules in a workplace during breaks and lunch. "There has to be a job-related necessity," she said.

Similarly, dress codes cannot discriminate against a "foreign look," such as wearing a sari, unless there are safety concerns. "You can have a uniform, but everyone has to wear it," she said.

Anthony Archeval, senior trial attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices, offers a video for employers, "Going Too Far," and promises to educate employee and employer groups who contact them at 1-800-255-7688 (or 1-800-237-2375 for the hearing impaired). In his experience, discrimination is not a result of evil intent, "but of a misunderstanding of the law."

The Department of Justice also has a Telephone Intervention System "for willing employers and workers, to avoid misunderstanding," and publishes a guide called "Look at the Facts, Not at the Faces: Your Guide to Fair Employment."

To have the Commission on Human Rights schedule a workshop on immigration issues for your group or workplace, call 311. The workshops are available in a wide variety of languages and have already been conducted in Spanish, Creole, Russian, Mandarin, African dialects, and, of course, English.

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 (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

The Harvey Milk School


A New York City high school for gay students is making front-page news. The New York Post claimed an exclusive on its front page July 28, trumpeting, "GAY HIGH: New City School A First" about the Harvey Milk High School that the paper said is "devoted exclusively to gay kids." But the school, which is named after a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors (its city council) who was killed by a political rival, was actually founded in 1985 as a Board of Education program for clients of the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (since renamed the Hetrick-Martin Institute) It is the plan to expand the school from 50 to 170 students and its reclassification as a stand-alone high school that has attracted tabloid news interest and attacks from conservatives.

But it is also receiving scrutiny from civil libertarians, who frame the debate as a matter of civil liberties - for the non-gay students that they fear might be excluded from the school.

The debate comes at the same time that both the Pope and the president have weighed in on same-sex marriage, in an attempt to re-frame that debate from an issue of civil rights for gay people to one they might call moral rights for non-gay people: While "it's very important for our society to respect each individual," President Bush said, "on the other hand, that does not mean that somebody like me needs to compromise on issues such as marriage."

This is happening now because, thanks to recent events such as the Supreme Court ruling overturning state sodomy laws and the approval of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, gay rights is looking like an increasingly accepted concept, and, thanks to changing attitudes worldwide, gay marriage is looking like an impending reality: Holland, Belgium, and parts of Canada have already opened marriage to gay couples, with Massachusetts expected to follow any day now by court decree.

With so much gay news around, it was probably hard for the Post to resist entering into the fray by claiming an exclusive. But the Hetrick-Martin Institute sent out a press release about the expansion of the Harvey Milk school way back in June 2002 after the Board of Education approved the $3.2 million necessary to renovate the space for the school and fund its operations. Since then, reporters have covered these plans on occasion, including me.

I actually worked for Hetrick-Martin myself from 1986 to 1995 as its director of education. The institute was one of the first agencies anywhere to recognize that HIV, with what we learned had an incubation period of about a decade, was a major threat to teenagers who could pick up the virus without developing symptoms until well into their 20s. Much of my job was to go out into mainstream schools educating young people and youth service providers about AIDS, but I also sometimes educated students from Harvey Milk.

The Harvey Milk High School program started under a Board of Education policy of making an onsite teacher available to any social service agency that had 20 or more young people who were not attending school. So, the board didn't vote to create a "gay school," it just did not discriminate against an agency whose clients were mostly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered - many of whom had been harassed and hounded into dropping out of school.

As much as the place made news from the beginning, with news camera crews chasing students down the block after school, so also from the beginning, a civil rights argument was used against it. Many educators, including United Federation of Teachers President Sandy Feldman, expressed reservations about what looked like a segregated learning environment. (She has since come around to seeing the need for the school.) Norman Siegel, then director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was ready to try to stop the program from going forward on civil liberties grounds, but was dissuaded from doing so.

"I was told that it was for kids who had dropped out and that the program would help reintegrate them into mainstream schools," Siegel says.

Almost two decades later, Siegel, who is now director of the Freedom Legal Defense and Education Project, says that almost never happened, and he believes the school should be investigated for possible violations of the law, including a 2002 state law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. "If the parent of a non-gay student is turned down for the school, I would bring a complaint," he says. (There have in fact been non-gay students in the school, including a girl whose mother was lesbian; the girl had been subject to harassment in her previous school.) Siegel has a strong record of support for lesbian and gay rights, but says that when gay students are being bullied, "don't take the victim out of the school, take the bully out.

"We seem to be throwing in the towel on integration, on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education," Siegel says. "The United States Supreme Court said that separate is inherently unequal. Schools that are all-black, all-female, or all-gay/lesbian offend that doctrine."

He is not alone in holding these views. "The city should never suggest that the solution to problems of discrimination and persecution of students who are perceived as different is to segregate them from the rest of the population," the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial about the Harvey Milk School. "The needs of gay teenagers can best be served by making sure that they, like all New York students, are able to attend regular public high schools in safety, free from bullying." In an Op-Ed in the same newspaper, a gay student also argued for mainstreaming, citing his own experiences.

Much the same arguments were used by the National Organization for Women against a school segregated by gender. In response to the establishment of an all-girls public school in East Harlem in 1997, NOW-New York City president Anne Conners said at the time, "While it's true that girls are discriminated against in school, this is a Band-Aid approach to educational equity. What we need is systemic change and the establishment of sex equity in all schools through such practical measures as increased funding for girls' sports and improved, mandatory teacher training."

There are several levels of irony in this debate, one of which is that it allows long-time opponents of gay rights to couch their arguments as one of compassion or civil liberties. For example, State Senator Ruben Diaz has also threatened legal action against the Harvey Milk School. "Instead of separating homosexual students," he told the Post, "schools should teach tolerance." Some may suspect Diaz's devotion to tolerance, since he once tried to block the Gay Games sports festival from taking place in New York because, he said, it might cause the spread of AIDS.

