Gotham Gazette Fri, 14 Aug 2020 07:37:49 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) $40 Billion in Unemployment Paid to 3.3 Million New Yorkers as Pandemic Devastates New York Workforce 1 40 bn

New. Yorkers seeking help (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

As a new report indicates unemployment in New York City may be as high as 33%, the state’s labor commissioner testified at a Thursday legislative hearing that since early March, the New York Department of Labor (DOL) has paid almost $40 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 3.3 million New Yorkers, compared to $2.1 billion in all of 2019.

The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and its fallout on the state’s workforce was the subject of an oversight hearing held by both houses of the State Legislature Thursday.

Key discussion points included the DOL’s struggles to meet the staggering needs of so many suddenly unemployed New Yorkers as the economy was abruptly shut down to slow the virus’ spread; the failures on the federal level to provide sufficient aid and guidance in the wake of unprecedented unemployment; actions New York state government could take to address workplace safety, worker’s compensation, the plights of gig economy and undocumented workers, and other issues.

According to the DOL, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis resulted in 15.7% unemployment across the state, and 20.4% In New York City as of June. The real unemployment situation among New Yorkers is likely even worse, though, with a report from The New School’s Center for New York Affairs finding that the percent of the pre-pandemic workforce receiving unemployment benefits is closer to 27.6% for the state and a staggering 32.7%, just about one-third, for the city in June.

That report also found that in the months of June and July, when the city began reopening, 50,000 workers a week lost their jobs, “a pace of initial unemployment claims four times higher than during the worst of the 2008-09 Great Recession,” according to the report, written by James Parrott and Lina Moe. And although the current economic downturn is often compared to the Great Recession, it comes with unique challenges not present a decade ago, as even while people return to work and businesses reopen, they must take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and workers, especially those in vulnerable populations, must consider the risk of contracting the virus when deciding whether or not to return to the workforce. Not to mention the fact that certain industries, like film and entertainment, may not be able to reopen at all due to social distancing restrictions.

Making matters worse, according to DOL Commissioner Roberta Reardon at Thursday’s hearing, the federal government has provided insufficient resources and been unhelpful in providing guidance on how to implement some of the few programs it has created to address the crisis.

Reardon said that of the nearly $40 billion the state has allocated in unemployment benefits, about three quarters is federal money, including some stemming from the $600 weekly unemployment supplement granted through the federal CARES Act, which expired at the end of July. Some of the other 25% came from the State’s Unemployment Insurance trust fund created after the Great Recession, which had about $2.7 billion at the start of 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — although New York still needed to take out a $5 billion interest-free federal loan to meet the need, Reardon said.

Reardon added that if there is not an influx of federal funds the state will likely have to take out a larger loan, although there is hope that some of the loan will be forgiven by the federal government. She said other states are in a similar position due to the pandemic.

“I can say that if we had to pay an extra $100 for every claimant, currently, between now and the end of December it would be something like $4-plus billion in cost to New York State, it would be completely intolerable, we couldn’t do it,” Reardon said, referring to a proposal put forth by President Trump that includes a state match to new federal unemployment money.

Although talks of another stimulus bill were taking place on Capitol Hill, recent reports have suggested it is unlikely another relief bill will be passed soon and, instead, Trump is attempting action through executive orders. While Democrats who control the House of Representatives passed another enormous relief bill in mid-May, Republicans who control the Senate dismissed it and have put forward a sketch of their own proposal, leaving the two sides at an impasse thus far and Trump unwilling or unable to broker a deal.

Given that New York has thus far been the hardest hit state by the pandemic and has been more cautious than other states in its economic reopening, the state could be in significant trouble if no additional federal aid shows up (the governor and other state and local officials are also lobbying for tens of billions of dollars in federal funding to plug tax revenue gaps). New York “had the second-sharpest February-to-June payroll job loss of any state, and its official June unemployment rate was third-highest among all states,” the New School report says.

But a lack of funding was only one issue Reardon mentioned with the federal government’s response. She also highlighted speed, which affected New York’s ability to give out aid, as it was not until after the CARES Act was passed in late March that programs such as the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program — which provides aid to those experiencing loss of work due to covid who weren’t covered by normal unemployment — were created, and even then the state “did not get federal guidance on how to administer it, which meant we couldn’t do anything, until April 5,” Reardon said.

PUA essentially expanded unemployment assistance to self-employed, freelance, or gig workers, as well as those who are not working due to concerns around covid, although in the latter case there has to be additional substance to their fear such as a medical condition, elderly loved one they live with, or something along those lines.

When PUA was initially rolled out, there was some confusion as to how to get it, something Queens State Senator John Liu brought up during the hearing. Reardon said this was because “originally the federal government had a regulation that said they had to apply for unemployment, be denied and then apply for PUA. People thought that they were denied for benefits,” an extra step that was removed on April 20.

This was among the challenges New Yorkers faced in trying to access unemployment insurance during the current crisis, with almost every State Senator and Assembly member who attended Thursday’s hearing citing the work they put in to help constituents who faced extensive problems filing for and receiving unemployment. Reardon defended DOL’s response, saying New York moved “faster and more aggressively” than any other state and that, currently, there is no backlog on unemployment claims besides the normal one-to-three-week period it takes to process them and those that are involved in litigation.

With DOL’s call center receiving over 8.2 million calls in one week at the height of the pandemic, compared to an average of 60,000 pre-covid, Reardon noted DOL’s work to address the crush, which brought its systems down, by building and launching an unemployment application in partnership with Google on April 10, increasing DOL representatives to over 7,000 people — many from other state agencies — at the peak, and creating a chatbot to help during the application process. Reardon said that during the pandemic it was like DOL “rebuilt the plane while flying it,” when it comes to unemployment claims, and that the agency has been using data gained during the time to add to their existing work on a new unemployment system that is still yet to be implemented.

