Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

The Citizen


Is this the year the sleeping giant awakes?

The giant in question is the nation's growing Latino vote. At a forum at the New School last week participants discussed what role Latinos, Asians and other immigrants and their children might play in this year's election and in elections to come.

Overall, Latinos account for about 7.9 percent of U.S. voters and 9.3 percent in New York State. While New York tends to be largely ignored in presidential elections -- both parties see it as a Democratic stronghold -- Latinos could make a big difference in more hotly contested states, such as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, according to statistics compiled by Feet in Two Worlds, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

Like other Americans, Latinos will go to the polls in November concerned about the economy, health care and an array of other issues, but last week's speakers agreed that the immigration debate will play a major role as well.

"Immigration is a very personal matter," said Pilar Morrera of La OpiniĂłn, a leading Spanish-language daily, an issue that immediately affects Latinos and their families.

Latinos do not vote in the same numbers as other Americans, but concerns about immigration have motivated more who are naturalized citizens to register, according to Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. These people are voting "out of anger and out of fear and a feeling that if they register to vote, it's an act of self defense," Vargas said. He predicted Latino participation would continue to increase. "You now have a new generation of Latino youth who are coming of age at a very politicized time," he said.

Asian Americans, who represent a far smaller percentage of the population than Latinos, are more likely to be overlooked in campaigns, said Glenn Magpantay, staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. However, he said they can still make a difference and may have played a key role in Virginia Democrat James Webb's defeat of Republican George Allen in the 2006 Senate race -- after Allen was captured on video calling an Indian American man a "macaca."

Whatever happens this year, immigrants stand to have increasing influence in American politics, said reporter Aswini Anburajan. "It will build election cycle after election cycle," she said. Many immigrants maybe disappointed if Barack Obama does not win this year, she continued, "but they're not going to stop voting.... You're building a new political class ... and that's going to make a difference in the future."

This months' Citizen assesses the role immigration issues have played -- or more accurately, not played - in the campaign so far and looks at the race for the White House from the perspectives of several immigrant groups. Getting away from politics, we examine the plight of homeless Mexican immigrants, take a view at being Sikh in Queens and describe efforts to help the elderly in Brighton Beach. These and other stories from the Spanish, Russian, Polish, Chinese and Korean language press via our partner, Voices That Must Be Heard.


collage of election materials
Gotham Gazette

GOP Convention Stays Silent on Immigration
from Nowy Dziennik / Polish Daily News
John McCain has said that immigrants are "God's children," but the convention that nominated him offered no real discussion on immigrants or immigration reform.

Nothing Known About Palin's Views on Immigration
from El Diario/La Prensa
The Alaska governor and Republican candidate for vice president seems never to have said anything regarding the controversial issue, and neither she nor Sen. John McCain's campaign office responded to questions for information about what her positions might be.

The Republican Convention Through Muslim Eyes
from Iran Times
The rhetoric at the GOP gathering in St. Paul, with its repeated references to Islamic terrorism and radical Islam, demonized millions of law-abiding Muslim Americans, writes award-winning journalist Shahed Amanullah.

An Arab-American View of the Democratic Convention
from Aramaica
With 40 Arab Americans participating as members of convention standing committees or as delegates, Arab Americans hope to play a role in this year's presidential campaign.

American Muslims in Denver
from Bangla Patrika
This year's Democratic Convention in Denver drew a record number of Muslim delegates - 45 - and attracted many Islamic organizations

The View from St. Paul
from Vecherniy New York
A Jewish immigrant from the former Soviet Union visits the Republican National Convention where he watches political demonstrations and interviews Russian senior citizens about who they plan to vote for in November.

African Immigrants Worry About a McCain Administration
from African Abroad
Africans in New York City fear that, as president, Sen. John McCain might involve the U.S. in other wars and divert economic resources needed to fix problems here.

Increasing the Korean Vote
from Korea Times New York
Involvement by Korean voters in this year's presidential campaign is at an all-time-high this year, but many more Koreans need to register and exercise their right to vote.

A Shift in Flushing
from Sing Tao Daily
In local politics, Grace Meng's defeat of incumbent State Assemblymember Ellen Young in the Democratic primary could spell a change in John Liu's domination of Flushing politics.

Other Stories:

Sikh Students Face Harassment, Bullying in Schools
from Indian Express
A recent report has found that more than 60 percent of the 400 Sikh students surveyed suffered harassment or violence in city schools. Several students and their parents talk about their experiences.

Willets Point Workers Fight for their Businesses
from El Correo de Queens
People who work or own businesses in this area of Queens slated for massive redevelopment are coming together to protect their economic well-being and resist being pushed out of the district.

Homelessness Increases Among Mexican Immigrants
from Diario de Mexico
Unable to find work, some undocumented Mexicans immigrants recently arrived in New York City are sleeping in the streets and struggling to find food.

City's Bodegas Struggle to Survive
from Hoy
The high costs of goods and produce, along with increasing rent and fuel bills, creates difficulties for New York's small neighborhood stores.

Williamsburg Sees Sharp Rise in Gang Activity
from Super Express
With Latino gang activity on the rise, the 90th precinct, which covers the neighborhood, has recorded the highest increase in criminal activity in the city.

Program Aids Elderly in Brighton Beach
from Novoye Russkoye Slovo
As some of the older people in the Brooklyn neighborhood struggle to pay higher prices on a fixed income, the Shorefront Jewish Community Council helps more than 1,000 people a month.

A New Push to Let Non-Citizens Vote

Photo of protesters wearing 'Voiceless' masks.
Photo Jean Marc Grambert / ivotenyc.org.

Earlier this month, dozens of protesters, many wearing facemasks emblazoned with the word "Voiceless," gathered on the steps of City Hall. Organized by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, they demanded that non-citizens who are legal residents be allowed to vote in municipal elections. They said they deserve political representation because they are law-abiding New Yorkers.

This is hardly a new subject in the New York City public debate. For many years, pro-immigrant groups here have called for allowing non-citizens to vote but to no avail. Now, with candidates prepared for the 2009 mayoral and City Council elections, the campaign for non-citizen voting right has gotten a new burst of energy and is making a comeback. This time, the advocates are hopeful.

"There are going to be big elections in New York City in 2009, so we are latching on this big event to bring more attention to this issue," said David Andersson, the rally's main organizer. "It is a fantastic time for us." He added that many City Council members will have to leave office at the end of next year, and if non-=citizen voting is not a reality by then, he hopes to garner more support from the new members.

Abut half a dozen candidates running for City Council, have expressed support for the bill, including Julissa Ferreras of District 21 in Queens, Mark Levine of District 7 in Manhattan, Brad Lander of District 39 in Brooklyn, Ydanis Rodriguez of District 10 in Manhattan and Daniel Dromm of District 25 in Queens.

"I believe anyone who pays taxes should be able to vote," said Dromm, a Democrat. "That's the principal our country was founded on. It's a basic civil right. Voter participation is the basis for our democracy."

Taxation without Representation

According to the coalition, New York City is now home to more than 1.3 million immigrants of voting age who are not yet citizens. The organizers said these city residents have no political representation but remain subject to all the laws that citizens must observe, pay taxes and make substantial contributions to New York's economic and cultural life.

The coalition also cited the old "No taxation without representation" rationale. "Why should immigrants pay taxes when they have no say in how their hard-earned money is spent?" read one of the signs held by protestors. According to a 2007 report by Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants are responsible for $229 billion in economic output in New York State and account for 22.4 percent of the state's gross domestic product, a share slightly larger than their percentage of the population.

Similar bills that would allow non-citizens to vote in local elections have been introduced in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Many states, including California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado, also are reviewing legislation that would allow long-term residents to vote.

Passing a Bill

The subject was officially brought into the public debate in 2005 when Brooklyn City Councilmember Charles Barron and nine other members introduced a bill to allow all legal residents who have lived in New York City for at least six months to vote in local and municipal elections. The bill, the Voting Rights Restoration Act or Intro 628, fell through at the end of that year.