More ironic still: For all those years that Harvey Milk was a one-room schoolhouse helping a handful of students to complete their high school education, the Hetrick-Martin Institute was also part of the Education Coalition on Lesbian and Gay Youth, which was lobbying the school chancellor and Board of Education to make mainstream schools safe for lesbian and gay students. While chancellors from Nathan Quinones to Harold Levy agreed to limited staff training (mostly for guidance counselors), each resisted the kind of programming instituted by school systems in Los Angeles and San Francisco where each school designates a point person on gay issues who conducts training and is available to resolve conflicts.

Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was famous for pushing through an explicit HIV/AIDS education program in 1991, complete with condom availability (a program that has not been repealed but often goes unimplemented) and for trying to discipline School District 24 in Queens for resolutely refusing even to mention gay issues despite the mandates of the board's policy on multicultural education, which then included sexual orientation as a category. (The Board of Education later rescinded this at the behest of Mayor Rudy Giuliani). The myth at the time was that Fernandez was forcing schools to use the controversial second grade teacher guide, "Children of the Rainbow," which included a section on families headed by gay or lesbian parents among other family constellations. Fernandez in fact had only insisted that each district in its own way comply with policy by dealing with gay issues in some form by the sixth grade. The misunderstandings about Fernandez's position, fueled by the tabloid press, contributed to the board's refusal to renew his contract in 1993.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg is defending the Harvey Milk School, saying at a news conference on July 28, "Some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools," insisting that the school "sort of solves that problem. It gets them an education without having to worry."

But even with an expansion of Harvey Milk to 100 and later 170 students, it is clear that, in a system with more than a million students, most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth will remain in mainstream schools. Debra Smock, administrator of the Harvey Milk School, said, "In a perfect world, there wouldn't be a need for Harvey Milk School." But the question is whether this school will be used as an excuse to abandon efforts to change the anti-gay atmosphere in the vast majority of mainstream schools.

There is school anti-bullying legislation still pending in Albany and in City Hall, described in my civil rights column in May. But these are just the kinds of moves opposed by the most vigorous opponents of the Harvey Milk School.

Some school systems elsewhere, including in small Midwestern towns, have instituted programming for gay students in response to successful civil rights lawsuits brought by gay young people who were repeatedly harassed and beaten in school while the administration looked the other way. No such lawsuit has been brought in New York, but that is what it might take to get the Department of Education to do more than create the safety valve of a Harvey Milk School.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, and co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

 

Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride


More than 40 years ago Edward Culvert boarded a bus bound for the South in an effort to test President John F. Kennedy's commitment to civil rights. The mass action, part of the historic Freedom Rides of the 1960s, helped popularize the civil rights movement and laid the foundation for the many grass roots movements that define that period in American history. "If it worked once, why not repeat the process?" asked Culvert, now a professor of Black Studies at Lehman College.

Supporters of immigrant-rights are hoping to achieve similar results in the forthcoming Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, an event inspired by the Freedom Rides that will bring thousands of advocates from across the nation to New York in an effort to draw attention to immigrants' rights and rally support for a new road map to U.S. citizenship.

The gathering, which is scheduled to take place on October 4 in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, will mark the end of a journey from nine cities, with caravans expected to depart from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Boston, Chicago Las Vegas and Minneapolis.

The riders expect to publicize the plight of immigrant workers through a number of events planned along the way, and will meet with Congressional representatives in Washington D.C. before arriving here. "The first Freedom Rides publicized something people really didn't know about," said Culvert. "This will do the same, but on an even larger scale."

Organizers, including the AFL-CIO and hundreds of faith-based organizations, are also hoping that the event will put the issue of immigrant workers' rights back on the national agenda as the 2004 presidential campaigns commence. Integrating the nation's estimated 11 to 18 million undocumented workers was a top priority in Washington throughout the early months of President George W. Bush's term, but largely fell away following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

" Many civil rights leaders are looking at the plight of immigrant workers in the same way they looked at the plight of African Americans and other minorities in the 1960s," said Brian McLaughlin, New York Assemblyman and president of the Central Labor Council who serves as the chairman of Freedom Ride. "September 11 accelerated concern over many of the civil rights and civil liberties for immigrants that are now jeopardized by the Homeland Security Act," said McLaughlin.

According to McLaughlin, Freedom Ride will focus on three demands:
• Legalization for all immigrant workers,
• The right of immigrant workers to reunite with their families
• Protection of immigrants in the workplace.

"Immigrants today are harassed in their communities, exploited at their job sites, and separated from their families," said McLaughlin.

The transfer of what was once the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security and tough new immigration laws have further complicated the process of naturalization for undocumented workers, also known as illegal aliens. Indefinitely long waits and the threat of deportation often discourage immigrants from pursuing the legal path to citizenship, and according to Freedom Ride organizers, immigrants who endure the long road to citizenship sometimes spend years separated from their families.

Freedom Ride isn't the first collaboration between labor and immigration groups. A 1992 strike that pitted California drywallers -- mostly Mexican laborers -- against construction contractors, halted the construction of interior walls from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara for nearly a year. After blockading freeways and work sites with car caravans, drywallers gained important union contracts for immigrant workers.

Opponents of illegal immigration claim that naturalization services and civil rights should be reserved for immigrants who follow the proper legal channels, and place emphasis on the distinction between those immigrants who enter the country legally and those who don't. "Who would be against immigrant rights?" asked James M. Staudenraus, Eastern Field Coordinator for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "There are enormous differences between the rights of a legal immigrant, who is here with our country's permission, and people who are here in violation of federal immigration law."

Dave Rey, associate director of FAIR, called the equation of civil rights with the rights of immigrant workers "ludicrous". "Civil rights have nothing to do with the opening up of our borders," he said. "They are riding on the coattails of a completely different movement."

Many of the original Freedom Riders, however, disagree. "We may have come over on different ships but we're all in the same damn boat now," longtime civil rights leader Rev. Richard Lowery told the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Lehman University's Culvert said that the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride would likely draw even more support than the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement.

"The second Freedom Ride, I think, will receive more attention than the first one, because changes in technology make it possible to reach a much wider audience," said Culvert. "The world is not as big as it used to be."