As DOL scales down to about 4,500 representatives and as New York faces new challenges in reopening the economy and schools, that new system is a focus, Reardon said.

Meanwhile, Labor Bureau Chief Karen Cacace at the state Attorney General’s office added another key issue with the state’s reopening: a lack of safety guidelines for reopening businesses by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which creates and enforces rules about workplace safety for private industries.

“Regarding safety standards, because OSHA has failed to create standards to protect workers from COVID-19 specifically, and airborne illnesses generally, the state can and should create specific, enforceable standards for all industries,” Cacace said at Thursday’s hearing. “It is imperative that employers be required to provide safe working conditions for their employees. This is true at any time, but particularly during this pandemic.”

Cacace suggested the State Legislature pass a bill that outlines clear safety regulations.

“Legislation really would be important to address the pandemic going forward,” she said. “As we all know, as people are going to be back to work, there are more and more concerns about what is a safe workplace. And I think there is room for the State Legislature to fill the void that the federal government has left and to create those safety standards so that we’ll be able to enforce them.”

President of the New York State AFL-CIO Mario Cilento, who also provided testimony at the hearing, said in addition to passing legislation to establish safety standards in the private sector, the punishment for not adhering to safety plans should be significant.

“We all know that countless workers continue to risk their lives and their physical well-being to serve all of us, and they deal with the mental toll because they’re constantly worried about the continued risk of getting sick on the job and they’re constantly questioning the safety plans or the inadequate adherence to those plans,” Cilento said. “Fines for inadequate safety plans and adherence to those plans must be steep.”

“I’m afraid that people will be afraid to put a complaint in if they have to provide any type of information, such as their name,” said Long Island State Senator Monica Martinez.

This fear may be justified, as Cacace said the Attorney General’s office has received many inquiries, “Most concerning to our office, allegations of retaliation against workers who complain about unsafe working conditions in workplaces that remain open.”

Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon mentioned that there are currently two bills that would address this issue and expand the definition of retaliation in current whistleblower laws to better protect employees.

The New School report also says state action is needed to ensure those who are forced to work in unsafe conditions can take action in other ways, stating, “state law needs to be clarified to allow workers to refuse offers to return to work and retain their UI benefits where the worker is justifiably concerned of serious health risks. Several states are extending such protections to older workers and others with health conditions that put them at high-risk.”

Although DOL does not share a complainant’s information with their employer, many legislators at Thursday’s hearing expressed concerns about employees fearing retaliation if they report dangerous conditions.

What happens when an employee does contract COVID-19, no matter the precautions taken in the workplace, was another somewhat vexing topic at the hearing. Cilento said he sees an issue in the fact that, currently, the worker must be able to prove they contracted the disease through their work in order to qualify for workers’ compensation.

“If you’re working at a grocery store and you’re working at the checkout counter, in the course of an eight-hour day you might see 200 or 300 customers come by your lane. If you are a nurse and you are seeing a couple of hundred patients…right now, you would have to point out which particular customer who came by on that line in that grocery store, that supermarket, gave you the virus,” Cilento said. “What we are saying is there should be a presumption that if you are in that line of work, if you are in that situation, that if you contracted the virus you contracted it at work.”

Such a change to the law would still leave the option for an employer to dispute said assumption throughout the workers' compensation hearing process.

Assemblymember Brian Manktelow of Wayne County expressed concerns about such a change, saying, “You got to think about the employer as well, because I want these jobs to stay here, we need the jobs, we need the employers to do this. So, how does that work, how do we know that individual didn’t get it on the way in on the bus?”

Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos, a co-chair of the hearing as the Senate labor committee chair, repeatedly highlighted the need to better serve communities of color, including those who don't speak English as their first language and undocumented workers. She noted that individuals "still can't actually apply for PUA in Spanish, let alone other languages," and that, instead, they "need to call to receive language access and yet people haven't heard from" DOL in months. Given that undocumented workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits, their struggles were mentioned by a number of Democratic lawmakers. Sanders asked if there was any way for the New York Attorney General to sue for undocumented workers, saying their needs are "by and large not being met in this economy, and that's so dangerous." Cacace said the office could represent them in cases involving any labor laws aside from unemployment, which does not cover them, something she acknowledged is "an enormous gap." Sanders asked the office to continue to look for other ways the state could assist undocumented workers.

Additional legislation that may put strain on employers, but also help employees, was discussed: expanding partial unemployment insurance, which provides assistance to those who are working but have gotten their hours significantly reduced.

Cacace said the way partial UI works currently is confusing for employees and DOL, and mentioned that if you work even one hour on a day, you are disqualified from receiving benefits for that day, even if you aren’t paid for that work because, say, you are self-employed.

“There’s a much simpler way, is just to actually subtract the amount of wages that you earn,” Cacace said, explaining that wages could simply be taken out of an individual’s current unemployment benefits.

The New School report also highlights partial UI, recommending, “New York should modify its partial UI system to increase the number of part-time hours that a UI recipient can work without jeopardizing the receipt of all benefits.”

The group of legislators also honed in on a specific area of part-time workers, those who work in the gig economy, such as Uber and Lyft drivers. For years, these workers have attempted to gain recognition as employees rather than contractors, to be able to gain benefits such as health care, unemployment, retirement funds, and others. A major step toward that goal was made when a New York judge ruled in late March that Postmates drivers are, in fact, employees.

“State administrative agencies and the courts have begun to reaffirm what we all know: these workers are employees,” Cilento said. “The pandemic has highlighted the disparities between the rights of gig workers and employees and if there ever was a time for the Legislature to pass a comprehensive law to protect these workers, it is now.”

Cilento said app companies should be compelled by the state to contribute to the unemployment insurance trust fund, like other employers are required to do, with the amount based on the number of workers they employ and their hours.

