Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Restricting Demonstrations

Demonstrations against the impending pre-emptive war by the United States of America against Iraq marched past the Coliseum in Rome, the Houses of Parliament in London, the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia on February 15. But when they tried to march past the United Nations in New York, they were stopped by the city with the backing of the federal government.

The New York Police Department said that they could not handle a march for security reasons and the federal courts and the editorial boards of the daily newspapers in the city accepted this. With the country on an "orange alert" from the United States Department of Homeland Security, the demonstrators were restricted to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on a side street north of the United Nations and some surrounding streets and this was accepted as a necessary concession to security by many opinion makers in New York, while bitterly contested by the demonstration organizers from United for Peace and Justice and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Some City Council members were concerned enough about the denial of a march permit to call public hearings on February 25 before the Government Operations and Public Safety Committees.

The organizers of the demonstration have been criticized for not laying out their plans for a march well in advance. Beyond the fact that this was a response to recent developments in the United States campaign to attack Iraq, many demonstration organizers in New York no longer go to the Police Department for permits for large demonstrations because they end up in negotiations leading to a late selection of a route or site that, they feel, defeat the purpose of their action.

While much public attention has been focused on the restrictions on this anti-war demonstration, protests in New York City were steadily hemmed in during the Giuliani years. Mayor Giuliani did everything he could to close City Hall Plaza not just to protest demonstrations, but also to press conferences. Only after repeated lawsuits by Housing Works, an AIDS housing advocacy and service group, did groups win the right to press conferences and demonstrations, albeit severely limited.

In the not too distant past, the steps of City Hall were once as democratic a place as Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park in London, with two or three ad hoc press conferences or actions competing at the same time. Now behind iron gates and a metal detector just to get into the plaza, it is a much less dynamic area and infinitely more restrictive of free speech.

The argument of the police, often hailed as the finest in the world, that they cannot handle certain marches and demonstrations is also nothing new. When members of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization wanted to march up Fifth Avenue in 1993 to protest their exclusion from the St. Patrick's Day parade prior to the big event, the police made the same argument -- that they couldn't handle more than one parade that day, even at different times. (The police can and do handle more than one parade when they are led by different ethnic groups at the same time.) The gay group sued the police and Mayor Dinkins in federal court and lost. Their protest march on the morning of March 17, 1993 was stopped by the police who then proceeded to arrest more than 250 demonstrators, a procedure that arguably took a lot more time and trouble than letting them proceed up the avenue before any of the other St. Patrick's parade participants were scheduled to take it.

When a gay Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepherd, was brutally murder in 1998, there were marches in sympathy and outrage across the land. The New York demonstrators, however, were not permitted to march down Fifth Avenue from outside the Plaza Hotel on W. 59th Street. Police arrested most of the organizers at the outset and the demonstration, filled with anger at Shepherd's death and police tactics, turned into a chaotic mess leading to many arrests and injuries, not to mention many more traffic tie-ups all over the West Side than would have occurred had the march been allowed to proceed.

If the cause is more politically sensitive, marchers have been able to go forward.  When Amadou Diallo was killed by police with 41 bullets in 1999, a huge protest march against the police was allowed to proceed across the Brooklyn Bridge into a demonstration area near City Hall. It all depends whose ox is gored.

Ann Northrop, an AIDS activist who is a veteran of many of these marches, said of the February 15th anti-war demonstration, "It's the most shameful thing that Bloomberg has ever done. It could have been a peaceful huge march with no problems." Instead, people were herded onto side streets and made to walk blocks and blocks away from the rally. A police source said that orders came down from the top of the Bloomberg administration that New York was not to be seen as a center of protest and the police should therefore interfere with the ability of protesters to get to the rally by telling them that there were terrorist threats. People were being turned away as they arrived at Grand Central Station in some cases.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is determined to reverse the trend on restrictions on demonstrations in New York, just as the police are determined to continue using this method of penning demonstrators in (as they pen in revelers on New Year's Eve in Times Square). "As long as the judiciary goes along with this," Northrop said, "we're stymied. But as long as we turn out in huge numbers, no matter what they do to us, we'll be successful. We have to keep the pressure on. That's what stopped the Vietnam War."

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.

Civil Liberties since 9/11. Also: Vacant seats on the human rights commission; the new local about same-sex marriages.

Monica Terazzi admits that, a year after the terrorist attacks, Arab Americans in New York are no longer subjected to the threats and harassment that many of them underwent in the immediate aftermath. "We have experienced a lot fewer incidents of violent crimes," said Terazzi, the New York director of the American Arab Discrimination Committee. Indeed, the City Commission on Human Rights has not seen many complaints by Arab Americans of their civil liberties being violated.

But 9/11 still holds a special threat to the civil liberties of Arab-Americans in New York -- as well as to that of the rest of New Yorkers.

"We are still seeing a lot of workplace discrimination and incidents of police harassment. " Terazzi said. She is especially concerned that the government is detaining Arab immigrants and holding them for months on end for such infractions as overstaying their visas. "A Palestinian man with Jordanian citizenship was recently deported for not reporting an address change," she said. "This had never previously been a deportable offense... Everyone knows someone who has been harassed or detained. It is pretty scary, the notion that police can swoop down on your house and disappear with your husband."

Air travel poses special problems for those of Middle Eastern descent. "Many Arab Americans have been pulled out of line at airports," she said, despite assurances from United States Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that there would be no such racial profiling. "Arab American passengers have been ejected from flights after going through security. I have spoken to lots of people who have faced so much harassment that they say, 'I'm not traveling again.'"

It is true that most of the incidents that Terazzi talks about are "anecdotal" -- they are not listed in official statistics, such as complaints registered with the City Commission on Human Rights. "People don't want to draw attention to themselves," Terazzi explained. "There is a fear of anything associated with the government." Her group held a town meeting in Bay Ridge with local and federal government agencies represented and the reaction from the crowd was "we don't want to go there; it's the government."

Staff members of the human rights commission are conscious of this reluctance, and have been speaking to small groups of Arab Americans, encouraging them to make reports and reminding them that they do not have to be citizens to do so. But few have come forward, despite an assurance from Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling that "discrimination has no place in this city -- not today, not tomorrow, and not on the anniversary of the attack on our nation at the hands of terrorists." She said that the city human rights law "is one of the most comprehensive in the nation" and that she and Mayor Michael Bloomberg are committed to "the vigorous enforcement of the law that protect these rights. And that protection extends to all New Yorkers, not just some of them."

Indeed, all New Yorkers should be concerned about the threats to their civil rights, says Donna Lieberman, the director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "In September and October of last year," she said, "I didn't dare contemplate how bad things would get. Some of the measures that the government has adopted have seriously eroded our fundamental civil rights and cry out for reversal." One example is the TIPS program, the Bush plan to recruit millions of volunteers to do domestic surveillance. Another is the "facial recognition technology" which is being employed at the Statue of Liberty, which is "about as accurate as heads or tails" in identifying evil-doers, while creating "a Big Brother-type of encroachment."