Robert Nolan is online editor of the Foreign Policy Association .

Summer Youth Employment Program...Indicators of Child Well Being...Poverty Among Asian American Children


Youth Summer Jobs

Every year, advocates for youth in the city must go begging for money to support the Summer Youth Employment Program. After several rallies this year in Albany and at City Hall, as well as constant pressure from community groups like the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition and United Neighborhood Houses who together sponsor the Campaign for Summer Jobs, Governor George Pataki agreed in mid-June to release $25 million from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding to be used for summer jobs for teens.

Sixty percent ($15 million) of that sum would go to New York City's Summer Youth Employment Program and counties around the state would receive the rest. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced the governor's decision, crediting the state legislature, advocacy groups, and the teens that showed up for the rallies. Everyone was pleased.

And then something went wrong.

The governor's bill allocating the TANF money had other items attached to it that didn't go over with the legislature, so it was sent back and another bill was submitted. This one was approved by the senate, but by then the assembly had recessed for the summer, and the bill never passed. Both sides are blaming the other, but it is the teenagers who will suffer the consequences.

"It is possible that the state may fritter away $25 million" said Susan Stamler from United Neighborhood Houses of New York. "The governor could step in and pay for it out of the general funds and get the money back in the fall." That is the only way to save the situation, according to Stamler. If the governor doesn't act, the money disappears.

Most affected by the loss of these jobs would be younger teens, explained Stamler. "Eighteen- and nineteen-year olds can still go to places like McDonald's and get a job. But the fourteen-year old kids won't be able to do that. They will be shut out of the job market this summer."

What would really satisfy Stamler and the Campaign for Summer Jobs is not just action to preserve the money for this summer and the 13,000 jobs for NYC teens that it represents -- although she is hoping the governor will come through -- but what she and other advocates for youth summer employment are really looking for is a permanent stand-alone program that would fund 40,000 summer jobs for NYC adolescents every year without the need to scrap for last minute deals and handouts.

Funding for the city's Summer Youth Employment Program comes from various sources this year: $16.2 million from the city (initially the mayor budgeted $6.2 million and then added an additional $10 million), $11 million from the federal Workforce Investment Act (participating youth must be enrolled in the program year-round), and the last minute and elusive $15 million from the state.

If all of the money is released and contractors are able to act swiftly to fill the positions, 40,000 New York City kids, ages 14-19, will be employed at minimum wage jobs this summer for a seven week period from June 30th to August 15th, giving them the opportunity to earn a paycheck, while gaining work experience and learning new skills.

Kids Count

The 2003 KIDS COUNT Data Book was released in June by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and New York has improved in seven out of ten indicators of child well-being, including reduced infant and child mortality rates, adolescent death rates (cut in half), teen birth rates, and a decreasing number of children without health insurance (although ten percent of children in the state still do not have health insurance). New York also scored better than the national average in all of these categories as well as in our immunization rate for children under two years of age.

Child well-being in New York declined, however, in three major areas: low birth weight babies are on the rise, as is the teen high school drop-out rate, and the percentage of children living in poverty is greater here than it was in 1990. In the latter category, New York is also higher than the country as a whole for children living in extreme poverty (family income below 50 percent of poverty level), ranking 43 (with 1 being the best). We ranked 47 out of 50 for children living in female-headed households and the median income for all New York families with children is lower than the U. S. average.

New York State is failing in two out of four categories for reducing the hardships of poverty: 41 percent of households eligible for food stamps are not receiving them (in the city that number is 51 percent), and almost 70 percent of low income households are paying more than one-third of their income for housing.

Our overall rating compared to the other 50 states is 27, with 1 being the best (Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, New Jersey, and Iowa hold the top five slots for overall child well-being).

Asian-American Children and Poverty

Nearly one in four Asian-American children (24 percent) live in poverty in New York City. This is higher than the average poverty rate for all children across the country (17 percent), as well as higher than the average for all Asian American children nationally (14 percent). Based on an analysis of new census data by the Asian American Federation of New York (AAFNY), this news may finally dash the misconception that all Asian American families are affluent and self-sufficient.

Worst hit by poverty are Vietnamese (40 percent), Bangladeshi (39 percent) and Pakistani children (34 percent), followed by Chinese (27 percent) and Indian children (23 percent). By borough, Asian-American families living in Brooklyn are the hardest hit (34 percent), followed by Manhattan (30 percent), and the Bronx (29 percent); Queens fares the best (18 percent). By neighborhood, Manhattan's Chinatown has an alarming 40 percent poverty rate for its children.

City services often underserve impoverished Asian-American families, according to Asian American Federation of New York, and there is a great need for programs that will bridge language and cultural barriers, stimulate employment, and offer child care.

 

 

 

Gay Rights Advances


June was, appropriately enough, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. And while it was the 34th such celebration in New York City commemorating the Stonewall Riots against police harassment in 1969, the community has arguably never had more to celebrate.

On June 26, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Texas "homosexual conduct" law was unconstitutional and overturned the court's 1986 Bowers decision that gave the states the rights to ban consensual adult sexual activity. Earlier in the month, the Ontario high court ruled-effective immediately-that same-sex couples were entitled to marry. The Canadian government decided not to appeal the decision and proposed legislation to equalize marriage rights across the nation.

While these two enormous lesbian and gay rights advances were national and international in scope, they were both connected to advocates who live here in New York. And while New York has made some strides of its own in the 34 years since Stonewall, the sweeping nature of these advances hold the very real prospect of completing the long struggle of gay people toward legal equality here.

The lead attorney in for the plaintiffs in the United States Supreme Court case, Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, was Ruth Harlow of the New York-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Lambda and the American Civil Liberties Union had chipped away at many state sodomy statutes over the years, including helping to overturn New York's sodomy law in 1980, but those decisions were based on state constitutions, leaving 13 states with sodomy laws, most in the deep South.