In 2006, Barron, along with 13 other City Council members reintroduced the bill, also known as Intro 245. It is still pending in the Committee of Governmental Operations.

"They used to have legal residents who are non-citizens voting many years ago when immigrants were predominantly white," said Barron, an outspoken advocate for the African American community. "And when the complexions of the immigrants change, the policy change."

Noting legal residents can fight and die in wars for the country but cannot vote in local elections, Barron added, "I think it is racist that they can't vote. I think it is unjust that they can give up their life and they can pay taxes, but they cannot have a say in major quality-of-life issues."

A spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she does not support allowing non-citizens to vote.

Barron said this will make it hard to get the bill through City Council. "It is very difficult when the speaker doesn't support something," said Barron. "She would tell her chair that she appoints to not even have a hearing on it. And then she can kill it in the committee by getting that committee to not vote on it or vote favorably for it. .... So we got a little struggle ahead of us, but we are used to that kind of struggle."

An Old Idea

Until Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismantled the Board of Education in 2003, non-citizens were allowed to vote in community school board elections for more than three decades. Barron said even some parents who were undocumented immigrants voted in those elections.

In fact, non-citizens voted in local and national elections in many states and territories from the founding of the country until 1926. Currently, resident non-citizens can vote in several townships in Maryland and in Chicago school board elections. Globally, more than 40 countries allow their legal residents to vote in local and/or national elections, including many countries in the European Union and some in Latin America.

The Debate

Allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections could lead to greater immigrant integration and participation, according to Ron Hayduk, a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and a co-director of the Immigrant Voting Project, said non-citizen participation.

He cited the story of Guillermo Linares, the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Linares first gained a spot as a parent representative on the school board in Washington Heights before he became a citizen. He went on to become the first Dominican elected to the City Council in 1991 and was later appointed by President Bill Clinton to lead the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.

"Our policy process and outcomes would be more representative if non-citizens have access to the ballot," said Hayduk. "Elected officials would be attuned to making sure they are aware of all of their constituents' needs, and be more responsive to those and be more representative of them."

Bloomberg disagrees. He has repeatedly stated his view on this issue, saying that only citizens should be able to vote. In an e-mail message from his spokesman, Stu Loeser, the mayor affirmed his pro-immigration stance but at the same time insisted that the "right to vote is a privilege and responsibility for citizens only."

Meanwhile, a report released this month by Dr. Stanley Renshon for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports immigration control, cites statistics that it say show that, even when non-citizens can register and vote, they don't. The report also emphasizes the importance of the process of naturalization because its standard five-year wait allows the immigrants to immerse themselves in the language and culture, and develop attachment to the country.

"Each of the five elements of the naturalization process -- residency, good character, language facility, civics knowledge, and affirmation - are essential elements," wrote Renshon. "Naturalization as a requirement of citizenship and voting is not so much a series of hurdles to surmount, but an essential part of becoming American."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.


The Citizen

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/redxdress/
Photo (c) redxdress
A bakery in Brigton Beach, home to a large Russian community.

New York's immigrant community can now expect city agencies to speak their language.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has signed Executive Order 120, requiring city agencies to offer translation and interpretation services in the top six most spoken languages in New York, including Korean, French Creole and Russian.

This isn't the first attempt at beefing up language services by the Bloomberg administration, but is the broadest. In 2004, he signed an executive order to bring translation services to crime hotlines. Now, all city agencies must offer language support to those who need it. The timeline for compliance and implementation, however, has not been as explicit as the order itself.

The order would benefit the over 1.8 million New Yorkers whose primary language is not English. The New York Immigrant Coalition's executive director Chung-Wha Hong applauded Bloomberg in a press release and added that "all city residents are called on to cooperate with the city in responding to emergencies, fighting crime, and complying with myriad laws, rules, and procedures. This new policy will make this two-way communication dramatically more effective."

Elsewhere in the immigrant and ethnic press this month, we look at the crisis in vending cart licenses, Islam in the subways and undocumented workers affected by 9/11. This and more from the Polish, Spanish and Chinese-language press via our partner, Voices That Must Be Heard.

Selected Stories

Homeowners Hang on in Greenpoint
(Super Express)
While foreclosure rates climb throughout the city, Greenpoint property owners, along with those in Williamsburg, Ridgewood and Maspeth, remain relatively stable. Overall, New York City foreclosure rates, at 2,216 so far this year, are still lower than those in other urban areas such as Miami or Los Angeles.

Chronicle of Smuggling over Five Continents
(World Journal)
A Chinese man has a harrowing journey from southern China to Paris, to Cuba and Guatemala, before landing in New York. He's now ambivalent about the journey and finds it difficult to get asylum or find work.

Congressman Opposes Subway Islamic-understanding Ads
(Iran Times)
The Islamic Circle of North America is sponsoring a series of ads designed to inform subway passengers about Islam. Some 1,000 cars will carry ads that try to demystify "hot words or keywords that get thrown around a lot, but are not necessarily defined in the most proper context," says NYU's Imam Khalid Latif. Republican representative Peter King is calling for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to stop the month-long campaign, scheduled to run during Ramadan this September.

Latina Dayworkers Hurt by Economy
(El Diario)
It's getting harder for many women day laborers to find work in Manhattan's informal garment district economy. For years, the corner of 37th Street and 8th Avenue was a hub for those looking for work as clothing pressers, in warehouses and nearby factories. "The situation has gotten worse. It was easier to get hired before," one woman says.

Street Vendors Get a Little Support
(Norwood News)
A new Fordam-based group, VAMOS Unidos, is helping street vendors negotiate permits. It's tough to get a food vending permit and licenses. Food vending permits are capped at 4,100, and it's estimated that thousands - potentially even 15,000 - food vendors operate without one. VAMOS is trying to increase the number of legal permits in the city.

A Thriving Black Market for Food Vendor Licenses (El Diario)
Summer brings street food to New York City. And food vendors are fighting - and paying - to deliver it. Most vendors don't own their own permits, and often rent them illegally for two year terms at $4,000 to $6,000. "The guy who's behind the cart, who pays taxes and has a vendor's license, he's the one who should have the permit, not just get a 40 percent cut," lamented one Ecuadorean vendor.

Latinos Effected by 9/11 Not Receiving Adequate Care
(Latin Week)
Thousands of New York Latinos worked in the lower Manhattan region and participated in Ground Zero cleanup. Many are now voicing complaints about receiving inadequate equipment and protection. Many are undocumented, and find it difficult to access services.

Budget Cuts to Senior Centers Hard for Older Latinos
(Latin Week)
Senior centers, such as Casita Maria in East Harlem, serve as both community hubs and social service networks for the Latino community. With budget cuts of over $1 million, centers are cutting back on caseworkers and hot lunches. By replacing hot lunches with home-delivered frozen meals, Casita Maria's Program Director Maria Rivera is afraid that they are cutting off important emotional and social support for the seniors. "It's more than about giving them services. It's to love and understand them," she said.


English Learners Left Behind

photo by Ann
Photo (c) Pictures by Ann

In a city where more than 170 languages are spoken and over a third of residents are foreign-born, scores of New York public school students struggle to learn English. They are known as English-language learners (ELLs), students who speak a language other than English at home and score below a state-designated level of proficiency in English upon entering the New York City schools.

These students are far less likely to complete high school than English speaking students. At a press conference in early August, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in a celebratory tone that the city's four-year high school graduation has risen to 55.8 percent, while the dropout rate has decreased to 14.7 percent (This was the first time the numbers included students who graduated after summer school).

But the number for the ELLs did not even come close to that. The graduation rate for ELLs is 23.5 percent, rising by 3.1 points from 2006. It is much lower than the rate for two other underperforming groups: Hispanics have a graduation rate of 43 percent, while blacks have a rate of 47.2 percent.

By failing to help so many students graduate, the city, say critics, is "betraying a whole generation of immigrant kids who are struggling to succeed."