"What's heartening," Lieberman said, "is that...the American people have resisted to a certain extent. That's why we have not seen a proliferation of military trials. That's why TIPS has been met with resistance."

In New York, Lieberman said, the state legislators "enacted tough anti-terrorism legislation without debate or thoughtful consideration in an effort that was designed more to attain political capital than protect security. It increased death penalty application and defined terrorism in a vague and chilling way." Despite the rush to pass the law last year, "we haven't seen any prosecutions." She believes the law would not hold up in court.

The New York City Department of Education has a whole page of resources for administrators and teachers on how to help students cope with the traumatic effects of September 11, but there is scant acknowledgement in the school system's special materials on the stigmatization to which many students of Middle East origin or descent have been subjected. The resource page does, however, promote a special post 9/11 series on PBS-TV's "In the Mix" called "The New Normal" that focuses on dealing with ethnic, racial, and other human differences. And the "9/11 as History" program cited from the Families and Work Institute does include a lesson plan that deals with "compassion and diversity."

New Yorkers concerned about human rights should know about two events timed to the one-year anniversary. Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization of family members of those who perished on 9/11, is sponsoring a march across the Brooklyn Bridge on September 10. And on September 11 at 6 PM, a candlelight vigil will begin at Atlantic and Court Streets in Brooklyn, the heart of the Arab American community in New York, to gather for "remembrance, prayer, reflection, and unity," according to Terazzi.

New Human Rights Commissioners to be Named This Month

Mayor Bloomberg is finally getting around to filling twelve vacancies on what is supposed to be the 15-member City Commission on Human Rights. An announcement is expected in mid-September.

The beleaguered agency, which lost 75 percent of its funding under Mayor Giuliani while ironically gaining Charter status, got a new chairperson, Patricia L. Gatling, back in February. She is the only paid member of the Commission and directs the staff. But only two of the non-salaried commissioners are left-Marta Varela, who chaired the agency under Giuliani, and Derek Bryson Park. This minimum of three commissioners is required to make final determinations on cases. When all fifteen commissioners are on board, rotating panels of three review decisions and make recommendations to the full commission.

Gay Rights Continue to Advance in Wake of 9/11

In June, I wrote an Issue of the Week on "The Rights of Same-Sex Partners" and how they had advanced after the public saw how domestic partner survivors of the victims of 9/11 received second class treatment. While most of these are state and federal issues, the City Council is doing what it can to bring about spousal equivalency for domestic partners, gay and straight. In August, it passed Intro 114 by a vote of 34 to 7, with four abstentions. In it, New York City recognizes domestic partnerships or same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions under our domestic partners law. In other words, the couples will not have to register again in the city just as married couples don't have to get married here to have their union acknowledged. Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill on August 27 and it went into effect immediately.

Controversy at the Human Right Commission

Mayor Bloomberg's 12 new human rights commissioners (plus one holdover held their first meeting on January 29. The session started with controversy and went on to focus on "doing more with less," as Commission Chair Patricia Gatling put it.

The agency, cut 80 percent in the Giuliani years, received a slight increase in the budget passed in June. But since then it, along with all other agencies, has been asked to cut its budget for this year as well as for the coming fiscal year. That has spurred the commission to try to get grants from the federal government and others to expand its work.

When I expressed interest in covering the meeting, Betsy Herzog, the director of public information, told me not to expect any fireworks. But just as the meeting began, Rabbi Avi Weiss and others from the Coalition for Jewish Concerns stood up to vociferously protest the appointment of Commissioner Omar T. Mohammedi, an attorney in private practice who is the general counsel for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The protesters said the American-Islamic group "condones terrorism" and have called for a City Council investigation into Mohammedi´s appointment. Mohammedi refused to comment for Gotham Gazette, but his biography on the commission's web site does not mention his work for the Council for American-Islamic Relations.

Commissioner Haskell Lookstein, a rabbi, had previously expressed concern about Mohammedi's involvement with the, but seemed to have reconciled himself to serving with him by the time of the meeting. George Spitz, a community activist and Orthodox Jew who attended the meeting, presented a letter to Gatling hailing the Mohammedi´s appointment, writing that he "will provide much needed representation" for the Muslim community. Spitz said that he checked out the group's web site "and found nothing of a bigoted nature."

Police led the demonstrators out, and the meeting resumed. But the controversy continued. Ed Skyler, Mayor Michael Bloomberg´s press secretary, called Weiss and the other protestors "extremists". This prompted an editorial in the conservative New York Sun criticizing Sklyer and commenting, "Mr. Mohammedi has so far refused to answer questions from the press about CAIR or about what he thinks of Hamas, Hezbollah, the American Jewish Committee or the World Trade Center bombing."

The meeting, though, proceeded to other matters. Gatling and her staff of deputy commissioners told the unpaid commissioners what the agency was doing. The commissioners serve as advisors and also make determinations on civil rights rulings made by an administrative law judge.

Deputy Commissioner for Law Enforcement Avery Mehlman chronicled the commission´s efforts in 2002 to resolve the huge backlog of complaints and to deal with "systemic discrimination" in the city. This included sending out newly hired testers (former police officers) to see whether landlords were violating the city's human rights law. Combating discrimination against women and people with prior criminal records was also cited as a priority. For example, the agency is working with Princeton University on testing the extent to which people coming out of prison face employment discrimination.

"This agency hasn't been a litigation agency," Gatling said, but she is working to change that. For example, the human rights commission is seeking a change in the city´s human rights law that would allow the agency to go to state court to pursue discrimination cases.

Given the agency´s limited resources, Deputy Commissioner for Investigations Cliff Mulqueen said that the agency "is trying to contract with [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] to pay us" to handle housing discrimination cases.

Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs Lee Hudson reviewed a broad range of programs at the agency, including a current survey of discrimination against Muslims, Arabs and South Asians that is available on the agency's revamped web site. It is available in six languages (in two, English and Arabic, on the web site) and so far more than 500 surveys have been returned.

The seven neighborhood human rights offices are being consolidated into one in each borough. And a new computerized system to track case is being developed. All the satellite offices will be able to use it.

For the first time, the agency is developing compliance guidelines for the newest category covered in the human rights law, "gender identity and expression." People of transgender experience have been protected from since early last year.

General Counsel Randy Wills proposed a new set of by-laws for the commission, including moving from meeting once a month to once every four. While that prospect and Gatling's commitment to one-hour meetings was welcomed by some, it was not adopted as the New York Times reported. Privately, some commissioners expressed the desire to meet more frequently to fulfill their obligations "to foster mutual understanding and respect among all persons in the City of New York and to encourage equality of treatment for, and prevent discrimination against, any group or its members."

Defending Affirmative Action

On April 1, high school and college students from around the nation will stage a Civil Rights March to the Supreme Court to "defend affirmative action and save Brown v. Board of Education." It is being organized by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

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 Special Registration Program

When Mohammad Ferdous Bin Zaman turned on the TV to find out about the weather, he could not believe what he heard.