It was Kevin Cathcart, the longtime executive director of Lambda, who decided that it was time to bring suit in federal court to challenge the Texas law in an effort to overturn the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, a 5-4 opinion that held that gay claims to privacy in sexual relations were "facetious, at best." Winning would mean invalidating all the remaining sodomy laws and establishing a foundation in federal law to equal rights for gay people.
Cathcart's judgment paid off in spades with Justice Anthony Kennedy's sweeping decision that we saw announced across the cover of the New York Times the next day in a rare banner headline. (The more conservative New York Post tried to bury the story on page 26.) Professor Arthur Leonard of New York Law School called it "a Magna Carta for gay Americans," in the Gay City News.

Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the decision. Religious conservatives nationwide were said to be "white hot" with fury over the court's move. But local religious conservatives were not nearly so outspoken. Even the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which often speaks out against gay rights measures that it feels will infringe on Catholic rights, did not quibble with decriminalizing private consensual sexual behavior. But their president, William Donahue, told the Daily News, "What happens between two consenting adults behind closed doors is their own business. But it would be a mistake for [gays] to hyperventilate about their next victory."

Justice Antonin Scalia did come close to hyperventilation about the court's majority opinion. In an angry dissent, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, he said, "What justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising the 'liberty projected by the constitution'?"

Which  brings us to the revolution in the Canadian marriage laws. Ontario, and soon the whole nation if Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has his way, is the first place that American same-sex couples can go to get legally married. Holland, which equalized the marriage laws in 2000, and Belgium which just did this past month, have residency requirements. Some gay Americans have already gone just across the border to marry. A forum was scheduled July 2 at 7 PM at New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (208 West 13th Street in Manhattan) to guide  New Yorkers in the Canadian process.

New York gay couples have been trying to get the City Clerk to issue them marriage licenses since the early 1970s when the Gay Activists Alliance would stage sit-ins at the Marriage Bureau. But the issue did not accelerate in the world's consciousness until 1996 when New York's Evan Wolfson, then an attorney for Lambda Legal, won the right for two Hawaiian gay couples to marry. That lower court victory was eventually stopped by a referendum in Hawaii, but it led to the Congress enacting the Defense of Marriage Act  to ban federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gave the states the right to ban recognition of legal same-sex marriages performed in other states. Thirty-seven states have done so, though no state has recognized same sex marriages. (Vermont has come closest with a civil union law that gives Vermont gay couples the rights of married couples. Eight-five percent of those joined under the law in Vermont are from out of state. They return to their states having to fight for the legitimacy of their relationships.)

New York State is one of thirteen states that has not enacted a ban on the recognition of same-sex marriages. While the state does not have a gender-specific marriage law, the Department of Health interpreted it to limit marriage to a man and a woman. But since New York and every other state have always recognized those married in Canada, it is an open question as to how same-sex couples married in Canada will fare here. There is legislation pending in Albany that would open marriage to gay couples and another bill that would close it.

New York has a legal tradition of recognizing the marriages of couples from elsewhere who were married in a way that New York itself does not perform, such as common law marriages. In a case involving St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, a state judge has allowed a man who had obtained a civil union in Vermont the right to sue over the alleged wrongful death of his spouse (the word used in the Vermont law).

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer has yet to weigh in on how same-sex couples married in Canada should be regarded legally in New York. These couples will be in a bind until the legal issues are resolved. They may incur liability if they represent themselves as married and if they don't. A period of mess and uncertainly is ahead of them, including the fact that they can only divorce if they live in Canada for a year (unless a New York court chooses to dissolve their marriages.)

New York City enacted a law last year recognizing domestic partnerships, civil unions, and same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, but that has been interpreted to mean that these couples do not have to register as domestic partners here in the city to get the benefits of domestic partnership.
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas case, acknowledging the "liberty" rights of gay people, that has given heart to same-sex marriage advocates, even though the majority made clear that it wasn't opening marriage to gay couples. Alan Van Capelle, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the New York gay lobby group, told me for Gay City News that the decision "changes the entire landscape in New York. It refocuses us on the marriage issue" which he said "isn't about 'if' but about 'when.'" Only one week before in the wake of the Canada developments, Van Capelle was hedging about the viability of same-sex marriage in New York. But more aggressive groups like Marriage Equality/New York have been pushing it for five years now.

Attorney Evan Wolfson now heads a national group called Freedom to Marry, based in New York, which is aiding state organizations fighting for equal marriage rights. The breakthrough in the United States may come as early as this month in neighboring Massachusetts where gay plaintiffs await the ruling of the state's high court. And a similar New Jersey case, being argued by Lambda, is going through the legal preliminaries there.

While the marriage issue is unresolved in New York, the state did get rid of one of the last vestiges of anti-gay language in its laws last month by dropping the terms "sodomy" and "deviant sexual intercourse" in its rape laws. These terms were not just deemed to be archaic and anti-gay, but stigmatizing for the rape survivor.

And all is not finished in New York City by any means as far as gay advocates are concerned. Speaker Gifford Miller held a press conference in late June to call upon the mayor and governor to get the quasi independent state/city authorities to provide the same kind of domestic partner benefits that are afforded to other city and state employees.

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.

Reactions to Police Killings of Unarmed Black New Yorkers. Also: Push to Repeal Patriot Act; Bishop Paul Moore


New York police officers killed two unarmed black people in May and there has yet to be rioting in the streets or even mass demonstrations as the black and civil rights communities wait and see whether police and governmental authorities will either produce credible investigations or turn the matters over to special prosecutors.

Alberta Spruill, 57 and African American, died of a heart attack May 16th after Special Operations police, acting on a bad tip that the apartment contained munitions, tossed a stun grenade into her Harlem apartment as she dressed for work, handcuffing her even after finding no guns in the place. The medical examiner's office has ruled the death a homicide, but blame has yet to be assigned. Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly have apologized for the incident and acknowledged the obvious, that something was terribly wrong with this raid. Bloomberg's response has been noted to be in stark contrast to that of his predecessor in police misconduct cases. Rudy Giuliani almost always sided with the police, exacerbating racial tensions.