"The ELL graduation rates announced today are absolutely deplorable," said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "With less than a quarter of ELLs graduating after four years, it is clear that Chancellor Joel Klein and the Department of Education must work much, much harder if they are serious about ending the ELL drop-out crisis. At this point, the city needs to act by initiating large scale interventions across the system to help ELL children succeed."

ELL Programs

According to the 2006-2007 statistics from the Department of Education, 139,842 children are designated as ELLs -- about 13.4 percent of the entire public school population. Once a student is determined to be an English-language learner, the city offers the following options supervised by the Department of Education's Office ofEnglish Language Learners:

  • Transitional Bilingual Education programs include language arts and subject matter instruction in students' native languages and English as well as intensive instruction in English as a second language. As a student develops English proficiency, instruction in English increases and native language instruction decreases.
  • Dual Language programs provide half of the instruction in English and half in another language, often the native language of the majority of ELLs.
  • Freestanding English as a Second Language programs provide classes in English.

Challenges Facing Students

Among the ELLs in New York City, nearly one in five is Asian. According to a recent report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, these students are often forced into certificate or GED programs, allowed to drop out with little or no intervention, or expelled. The report offers a number of possible explanations for the low graduation rate.

It criticizes the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which focuses on performance and pressures schools to strive for high test scores. "Since the No Child Left Behind law was enacted, we have not seen significant improvements in the quality of public education," said Margaret Fung, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund's executive director, in a press release. "Instead, Asian Americans — especially immigrant, poor and non-English speaking students—have been left behind to fend for themselves in securing basic educational services."

Teaching Shortages

Another problem is the lack of qualified teachers. According to the report, New York had one certified English as a second language teacher for every 116 ELL students. That lags behind other areas, such as Washington state and Massachusetts, where there is one certified ESL teacher for every 76 and 66 English learner respectively.

Asian Pacific American staff, faculty and administrators in New York City public schools are underrepresented in New York City schools, Zeyen Wu, education policy coordinator of the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, said in testimony to the New York City Council Education Committee. This deprives students of teachers who could "serve as role models in schools and are familiar with the problems facing" Asian youth," Wu added. "They may be able to better identify potential problems before they escalate into larger issues."

Wu also called for the expansion of the Bilingual Pupil Services, a program that prepares paraprofessionals to become certified teachers in bilingual education, bilingual special education and English as a second language. The program pays for nine credits per semester at any of the participating senior colleges for an accredited program leading to a bachelor's degree and New York State certification, and is open to English speakers who are also fluent in Spanish, Chinese and Haitian-Creole.

In New York City, 66 dual language schools teach curriculum in both English and another language for the benefit of both ELLs and non-ELLs. However, there are only three Chinese language schools and one Korean language school although Chinese and Korean speaking students make up more than 12 percent of the city's English language learners.

Meanwhile, out of the 363 Transitional Bilingual Education programs, which aim to help ELLs quickly transition into English-only classrooms by teaching them subjects such as math and science in their native languages, only 34 are taught in Chinese, and two are taught in Korean. There are no other Asian-language Transitional Bilingual Education Programs.

In its effort to improve secondary education in the city, the Bloomberg administration has shut down many large high schools and opened a number of small high schools. When these schools first opened, some were allowed to exclude English language learners, as well as special education students. Recent figuresshow students learning English now account for about 12 percent of students at the small schools.

Additional Help

Things might be getting a little better. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn recently announced a $7 million fund that will be available to schools with a large number of high-need ELL students. Elementary, middle and high schools will all have an opportunity to apply for the funding, but will be required to provide a two-to-one match for their chosen programs.

In addition, a number of programs exist to help ELL students who find traditional high school setting too intimidating get a GED. These options are open to non-ELL students as well.

  • Young Adult Borough Centers have evening academic programs designed to meet the needs of high school students who might be considering dropping out because they are behind academically or because they have adult responsibilities that make attending school in the daytime difficult. The average graduation rate is 44 percent.
  • Learning to Work makes school more relevant for struggling students by supplementing academic instruction with paid internship and career counseling. In 2007, 9,809 students participated in the program citywide.
  • Transfer schools are small, academically rigorous, diploma-granting high schools designed to reengage students who have dropped out or fallen behind.




The State of Civil Liberties

photo by Catherine Coleman
The 2006 Save Darfur Rally in Central Park drew over 30,000 people.

Central Park holds a special place in the history of civil liberties and protest in New York. The Great Lawn saw many demonstrations until 2004 when the Bloomberg administration would not allow a protest against the Republican National Convention there. Mass political rallies have not been permitted on the Great Lawn since. The city, though, did encourage a Bon Jovi concert on the lawn earlier this month.

"Civil liberties are in trouble in New York," civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel said early in July. "Jon Bon Jovi is going to perform in Central Park [which he did on July 12], but when the Republican Convention was here, we were told we'd damage the grass. That's wrong. That's unconstitutional."

Protests and the Park

In 2005, the city agreed to permit to six "limited gatherings" of up to 50,000 people each year and said that during a "study period" it would allow gatherings of up to 75,000 to see how the turf fared. The city limited the Bon Jovi crowd to less than 50,000. "The settlement doesn't mean we have to have 75,000 for an event. It means that's the limit, " Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Times

But Mara Verheyden Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, one of the groups that challenged the ban on demonstrations in the park, told the paper that it has been the gathering by over half a million people and that the city has "provided no basis to show why it should be so heavily restricted."

In a footnote to this controversy, a former parks administrator told Jim Dwyer of the Times that the city had arbitrarily inflated crowd estimates for past park gatherings. Doug Blonsky, now president of the Central Park Conservancy said, "You would get in a room with a producer, with a police official and a person from park, and someone would say, 'What does it look like to you?' The producer would say, 'I need it to be higher that the last one.' That's the kind of science that went into it."

The conservancy has fought hard to keep demonstrators from using the Great Lawn, but Dwyer did not question the validity of Blonsky's supposed revelation.

The Origins of Our Liberties

The controversy over Central Park served as a backdrop to an Independence Day observance in Central Park's Strawberry Fields, featuring readings of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The group of fifty to a hundred people gathered where John Lennon is more celebrated than the Spirit of '76 to reflect on the state of civil liberties in the nation and the city.

Led by Siegel, who is running for public advocate, the left-leaning crowd commiserated about the diminution of civil rights and civil liberties but also thrilled as the familiar phrases of our founding documents were proclaimed aloud. Many in the crowd-most of whom were from groups protesting America's current war, president and Supreme Court-recited along from memory.

"We hold these truths to be self evident," Siegel read, "that all men ["and women," he added] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

"The declaration is a bold statement of freedom, equality and justice," Siegel said on the 232nd birthday of the United States. But, he added, "It has serious flaws. African Americans were only counted as three fifths of a person. Native Americans did not count at all. It took until 1920 for women to be able to vote and 1972 for 18-year olds. We're able to remedy injustices and correct them."

Tory Town

New York has always been somewhat ambivalent toward the American Revolution. When the Continental Congress decided to break from Britain in June 1776, the New York delegation abstained because it did not feel it had clear instructions from the colony's legislature. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted and then read in public in New York City by George Washington himself on July 6, 1776, a mob did pull down the statue of King George III in Bowling Green and melted it down to make bullets. But the early battles went so badly in this Tory stronghold that the British chased the rebels into New Jersey and occupied New York City until 1783.

New York did have the distinction of being the first capital of the United States and George Washington was inaugurated as the first President at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. We are the home of the Statue of Liberty, and for many years New Yorkers marked Independence Day in a quasi-religious way with public readings of the Declaration and stirring patriotic oratory.

232 Years Later

With the reading in Central Park, Siegel and his allies were trying to get back to these roots. I asked the people there how they felt their civil rights and liberties were faring in New York today.