Bangladesh became the latest nation, along with Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, to join the list of 25 countries whose male citizens must register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they intend to stay in the United States

"Why Bangladesh?" asked Bin Zaman, 24-year-old Bengladeshi student who now lives in Astoria, Queens. "We don't have a past record of terrorist activities."

The special registration applies to all U.S. visa holders including international students, immigrants whose permanent resident status are pending and undocumented immigrants. Women, green card holders, naturalized U.S. citizens and those who have political asylum are exempt.

The first registration deadline ended up with a massive arrest of immigrants in Los Angeles last December. Although no similar arrest was reported in New York City, immigrant communities here are nervous.

"All of a sudden we got a lot of work to do because we have clients who are petrified," said Jo Anne C. Adlerstein, head of the immigration law practice at Proskauer, Rose.

In some cases, Adlerstein encouraged her clients to leave the country before the registration date because they might be detained for over-staying their visas or other criminal records if they register.

"We had one client from Tunisia who went back last week before the [second] deadline and a number of Pakistani clients are evaluating their options," she said.

Some Pakistani immigrants decided to move out of the country altogether before the third registration deadline on February 21.

"This definitely bred fear, intimidation and confusion on the part of many affected," said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director at New York Civil Liberty Union. "There are so many who just don't understand: why them?"

By next month's deadline more than 24,200 men through out the country are expected to be registered, fingerprinted and photographed, according to an Associated Press report. One Lebanese citizen who has already registered said that he felt "humiliated having to go through the interrogation and the whole process."

Jorge Martinez , a U.S. Justice Department spokesperson, has said that the registration system is meant to protect the United States and the countries on the list are places that harbor terrorist organizations. "It's all based on national security," he said. "It has nothing to do with race or ethnicity."

"[Bagladeshis] are very peaceful people," Bin Zaman said. In fact President George Bush had once cited Bangladesh as a tolerant, moderate and practicing democracy with Muslim majority.

North Korea aside, most countries on the list are ones with a large Muslim population. "It's an extreme example of racial, religious and ethnic profiling," said Lieberman.

Critics also doubt that the registration would prevent future terrorist attacks and point out that some of the 19 hijackers were registered with the INS as students. "How do you know if somebody is a terrorist who has been here in a sleeper cell for 10 years? How do you know that they're not already a citizen?" Alderstein said.

Some immigrants are concerned about what will come after registration. "I don't know what they will do next, " said Kabir, a 26 years old Bangladeshi who lives in Jamaica, Queens. " I fear maybe two months after registration, they will send us all letters saying that there are no jobs available, the economy is going down, and that there is no need for us to be here and we should leave."

Immigrant groups such as the New York Immigration Coalition, the Coney Island Project and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund have arranged protests against the registration program. But at the same time they conduct workshops on how to deal with it because there is no alternative for immigrants who want to remain in the country.

"I would not recommend that you would stay in the country past the registration date without registering," Alderstein said.

'I'm going to register," said Kabir. " Whatever they ask me to do, I'll do it."

First Group

  • Registration deadline: December 16, 2002
  • Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria

Second Group

  • Registration deadline: January 10, 2003
  • Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen

Third Group

  • Registration deadline: February 21, 2003 (extended to March 21)
  • Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

Fourth Group

  • Registration deadline: March 28, 2003 (extended to April 25)
  • Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt Jordan and Kuwait

Learn more at http://www.ins.usdoj.gov/graphics/lawenfor/specialreg/index.htm

In response to the Special Registration, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has produced informational alerts in Korean, Urdu and English and provided free legal advice by telephone.

If you believe that this new registration rule applies to you, You can get free, confidential advice from Sin Yen Ling, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 212-966-5932 extension 213.

Learn more at http://www.aaldef.org/news.html

An immigrant from Bangkok, Thailand, Chaleampon Ritthichai.

The New Commissioners

It took him more than ten months to do it, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has filled eleven vacancies on the New York City Commission on Human Rights with some of the leading civil rights leaders in the city. Among those named were two college presidents, five attorneys, and eight people with doctorates. They are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and sexual orientation. But it is their depth of experience working for civil rights that makes this perhaps the most high profile panel in the commission's history.

In alphabetical order, they are:

Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and President of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, has been one of the leading voices against racism in the city for decades. While he has taken his fight to the boardrooms of New York, he has also engaged in such street actions as whitewashing billboards promoting malt liquor to people of color in his community.

Matt Foreman, director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's leading gay and lesbian lobby group, also once led the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. He just negotiated with Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to get a commitment that they would finally vote on a state lesbian and gay rights bill next month. He said that he wants to focus on "policy and systemic issues around discrimination" through the commission.

Edison O. Jackson is the President of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and serves on the board of the Catholic Interracial Council of New York. He has "written extensively on issues of concern to educators with particular concentration on minority students and the community, academic preparation and student performance," according to his biography from the Brooklyn-based college.

Rabbi Haskell Lookstein is considered a leading centrist in Orthodox Judaism. Since 1959, he has been the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jesurun and since 1966 the principal of the Ramaz School. He is the author of "Were We Our Brothers' Keepers?" about the horrors of the Holocaust. He is not afraid of controversy. Earlier this year, he was in the news for calling for a boycott of the New York Times over their coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Grace Lyu-Volckhausen, an adviser to Council Member John Liu (D-Queens), is active in several Korean-American groups including Koreans for Civic Action, the Coalition of Korean American Voters, and the Black-Korean American Mediation Project. With Vicki Alexander, she wrote in Ms. Magazine about "Black/Asian Conflict: Where do We Begin?" back in 1991 about two feminists, one Asian American and one African American, who "sit down as strangers to discuss the conflicts between their communities." She is president of the Tiger Baron Foundation and a board member of the Asian Pacific American Women's Leadership Institute.

William Malpica, an attorney in private practice, does pro bono legal work for the NAACP. He is also on the Junior Advisory Board to the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, the group dedicated "to improving the quality of life of Latino children and families."

Omar T. Mohammedi is also an attorney, among whose specialties is discrimination law. He is the president of the 9/11 Coalition for Constitutional and Human Rights and of the New York Area Muslim Bar Association. His work as general counsel for the Council on Islamic Relations has drawn some fire and that group has sent out an action alert saying that "representatives of the pro-Israel lobby are pressuring officials to withdraw the appointment of Omar T. Mohammedi." The alert does not specify which groups are doing the pressuring. It should be noted that while the chair of the commission serves at the pleasure of the mayor and is compensated, these other commissioners get three-year unpaid terms and may not be removed except for failure to perform their duties.

Bryan Pu-Folkes, who describes himself as Jamaican-Burmese American, is the president of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Queens, working on helping new immigrants as well as building bridges between longtime residents and new arrivals. He wrote about his mission in an article for Gotham Gazette called "Nice But Not Easy" this past February. And last October, he was presented with the 2001 Brooke Russell Astor Award from the New York Public Library recognizing "unsung heroes who have contributed substantially to improving the quality of life in New York City."