The head of the unit that conducts no-knock searches, Deputy Chief Thomas Purtell, has been transferred to the Housing Bureau, but he has not been charged with any malfeasance. Capt. David Driscoll, the Harlem precinct's commander, was transferred to Brooklyn in the wake of the botched raid.

Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the City Council Public Safety Committee plans hearings on these police procedures on June 12. He told the Daily News, "We want to look into what went wrong. And we really want to make sure that this never happens again." Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, the story said, is asking those who have been subjected to mistaken raids on their homes to call (800) 728-1550 and to appear at a hearing on June 5 at 10:30 AM at her Municipal Building office at 1 Centre Street on the 19th floor South.

There are many unanswered questions in this case, where the police seem to have acted legally in that they obtained a warrant. Why was such an unreliable source used? Shouldn't there be a better system in place to screen sources? Why wasn't the apartment put under surveillance to verify the tip that it was being used for illegal purposes? Why wasn't the most rudimentary investigation done into who actually occupied the apartment, a trustworthy city worker and grandmother?

But the elephant in the room of this case is race. Is it conceivable that police would have conducted the raid in this way in a white neighborhood?

Similar issues surround the case of Ousmane Zongo, 38, the black immigrant from Burkima Faso who was killed by a police officer, Bryan Conroy, at a West Chelsea storage facility where he worked. The officer alleged to a supervisor that Zongo, who repaired African art in one of the storage spaces, lunged for his gun. Conroy shot him four times. He has yet to speak to either the District Attorney's office or police investigators. The Rev. Al Sharpton says that he has spoken to a witness to the incident who only wants to speak with an independent investigator. The witness, according to Newsday, is an "undocumented immigrant fearful of being deported."

Several hundred demonstrators, mostly West African immigrants, demonstrated on May 28th outside the W. 27th Street storage facility where Zongo was killed. Their rallying cry was for Governor George Pataki to appoint a special prosecutor in the case. Michael Hardy, a lawyer for the Zongo family who is associated with Sharpton's National Action Network, said, "There needs to be no question of impartiality in this investigation. The police department and the district attorney may need to be prosecuted."

Sidique Abou-Bakarr Wai, president of the United African Congress addressed the crowd, insisting, "It is not about black rights, it is about human rights." When he said, "Zongo did not fight with a police officer," the West

African demonstrators chanted, "Never! Never!" "Africans don't fight," Wai said. "We are a law abiding people. We don't have a quarrel with the police, but with vigilante officers."

Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel was also on hand at the rally. "We have been here before," he said, recalling Patrick Dorismond and Amadou Diallo, "another unarmed New Yorker shot dead because of police force. The names change, but the issues are the same: 1) Whether the shooting was justified, 2) Will the truth be discovered and disclosed? and 3) Will there be systemic change in regard to police procedures. The civil rights community wants the truth and the truth is difficult to obtain in these cases. We learned years ago that police cannot investigate police. And the District Attorney's office, because they rely on the testimony of police, has a built-in conflict of interest." He, too, said that a special prosecutor was critical in this case. And he feels that Mayor Bloomberg needs to be educated about the history of these kinds of cases if he is willing to trust the police to investigate themselves.

Zongo, who had intended to return to his native land to be reunited with his wife and children, "was a peaceable man," said Mohammed Dibassy, president of the African Arts Center where Zongo worked and a leader of the Malian Association USA. "We are a peaceful people, but we want solutions. We want justice to be done."

After seeing the cops who killed Diallo acquitted of all wrongdoing in an Albany court, these West Africans are not willing to see this case handled by the same people. Masses of New York civic leaders were arrested outside police headquarters to push for the arrests of the officers who killed Diallo, only to see the case moved upstate. This time, they want a special prosecutor.

Council Resolution to Protect Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

More than 100 civil liberties advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall on May 28 to herald the introduction of a resolution in the New York City Council to call upon the United States to repeal provisions of the USA Patriot Act that "pose a direct threat to the constitutional protections afforded individual freedoms." If passed, New York would join 115 other American cities in petitioning the Congress and the President to restore civil liberties trimmed by the post-9/11 act.

"September 11th shook the city and country to its core," said Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, part of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Committee, "but we must be free as well as safe." She cited such infringements as "relentless snooping on our private lives, diminished right of courts to protect us, undermining the right to due process and counsel," and assaults on freedom of speech. If New York adopts the resolution, it will double the population covered by jurisdictions who have passed similar petitions.

Councilmember Bill Perkins is the chief sponsor of the resolution. Councilmember Charles Barron, another sponsor, said that this resolution joins one in the Council calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act. Councilmember Margarita Lopez said that Congressman Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) had urged the New York City Council delegation that went to Washington last month to help in pushing the Congress to reform the Patriot Act. She said that immigrant people are "disappearing" in this country under the Act the way dissenters disappeared in Latin America in the 1970s.

Councilmember David Yassky said, "I honor the men and women in our armed forces, but over history, what makes us strong is not military might, but our commitment to freedom and individual liberty."

Pat Perry, who lost her son, John, a police officer, on September 11, 2001, said that John "strongly supported the Bill of Rights and would be here today" if he were alive. Playwright Tony Kushner said, "It is not surprising that an administration that believes they can create democracy unilaterally through military action believes it can secure democracy here at home by decimating the Bill of Rights."

Bishop Paul Moore, Religious and Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 83

The Rt. Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., Episcopal Bishop of New York from 1972-89, died on May 1st after a long bout with cancer. He was 83. I paid tribute to Moore in the pages of the Gay City News for his leadership in the city on the rights of women and gay people. In a town where many religious leaders come down on the more conservative side of issues, Moore was an outspoken champion of the poor, downtrodden, and disenfranchised. When his time as head of the Diocese of New York was up, he worked on more international causes rather than upstage his successor at St. John the Divine Cathedral, including a leading role in securing justice for the people of East Timor. But his home base was Greenwich Village and he continued to be a force for human rights in his beloved city. Despite fourteen years out of office, his funeral was packed in the largest cathedral in the world on 112th St. and Amsterdam Av.