"Dreadfully," said Susan Nickerson, an artist involved with Peace Action, a grassroots anti-war group, "but we're always fostering freedom of speech. We're trying to highlight the Constitution, which is being ignored by our president."

"A bit threatened," said Dr. Herbert Cohen, a former board member of SAGE, a group serving and advocating for older gays and lesbians. Cohen, who has been together with his partner, Daniel Cook, a retired librarian, for almost 47 years, said, "I have to write my will peculiarly because we can't get married in New York." He said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who successfully appealed a court order that would have let gay couples obtain marriage licenses "has not been helpful with that, though I like other things he's done."

Actor Curzon Dobell of Brooklyn expressed qualified support for Bloomberg. I haven't sensed civil liberties challenged on a daily basis," Dobell said. "At a local level, I'm more comfortable with Bloomberg in charge that I was with Giuliani when I felt infringed upon by his obsession with managing the most minute details like hot dog vendors. I felt my personal space threatened."

Calling the Constitution "a living guide to how we should run our government," State Senator Bill Perkins, Democrat of Harlem, cited a number of civil rights concerns from Columbia University's threatened use of eminent domain in West Harlem to the plight of the undocumented immigrants. "We need an active citizenry so we don't let 'them' do what they do in our name," he said.

Joe Friendly, who does the "Truth for a Change" cable show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, applauded his freedom here. "It's amazing that I've been left alone by the government," he said.

Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) of the Church of Stop Shopping a fixture at civil rights demonstrations, said he is not left alone. He said he has been arrested 50 or 60 times for preaching his anti-materialist message inside big box stores such as Wall-Mart. At a recent rally in Union Square, he had his bullhorn confiscated "even though it has one-tenth the decibels of the average screech of a garbage truck," he said.

"These laws [restricting demonstrations] are not passed by the City Council or the courts," Reverend Billy said. "They're written by the police and they should be challenged." He is trying to set up a defense fund for people whose civil liberties are violated.

For the record, Siegel and the other readers used Reverend Billy's bullhorn at Central Park. Even though they did not have a permit, their transgression did not attract the attention of the police, who were not visible at the gathering, or objections from passersby.

The definition of civil liberties constantly evolves. Norris Moore, is a trained alcohol and substance abuse counselor who expressed concern for "those who are 'civilly disabled' by prison records." "They have no voice and become the forgotten people. I've counseled kids in this category and they get records before they know how to make good judgments for themselves," he said a few days after the Central Park gathering. "Then they're not allowed to get back in the mainstream," Moore said citing bans that keep people with drug convictions from doing things "most of us take for granted."

"When you're trying to help people with their problems and can't meet their basic needs like housing and a job," he said, "what can you do to alleviate the situation?"

Reflecting on the Central Park reading, Siegel concluded, "Every year new words jump off the page. This year, it was the Fourteenth Amendment," about not depriving people of "life, liberty or property without due process of law," a precept he applied in decrying both city cuts in AIDS funding and the possible use of use of eminent domain by Columbia University.

"The Bloomberg administration deals with these issues differently from Giuliani," Siegel said, "but some of the results are similar in restricting our civil liberties. We have to speak out."


On the Stage

Lawrence Fishburne is winding up his one-man portrayal on Broadway of Thurgood Marshall "Thurgood," by George Stevens, Jr. It is an entertaining, enlightening and ennobling evening of storytelling as one of our leading actors interprets the great civil rights leaders who did most of his advocacy in courtrooms. Marshall successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s, ending the constitutionality of "separate but equal," and served on the United States Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.

Fishburne himself has acknowledged not knowing much more about Marshall than the fact that he was the first African American Supreme Court Justice, but with what he has learned the actor takes us on a journey through almost the entire 20th century marking the trials and triumphs of a man, a movement and a nation.

It's at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, through August 17.

And in the Community

New York Civil Liberties Union's "Broadway Stands Up for Freedom" benefit at New York University on July 21 provided another good place to take the temperature of how New Yorkers are feeling about their civil rights and liberties these days.

The event consisted mostly of the group's staunch supporters in the theatre community from Cheyenne Jackson of "Xanadu" to the cast of the upcoming revival of "Godspell" -- accompanied by composer Stephen Schwartz -- singing their best stuff.

Donna Lieberman, the longtime executive director of the group, first said, "New York is a great town for civil liberties," but then called that "a civil liberties joke because New York is anything but." Lieberman cited the police presence in city public schools -- "the fifth largest police force in the country" -- the woman left to die on the floor of King's County Hospital, the inability of gay couples to marry in this state, and the massive increase in arrests for marijuana possession that fall disproportionately on young men of color.

The good news, Lieberman said, was that the Bush administration had only 182 days left, but she then took a swipe at the Democrats, saying, "We can't trust any political party to do our thinking for us."

Actress Kathleen Chalfant read an epistle from playwright Tony Kushner. In it, he said, the affinity that show people have for civil liberties "has to do with a shared understanding of the tireless work it takes to make both art and a decent world, which is itself a work of art; ... it has to do with a common capacity for going forth into the world with joy rather than fear."

'Hair' in Central Park

The Public Theater production of "Hair" in Central Park's Delacorte Theater is a trip 41 years down memory lane to when its counter-cultural anti-war and sexual liberation messages were revolutionary. The fine cast gathered for this revival is in good voice and high (literally and figuratively) spirits, led by Jonathan Groff of "Spring Awakening" fame as Claude, the hippie from Queens who gets drafted during the Vietnam War.

But despite some brief nudity in low lighting-as opposed to the exuberant stripping that marked the original-and a few four-letter words, there is an innocence to this production. It evokes nostalgia more than anger at a nation waging unprovoked wars and sacrificing its youth, even though it inevitably calls to mind the current Iraq conflict.

The burning of draft cards, the simulated sex and the attacks on religion and government did not get a rise out of the audience-in fact the largely white, middle class and older crowd virtually all rose to applaud the show wildly at the end. Of course, nothing as risky as burning an American flag was attempted. It made me wonder what it would take to upset an audience these days.

It also made me long for the Public to take on the American crises of today the way they did with "Hair" four decades ago, only now it might have to deal with a crumbling economy and the indifference most Americans show the loss of civil liberties, not to mention the lack of theatrical imagination that leaves us entertained with revivals instead of challenged with new work.

You can see "Hair" through August 31 by getting on line outside the Delacorte early in the morning for free tickets that are distributed at 1 p.m. or going on line to enter a daily lottery for free tickets. For more information, click here.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

Language Barrier Begins to Fall at City Hospitals

photo by anuarsalleh
Photo (cc) anuarsalleh
By and large, hospital communication services have improved for patients who speak languages other than English.

A trip to the hospital poses challenges for everyone -- stressful conditions, baffling paperwork, unfamiliar terms and frightening circumstances. People with limited English proficiency often find the situation even more daunting. For years, New Yorkers who did not speak English well often had to enlist family members or friends as interpreters, sometimes requiring them to miss a day of school or work.

Now, though, that may be starting to change, according to a recent study. Since the New York State Department of Health adopted new regulations on language access and patient rights more than a year ago, hospitals have improved their communications with patients who speak limited or no English, particularly those who speak Spanish.

For the study, Make the Road New York, the New York Immigration Coalition and Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York monitored 10 private and public hospitals in New York City in late 2007 and early 2008. They focused on Spanish and Korean-speaking patients. The study found that there is significant progress with Spanish-speaking patients but communications with Korean-speaking patients remain a problem.

"It's impossible to provide quality health care unless patients can communicate their symptoms clearly, understand their diagnosis and knowingly consent to medical procedures," said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a citywide civil rights organization, in a press release. "We are impressed by the improvements at these hospitals for Spanish speakers, and we applaud them."

Researchers found that 79 percent of the patients interviewed in four hospitals had received assistance in their language from a bilingual doctor, nurse, other staff member, interpreter or telephonic interpreting service. It was a significant improvement from two years ago when only 29 percent of the patients received assistance in their native languages.