Lisa Quiroz is the publisher of "People en Español" and is a member of the board of both the Hispanic Federation and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund Institute, dedicated to engaging "the public sector in support of Latino higher education achievement." Quiroz told Gotham Gazette, "The reason I took this appointment is that as a lifelong New Yorker, I saw this as an opportunity to make a difference for the communities I care about. I got the sense that there will be renewed focus at the commission. The new chair is terrific and she is intent on getting things done, especially around housing and education rights. Don't see it as a ceremonial post, but as a chance to get things done."

Jenny Rivera was once an Administrative Law Judge for the New York State Division on Human Rights and associate counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. She is now associate professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law. She concentrated on constitutional and feminist law at Columbia Law School. She has testified on legislation concerning discrimination and domestic violence against Latinas and was an observer at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

And Susan R. Scheer is a longtime disability activist. She is now the director of Disability Services for Columbia University. She has been executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York Independent Living Services and was once the deputy director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. Bloomberg announced that Matthew P. Sapolin is the new executive director of his Office of Disabilities. He had been the co-executive director of the Queens Independent Living Center.

All in all, just putting this diverse group of people into the same room has the potential of building some bridges in New York that were not there before. When conflicts between communities arise as they inevitably do in New York, they can be eased through the kinds of relationships among commissioners that are fostered at meetings.

Commissioner Patricia Gatling said that she and her staff have reduced the backlog of complaints from 5,000 to 2,000. She also said that despite the new round of budget cuts anticipated at most city agencies, since most of the commission's money comes from federal "community block funding," the Human Rights Commission is not being asked for more cuts. Gatling said that the agency took an 83 percent cut under the previous administration.

Gatling ticked off several cases that were as much as 12 years old that had recently been settled. These eleven new commissioners' only official duty is to be the final arbiter of cases, which are first decided by an administrative law judge. When busy people like these give up their time for such work, without compensation, the odds are they are not doing it just to get called "commissioner" and put "Honorable" in front of their names. They now have a position from which to seriously enhance intergroup relations in this most diverse of cities. How far they go with that mission is entirely up to them.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Discrimination at Brooklyn Eatery

The way Dana Monroe tells it, she went to the Silver Dragon Restaurant in Bensonhurst to order some take-out food, and the proprietors demanded that she pay before they would send the order to the kitchen. When she refused to pay in advance, they refused to send the order. But then Monroe noticed something that outraged her. Other patrons were not asked to pay in advance. What was the difference? They were white and Asian. Dana Monroe is African American.

In March, Monroe filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Using a simple practice that got little if any use during the last administration, the commission sent two investigators to the Silver Dragon to test the complaint.

Sure enough, the African American investigator was asked to pay upfront and the non-African American tester did not have to pay until picking up the order. Finding a pattern of discrimination against African Americans, this month the commission issued a "probable cause" finding in the case. The owners of the restaurant face fines and damages if found to have engaged in unlawful discrimination.

The owner of the restaurant (who would not give his name to a reporter from WNBC-TV News) claimed that the restaurant did not have a discriminatory policy and that it was up to the customer to decide whether to pay before or after the order comes. But the testers found otherwise.

Human Rights Commissioner Patricia Gatling said, "Everyone must be treated equally regardless of the color of their skin. We will continue to investigate and vigorously prosecute these types of cases until people finally get the message: discrimination is against the law and will not be tolerated."

Still Twelve Vacancies

Now that Bloomberg has his 13-member Panel for Educational Policy going, he may finally turn his attention to getting the City Commission on Human Rights up to speed. Of course, the education panel only has an advisory role and the 15 human rights commissioners have the responsibility of making final determinations in cases that are heard there. Bloomberg appointed Patricia Gatling the chair of the commission early this year and there are two holdovers, but 12 spots remain open. A mid-October announcement of the new appointees is expected.

Contracting Bill on Domestic Partners

"Equal employment benefits to the employees of city contractors." That's the title of a bill, also called Intro 271, that was submitted to the City Council and referred to the Contracts Committee on September 25. It sounds no more controversial than a street name change, but it may prove to be one of the more contentious issues taken up by the new council because it requires those who do business with the city to provide domestic partner benefits if they already provide spousal benefits. But the mayor did not support it during his campaign last year and it is likely to encounter strong opposition from conservative religious contractors and some businesses.

Domestic partners have been able to register since the Dinkins administration in 1991. The city has provided benefits to the domestic partners of its employees since 1993 when a suit was settled with the Gay Teachers Association. Mayor Giuliani codified that settlement into law in 1998.

While many private companies have been providing such benefits since the Village Voice started doing it in 1984, there is no law here requiring them to do so.

While the gay and lesbian community is the main force behind this legislation, seventy percent of the domestic partners are male-female couples. Any two unmarried adults who live together in a mutually supportive relationship can register. This includes older and disabled people who cohabitate to share expenses.

The bill is not a new concept. It has been the law since 1997 in San Francisco, where even the Catholic Archdiocese complies with the law in order to keep its contracts. But while the Archdiocese of New York has yet to take an official position, Cardinal Edward Egan has already tangled with Albany over the women's health bill, demanding a "conscience clause" exemption from providing insurance coverage covering contraceptive devices. (He did not get as strong an exemption as he wanted. It only covers employees who are involved in religious activities.)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has yet to take a position on the specifics of Intro 271, but during his 2001 run for mayor he said he wanted "carve outs" for religious groups and "maybe others." But Comptroller William Thompson, who helped draft the bill, and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum are fully supportive of it.

The Equal Benefits Bill applies only to those with contracts that are over $100,000. The contractor must extend benefits to its employees who work in the city or, if an out-of-town contractor, those who work on the city contract. The employer does not have to pay more for a domestic partner policy than the cost of a spousal policy -- and may just give the employee the cash equivalent of a spousal policy if a domestic partner policy cannot be obtained through his or her insurer.

The business community has yet to weigh in on the bill, though business groups tend to oppose government restrictions on their contracts. The mayor has shown an aversion to imposing additional regulations on contractors. But State Sen. Tom Duane (D-Chelsea), who intends to introduce a similar contractors bill in Albany, said that passage would help "attract the most highly qualified and motivated people to the city."

For more on this story, see my piece in the Gay City News, "Quinn Proposal Could Shake Up American Workplace."

New Appointment

Dennis de Leon, who was the chair of the City Commission on Human Rights in the Dinkins administration (1990-93), has just been recommended by the Rules Committee the City Council to be the Manhattan representative on the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Since 1994, he has been the president of the Latino Commission on AIDS where he has fought for more resources to stem the HIV epidemic, which has disproportionately affected Latino/a New Yorkers.

An attorney and longtime civil rights activist who is originally from California, de Leon is Latino, gay, and living with HIV, statuses that give him a unique perspective in monitoring police misconduct. As the City's Human Rights Commissioner, he chaired weeks of hearings on police-community relations that focused on the "Us vs. Them" mentality that hinders public safety and effective police work. (I was on the Commission myself at that time.) Police Commissioner Lee Brown, now mayor of Houston, asked us not to conduct the hearings, but the Human Rights Commission proceeded to take testimony from a broad range of New York communities frustrated with the wall that often exists between police and the policed.