Such a move could increase the amount of unemployment funds the state has to distribute, something Queens State Senator James Sanders said New York generally has to look to do with federal funding running out.

“I have no idea why anybody was looking to the White House for aid to the states and cities, I have absolutely no idea, there’s no history of this. And why anybody thought we would get anything from that, I have no idea,” Sanders said at the hearing.

He went on to question some reluctance from New York state officials, most notably Governor Andrew Cuomo (although he did not name him) to instituting a new tax on the wealthy, “Why is there a hesitation in some of the upper realms of New York State government in dealing with…any of the 1% taxes?” Sanders said.

“I am very concerned about the lack of federal money, and I’m so happy that our leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl Heastie have come together to say that we need to raise revenue in order to save jobs and maintain the status for people to survive the pandemic,” said Manhattan State Senator Robert Jackson, noting a projected 20% state cut to education, healthcare, municipality, and agency funding.

Cilento voiced support for any methods of raising funds, and noted that proposed cuts to services would disproportionately hurt low-wage workers already struggling due to the economic effects of the pandemic. He said investing in infrastructure, including renewable energy products, could create jobs and that legalizing adult use of marijuana could also “can bring in a new industry with solid wages for workers that could be invested right back into local economies.”

Looking at what is likely to be a long road back to a healthy economy, legislators like Assemblymember Thomas Abinanti made similar suggestions.

“We have seen so many people lose their jobs, we have seen so many sectors of the economy that have been badly damaged, and we may be losing them permanently, or at least it’s going to be a long time before they come back,” Abinanti said. “So, we need to find a way to restore parts of our economy or substitute new ones. We need to find ways to support the green economy and move towards sustainable jobs that are not going to damage the environment and which are going to be there if there’s a second round of covid.”

He went on to ask if the minimum wage needed to be increased, perhaps, as State Senator George Borrello previously brought up the notion that increased unemployment benefits at times resulted in people making more money than when they were working, something Borrello said was a problem for already struggling small businesses that could not provide wages that compete with unemployment benefits. Abinanti said, in that case, raising the minimum wage may solve the issue of some workers making more on unemployment.

Whether it be raising the minimum wage, instituting higher taxes on the wealthy, or something else, if no action is taken legislators seem to predict a bleak outlook for low-wage workers and low-income New Yorkers as the economic impact of the pandemic rages on.

“I’m just scared that the essential workers today will become the furloughed and fired workers tomorrow,” Sanders said.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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$40 Billion in Unemployment Paid to 3.3 Million New Yorkers as Pandemic Devastates New York Workforce Thu, 13 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Democratic Socialists Ascendant, with Senator Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport 1 democratic socialists

The 5 NYC-DSA-backed candidates for State Legislature, including guests Brisport (center) & Salazar (right)

August 12, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Democratic Socialists Ascendant, with Senator Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport

State Senator Julia Salazar & likely State Senator Jabari Brisport, both Brooklyn Democrats backed by the New York City-Democratic Socialists of America, joined the show to discuss their ideas for helping New York recover from the many coronavirus-related crises, whether the state should raise taxes on the wealthy, and what the NYC-DSA movement is all about.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · 241: Democratic Socialists Ascendant, With Senator Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Democratic Socialists Ascendant, with Senator Julia Salazar & Jabari Brisport Wed, 12 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election Myrie Senate

State Senator Myrie in the Senate chamber (photo: State Senate)

After June saw drastic shifts in how voting in New York is conducted, elections administrators, state legislators, and watchdogs have a long list of changes they want to see enacted before the general election this fall. But above all they want clarity from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Many of the key players in New York City and State elections testified Tuesday at an oversight hearing held by both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature examining the June primary, its successes and failures, and solutions for a safe and efficient general election.

"For many New Yorkers...democracy was functional," said State Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and chair of the Senate elections committee, in his opening remarks at the hearing. "But too many New Yorkers saw their democracy fail them during this pandemic."

"This hearing today is about finding solutions for the voters of the State of New York," Myrie said.

As their remarks showed, administrators are looking at a logistical nightmare unfolding at the feet of a notoriously antiquated and byzantine elections system, which typically conducts 95 percent of voting in person, during a pandemic and with the anticipation of record-breaking turnout.

"We have run elections in times of turmoil," said State Board of Elections (SBOE) co-executive director Robert Brehm, in his testimony Tuesday. "In my lifetime, we've had natural disasters...We've had Hurricanes Irene, Lee, and Sandy on the cusp of elections. And public safety issues -- September 11th is certainly a date that impacted elections."

"But the COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be longer, more sustained, and much more complicated a world crisis than any of those," he added.

As the coronavirus outbreak unfolded in New York, elections administrators throughout the state contended with a host of issues leading up to the June primaries. Facing a dramatic increase in absentee voting because of the governor's executive order extending eligibility, they still had to ensure that poll sites were safely run as more than half of voters still cast ballots in person.

In New York State, 1,027,234 voters cast a ballot in person on primary day, June 23, and 731,131 voted absentee (38 percent), according to testimony provided by the State Board of Elections. Another 118,108 New Yorkers voted in person during the early voting period, fewer than half the roughly 256,000 voters who did in 2019, despite there being 17 more early voting poll sites.

With over half of voters opting to vote in person in June and the surge in turnout expected for the general election, which will include the presidential race, elections commissioners throughout the state are looking for ways to ensure proper staffing amidst a pandemic that is keeping people home -- especially older New Yorkers who make up a bulk of the state's poll workers.

The additional bureaucratic hurdles of shifting to a more mail-oriented election system -- including the sudden prominence of the U.S. Postal Service, which is beyond the authority of state regulators -- meant tens of thousands of ballots were thrown out on technical grounds and thousands more were sent out late by the New York City Board of Elections or never got delivered.