About 31 percent of all patients reported knowing they had the right to language assistance services, although that figure reached 76 percent among Spanish speakers at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center. Half of the patients at Flushing Hospital Medical Center also reported being told about the availability of free language assistance.

Services for Spanish Speakers...

The study found many language assistance services for the Spanish-speaking community. At Woodhull and Wyckoff Heights hospitals in Brooklyn, nearly nine of out 10 Spanish-speaking patients said that they were helped by Spanish-speaking staff.

At Queens Hospital Center, 84 percent of Spanish-speaking patients said they saw signs about free language assistance services. More than 50 percent reported receiving translated written materials at Elmhurst Hospital Center, while at Woodhull, 45 percent received telephonic interpretation, a service to meet the need for spontaneous, unscheduled access to an interpreter over the phone.

...But Not Koreans

The findings were not so positive for the Korean speakers. In Queens, where Koreans make up about 3 percent of the population, the two monitored hospitals -- Flushing Hospital Medical Center and Queens Hospital Center -- failed to provide sufficient language assistance. Only 25 percent of the patients interviewed received some form of hospital-based interpretation, and none received general translated written materials.

As few as 35 percent of Korean-speaking patients said they understand hospital forms and many of them rely on family members and friends to translate for them. About a third of them bring their own interpreters to hospitals.

"We found some improvements at the hospitals compared to the past, but it's not nearly enough," said Grace Lee, health advocate for Korean Community Services. "There are 80,000 Korean speakers in the city, and hospitals need to be prepared to find an interpreter."

Dozens of Languages

The New York Health and Hospitals Corp., which administers all public hospitals in New York City including Queens, Elmhurst and Woodhull, provides many hospital forms and instructions printed in 12 languages, including Korean, Chinese, French, and Russian.

According to Stefanie Trice, HHC's senior director of the Office of Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services, all the corporation's employees have access to an online database providing those forms and are trained to use them.

"It meets 98 percent of our needs but we would translate any language that is needed by request," said Trice. "Last year we had requests for interpretation in 118 languages." She added that signs offering free language assistance are printed in 16 languages and are posted everywhere in all HHC hospitals.

Public vs. Private Hospitals

Among the 10 hospitals in the study, public hospitals appear to out-perform the private ones. While 31 percent of the patients said they are informed of the free language services in public hospitals, only 23 percent of private hospital patients said they had received this information. In addition, 53 percent of the patients reported seeing signs about free language service in public hospitals, but only 39 percent saw the signs in private hospitals. Patients in public hospitals also were less likely to say they had problems making appointments and understanding their medical bills than those at private hospitals.

Some private hospitals have established special programs to serve people from immigrant communities. Beth Israel Medical Center, which was surveyed in the study, established its Asian Services Program and Latino Health Institute to address the needs of those two groups. Flushing Hospital Medical Center's psychiatry department offers Asian and South Asian behavioral programs and a Spanish-speaking program.

Despite the positive findings, the study found persistent problems. Almost half -- 48 percent -- of patients surveyed said they wanted to ask questions but could not because of language barriers. In addition, 28 percent said they did not understand follow-up instructions, and 21 percent believe that their medical care was affected by the language they speak.

What the New Rules Are

The new regulations, adopted in September, 2006, require all hospitals to develop a language assistance program to ensure all patient have access to the hospital's services.

Under the rules, hospitals must:

* Provide ongoing education and training for administrative, clinical and other employees who have direct contact with patents on providing service with regard for cultural and language differences;

* Identify the language of preference and needs of each patient upon initial visit to the hospital;

* Post signs in public locations, including at entrances, informing visitors that free language assistance is available;

* Document patient's language of preference, language needs and the acceptance or refusal of language assistance.

The language assistance should be available to patients needing emergency services within 10 minutes of when they request it and to other patients within 20 minutes. The new regulations also forbid the use of family members or friends as interpreters, unless the patient agrees to it or refuses to use the free service offered by the hospital. Hospitals should also provide translations and transcriptions of important hospital forms and instructions in any language spoken by more than 1 percent of people in the medical center's service area.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues. 

The Quest for Childcare: Few Spaces, Little Information

Photo by Katia Strieck

Many parents in New York, particularly lower-income ones, struggle to find safe, affordable childcare. Although New York City offers low-cost or free childcare, there are not enough places for every child. And even when a program is available, many immigrant families do not know how to navigate the complicated system to receive this service.

A new study by the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families makes it clear that the needs of many immigrant children are not being met. According to the 2000 Census, more than 54 percent of children in New York City live in immigrant families. The study focused on six immigrant communities in the city: Bangladeshi, Chinese, Dominican, Haitian, Korean and Russian.

More than 345,500 children under age six from low-income families qualify for city childcare programs, but the city has space for less than 100,000 youngsters. This places a particular burden on families who cannot afford private childcare, which costs $180 per week for preschool and $267 for infant care, the Coalition for Asian American Children study found.

"We want to figure out what kind of political, policy or implementation barriers are keeping immigrant families from accessing these programs," Wayne Ho, executive director of the coalition. "We want to provide a voice for immigrant parents so that they can share what their perspectives, preferences and expectations are for early childhood education."

Faced with a shortage of places, many families resort to informal care, such as unlicensed family members or someone they know socially. However, many immigrants do not even have that option since they work irregular hours. So some immigrant families send their children back to their native countries to be raised by the grandparents. In the Fujianese community, this arrangement is so common that services are available to transport babies between the U.S. and China. Most Fujianese children, though, remain here.

"About 80 percent of our children are Fujianese," said Sandy Kwok Lo, assistant director of the Childhood Henry Street Settlement Day Care Center on the Lower East Side. "Many of their parents work out of state so they entrusted their kids to the grandparents or babysitters. Their communication skills are so low and they are not well versed in American culture. ... They simply have no time or skill to monitor the children."

"Many of these children have developmental, social, and emotional issues," added Lo. "So we are starting to notice the need to refer them to special services."

Lack of Affordable Childcare

Currently there are three types of early childhood education available in the city, including the Child Care and Head Start programs, administered by the New York City Administration for Children's Service. Child Care is a subsidized program that aims to support working families and is for children up to age 13. Head Start seeks to promote school readiness and child development and is free for children ages 3 to 5 from very low-income families.

The third program is the universal pre-kindergarten program for all 4-year-olds in the city. It is offered as a half-day or full day program in local elementary schools and community-based sites, and there is no eligibility requirement or fees. However, many parents complain that their children did not get into the school of their choice -- or even a school nearby -- and that there are not enough full-day programs.

Meanwhile, according to the coalition study, from 1995 to 2005, New York City has witnessed a major increase in the use of informal care, in which an unregulated caregiver watches up to two children at home. This accompanies a decrease in enrollment in daycare centers and in family and group childcare, where licensed care providers, with an assistant, can take care of up to 12 children at their residence.

To address this, the Administration for Children's Services is launching an ambitious plan called "Project Full Enrollment" to fills all the spaces in the city's childcare programs. The average cost per child including administrative expenses is $13,000 per year. According to this plan, childcare providers will be reimbursed for the actual number of children enrolled rather than the projected budget.

Training Providers

Once enrolled in daycare, an immigrant child may confront special issues. The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families study points to a growing need for bilingual teachers and for training to help providers reach and serve the diverse immigrant communities in New York City.

"The greatest need is to hire more bilingual staff," said one of the program directors interviewed. "We saw a dramatic increase in enrollment when bilingual staff was hired, material translated and staff represented the community."

In the Henry Street Settlement Day Care Center, which serves 97 children at full capacity, Lo said she makes sure that at least there is one Chinese-speaking staff in each classroom.

Many providers, though, complain that funding from the city is not adequate to provide the kind of staff and training to better respond to the needs of immigrant families -- particularly given the high cost of real estate in the five borough. Many of them said they need more money to offer translation services.