De Leon said that he is taking on the Civilian Complaint Review Board "because I think that with my experience with the City Commission on Human Rights and working with police misconduct at the City Law Department [in the Koch administration], I have something to offer. I want to see if the Civilian Complaint Review Board is a vehicle for bringing about meaningful reform."

Civil Liberties Union Calls for Videotaping Interrogations

In the wake of revelations that the young men convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case may not have been the perpetrators of that crime, the New York Civil Liberties Union is making a renewed call for videotaping police interrogations. In an op-ed piece in Newsday now on the group's website, Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman of the Civil Liberties Union look at the case, under review by the Manhattan District Attorney until October 21. They say videotaping is the best defense against coerced confessions and note that when police officers are accused of wrongdoing, such taping is required.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Civil Liberties since 9/11

Most New Yorkers probably think that government learned a great deal from September 11 about protecting the city, its symbols, landmarks, and people. The attack's immediate aftermath saw a barrage of reassuring official actions that were military-like in their precision -- securing vital areas, shutting down ground access to the city, and patrolling New York's perimeter from the skies and seas. In the months since, the official presence has withdrawn from the skies and the streets, but most New Yorkers assume hopefully that this retreat masks ongoing work behind the scenes. Citizens have no way of knowing for sure, since all anti-terror operations are secret. For those who agree with the former city official who told Richard Cohen of the Daily News that the September 11 attack meant that "the government let us down," the secrecy is yet another barrier to evaluating government actions.

Most New Yorkers -- 72 percent -- believe another terrorist attack is very or somewhat likely, according to a poll conducted by Blum & Weprin for the Daily News. A plurality of 28 percent speculate that it will probably involve smaller-scale car bombs or suicide-bombers, while 20 percent anticipate the use of biological weapons and 16 percent expect chemical weapons. Still, 72 percent say they feel safer or as safe in the city as anywhere else in the country. Are they right?


September 11 badly damaged public confidence in the federal security agencies -- the FBI and the CIA -- but enhanced confidence in the NYPD, which immediately went onto Omega Alert, its highest state of readiness. Through what Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly calls "target hardening" it has since been able to reduce the number of officers assigned to Omega posts Ă‘not an insignificant matter since some violent crime, including rape, seems to be heading back up.

Nonetheless the New York Police Department has been refocusing the problem-solving strategy that helped reduce violent crime from local crime to terrorism. The strategy's specific elements, according to policing expert George Kelling, are accurate and timely intelligence, rapid deployment, effective tactics, and relentless follow-up and assessment. The media have contained many accounts of both historic and recent federal stone-walling of the NYPD on intelligence, the greatest federal failing, of course, on September 11. All parties now insist publicly that this is a problem of the past.

Perhaps it is. The NYPD is led by a police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, who has far stronger federal security credentials than any previous commissioner. His federal experience helps him in the many instances in which the NYPD tangles with the FBI and the federal Department of Justice over jurisdiction. As Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel says, "In a time in which the distinction between war and crime has narrowed, Kelly has already worked in positions in which he had to deal with this reality. Given that we're a target in New York, it's a huge asset that he's in a good position to make a difference."

Kelly has been aggressive, assigning NYPD personnel to areas that were once exclusively federal -- training some cops abroad, sending brass to the Naval War College, expanding the intelligence office to include foreign terrorism, and setting up a medical office to coordinate with federal agencies and the city's Department of Health on biological weaponry.

He has brought in high-level people with federal experience. He hired Ret. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Frank Libutti as Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism to head a new division on counterterrorism and to direct the department's work with the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force. The idea is to ensure cooperation and flow of information between the agencies Ă‘not a strength in the past. Libutti oversees the new Terrorism Security and Analysis Section, which conducts comprehensive security assessments of terrorist threats in the city. An Incident Response Team has been set up to respond to requests for assistance at suspected terrorist events. Kelly also hired a former top CIA operative, David Cohen, as the new Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence. Both deputies report directly to Kelly, who also established a new position of medical adviser to coordinate with the Department of Health.

How effective are these measures? We're unlikely to know unless -- probably until -- there is another attack. Over the last decade, the city has been the target of at least three other known terrorist plots: the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center; the 1993 plot to bomb the United Nations and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels; and the 1997 plan to bomb the subways. New York remains the symbol of capitalism and Western culture, and a target.


Even before September 11 New Yorkers had become accustomed to security measures deterring the common thug: metal detectors, photo IDs, bag searches, checks of electronic equipment. The devices are often primitive and the training of the personnel poor, but routine security checks have prevented at least some crime and perhaps some terrorism. The future, however, lies with high-tech solutions that are independent of human judgment, such as new sensing machines that can detect biologic agents, explosives, suspicious voids in truck cargo, or weapons hidden on someone a distance away. Private companies tend to be way ahead of government in spending the millions of dollars these machines cost.

The other set of measures are what the security trade calls Israeli tactics -- traffic-stopping checkpoints, street closings, intrusive questioning, random identification checks, intimate searches, and racial profiling. These are ostensibly meant to deter crime, but they are also meant to remind the public often and aggressively of the presence of terrorists and to get the public to accept the authority of the police and military. The inconvenience that accompanies these tactics is deliberate.

Giuliani's NYPD actually introduced a few of these ideas, such as the traffic-stopping checkpoints that were ostensibly for drunk-driving or seat-belt use. His 1998 pedestrian-controlling concrete barriers are another Israeli tactic, a re-engineering to encourage people to go only where they are directed and to accustom the public to accepting restrictions on their movements.

Street closings, immensely disruptive to the city's business and psyche, are increasingly being insisted on by powerful interests, including the federal government. The main federal building in Lower Manhattan, 26 Federal Plaza, has always had security problems. It houses the FBI field office that has investigated many terror plots. It houses the Immigration and Nationalization Service. Lines of anxious immigrants with federal applications snake around the building during peak periods. In late 2000, the General Service Administration installed barriers and posts and hired additional guards. Some federal officials are now urging the closing-off of Broadway(the main artery downtown), Centre Street (which leads to the Brooklyn Bridge), and Worth Street.

The public has very limited access now to most government buildings in New York. The new federal courthouse, for example, is blocked by a huge hydraulic truck barrier. Police headquarters, never really accessible since it was built during the Lindsay administration, has a 24-hour guard out front. Visitors must go through three checkpoints, carrying a government-issued photo I.D.

One bright spot on this glum governmental scene, however, is City Hall, which Mayor Bloomberg has re-opened to political events. press conferences and peaceful gatherings . They are again allowed on the steps of City Hall, as they had been from the early 19th century until the Giuliani administration.