Yet despite recognizing a host of repeat and new challenges for the general election, the executive orders that altered the primaries have all expired, and election administrators are proceeding as though its business as usual as the clock ticks.

"Presently we're running this November election based on the laws we have on the book," Brehm told the committees. "I believe some [recently passed bills] have gone to the governor last night, but they are not in place yet."

"So we're basing our planning on the laws we have on the books and certainly we will have to adapt as much as we can for what comes our way," he said. Early voting for the general election is just over two months away, and preparations for mailing millions of absentee ballot applications and ballots must begin relatively soon to be executed well.

Cuomo has yet to sign legislation or orders that would expand absentee eligibility again, or proposals that could help voters but also place additional burdens on the state and county boards of elections, like one that would require local boards to notify a voter when their ballot is rejected and offer a way to remedy it.

"The Legislature already passed a bill that is awaiting signature by the governor giving voters the right to cure defects," said SBOE Co-Chair Douglas Kellner. "That will create more work for the boards of elections but will reduce the number of ballots that are invalidated for inadvertent reasons."

There’s a long list of voting and election reform bills that have either passed both houses of the Legislature and await gubernatorial action; have passed one house and await action in the other; or have been introduced but not yet moved in either the Assembly or the State Senate.

Invalidating Ballots
The main reason more than 80,000 absentee ballots were invalidated in New York City alone, according to Kellner, was because of a missing signature. While lawmakers and advocates are pushing for the ballot curing bill to be signed into law, Kellner said the SBOE is also looking into ways to redesign the ballot envelope to ensure that voters provide the required signature, which they say is the only method they have of seeing that the right person cast a particular ballot.

Envelopes missing postmarks was another key reason absentee ballots were thrown out. But the USPS did not testify in person at Tuesday's hearing, held jointly by the elections committees and local governments committees of the Senate and Assembly, leaving a number of unanswered questions about whether postmarking would be a problem in the general election.

"There was consultation [with the USPS] on that," Kellner told lawmakers.

"The postal service guidelines and procedures require postmarking for election materials and the odds of not getting a postmark are just as great if you put a stamp on an envelope as they are by using the pre-paid postage system," he said, referring to reports that the missing postmarks were an error caused by the state's use of pre-paid envelopes.

Ballot Logistics
One of the biggest logistical issues boards of elections face is that law sets the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot at seven days before the election, which leaves very little time to process them and send a ballot, much less have the voter then return the ballot in time to be counted. USPS guidelines released in July advise states to leave a 15-day window for election mail, Kellner said. With the anticipation of a high volume of absentee ballot applications, the SBOE is seeking a 15-day deadline to apply before Election Day, which is November 3 this year.

"I think there is agreement that the current timeframe is unrealistic and has led to some of the disenfranchisement that we've seen this year," said SBOE Co-Chair Peter Kosinski.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, the state's largest election jurisdiction, told lawmakers Tuesday that he agreed with the need to adjust the timeline. "To be clear, the present calendar didn't work under regular circumstances, when we just had the normal number of absentee ballot applications," Ryan said. "Now you have a twelve-fold increase, it becomes an impossibility."

In New York City, about 53 percent of the applications for absentee ballots came through the city's newly-established online portal, Ryan said.

Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State, urged the Legislature to provide funding to county boards "so that all voters can be sent an absentee ballot application form, and that both the request form and absentee ballot return envelopes include pre-paid postage."

Additional costs include staffing at poll sites and messaging to promote early voting, which was expanded in June but under-utilized. PPE and additional poll-site precautions to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 are likely to be other significant expenses. County boards are also exploring new technologies to sort and canvass votes. For instance, last week, the New York City Board of Elections approved the purchase of five mail-ballot sorting and scanning machines, at the cost of roughly $1.5 million.

With the primary results taking six weeks to fully count and certify, many are also worried about how long it could be before the general election results are tabulated.

County boards are exploring staffing increases and new technologies to sort and canvass votes. For instance, the new machines the city BOE ordered are capable of sorting up to 15,000 ballots per hour.

Funding is another big source of uncertainty ahead of the general election.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $400 million to states for elections, with states required to provide a 20 percent match. New York State received roughly $20.5 million in CARES Act funding and state lawmakers allocated an additional $4.1 million to local election boards, according to the SBOE. Of the total available, county boards have already spent $12 million -- roughly half -- with three country boards having spent all of their additional funding. A majority of that spending went towards the postage on pre-paid absentee ballot envelopes, according to the SBOE.

A typical election in New York State costs roughly $25 million. But with precautions and extenuating provisions being made around the coronavirus pandemic the costs this year are much higher.

SBOE Co-Executive Director Todd Valentine said with 6 to 7 million pieces of mail sent out for the primaries, when Cuomo’s executive order required election material be sent with pre-paid return envelopes. With the possibility of mailing postage-paid absentee ballot applications in the general election to roughly 12.6 million registered voters statewide, the state is looking at a $26 million price tag just for absentee ballot applications, according to Valentine's estimate.

"We've certainly asked the governor's office whether they had any intentions repeatedly…of making those changes," he said, referring to a possible requirement to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter. "They have not given us an answer."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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New York Elections Administrators Lay Out Immense Challenges, Uncertainty Ahead of Fast-Approaching General Election Tue, 11 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action passed prop what

Inspecting voting equipment (photo: Senator Michael Gianaris)

The June 2020 primaries in New York were an unusually thick morass of bureaucratic challenges as the city and state election systems shifted to a mostly-mail-in format amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

In New York City more than 80,000 mail-in ballots were disqualified on technical grounds -- a full fifth of the 400,000-plus ballots cast that way and a tenth of the total. Tens of thousands of ballots were either sent out late by the New York City Board of Elections or never delivered to voters who requested them.