"The biggest challenge for my program is to ensure that the materials that the parents should be reviewing are available in Chinese," said Nina Piros, director of early childhood programs at the University Settlement on the Lower East Side, which serves 149 children, most of them Chinese. "It is not something that is budgeted in terms of cost for translation. Most programs don't have it covered."

Another problem, Piros pointed out, is finding qualified staff, other than paraprofessional and entry-level employees, who are bilingual Chinese speakers.

"We had openings for a daycare center director and social worker with a MSW (Master of Social Work) last year, and we were hoping to hire bilingual Chinese speakers to reflect our community," said Piros. "But we did not get even one applicant with that kind of background."

Families' Knowledge and Awareness

Many parents, the coalition's report found, experience difficulties obtaining services because of lack of knowledge and language skills. Literacy Assistance Center's Referral Hotline, funded by New York State and New York City, was recently terminated. Now parents have to call 311, the city's official information line. To better reach the immigrant communities, the coalition study calls for more direct outreach in ethnic media. It also advocates a partnership between higher education institutions and communities to research the needs of immigrant communities and provide training for childcare providers.

"I think the biggest challenge really comes down to outreach and education," said Ho, the coalition's executive director. "Immigrant families just don't know what resources are out there. The communications that they get about services are either incorrect regarding whether undocumented immigrants or legal permanent residents can access these programs. These communications are not translated, and if they are translated, the translations are often wrong or incorrect."

That leaves many parents unsure about what to do.

"It is crazy and hard," said a Haitian parent interviewed in the report. "It would be hard to access childcare as a new immigrant even if you speak the language. It is a difficult process anyway."

Many immigrants are reluctant to take advantage of the subsidized childcare because they believe it will hurt their chances for citizenship.

"I think I would prefer to use a private Korean childcare center because it is an easier process and I don't feel comfortable disclosing personal information," said a Korean parent. "If I use any public assistance it could jeopardize my citizenship."

Clearly, though, the demand for childcare remains huge.

"I have people coming from all boroughs to ask me to help them with their applications," said Lo. "Many parents call every week. I must have 10 or 15 pages of waiting list. I don't even know how to return their calls."

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  

Puffing Up Marijuana Charges

photo by icognito
Photo (cc) Incognito

Much has been written about statistics showing that police "stop-and-frisks" in New York City are directed primarily at young African American and Latino males, but until now little attention has been paid to the link between those stops and a huge increase in marijuana arrests under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations. These arrests, like the stops, are skewed toward men of color.

Between 1997 and 2007, New York City police arrested 353,000 people for possession of marijuana -- 11 times the number arrested during the previous decade, according to Harry Levine, a professor at Queens College, and Deborah Peterson Small, executive director of Break the Chains, a national group that sees the conduct of the "war on drugs" as a civil rights issue. In their 102-page report, "Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City 1997-2007," they found that African Americans accounted for 52 percent of those arrested and Latinos for 31 percent -- even though reports have found generally higher use of the illegal weed by whites. Few other U.S. cities make marijuana arrests at these rates.

The report also found the police often tried to increase the charge from a violation to a more serious misdemeanor. The possession of seven-eighths of an ounce of pot or less is a violation punishable by a ticket and a $100 fine; a misdemeanor carries arrest and criminal charges. Police, according to the report, "typically discovered the marijuana by stopping and searching people, often by tricking and intimidating them into revealing it." That "kicked up" the charge from a violation to a misdemeanor for having marijuana "open to public view."

Creating Crime?

The misdemeanor charge means, the person arrested is handcuffed, photographed, fingerprinted, held overnight, arraigned in criminal court, plagued with permanent criminal records, and charged with the crime of having marijuana 'burning or open to public view," Nat Hentoff wrote in an article on the report.

This is "a humiliating, degrading, alienating experience," Levine and Small said. "The arrests create permanent criminal justice records which limit employment and educational opportunities."

Edward McCarthy, a legal aid supervisor in Manhattan criminal court, said he regularly sees the effects of the arrests. "Every day in New York City," McCarthy said, "many young men, mostly blacks and Hispanics, are arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. ... They are stopped by police, often as part of a stop and frisk, and are usually tricked or intimidated into taking out and handing over their contraband." Then, McCarthy continued, the young men spend the night in jail. "Legal Aid attorneys who work in the city's criminal courts see this every day," he said.

These arrests are expensive too. They "cost taxpayers up to $90 million a year," according to a release from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The report attributes the explosion of arrests partly to the police desire for overtime. Levine noted the increase began under Rudolph Giuliani' second police commissioner, Howard Safir, whose background was in narcotics. "Morale was low in the department," Levine said, and the opportunity to make these arrests at the end of a shift was seen as "a way to fix the overtime issue." One of the report's recommendations is to pay police more so that they don't resort to these kinds of arrests to pad their checks.

As mayor, Michael Bloomberg continued the arrest policy -- even though Bloomberg acknowledged during his first mayoral campaign that he had used pot and liked it, a quote that a pro-marijuana group used in an ad campaign. The mayor's office referred requests for comment for this article to the police department.

The Police Response

In response to questions on the report, Paul Browne, deputy commissioner for public information, replied with an e-mail statement he had issued when the report came out earlier this spring. "The NYCLU has used an advocate for marijuana legalization to mislead the public with absurdly inflated numbers and false claims about bias," it said. (The Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group, provided some of the funding.)

Browne disputes the report's contention that most of the people arrested had only committed a possession violation. "The higher misdemeanor number was for individuals smoking marijuana in public and/or in possession of between 25 grams to 8 ounces of marijuana, not the 'few grams' that Levine described," he said.

Browne, however, refused to respond to question for more detail on this, despite repeated e-mails and phone calls. He would not, for example, provide information on what percentage of the misdemeanor arrests involved seven eighths of an ounce or less or respond to charges that police try to "kick up" the violations to misdemeanors.

He also did not provide a racial breakdown of the arrests. On May 30, a judge ordered the NYPD to open its database on stop-and-frisk arrests to the civil liberties union and other groups seeking to see them. This does not include the marijuana arrest figures.

Browne also said the report did not mention that these arrests decreased by 25 percent between 2003 and 2006. (Browne's complete statement is on a New York Times blog.)

Pot and Public Safety

In his statement, Brown said, "Attention to marijuana and lower level crime in general has helped drive crime down."

While no one disputes the need to address crime, some officials question whether the marijuana arrests represent a sound way to accomplish that.

"We have to make sure that we continue to live in a safe city," Rep. Anthony Weiner, a likely candidate for mayor, told Gotham Gazette. "But we also have to make sure that tensions between citizens and police are reduced and that police are making smart decisions. Some of the data raises questions about whether these [arrests] have been handled correctly."

"The NYPD routinely targets young men based on their skin color and where they live. Arresting and jailing thousand for marijuana possession does not create safer streets," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Another likely mayoral candidate, City Comptroller William Thompson said he questioned "the huge disparity in the numbers of African Americans and Latinos arrested."

Maria Alvarado, a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, said that disparity "raises concerns about racially biased policing" that she said "will be addressed by the council's Public Safety and Civil Rights Committees."

(Thompson, Quinn, and Weiner, by the way, all acknowledge past use of marijuana, Thompson and Quinn both saying their last time was "a long time ago," while Weiner's was in high school.)

Council Member Peter Vallone, Jr., chair of the public safety committee and a former prosecutor, expects to hold hearings in the fall on stop-and-frisk arrests including the marijuana arrests.

"I'm not going to jump to conclusions. Some facts are manipulated, especially by groups like the NYCLU," he said. Vallone said the number of blacks and Latinos stopped is not in and of itself an indication of racial bias. He explained that most stops are based on the identifications that victims of crime give to police, which is why, for instance, the vast majority of those stopped are male even though more than half the population is female.

He did question the misdemeanor charges, however. ""The police have every right to ask you to display what you have. You're free to say no. If, however, someone displays in response to a police request, it would be improper to charge them with displaying," Vallone said.