And it's not just public buildings that have internal checkpoints and external barriers. Ugly concrete bolsters are being installed in front of otherwise handsome new buildings, like the Jewish Community Center on the West Side. The elegant glass, iron, and greystone building would be a beauty, if its exterior were not marred by white and yellow blocks of junky concrete, looking as if a sloppy contractor forgot to take them home.


Much as it will seek to protect itself, New York will only be safe insofar as others protect it as well. The plane that flew into the World Trade Center took off from Logan Airport in Boston, an airport that the Federal Aviation Administration has repeatedly cited for safety violations. Everyone wants whatever went wrong at Logan Airport in Boston fixed. But what was it that failed? And will the FAA's new proposals and restrictions on passengers work? Are tactics like the FAA's ban on steak knives in first class or the abolition of curbside checking effective? Certainly neither would have prevented the hijackings.

Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, argues that aviation security is a law enforcement function, and belongs with a law enforcement agency, not the FAA. Law enforcement officials would be far less ready to listen to concerns about the weight of new cockpit doors (additional weight would affect the cost of every flight), or the extra costs of sky marshals or deputized pilots.

New York has an acute interest in these issues, and in all matters having to do with its air space. In May the FAA announced that its ban on flights by small planes and helicopters over key American cities had been lifted. Planes could return to flying under visual flight rules without asking permission to enter a city's airspace, or identifying themselves to FAA regional or local controllers.

Even before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, local officials had often been at odds with the FAA, which maintains that all small aircraft should be able to fly low, with no restrictions, over major cities and national monuments. This is in part because the FAA's role is to promote the aviation industry Ă‘not police or regulate it beyond preventing collisions. They argue that flying freely anywhere in the country is a basic American right and expectation. As an FAA representative said at a community meeting in Manhattan, the same rules that apply over Kansas wheat fields apply to flying over New York City.

There is little doubt but that Al Qaeda intends to use small planes to attack more targets. Plans to pack a corporate jet with explosives were found in a German apartment rented by suspected Al Qaeda terrorists. Cell members in the U.S. trained at flight schools, obtained small-plane pilot licenses, and sought to rent crop dusters. The FBI renewed its warning about air attacks in early July.

Even the FAA concedes that some landmarks may be vulnerable. Deferring to its sister federal agency, the National Park Service, the FAA in late June banned flights near the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the St. Louis Gateway Arch during the July 4 holidays. The Statue of Liberty ban will continue through September 30, and forbids any plane from flying below 1,500 feet within a 6,000-foot radius of the statue.

These bans may be comforting to some, but they are not significant security measures because the FAA has no air police to stop a plane violating its rules. It can only suspend the pilot's license and levy a fine. The NYPD, though it has an aviation unit and some older helicopters, has no official enforcement role or authority in the air over the city.

Anyone with a license can rent a plane at many of the approximately 2000 general aviation airfields within a short flight of New York. Few of these have more than the most minimal security. Pilot licenses, which are easily forged and carry no photos, are seldom verified. Planes, which can fly into these fields from almost anywhere in the US, are not inspected before departure. Helicopters do not even need an airport for departureÑand in any case can stop anywhere to pick up anything.

So long as New York's skies are open, the city is undefended. An attacker boarding an airplane at LaGuardia faces far more government inspection than one flying a plane at 700 feet across 42nd Street.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.

Feminist Summit

Rape was in the news recently in a couple of horrendous stories from Pakistan. But the crime should be making some headlines here as well. That, clearly, was the view of the people who attended a Women's Leadership Summit, convened last month by the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, which is the largest NOW chapter in the nation. The summit was intended to determine what specific issues are of urgent concern to women, and several at the top were connected to rape.

According to Matthea Marquart, NOW's NYC chapter president, some recent court decisions have resulted in victims not being permitted to sue for pain and suffering when they were raped in the workplace (including one at Macys); they could only apply for workers compensation.

There is also a tremendous backlog of DNA evidence in rape cases, in the thousands. Former state chapter chair Noreen Connell said that there was a backlog of 16,000 evidence samples that had not been analyzed and that the New York Police Department now says that number is down to 6,000. "Some hospitals are not collecting the evidence correctly," she said, "and when the police get to it a year later, it's not usable." NOW is among the groups pushing for the Debbie Smith Act in Congress, named for a rape survivor whose perpetrator was eventually found to be in jail for a subsequent offense. It would provide training, funding, and uniform standards for sexual assault cases and rape kits. Senator Charles Schumer is sponsor of the alternate Sexual Assault Justice Act that would fund the processing of DNA samples from rape kits.

Connell also cited the way women who call the police about being battered often get their children taken away and put into foster care because they allowed their children to witness the abuse. "She is the victim and she is doubly victimized," Connell said. "These women are placed in homeless shelters for singles and are not able to get their kids out of foster care. They can't get housing for families because they have open 'abuse' cases," a Catch 22 if there ever was one. In the federal Nicholson v. Williams case, New York Judge Jack Weinstein ruled in March that the city had to stop prosecuting battered mothers for child abuse. The women's group is focusing on how to get the city to follow through on the ruling.

Harriet Lessel, president of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, talked to the group about the need for emergency contraception at city hospitals. State law only requires the hospitals to make sure that victims can get the timely drug within a certain amount of time, but does not require the hospitals to distribute it themselves. The state Department of Health could issue such a guideline under the Sexual Assault Reform Act of 2001. But legislation is being pushed by the New York chapter of National Abortion Rights Action League to mandate such treatment.

Finally, the summit took up the continued backlog of cases at the city and state human rights commissions. The state chapter of the National Organization for Women has had a lawsuit against the State Division for Human Rights for more than a decade now to get them to clear up its backlog. The lead attorney in that case, David Raff, has authored a bill for the state legislature to commit necessary resources to the division, but given the millions of dollars it would require, no hope is given for its passage in this economic downturn.

Just as alarming as the backlog, said Connell, is the fact that more and more businesses are forcing their employees to sign statements pledging not to invoke civil rights laws as a condition of employment. The courts have upheld these contracts, wherein the employee promises to abide by arbitration rather than suing. "About 40 percent of large law firms now have them," she said. "It makes the human rights laws unenforceable." There is a Civil Rights Protection Act in Congress to ban these contracts, but "it won't see the light of day in the Republican House," said Connell. Marquart is working with the City Council's Select Committee on Civil Rights to see if something can be passed on the local level to counteract this trend.

Missing Commissioners

Mayor Bloomberg has yet to make a single appointment to the City Commission on Human Rights other than its paid chair, Patricia Gatling. That leaves twelve of fifteen unpaid commissionerships vacant and just three available-the minimum number required to make final decisions on cases.

Cliff Mulqueen, the Deputy Commissioner of the Law Enforcement Bureau, said, "The commissioners only become involved if a case goes to trial and the administrative judge makes a decision and orders a penalty. That hasn't happened in a while. They weren't doing a lot of work on these cases during the Giuliani administration." He said that there were about three cases that made it all the way up the line in the last three years and twenty since 1994, according to General Counsel Randy Wills who also served under the previous mayor.