Thousands of ballots were thrown out by the city board because they weren't postmarked by the U.S. Postal Service, a move that was overturned last week by a federal judge who blamed "systemic failures" for the mass disqualification. The State Board of Elections said it would appeal the decision -- asserting that counting the rejected ballots now, as one commissioner put it, "will place a tremendous burden on the local boards of elections as they are preparing for the November general election and is highly unlikely to change the results in any contest" -- but the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, decided otherwise.

With fewer than 90 days until Election Day, administrators, lawmakers, voting reform advocates, and voters are looking ahead to the general election, where the presidential contest is expected to draw a groundbreaking number of voters. It is unclear how many will be heading to the polls versus voting by mail, especially given uncertainty around what the virus transmission risk will be and what provisions for broad absentee voting will be in play.

On Tuesday, the New York State Legislature is holding a joint oversight hearing to review the 2020 primaries as the fate of legislation impacting the way elections are run remains up in the air. There is a long list of voting-related bills that fall into three categories: those passed by both houses of the Legislature and waiting action by Governor Andrew Cuomo; bills passed by one house of the Legislature; and bills passed by neither house. There are also the matters of steps Cuomo might take by executive action, depending on what the Legislature does and developments between now and the fall election; administrative changes the New York State and City Boards of Elections might make, including around beefing up personnel; and the status of the Postal Service, which President Donald Trump appears to be targeting.

To reach the unprecedented expansion of mail-in voting in June, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a series of executive orders expanding eligibility, requiring pre-paid postage, and even mandating that every registered voter eligible for the primaries received an absentee ballot application in the mail.

In response to the mess that unfolded, state lawmakers in July passed a series of bills aimed at codifying or adjusting elements of the absentee ballot mailing and counting procedures to set clearer and more practical standards for local boards of elections. The governor has yet to sign any of them, nor has he said whether he would sign new executive orders, while elections experts and some legislators say the legislation alone will not be enough.

"I believe that they will be signed by the governor," said Assemblymember Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat who chairs the Assembly’s election law committee and sponsored one of the bills, by phone.

"But beyond that," he continued, "I believe that if for whatever reason the governor decides not to sign any of the bills, the governor will himself cover the provisions of those bills through executive orders."

"We are reviewing the bills," wrote Caitlin Giouard, a spokesperson for Cuomo, in an email. The bills were delivered to the governor on Monday, according to the State Senate's website, giving him 10 days to act (not including Sundays) before they automatically become law.

Codifying and Improving the Expanded Absentee Voting Process for Fall 2020
The centerpiece of the package, passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature in the special session last month, is a bill sponsored by Senator Alessandra Biaggi and Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz, both Bronx Democrats, that would broaden the definition of "Temporary Illness" -- one of the acceptable excuses for absentee voting under state law -- to include the risk of spreading or contracting an illness like COVID-19.

The bill is similar to Cuomo's executive order for the primaries, which has expired, except that it applies to diseases beyond COVID-19.

"All of these executive orders are subject to renewal and expansion and contraction and ending. They're executive orders and nothing else is really happening," said Sarah Steiner, a veteran election lawyer in New York State. "Nothing is in effect for the general election."

Three of the other bills in the package aim to correct issues that arose in June, when the absentee voting option, which previously served voters numbering in the thousands each election, was taken by hundreds of thousands.

One partially solves the postmark issue by saying that ballots that were received by a board of elections on the day after election day will be counted, even if they are missing a postmark.

The judge's ruling last week expanded that buffer to two days after election day for missing postmarks, but advocates say that still leaves a large window within the acceptable statutory timeframe that mailed ballots must be accepted when they do have a postmark.

"They're willing to protect votes one day later with no postmark and two days later with no postmark, and that leaves a five-day hole," said Jarret Berg, an election lawyer in New York and co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Early NY.

"How you treat certain ambiguities in the election law, that's for the State Board to clarify," he added. "There is the statute, and we can clean some of that up, but between the statute and what the counties are doing is the State Board. It's either a vacuum or they put down some clear rules."

Berg says the State Board of Elections, a regulatory and oversight body governing county-level election boards, should be playing a bigger role in setting uniformity among the various pieces of the elections bureaucracy, including the increasingly prominent USPS. "Why isn't there a three-page MOU between the head of the Post Office in New York and the State Board of Elections that just explains how you handle election paper?," Berg asked rhetorically.

"The USPS has already acknowledged in writing they are supposed to postmark every piece of election mail by their own rules and regulations," wrote John Conklin, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections (SBOE), in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"The SBOE and the local boards worked with the Postal Service’s Media Design teams to ensure that every county’s absentee ballot mail pieces were to USPS’s exact specifications so they would be tracked according to how the USPS needed them and word still didn’t get out to all post offices," Conklin wrote. "I don’t know what an MOU would do. We’ve been talking with USPS for months on these matters."

"The Postal Service’s policy is to postmark ballots, regardless of the postage-payment method," wrote Xavier Hernandez, a spokesperson for the USPS, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "Leading up to the June 23rd election, the Postal Service instructed employees in New York State about the Postal Service’s ballot postmarking processes and procedures. All delivery units in New York, reviewed the standard operating procedures for ballot postmarking."

"We are aware that some ballots may not have been postmarked and have taken action to resolve the issue going forward," he added. "We continue to work with the Secretary of State and all New York Boards of Election and look forward to a successful general election."

Another bill would allow voters to apply for an absentee ballot prior to 30 days before an election, which would give local elections administrators more lead time to begin processing them.

That was a problem in June, when thousands of registered and eligible voters did not receive their requested ballots until it was too late to cast them, or not at all.

"To those voters who did not have an opportunity to cast their ballots in the primary election, we should apologize for not doing more," wrote Douglas Kellner, the Democratic Co-Chair of the State Board of Elections, in a memo to the New York City Board of Elections.