In the meantime, the civil liberties union is developing an advocacy plan on the arrest policy. To formulate it, the group will talk with district attorneys and elected officials and try to obtain additional data, according to Jennifer Carnig, director of communications for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The report was just the first step--an effort to shine a light on this issue," she said in an e-mail.

Levine believes that public officials will have to become involved in the next step. "Police Commissioner [Ray] Kelly and other top officials at the police department, who have directed police officers to make these arrests, are unlikely to change NYPD practices until pressured to by the City Council, the State Legislature and other officials," he said.

Such changes cannot come too soon in the view of Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer and likely candidate for public advocate. These arrest "are too often unconstitutional and they have a ripple affect on the city in increased alienation and disrespect for law. We need to confront these issues sooner rather than later, including opening up discussions with the NYPD."

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

Protecting Incarcerated Gay and Lesbian Youth

youth justice

Young New Yorkers who are defined by themselves or others as LGBTQ - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their identity - are often at risk for mental, emotional and physical harm in school, at home, and in social and employment situations. They may experience discrimination, harassment, bullying and violence because of their sexuality, sexual preference and personal style. The risks these teens face in state-run residences, including correctional facilities, can be particularly daunting and dangerous.

Now the New York State Office of Children and Family Services has amended its policies to add gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation to the characteristics protected from discrimination i.e., race, creed, color, age, sex, national origin, religion, marital status, mental or physical disability. The policy is designed to protect youth from discrimination or mistreatment in all residential settings, including jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers.

"All adolescents experience developmental and social challenges," the policy statement said. "However, LGBTQ youth frequently face additional pressures based on their gender identity or sexual orientation."

As a result, the policy states, "The majority of LGBTQ youth report alcohol and drug use as common mechanisms for coping with feelings of severe isolation," additional and typical risks, which presumably must now be addressed."

What the Policy Does

Effective March 2008 all of the agency's staff and private contractors are prohibited from engaging in any form of discrimination against or harassment of youth on the basis of gender identity and expression, or sexual orientation. The policy states that discrimination or harassment of youth for these reasons by staff or other youths, "will not be tolerated."

The agency promises to retrain staff and provide information to all youth in state facilities about their rights and how to report violations. Under the policy, staff are obligated to report violations by colleagues.

The Office of Children and Family Services policy, though, goes beyond simply prohibiting discrimination. It also seeks to make these young people more comfortable with their identities.

For example, it states, "Clinicians should help LGBTQ youth explore their feelings about their gender identity or sexual orientation, along with related issues and questions, in a safe, affirming manner. Clinicians should help youth reduce co-occurring problems or distress related to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and develop their strengths, coping skills, and resiliency."

LGBTQ Decision-making Committees will have to be established in all facilities. Placement in specialized lesbian, gay of transgender units and facilities will be considered, where appropriate, for individual youth. Also, health care clinicians shall not assume any pathology simply because a youth expresses a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.

In other medical issues, those who may be taking hormones, perhaps in the context of gender reassignment, will be treated in accord with the protocols for the continuation of other prescribed medications.

Staff members have been instructed to use politically correct language and that "homosexual" or "transvestite" are "antiquated and have been replaced with "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender." Morever, each individual may choose a new first name and their preferred pronoun for self-reference. Staff must use those names and pronouns. Residents may wear undergarments of their choice regardless of gender, although uniforms are required for outer clothing. Finally, transgender youth have a right to one-person sleeping quarters and individual showers "to allow for privacy." Presumably that avoids the designation of male or female quarters.

Transgender youth may request either a male or female staff member to perform any necessary strip searches. The request "will be accommodated, whenever possible, considering staffing and safety needs."


Crime doesn't pay, but those convicted of it do. The consequences of criminal convictions have increased, at least financially, in the form of both new and increased victims' assistance fees, fines and mandatory surcharges imposed on defendants.

After every conviction in a criminal case, the defendant is informed of his or her sentence, right to appeal, possible post-incarceration supervision and how much it will cost in U.S. currency. The mandatory element of the law means that the sentencing judge has no discretion to waive or reduce the amount, even if a defendant is indigent or unable to pay. The charges can, however, be deferred until, for example, the individual is released from prison or jail.

Fees and charges apply whether the offense is a felony, misdemeanor or violation. Felons must pay a mandatory surcharge of $300. A misdemeanor conviction will cost $175, and a violation $95. In addition, both felonies and misdemeanors carry a crime victim assistance fee of $25. There are additional penal law fees imposed on sex offenders that can be as high as $1,000 and a DNA databank fee. Most vehicle and traffic law convictions, although not governed by the penal law, carry mandatory fines.

According to Alan Rosenthal, the director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, a statewide organization serving former offenders, the fees and charges "create real barriers to a person's re-entry [following incarceration]. These things are counterproductive to the goal of public safety, they cause road blocks."

Sarah From, director of public policy and communications for the Women's Prison Association points out that women who are released from prison on parole, or who may have been sentenced to probation, depend on public benefits, which are not sufficient to cover the fines and charges. Many live in shelters or face eviction, are unemployed and almost always have dependent children. Some who work may earn only $25 a day in transitional employment programs.

These women usually do not have sufficient income to come up with the money owed back to the state in the form of surcharges and fees that were, in effect, part of their sentence following guilty pleas or convictions. Those who go to court to seek additional time to pay the money owed may lose a job or a day's pay. Failure to make payments can result in parole violations meaning a return to prison.

From says the fees are often found to be "confusing, persistent and unnecessarily burdensome."

In addition, Rosenthal points out that many employers now check credit histories as well as criminal records. For people who have police records and also have been unable to pay money to the state, "it is a deadly combination." In fact, Rosenthal says, the entire scheme of financial consequences, "can lead to more crime. Here, we are using the criminal justice system not to improve public safety, but for revenue; these are measure that undermine public safety."

Many states are increasing their reliance on financial penalties, according to David Udell, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law, who is studying the issue. He cautions, "As fines increase, no one is looking at recidivism." Udell argues that "loading debt onto people who are in the system in the first place due to lack of financial resources" overlooks the risk of further crime while focusing on the revenue generated by the fees and charges.

Gov. David Paterson signed the new law in the final hours before the April budget deadline, but state legislators and monitors of criminal justice legislation say that they were unaware that the changes were pending until they were enacted. Rosenthal, for example, said, "Most of the legislature was in the dark until the last second, but obviously not Paterson, [Senate Majority Leader Joe] Bruno and [Assembly Speaker Sheldon] Silver." Citing a press release issued by the governor's office, projecting a $40 million addition to the state treasury from new and increased fees, Rosenthal said, "It's absolutely for revenue, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with public safety or crime control. It's easier than raising taxes."

Brooklyn Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries said he plans to introduce legislation that "would give judges would give judges discretion to waive fees and surcharges when it is clear there is an inability to pay. Forcing an individual into further debt will undermine reintegration into society."

In the meantime, the new financial consequences go into effect this summer.


New York's death penalty is dead. That is the opinion of legislators and Albany observers. Following the Court of Appeal's striking down of the state's capital punishment statute in People v LaValle, efforts to enact a new law have met with little support, and less enthusiasm. The Assembly Codes Committee had two new death penalty bills before it, but did not release them for consideration and vote by the entire Assembly.

Whether this reflects a growing public discomfort with capital punishment or a change for economic or moral reasons, Codes Committee Chairman Joseph Lentol told the New York Law Journal, "You just don't hear the same kind of clamoring on the landscape of America for the death penalty and that's true also for the State of New York."

Responding to the change, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, said, "I feel a sadness that it has been so hard for us to free ourselves from capital punishment."

Meanwhile, the Senate has approved a bill to restore the death penalty for defendants convicted of killing on-duty police and correction officers. Despite a vote of 36 to 23 in favor of the bill, there is no possibility of it becoming law without the Assembly.

In comments to the New York Law Journal, Senator George Maziarz, a Republican of Niagra Falls, blamed the "narrow-mindeness" of Assembly Democrats for the demise of the death penalty.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice. 