Avery Mehlman, also a deputy for law enforcement, said that thousands of complaints have been resolved by settlement or by a finding of no probable cause. Gatling's original goal was to get the backlog of 4,500 complaints resolved by May, but so far 2,000 have been reviewed. Some are being referred for trial. And many of those that have been denied probable cause are appealing back to Commissioner Gatling. If she turns the complainants down, they can appeal to the courts.

The mayor's press office did not return calls for comment on why Bloomberg has failed to appoint new commissioners. The administration, after budgeting for a few new staff to work on the backlog, is now asking for cuts (along with every other agency).

The Convoluted State Human Rights Law

I made an error in my July column, leaving the category of "disability" out of the list of criteria in which discrimination is illegal in the state of New York. Thanks to disability activists, I found my mistake.

The state law posted in the Division of Human Rights web site leaves out disability and some other protected categories in its first listing of them. "The opportunity to obtain employment without discrimination because of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex or marital status is hereby recognized as and declared to be a civil right," it says. You have to scroll well down the page to find that the disabled are also covered in employment. Age is also treated that way. (No matter how far down you scroll, you won't find the category of "sexual orientation." The State Senate ended its session once again without passing the state gay and lesbian rights bill that has passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly overwhelmingly for the past decade, despite the fact that Governor George Pataki said he would do "all in his power" to pass the bill this year.)

The City Commission on Human Rights does not have the same problem as the state commission. When the city's law is amended, the entire law is rewritten to include new categories (such as "gender identity" passed this year). The city web site also includes a plain language version of the law that is user-friendly for potential complainants.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.

The State and Human Rights

City officials complain constantly that they cannot do what they need to do because of constraints imposed by Albany or due to a lack of legislation that only the state legislature can pass. But in the area of civil rights, New York City has gone far beyond what Albany has been willing to do -- and Albany is being pushed to go further. Funding for the state Division of Human Rights is shaping up to be an issue in this yearês gubernatorial campaign.

The New York State Human Rights Law forbids discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations on the bases of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex or marital status. The city law is much broader. It covers actual or perceived race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation (including gender identity or expression), disability (including HIV/AIDS), status as victim of domestic violence, arrest or conviction record, and marital status. When cities around the state enact their own human rights laws, they must cover at least as much as the state covers but they may go further, as New York City has.

There have been many attempts to expand the coverage of the state human rights law, including an Assembly bill to forbid discrimination on the bases of height or weight (something the city does not cover but other jurisdictions do). Even a Children's Bill of Rights has been proposed for the state constitution. But these efforts have gone nowhere.

Given all the coverage that already exists in the state and city human rights laws, many civil rights groups and political leaders are focused on enforcement and implementation. In the city, Patricia Gatling, the new Human Rights Commissioner, has zeroed in on reducing the backlog of cases. Her initial goal of addressing all back cases by May has been extended to September, but she says that 1,750 complaints have been reviewed and 1,200 closed since she came on board this year. After losing 75 percent of its staff during the Giuliani years, the commission is slowly coming back.

The backlog of cases at the state level has emerged as an issue in this year's race for governor. The National Organization for Women's state chapter has had a lawsuit against the governor and the State Division of Human Rights since Mario Cuomo was governor over the inadequate funding for the division and the backlog of more than 10,000 cases. Complainants often wait seven to ten years before their cases are heard, if they are heard at all. The slow pace of the lawsuit led the women's group to support legislation to overhaul the division, but it was one of the many bills that died in Albany.

Comptroller H. Carl McCall served as State Commissioner for Human Rights under Governor Cuomo. Now that he is running for governor, he is making an issue of the breakdown of the state human rights agency, as is his Democratic rival, Andrew Cuomo. Both called for tripling the funding for the agency last January (from $12.7 million to $37 million), though Pataki's increase was about $35,000

For more than 30 years, legislators from the city have fought a losing battle to add sexual orientation to the state law. Led by out lesbian Assembly Member Deborah Glick (D-Greenwich Village), that bill has passed the Assembly by increasingly lopsided margins for more than ten years. But the Republican-controlled Senate has refused even to vote on it. Governor George Pataki pledged last year to "do all in my power" to pass the state gay and lesbian rights bill. His failure to produce is being made an issue by the Democratic candidates for governor, who are also pushing for a Vermont-style civil union bill that Pataki does not support.

The city has taken steps to extend rights to domestic partners in ways that the state has yet to. New York City established a domestic partners registry under Mayor David Dinkins in 1993 and since then 17,140 partners have signed up at the City Clerk's office, 31 percent of them in same-sex couples. City workers get domestic partner health benefits. No such registry exists at the state level, but some state employees do get domestic partner benefits.

The state does have jurisdiction over the domestic relations law and the State Health Department has interpreted the gender-neutral law nevertheless to limit marriage to one man and one woman. There was a lawsuit filed in New Jersey to obtain marriage licenses for gay couples, but there is no such active legal case in New York. City Council Member Alan Gerson is preparing a resolution for the City Council to call upon the state to recognize same-sex marriages. State Senator Tom Duane has had a gay marriage bill in the Senate since last year and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried announced June 30 that he will introduce a companion bill to Duane's in the Assembly.

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.

The Rights Of Same-Sex Partners

Larry Courtney lost his partner, Eugene Clark, in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center - and then was forced to move out of the apartment in Manhattan they had shared for 14 years. Courtney could not afford to stay there on a single salary, and few of the agencies that are supposed to help in just such a situation, such as Social Security, recognized the relationship. He has sued the Workers Compensation Board for the $20,000 a year to which a spouse is entitled under such circumstances. "Not having a marriage license was not our fault," he said. Only the State Crime Victims Board offered aid, and then only under an emergency executive order issued by the governor in the wake of the attack.

"After September 11, many domestic partners were shocked and angry to learn that we were without any real protection under the law," Fire Captain Brenda Berkman testified at a recent City Council hearing on the issue. "In fact, we found that the state and city, along with private unions and charities, were denying benefits to the domestic partners of the city's emergency service workers killed trying to save others at the World Trade Center, as if our relationships meant nothing.

"Although I have been paying my pension contributions and risking my life as a firefighter for twenty years, my partner has no entitlement to my line-of-duty benefits."

Like AIDS before it, the tragedy of September 11 has brought renewed attention to the issue of the rights of unmarried "domestic partners."

"People lost their apartments, were unable to pay their bills, lost control of their partnerĂŤs estates, or simply had insult added to their grief," writes Councilmember Christine Quinn (See "Hard Lessons Learned").

Many city businesses already give domestic partner benefits to their employees, but are resistant to government mandates to provide them. Some unions neither offer them nor fight for them. And powerful religious groups in New York oppose any attempt to expand these benefits and thus to redefine what constitutes a legal couple. But the aftermath of the attacks has revived interest in the debate, and made many elected officials in New York City express more sympathy, even if it is not clear what the city government collectively can or is willing to do.