"Elected officials and others warned that we were not deploying sufficient resources to mail out absentee ballots in a timely manner, and in hindsight we could have done more to address that problem," wrote Kellner (who was the same commissioner who said canvassing non-postmarked ballots cast in June after election certification would be a "tremendous burden").

Another bill, sponsored by Lavine and Senator Zellnor Myrie, a Brooklyn Democrat and the State Senate's elections committee chair, would create a kind of remote curing process for absentee ballots that are not accepted due to a technical error. If an absentee ballot contains certain "deficiencies" like a missing signature, the voter will be notified and given a limited window to correct the mistake. But some voting advocates say the bill could have gone further to give voters more time to fix a wider range of technicalities.

"Arguably, no bill goes far enough," Lavine told Gotham Gazette. "I'm very pleased that we were able to take the first steps...We're going in the right direction.”

"I do understand the critique of the voting rights advocates but our government is all about compromise," he added.

The New York City Board of Elections, which is responsible for roughly 40 percent of the state's registered voters, would not comment on the package. "We don't comment on pending legislation," wrote board spokesperson Valerie Vazquez in a text message.

In June, Cuomo signed legislation permitting voters to apply for absentee ballots online after the June primary, a codification of part of his executive order. But there appears to be no legislation to require election administrators to proactively mail absentee applications to registered voters, as they were required to do by executive order for the primaries.

Other Voting Reforms on the Table; Registration Deadlines; & More
Some bills that advocates want to see before the governor have thus far failed to gain traction in both chambers of the Legislature, including some related to counting ballots despite certain deficiencies.

One would require boards of elections to count ballots where the envelopes have been sealed by tape or glue, as opposed to by the built-in adhesive. Another would require counting when the "intent of the voter is unambiguous," ensuring that a ballot will be accepted if a voter fails to provide a particular signature or date. Both bills are still in committee.

On Friday, State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced a bill that would allow local boards of elections to set up secure drop boxes for voters to submit their absentee ballots, rather relying on the postal service.

Hoylman and Assembly Member Dan Quart, another Manhattan Democrat, also sponsor a bill that would allow voters to track their absentee ballots like they would a package in the mail, and requires boards of elections to provide an explanation if the ballot is rejected. The bill has not advanced in either house.

For the June elections, Cuomo's executive order provided that the absentee ballots include postage paid envelopes, which they are currently not required by law to do. Senator James Sanders Jr., a Queens Democrat, and Dinowitz introduced legislation to codify that for future elections, but it has not come to a vote.

A different bill, which would allow online voter registration for New York City residents, passed the Senate but remains in committee in the Assembly. The bill would sunset in 2021, when the state's online voter registration portal is expected to launch, but would allow online registration in the city amid a massive drop in new voter registration brought on by the pandemic.

New voters must register by October 9 in order to vote in the 2020 general election in New York.

In July, the Senate and Assembly passed a bill establishing automatic voter registration, which does not go into effect until 2023. The bill requires certain government agencies to establish a procedure with the State Board of Elections to automatically register clients to vote when they provide the necessary personal information when seeking services.

Earlier this year, Myrie, the Senate's elections committee chair, introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (posthumously renamed) that would codify elements of the federal VRA into state election law. The bill has no Assembly companion at this time.

Many of the measures suggested by voting advocates and state elections administrators would require more personnel and resources, either to process absentee ballots, better utilize the state’s new early voting option, or address Election Day delays.

In his memo to the New York City Board of Elections, Kellner said the city board would have to take far greater steps to ensure shorter lines at poll sites during the likely explosive turnout of the general election. He implored the city board to strive to ensure voters aren't waiting at poll sites more than 30 minutes, as mandated by state law ("New York City has never come close to meeting that mandate in presidential general elections," he wrote) and suggested having the city close down streets and set up tents for outdoor voting near poll sites. In terms of processing absentee ballots, he said administrators need to "dramatically scale up" the number of tables and personnel dedicated to counting ballots.

"New York City has more poll workers than needed for primary and special elections and is understaffed in many locations for the presidential election," Kellner wrote. "The solution is obvious, albeit not so simple to accomplish. We need more registration check-in tables. That is where the bottlenecks typically occur. Yes, more tables mean that we need more poll-workers to staff these tables, and that means that we need more space."

Steiner, the election lawyer, believes the state's new early voting option has been under-promoted and under-utilized.

"You had nine days of early voting and only something like 52,000 people voted," Steiner said. "But those nine days that there are massive halls in which people can go and vote at their leisure" could have accommodated more socially distant in-person voting, she said. "You could have half the people voting early and it wouldn't be any stress on [elections administrators] at all."

A bill passed in July that goes into effect in 2021 would require counties to establish an early voting site in the largest population center, an additional requirement to the mandate that they be established for every increment of 50,000 voters. New York City would not be affected since it is a municipality that spans five counties (the five boroughs).

There are nine days of early voting for the 2020 general election, beginning Saturday, October 24, and extending through Sunday, November 1, with sites open for extended hours some evenings. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3.

In anticipation of another crush of mailed ballots, the New York City Board of Elections on August 4 approved the purchase of five state-of-the-art absentee-ballot counting machines -- one for each borough -- for roughly $1.5 million. The machines will help streamline absentee canvassing.

"That is something that should be watched,” Steiner said, “whether the absentee ballot handling is going to be improved, whether that is the only improvement to the handling of absentee ballots that they make.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

As New York Looks for Smoother General Election, Long List of Voting Reform Bills Awaits Governor’s Signature or Legislative Action Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'A Very Pathetic Response': Charles and Inez Barron on Protest, Police Reform and Radical, Black-Led Politics 2 very pathetic

Charles, left, & Inez Barron, right, at a ceremony with the Mayor & others (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Anything short of a revolution won’t satisfy Charles and Inez Barron, the married Brooklynites who hold seats in the State Assembly and City Council, respectively, and the police reforms and city budget passed in the wake of recent widespread Black Lives Matter protests serve merely as a distraction to their radical idea of Black-led politics. 