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 (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Anti-Bullying Bills. Also: Push To Post Human Rights


Nobody likes a schoolyard bully, but nobody tried to pass a law against them, until now. There are such bills being considered by both the New York City Council and the New York State Legislature.

Last month, the New York State Assembly voted 144 to 2 to pass the Dignity for All Students Act, an anti-bullying bill that would require schools to take systemic action to address bias-related harassment of students on the basis of "actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity and expression), or sex." It also would require training of staff on how to deal with these issues and mandates documentation of and data collection on incidents of harassment. There is a Dignity for All Students Coalition of more than 100 groups statewide supporting it, including religious, civil rights, gay/lesbian, and education organizations.

As usual, the members of the Republican-dominated New York State Senate do not see the issue in the same way as the Democratic-led New York State Assembly. The senate has its own bill, the Schools as Safe Harbors Act, which also addresses bias harassment, though not as comprehensively. "The good news is that the Senate and Assembly are actively discussing a compromise measure," said Ross Levi, legislative counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay and lesbian lobby group. "That's very encouraging. The timeline is quicker than I would have guessed when the session started."

In the city, an anti-bullying bill will soon be introduced into the City Council with a similar name, the Dignity in All Schools Act, which would prohibit harassment for any reason in public and private (but not parochial) schools, mandate that the chancellor create guidelines for enforcement, require training for employees and students on how to discourage harassment, require that the schools develop a method of reporting bullying cases.

The bill already has 37 co-sponsors. Since only 34 votes are needed for a veto-proof majority, chief sponsor Alan Gerson, who represents Lower Manhattan in the council, expects the bill to be enacted before the start of the new school year in September.

Gerson said the city anti-bullying act is designed to "call attention to an endemic problem and get something done about an awful part of youth subculture. For too many kids, the lessons learned are not about math and science, but how to endure taunts and harassment." He said that one of out society's "dirty secrets" is that "nothing seriously has been done about this. There is so much good and wonderful about youth. They're fresh, open, vibrant, and open-minded. But there is this subculture that affects too many of our young people -- the pecking order. Too many kids feel that there needs to be someone to pick on. Both the pickers and those picked on are victims. I want to give the school the tools and resources to deal with the problem effectively.

"I'm not naĂŻve," Gerson said. "This is not a panacea, but it could be a step in helping it to go away."

Posting The Human Rights Law

Intro 353 would require that the city's human rights law be posted in all places of employment and public accommodation.

Tom Smith, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club, developed the bill with former Council Member Kathryn Freed, and now sees real hope for passage. "The original human rights law didn't contain an education section," he said. "It is just as important for people to be able to understand and access the law as it is having the law in the first place."

The recently revitalized City Commission on Human Rights has been engaged in more education and outreach under Commissioner Patricia Gatling. Last month they launched a campaign to educate the public about the meaning of the latest addition to the human rights law, the category of "gender identity and _expression" protecting people of transgender experience. And on April 25, the commission and the New York Immigration Coalition offered a program on Immigrant Employment Rights, part of a new effort to educate immigrants on the "federal and city protections afforded under the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986 and the New York City Human Rights Law."

Same-Sex Partner in Civil Union Recognized as Spouse by New York Judge

Nassau County Supreme Court Judge John P. Dunne granted John Langan, a gay man who had obtained a civil union with his male partner Conrad Spicehandler in Vermont, the right to sue St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan for the wrongful death of his partner. This is the first time anywhere in the country that a jurisdiction outside Vermont has recognized a person in a civil union as a "spouse" under the law. Professor Arthur Leonard of New York Law School covered the legal issues for the Gay City News and I interviewed advocates for same-sex marriage about the impact of this decision on their movement.

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 (57 on Time-Warner; 109 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Immigrant Soldiers


Even though his coffin was draped with the American flag, U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Riayan Tejeda, 26, was not a U.S.citizen. Tejeda, who was killed in combat in Iraq, was a native of the Dominican Republic.

Eight years ago he joined the Marines after graduating from George Washington High School.

“I hope the United States will remember that my son died for this country,” his father Julio Tejada told Newsday.

Tejeda’s death has brought attention to stories of immigrants who fought for the U.S. military throughout history and the current controversy over their immigration status.

For immigrants, joining the military could lead to a faster track to citizenship, which allows them and their immediate family to reap the same benefits as native-born U.S. citizens.

In early 1990s, immigrant soldiers became eligible for citizenship after three years of legal residency, two years less than civilians. More than 3,600 immigrant soldiers became U.S. citizens from 1994 to 1999.

Last July, President Bush signed an executive order that temporarily allows immigrant soldiers to apply for citizenship immediately. Nearly 5,500 military personnel applied and some already got their citizenships.

There is no law prohibiting illegal immigrants from joining in the army but the armed forces representative says anyone without proper documents is rejected, according to a report in the New York Times.

Tejeda and at least six other U.S. servicemen killed in the war in Iraq had not yet become citizens. Six of these immigrants were granted citizenship posthumously but their relatives did not receive the benefits that would normally go to the families of the citizens.

“It is an honorary status in commemoration of the valor and the sacrifices of the deceased,” the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services explained in the memo.

More than 36,000 service members are non-citizens, making up about 5 percent of active duty service members. About a third come from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries and the rest are from China, Vietnam, Canada, Korea, India and other countries.

In New York City alone, 40 percent of Navy recruits were immigrants, 36 percent in the Marines and 27 percent in the Army.

Many are surprised by the number of non-citizens serving in the U.S. military but others say immigrants have always been a part of the military.

“Basically, both immigrants or non-citizens have served in the military since at least the Revolutionary war,” said University of Michigan Professor Cara Wong, who has been studying immigrants and war.

There were over 500,000 immigrants who fought in the Civil War. They were allowed to form their own units, elect their officers and speak their native tongues. “The Germans are true and patriotic,” said President Abraham Lincoln about the German immigrants volunteering to fight for the union army.