The History of Domestic Partner Benefits

New York City started recognizing domestic partners, gay and straight, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch issued an executive order granting them hospital visitation rights and death leave. Rudy Giuliani, running for mayor, opposed Koch's move, saying it would cost the city too much. Koch called Giuliani's position "heartless" -- and David Dinkins won the election.

Early in his term, Dinkins set up a domestic partners registry at the City Clerk's office, allowing same-sex couples who lived together and could demonstrate some interdependence, to sign up for a certificate at the City Clerk's office. It did not carry much weight within government at first, but has proved useful for the many corporations in the city, from Merrill Lynch to Disney, that have since begun providing domestic partner benefits to their employees.

But Dinkins, in the midst of one of the city's many budget crises, resisted fulfilling a campaign promise to settle a suit by gay teachers demanding health benefits for their partners. It took him until shortly before Election Day in 1993 to settle that suit, making the domestic partners of all city employees eligible for health benefits. Dinkins, however, lost his re-election bid a few days later, and the winner Giuliani had no commitment to furthering domestic partner rights.

When Giuliani ran for re-election in 1997, he got the Empire State Pride Agenda, the lesbian and gay lobby group, to remain neutral in his race with Democratic candidate Ruth Messinger, a veteran supporter of gay causes, by promising to support a domestic partners bill in the City Council. The 1998 bill that was passed codified the terms of the 1993 court settlement into law, and went through the City Code adding the term "domestic partner" wherever "spouse" appeared. But to Thomas K. Duane, then on the Council and now a State Senator, the changes did not go far enough. He suggested, and would still like to see, the city commit to providing domestic partner benefits to its city employees that are equal to those for employees in marriages - by providing those benefits that the state and federal governments give to married couples but not to gay couples.

On the Table Again

Lambda Legal Defense is representing Larry Courtney and Bill Valentine, who lost his partner Joseph Lopes in the American Airlines crash in Belle Harbor on November 12, before the state Workers Compensation Board. Lambda attorney Adam Aronson said that the governor could do an executive order to open up workers compensation to domestic partners as he did for the Crime Victims Board. Another group called Marriage Equality is working to get New York State to recognize same-sex marriages through litigation or a new law if necessary--something opposed by both Governor George Pataki and his Democratic rivals, Comptroller Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo. The two Democrats, unlike Pataki, support a Vermont-like civil union law for New York, reflecting an official position of the state Democratic Party.

But what is New York City's role in an area that many believe only the state can resolve?

The City Clerk's office holds that it cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples without the state's permission. That thesis has never been tested, and there is some evidence the city government is relieved to pass the buck to the state: While mayors like Willie Brown of San Francisco and Ken Livingstone of London have conducted union ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples, no New York mayor has ever done so.

Lambda's Aronson believes there is a case to be made for Duane's proposal that the city cover marriage benefits for gay couples that the state and federal governments will not. "We have a non-discrimination law in the city on the basis of sexual orientation that is expansive and inclusive," Lambda's Aronson said. "It says it will cover instances of discrimination where a disparate impact can be demonstrated. A policy that discriminates on the basis of marriage can have a disparate impact." This was shown in Lambda's case against Yeshiva University that denied married housing to domestic partners. The Court of Appeals ruled for Lambda's client in Levin v. Yeshiva because she had no opportunity to marry her same-sex partner and was thus deprived of a service.

The City Council sounds poised to do whatever it can make expand domestic partner rights. "It is unacceptable," said Alan Gerson at the recent hearing "to have the city's post-9/11 unity torn asunder by bureaucratic rulings against domestic partners. We are determined that all domestic partnerships, same-sex or heterosexual, be treated fairly, equally and equitably."

Councilmember Christine Quinn, Duane's successor, concurs. "The Speaker [Gifford Miller] and lawyers to the council now want the most comprehensive domestic partners legislation we can have," which is a shift from the time when Peter Vallone was Speaker of the City Council On the other hand, the other open lesbian on the council, Margarita Lopez, has apologized in public hearings to domestic partner survivors of 9/11 who have been denied benefits, but she is not sure how much the city can do. The council's legal staff, she said, has convinced her that some benefits could only be resolved in collective bargaining. "I've learned that our capacity to affect issues is very limited in the Council unless the Assembly and Senate give us permission," she said. But she is hopeful that the council can fashion some solutions.

The Opposition

The council hearings on domestic partner issues post-9/11 have not attracted the anti-gay opponents who used to come out en masse in the 1970s and 1980s to fight the lesbian and gay rights bill, which finally passed in 1986. The city transgender rights bill, adding "gender identity and expression" to the human rights law, passed in a veritable lovefest, with no one testifying against it and only a handful of council members voting no on it.

But Councilmember Quinn plans next month to introduce a bill that would require businesses and non-profit agencies that have contracts with the city to provide domestic partner benefits. This is sure to be controversial.

Alair Townsend, publisher of Crain's New York Business, has not yet taken an official editorial position on the contractor's bill, but did say that measure's like this were "more about making council members feeling good," than enacting sound public policy.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already said he is not in favor of Quinn's bill. The mayor wants an exception for religious groups. Indeed, opposition is almost sure to come from some religious groups, which have opposed such measures in the past, as an attack on the traditional family and an effort to weaken marriage.

If those groups that are contractors with the city are required to provide domestic partner benefits, some may comply, others will lose their contracts, and some may choose to sue. The San Francisco domestic partners contractors' law has stood up to court challenges from an airline association. The Catholic Archdiocese there found a way to comply. But the Salvation Army stopped taking city money, forced to by the national office, though the local Salvation Army had offered to comply with the law.


The city unions have not pushed domestic partners issues. Joseph Mancini of the Police Benevolent Association said that domestic partner survivors are not included in help provided by the union under its Widows and Children Fund.

Tom Ryan, president of Fire Fighters Lesbian and Gay/Emergency Medical Services ( known as "Fire-Flag/EMS") said he has been asking the firefighter's union "to put a bill forward to the state that would include everybody," including domestic partners. "I'm not worried about terrorism," the out gay firefighter said, "I'm worried about my loved ones not being taken care of if I die."

A Change?

Why is there so much talk and movement around these issues now? "After September 11," said Lambda's Aronson, "Americans started thinking of issues as Americans, no longer as black, white, gay, lesbian. For the first time, many heterosexual people understood in a profound way how the law discriminates against gay people and couples." Most of these injustices, he said, could be solved if the state recognized the marriages of same-sex couples.

Richard Haymes of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project told a recent state hearing on these issues at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center, "In the aftermath of September 11th, the inequities were compounded and highly magnified. And perhaps because there had never before been such a huge critical mass of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals affected at one time, we at the Anti-Violence Project were heightened in our resolve to ensure the victims of the terrorist attack from our community would not fall through the cracks." Though Haymes's group and the gay lobby Empire State Pride Agenda got some government action and set up a private fund to pay some of what officialdom would not, "in many regards, our efforts were in vain," he said.

The next battles in the conflict over how many rights same-sex couples should have will be played out in City Hall several times before this year is out.


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