With Rallies and Protests, Many Overseas Chinese Back the Olympics


Bing Yuan is a strong supporter of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is not hard to know that because he is wearing his support on his head - a hat decorated with the five mascots of the Beijing Olympics known as Fu Was, or fortune dolls.

Draped in a big star-spangled banner, Yuan, a native of China's Jiangsu Province, is among the thousands of people who gathered in a May 4 rally on Foley Square to support the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many of his fellow demonstrators had painted the Chinese flag on their faces while other waved big flags and signs that read "One World, One Dream," the theme song for the Beijing Olympics.

With the media having focused on the anti-China protests surrounding the Olympics torch relay, the rally is among the most recent efforts by overseas Chinese in New York to counter negative publicity on the Chinese government's crackdown on Tibet's independence movement and the country's poor human rights record and involvement in Sudan. Now, with the Beijing Olympics less three months away, people on all sides of the issue are working to advance their cause.

The Separation of Sport and Politics

"Politics and sports are two separate issues," said Yuan, who has lived in New York for 14 years and works for a computer company. "I have no problem if they use a peaceful channel. ...Hijacking Olympics is absolutely wrong -- particularly the use of violence to hijack the Olympic torch."

Yuan is referring to clashes by pro-Tibet and human right activists with Olympics torch runners in Europe, Australia and Asia. Officials in San Francisco changed the torch's route there at the last minute to avoid the protestors.

"It took Western countries at least 100 years to develop their human rights," added Feng Ming Wang, a friend of Yuan's and a graduate student at Rutgers University. "China is a developing country. It needs economic resources and people's understanding to develop human rights. ... If the Western countries invest more efforts into helping us develop human rights and not just the media distortion, that will help us a lot."

The Foley Square rally, titled "Love China in New York," was spearheaded by One China NY. A group of Chinese Olympics supporters organized the group over the Internet and received donations from several Chinese business associations. It then publicized the demonstration on the Internet and with flyers in some Chinese-owned stores.

John Liu, the Taiwan-born City Council member from Flushing, Queens, helped the group secure a permit to hold the rally.

"For thousands of years, people all over the world, no matter what their governments say or do, they come together for the Olympics," said Liu as he addressed the rally. "One opportunity every four years, no matter what the politics, no matter what the principles, just come together to engage in sports."

During the rally, two small airplanes with streamers reading "Go to 2008 Beijing Olympics" and "CNN Jack Cafferty is a liar" flew overhead. They were sponsored by the Beijing Association of New York. The event also featured exhibitions on Tibetan culture and history that emphasized its growth under Chinese rule as well as Beijing's urban development.

Questioning the Coverage

Those supporting the Olympic direct some of their ire at the media. The well-attended Manhattan rally did not receive much attention from English-language press but got extensive coverage from the local Chinese-language paper, as well as Xinhua News Agency, the official news agency for China.

"You don't see any Western media here," said Joachim Stroh, who was wearing a Beijing Olympics T-shirt and resides in Brooklyn with his Chinese wife. "It is so one-sided. Now we have the Chinese people here voicing their opinions. But nobody cares."

"China's human rights issue is misunderstood," added Stroh. "Look at China. What a gigantic country this is. You come up with measures of tiny spots where you have this human rights issue. That's not to compare to what happened here in the past and compared to the sheer size of the country.

Earlier in April, 200 overseas Chinese staged a protest against CNN's Jack Cafferty who, during an April 9 broadcast of "The Situation Room," called the Chinese "goons and thugs" and referred to Chinese products as "junk." CNN said that the comment was directed at the Chinese government in the context of the Olympics.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official request for apology from Cafferty and CNN. The network responded, "CNN would like to clarify that it was not Mr. Cafferty's, nor CNN's, intent to cause offense to the Chinese people, and would apologize to anyone who has interpreted the comments in this way."

Student Protests

One of the most noticeable sights in the Foley Square rally was the presence of young Chinese graduate students. Many served as volunteers and passionately sang patriotic songs while waving the Chinese national flags.

Ling Hui Wu, a first-year graduate student from Stony Brook University on Long Island, found out about the rally online and came with her roommates.

"I want to support the Olympics and spread love and peace," said Wu, holding a placard with a peace symbol. "I have been thinking about doing this for a long time. Politics and the Olympics should be separate. Everyone should just love each other."

Yi Yang, a graduate student at Penn State University who was in New York for the weekend, came to the event with his family. He learned about the rally from a www.mitbbs.com popular Chinese-language Website for overseas Chinese.

"We had a similar event at our school but it was smaller," said Yang. "I am here to support the Olympics and protest against CNN's distorted report. Our voice needs to be heard." However, when asked about his opinion on China's human rights record and Tibet, Yang did not wish to comment.

Outside New York City, similar rallies were held on many university campuses, including Yale, Cornell, Louisiana State, Colorado State and the University of Washington.

Turmoil Over Tibet

For their part, Tibetans and their supporters in New York argue that it is the Chinese government that is using the Olympics for political advantage. Tenzin Dorjee, deputy director of the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet, has participated protests of the torch relay in Greece, Paris and San Francisco. He was at the rally in Foley Square and was greeted by insults when he tried to distribute flyers there.

"The Chinese government is using the Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize its occupation of Tibet, said Dorjee, who is of Tibetan descent and was born in India. "Right now with the global spotlight on China, Tibetans and their supporters around the world are speaking out to show Chinese leaders that until Tibet is free, the Chinese government will never get the acceptance that it so desperately seeks."

"For us Tibetans, our basic rights have been denied. It has been extremely painful," he added. "But now when the Chinese government is seeking international acceptance and glory, suddenly we have an influence to deny that. When we do that, the Chinese government is realizing that it is also painful to not get what they want."

Tsomo Tsomo, a Tibetan college student in New York, was among the hundreds of protesters outside the United Nations headquarters in early April. She said Tibetans must protest now while the world has its gaze on China because of the Olympics.

"China absolutely does not deserve to host the Olympics," Tsomo told the News Hour. "Its now or never for us."

Some overseas Chinese are sympathetic to such arguments. "I feel like the Olympics shouldn't be in China because of Tibet," Kim Chen, a native of Fujian Province and a sales clerk in Flushing, told the New York Times. "I feel the protesters should be protesting."

"The Olympics is just a game. And you cannot separate politics from the Olympics, despite your wishes," wrote Chinese-American blogger Jen-hao Liu in a New York Times online forum. "Let's just boycott the whole thing. It is no longer a simple, noble sports event. It has already been corrupted by politics and the decisions of the Chinese government."

Growing Tensions

Occasionally, the demonstrations in support of Beijing have gotten out of hand, with the students' displaying a zealous nationalism.

At Duke University, a Chinese freshman named Grace Wang was harassed by fellow Chinese students and received a death threat after she attended a pro-Tibet vigil in a dining hall on campus. Her picture was posted on the Internet with the word "traitor" on her forehead, and her parents' house in Qingdao, Shandong Province, was painted with graffiti saying, "kill everyone in the house."

At the University of Southern California, a student was asked to leave a lecture after he threw a bottle at the visiting Tibetan monk. At the University of Washington in Seattle, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association staged a protest during the Dalai Lama's speech, and pressured the university administration not to allow him to speak on any political issues.

The Olympics are set to begin with an elaborate opening ceremony on Aug. 8. As organizers plan the extravaganza, some Western political leaders are reportedly considering whether to boycott the event to protest Chinese policies. As the officials mull their plans for August, Chinese actions and the connection between sports and politics seem certain to remain hot topics among Beijing's supporters and opponents on New York's streets and campuses.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. He is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Fixing City's 'Non-Functioning' Board of Elections Relies on State Gotham Gazette: De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments De Blasio Continues Deliberative Approach to Appointments Gotham Gazette: Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Despite Expectations, Design-Build for New York City Not Approved in Albany Gotham Gazette: De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors De Blasio and The Complications of Vetting Campaign Donors


The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.