Some immigrant soldiers were even honored by the army for their bravery. During WWII Mexican born soldier Marcario Garcia, whose company was pinned down by the Nazis, fought his way out and, though wounded, was able to return with captured prisoners. Garcia was promoted to staff sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor.

“The distinction between legal and illegal immigrants was non-existent until well after the Civil War,” said professor Wong.

The situation of non-citizen soldiers has caught the eyes of lawmakers in Washington D.C. Some are introducing bills that would shorten the waiting period to two years for foreign-born soldiers and others even argue for immediate citizenship for all immigrants on active duty in the armed forces.

But that did not happen soon enough for Tejeda. At his funeral, hundreds of people gathered to honor him at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Washington.

“He may never have been made officially a citizen of our nation,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But we are proud he was a citizen of New York.”

Spokesmen for Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Charles Rangel said that they are seeking citizenship posthumously for Tejada if his family desires.

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai is the editor of The Citizen.

Subways Are Not For Everyone


Frieda Zames, who uses a motorized scooter because of a bout with polio, was fed up with trying to ride city buses.

Most city buses did not have wheelchair lifts - and the ones that did were routinely broken - and so Zames and other activists sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Zames and a friend also organized a protest, parking themselves in front of an M14 bus on the corner of Third Street and Avenue A, refusing to let it move.

At the time, public officials scoffed at such protests as little more than a nuisance. The mayor said it would be cheaper to buy every disabled person a limousine than to make city buses handicap accessible. One transportation official called federal legislation on the issue "a cruel hoax."

That was 20 years ago. Today, all 4,457 of the MTA-operated buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts that are used 800,000 times a year by most of the 51,000 New Yorkers who are in wheelchairs.

"The bus system, at least in Manhattan, works quite well," said Zames, who is now 70 years old.

The buses are the one success story in what advocates for the disabled see as a major local civil rights issue – the right to get around.

"What we're talking about here is giving people with disabilities the same kind of options that everybody else has," said Terence Moakley of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association.

Appropriate transportation for the hundreds of thousands of mobility-impaired New Yorkers is not just a right, it is the law. (See Gotham Gazette article from 2000, "A Decade of Disability Rights"). But 13 years after the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, advocates see one failure after another:

  • Fewer than eight percent of the subway stations in the city are fully handicap-accessible
  • The "Access-A-Ride" van service — which offers 24 hour, door-to-door service to those who cannot ride subways and buses — is plagued by poor service, mismanagement, and safety violations
  • The city has no yellow taxicabs for passengers in wheelchairs
  • There are 61,000 sidewalk curbs that people in wheelchairs cannot cross that were supposed to be fixed by 1994.
  • Some ramps to water ferries are not handicap accessible.

The city says it is complying with federal requirements as quickly as it can, given the size of New York and the age of the transportation system — the last subway line was built over 60 years ago.

And if no public officials make comments as snide as Mayor Ed Koch did about the cost of accessible buses, it is just a fact that costs are very high to provide adequate transportation for the disabled. It costs $260 million to operate Access-A-Ride vans, an increase of 650 percent from eight years ago. And each new MTA bus with a low floor and a wheelchair ramp costs $331,000.The middle of a budget crisis is not the time, the cost-conscious say, to start focusing on an issue already long ignored.

But, the disabled ask, when is a good time?

TRANSPORTATION LAWS AND LAWSUITS

New York City lags behind other large cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington D.C. when it comes to making public transportation fully accessible to its 1.8 million people with disabilities, 220,000 of whom use wheelchairs, crutches, braces, or some other mobility device to get around.

"In order to compare New York City to other cities, you first must recognize the scale," said Frank Bowe, a professor at Hofstra University and former director of the American Council of Citizens with Disabilities. "New York City is by orders of magnitude larger and more complex in its transportation systems than others."

The first major law requiring the city to modify its public transportation came in 1973, with the enactment of the federal Rehabilitation Act which prohibited unfair treatment of disabled individuals in programs or activities that receive government funds, including public transportation.

It was not until 1990, with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the law explicitly prohibited all discrimination against people with disabilities and required all forms of public transportation to be accessible or that a comparable option be offered.

However, the city complies, said Bowe, only when pushed to by formal complaints.

SUBWAYS: NOT FOR EVERYONE

In the last two decades, the MTA has made improvements to subway stations to accommodate more passengers.

The agency has added elevators and ramps to some subway stations, posted large print or Braille signs for the blind, installed platform-edge warning strips, and provided text-messaging pay phones for the hearing impaired. All Metrocard machines can give both text and audible instructions. And the MTA even offers training courses for riders who are blind or visually impaired so they can learn to better navigate the subway system.

However, for many New Yorkers the subway is still not an option.

Of the city's 468 subway stations, only 36 are wheelchair accessible and many of those have problems.

Alexander Wood, who uses a wheelchair, recently got off at the 125th Street station to find that the elevator was broken. Wood, who was on his way to a business appointment, was stranded. He couldn't get to the street or even to another subway platform. He had no other choice but to call for help.

"The police sent down four lady cops, and they see this man who's 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, with 50 pounds of gear in a wheelchair, and they're like, 'What are we going to do now?'" said Wood, who heads up Disabilities Network of New York City. "Finally some of their colleagues came along and it worked out fine."

At other stations, passengers can only use one side of the platform. For example, at the Cortlandt Street station in lower Manhattan, there are elevators on the downtown side, but not the uptown tracks. And many subway stations also have wide gaps between the platform and the train, making it difficult for less mobile people to board.

"I am so afraid of those gaps between the platform and the train - being dragged or something - that I just don't use the subway," said Frieda Zames.

The MTA has plans to modify another 64 stations by the year 2020, which would create a total of 100 accessible stations. The renovations will cost an estimated $530 million.

ACCESS-A-RIDE OR "A STRESS-A-RIDE"

One night last fall, Alice Crespo, who is blind, was trying to get from a friend's house in Brooklyn to her home in Queens. Like many New Yorkers with a disability, Kreslow's primary form of transportation is Access-A-Ride, the city's 24-a-day van service for those unable to use buses and subways.