Assemblymember Charles Barron and City Council Member Inez Barron, both Democrats, have a combined 30 years in city and state elected office, and many more in activism. They are two Black elected officials with a long history of fighting racism and representing majority-Black neighborhoods like East New York, East Flatbush, and Canarsie, and they are eyeing the current moment as a new opportunity in their campaign against oppression and vision for a new political party. 

“My biggest goal right now, and has been for the last couple of decades, is to build a powerful, independent, Black, radical political movement for the liberation of Black people in communities where we constitute the majority,” said Charles Barron, once a member of the Black Panther Party and now representing the 60th Assembly District encompassing East New York.

For the Barrons, who’ve been civil rights activists for decades whether in or out of elected office, the recent Black Lives Matter protests spurred by police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people, as well as the city and state government response, are seen in a long, historical context. And, they say, the heated political debates the protests catalyzed in New York still amounted to tinkering at the margins, not properly reinventing a racist society.

While they ignited protests across the country, those recent deaths hit New York nerves still raw from past deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of police, especially the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, and ongoing complaints of excessive force and disproportionate enforcement by race by the NYPD. The massive wave of protests prompted city and state politicians to pass a very long list of idled police reform bills, as well as a New York City budget that became focused around calls by activists and some elected officials to “defund the police.”

Though many New Yorkers saw the recent sweep of city and state legislation -- which included outlawing police chokeholds, codifying the New York Attorney General as special prosecutor in certain cases of civilian deaths at the hands of police, and much more -- as either too much or major victories in the fight against injustice, the Barrons said the reforms (and the new city budget) fell far short of what they believe is required.

“That is a very pathetic response,” said Charles Barron. “I supported all of it, the activists, the advocates wanted it, the families that were harmed and lost loved ones wanted it. I supported it. But it was a bunch of bogus legislation that was around for years.”

Whether it’s the state budget in Albany or the New York City budget at City Hall, the Barrons -- who swapped seats in 2013/2014 and may do so again in 2021/2022 -- are often among the “no” votes even as most of their fellow Democrats vote “yes.” In separate interviews with Gotham Gazette, Charles and Inez Barron emphasized their own ideas for increasing public safety, like dismantling current models of policing, involving the community in adding or removing officers, establishing a truly independent prosecutor for when police kill unarmed civilians (since they view New York Attorney General Letitia James as not independent enough), abolishing prisons, and increasing Cure Violence programs.

Inez Barron also said she plans to introduce new legislation aimed at replacing the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a police oversight agency, with an elected body that reviews NYPD misconduct.

The Barrons also described what they call their own Black-led radical political movement, which they currently run through a nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization they founded called Operation P.O.W.E.R, or People Organizing and Working for Empowerment and Respect, and how they eventually want to grow it to a political party that supports Black people running for office.

Inez Barron said the couple’s future political plans remain uncertain as her time in the Council ends at the end of next year due to term limits. There are no term limits in the State Assembly, however, and Council members are allowed more than two terms if they run again after a break, so the possibility of another Barron seat swap remains. While it’s possible Charles Barron may run for City Council and Inez Barron for Assembly again, Inez Barron said elevating youth to positions of power is a priority for her and her husband. 

“Well, that’s an interesting idea and we don’t see it as ‘switched,’ because it certainly was not a musical chairs kind of thing, the people voted and we were elected to those positions and we’re very pleased to see that the community appreciates and recognizes our service and wants us to represent them,” said Inez, who represents the 42nd City Council District, which includes East New York, Brownsville, Canarsie, East Flatbush, Spring Creek, and Starrett City. “So what the future holds, I don’t know, my term as you say does end until December of 2021. And we work from a collaborative, a co-operative group Operation P.O.W.E.R. and the decisions about people and positions and elections and campaigns is in fact made collectively, those decisions are made collectively, so we have not in fact made those decisions.”

“We do have several young people that we are grooming and training and making sure they understand the intricacies of how things work,” Inez Barron continued. “And we are preparing them to step into those positions and represent the people.”

History of Activism
According to the biography on his website, Charles Barron joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party before founding the branch of the National Black United Front, or NBUF, in the same neighborhood. The chairperson at the time made him chief of staff of NBUF and also secretary general of the African Peoples Christian Organization, or APCO. 

Charles Barron touts efforts to bring truly affordable housing to the areas he’s represented in the Council and Assembly, and securing millions of dollars in funding for CUNY’s Black Male Initiative.

Inez Barron has highlighted a long history of fighting segregation and discrimination, excluding Africa from school curriculum, police misconduct, and environmental racism. Before being elected to the City Council, Barron authored legislation in the Assembly to preserve affordable housing in Spring Creek and Starrett City. Before being elected to the Assembly in 2008, Barron was a public school teacher for more than three decades.

Operation P.O.W.E.R. and a Public Safety Vision
Inez and Charles Barron offer a similar vision of the community taking control of public safety. Charles said he wants to see the police department, in its current state, dismantled, and for the community to lead in the hiring and firing of police in their neighborhoods. He stressed the importance of having more social workers involved in intervention. The Assembly member also said he wants to abolish the prison system as it exists today and find alternative solutions for people who are mentally challenged or display antisocial behavior. 

Both Barrons emphasized preventative measures in public safety. Charles pointed to poverty as the root of crime and that unemployment causes mental distress. Inez praised Cure Violence programs, which take an evidence-based, public health approach to stop the spread of violence through conflict-resolution by authentic messengers, engagement with high-risk individuals, and community mobilization. Inez said nonprofit Man Up! works in her Council district to promote peace in communities, and its work has contributed to the relatively lower increase in gun violence in her district compared to others, who have seen a proportionally larger uptick. The BK Reader recently reported the relatively high shooting numbers in East New York are on par with similar numbers from last year, a stark contrast to other neighborhoods that have experienced spikes.