Crespo called and the van came to pick her up. However, when she went to get in the van, the driver told her that he would not take her where she wanted to go because it would make him late for his next scheduled pickup. He suggested he drop her off at a subway station and so could take a train home. Crespo refused; the driver told her to hail a cab.

"It's not like I can just see one on the street and get it, " said Crespo. "I'm totally blind."

After 20 minutes, the van driver relented and took her home.

According to testimony at a recent City Council hearing, such experiences are common for passengers who use Access-A-Ride services.

Customers complain of late pick-ups or vans that never show up, and of drivers unfamiliar with New York City streets who have been known to take passengers on grueling, roundabout trips. Some even refer to it as "A Stress-A-Ride."

A series of recent articles in the Daily News have tracked the Access-A-Ride problems, including 619 accidents involving injuries and major damage in the last year. The problem, critics say, is a decentralized system that uses ten private companies that do not have adequate oversight and have little incentive to improve service. Only two of the companies passed their most recent safety inspection.

"Right now the Access-A-Ride program is so inefficient that it is committing a violation of human rights against the same people it is supposed to be serving," said City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who joined in a lawsuit against the van providers.

At a recent hearing, Howard Ende of MTA New York City Transit spoke in defense of the service, stating that the organization's complaint rate was only 8 per 1,000 riders. He added that Access-A-Ride is scheduled to receive 500 new buses by 2003.

New York City's paratransit service, which receives requests for 200,000 rides a month, is also the most expensive service of its kind in the country, averaging $56 per trip.

In 1998, the total cost of Access-A-Ride was $41 million; in 2002, it cost $260 million, an increase of 600 percent in eight years.

Passengers pay $1.50, which only covers about three percent of the total cost. Since there are no state or federal funding for the program, the city pays for a about a quarter of the cost and the rest comes from the general operating funds of New York City Transit – which means fares and general subsides.

NO YELLOW CABS

Last year, Stacy LaRoche was trying to hail a cab with "Lucky," a guide dog who helps LaRoche walk. Three separate taxis refused to pick her up. After an investigation by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the drivers admitted they did not stop for LaRoche because she had a dog; each was fined $200.

But for many people with disabilities in New York City, the issue is not whether a cab will pick them up, but whether they can get in at all.

Unlike 40 U.S. cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston, New York does not have any wheelchair accessible taxis in its fleet of 12,287 yellow cabs. And there are only four wheelchair accessible, for-hire cars in the city.

Two years ago, it looked as if wheelchair accessible yellow cabs might become a reality when the Taxi and Limousine Commission proposed that all new yellow taxis purchased after July 2001 be accessible. The commission later rescinded the proposal, arguing that the poor economy, the financial fallout of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the cost of providing insurance for accessible vehicles were too high for the commission to overcome.

Whereas a standard yellow cab costs between $23,000 and $24,000, a new wheel-chair accessible yellow cab can cost as much as $40,000, not including vehicle insurance that runs up to $15,000 a year. Converting an existing livery van with a wheelchair lift costs about $7,000.

"It's a false hope to say that 50, 100, or 200 yellow cabs would really help the disabled community," said Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman Matthew Daus at a City Council hearing last month. The commission now supports a plan to make more livery cabs handicap accessible, in part because their insurance is less costly than yellow cabs.

CUTTING CURB CORNERS

In many areas of the city simply crossing the street is impossible because sidewalk curbs are too high for many wheelchairs.

"It's very simple," said Robert Stulberg of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. "If you're in a wheelchair and you pull up to a corner that's not ramped, you literally cannot get to the other side of the street."

The Americans with Disabilities Act set a deadline of 1994 for all cities to comply with regulations that would cut curbs and replace them with sloped inclines at street corners. However, by that time, the city did not have a plan to fix the city's 12,750 miles of sidewalks.

The organization Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association sued and the Giuliani administration fought the case in court for eight years.

In September 2002, the case was settled by the Bloomberg administration, which agreed to spend $218 million with the aim of installing ramps on the remaining 61,000 curbed street corners by the year 2010.

The city's transportation commissioner, Iris Weinshall, said that the agreement reflects the city's commitment to making street corners accessible "expeditiously" in a "fiscally prudent and sound manner."

However, the city is already behind schedule in meeting its goal of fixing all city sidewalks by 2010, completing just half of what should have been accomplished so far.

FERRIES AND THE FUTURE

Although improving existing forms of transportation can be an expensive and slow process, advocates have hope for the future, in particular for water ferries.

The majority of New York Waterways ferries are wheelchair accessible, however, 13 ferries that were added after September 11, 2001 to provide increased boat service to lower Manhattan are not. All of the New York City Water Taxis, the newest ferry service in the city, comply fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

However, many of the city-owned docks do not have wheel-chair accessible ramps.

Recently a bill was introduced into the New York City Council, that would require all water transportation and ramps to ferries to be wheel chair accessible. Advocates are encouraged by the support the legislation has in the City Council, where 47 of the 51 members have signed on as sponsors and hearings on the legislation are underway.

Activists are also looking ahead ensure that future development projects like the 2nd Avenue subway, plans to make transportation an essential aspect of the plan to host the 2012 Olympics, and a new transportation hub in lower Manhattan are open to all New Yorkers.

Many remember the former World Trade Center station as being dependably accessible, part of the Manhattan subway route riders with disabilities could count on and are already lobbying planners and elected officials.

"It's a hub, there's going to connections to lots of trains, and we want to be able to get on all of them," said Jean Ryan of Disabled in Action.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

ADVOCATES
• Disabled in Action
• Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association
• Access-a-Ride Demands from Disabled in Action
• Disabilities Network of New York City

GOVERNMENT
• New York State Office of Advocate for Persons with Disabilities
• Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities
• Accessible Subway Stations in New York City
• The MTA's Guide to Access-a-Ride
• City Council Committee on Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, and Disability Services
• New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission
• New York City Commission on Human Rights

LAWS
• The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
• Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
• The Americans with Disabilities Act

 

 



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