As for the implementation of their vision, the Barrons said they have been building their Black-led, radical movement for years. Working through Operation P.O.W.E.R., they foresee building a Black-led political party because, as Charles Barron said, the Democratic Party does not fit their vision of Black liberation. The Barrons formed their organization with specific goals in mind, including self-determination, community control of organizations and governmental agencies embedded in the community, land trusts, and worker cooperatives to combat a capitalist society, according to Inez Barron. 

Charles Barron said their tactic right now is to use the Democratic Party as a way to win elections until they build a separate party. He disparaged other Black elected officials who he said let their neighborhoods gentrify, saying many of them fall to political ambition or party loyalty. The Assembly member also said political organizations like the New King Democrats or the Democratic Socialists of America or parties like the Working Families Party are not matches for the movement the Barrons spearhead.

“Any Black person looking for liberation, these groups are not viable options,” said Charles Barron. “They’re using us to maintain the status quo. They’re not trying to really change any system of capitalist oppression, they’re trying to reform things and some are just opportunists for themselves.”

Next year, Inez’s time in the Council expires. When Charles, who held her seat before her,   reached his consecutive term limit, East New Yorkers voted him into the Assembly seat while Inez ran for City Council. That may be a possibility again, but Operation P.O.W.E.R. will reach a decision on who it wants to support in elections towards the end of this year, according to Inez Barron. She said they have also mentored young people in East New York who they want to help boost into office, though she did not name any names. 

“All that’s represented by my Council district are the areas in which we’re looking to make sure we can have strong, radical, independent, decision-making people in those positions,” said Inez Barron. “If you grow too quickly and if you don’t have other areas that adhere to what you say are the principles of your organization it can morph into something that you did not intend.”

The Barrons tend to differentiate the movement they are building as more radical and revolutionary from the one New Yorkers have recently seen a resurgence of in the streets. Charles Barron advised Black Lives Matter advocates to move from the symptoms of racism to root causes. 

“There’s a difference between organizing and mobilizing for power,” said Charles Barron. “When you mobilize people around issues like police brutality or some other kinds of issues, you don’t get any power doing that. You’re just responding to issues and they placate you with some empty reform.”

State Police Reform
On the state level, reforms included the Eric Garner Chokehold Act that criminalizes police using chokeholds when it leads to serious injury or death; the repeal of 50-A, which kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records from the public eye; the appointment of the Attorney General as a special prosecutor when police kill an unarmed civilian; the “Amy Cooper” bill that makes false, race-based 911 calls illegal; the right for persons not under arrest to record law enforcement; and the Police Statistics and Transparency Act, which directs courts to collect racial and demographic data for low-level offenses and publish it online each month, along with mandating police to report any deaths during arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The governor also signed laws requiring that officers report discharging their weapons; people in custody are given medical and mental health services as needed; State Police patrol officers wear body cameras; and the state creates a Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the Department of Law which will investigate misconduct complaints against any local police department.

Charles and Inez Barron both said the new state laws, as well as those passed at the city level, are not fully responsive to the needs of the people, and that their passage had been long overdue. Charles referred to the history of the chokehold bill and how, although an NYPD ban on chokeholds had been implemented in different forms for decades it had not stopped police from using the maneuver on unarmed, Black civilians (like Eric Garner).

Charles Barron launched into criticism of Attorney General Letitia James, who like the Barrons is a Black Democratic Brooklynite (James was a City Council member, then New York City Public Advocate before being elected Attorney General). By Cuomo executive order going back several years, before James took office in 2019, the Attorney General acts as a special prosecutor in cases where police kill unarmed civilians, a responsibility now codified. James is also currently investigating NYPD interactions with protestors, as requested by Cuomo. Charles Barron said he doesn’t see James’ office as a separate, objective entity because of the attorney general’s connection to Cuomo, who helped James win a crowded 2018 Democratic primary as the Democratic governor and former attorney general won a third gubernatorial term himself. 

“She is a disgrace to our people,” Charles Barron said of James. “She is a puppet for the governor and he doesn’t mind showing the strings. An independent office doesn’t need a governor to appoint them to do anything, but she got in there by way of favor from the governor and she’s his puppet.”

Charles Barron said that the attorney general’s office chose not to prosecute instances of police misconduct like the case of Saheed Vassell, an unarmed Black Brooklyn man who was shot by an NYPD officer in 2018, and appealed the case of Jalil Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Panther Party who contracted COVID-19 in prison and was set for temporary release until the state blocked the initial decision.

“Attorney General James has worked tirelessly and independently to investigate the interactions between the NYPD and protesters,” said a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office in response to the criticism from Charles Barron. “While this investigation remains ongoing, it’s clear that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement, and Attorney General James is leading the charge for transparency, accountability, and progress. We must all work together to change the system, and we encourage Assemblymember Barron to share his ideas about redesigning the role of public safety with us.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this article. These are not Charles Barron’s first critique of the governor’s actions, as seen in 2016 and 2018 when the Assembly member interrupted Cuomo’s annual State of the State addresses to question his commitment to public school funding, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

City Police Reform
The City Council also passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a set of laws aimed at police reform and accountability. It approved its own chokehold bill, which went farther than the state legislation in that it criminalized any use of chokeholds by police, classified the action as a Class A misdemeanor, prohibited officers from compressing someone’s diaphragm during arrest, and criminalized other forms of restraint that put pressure on a person’s neck or back that may prevent breathing or blood flow. The Council also approved the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST, Act, which requires the police to report on its surveillance technology and how it is used to the public; a disciplinary matrix to track officer misconduct; the right of the public to record law enforcement; and a mandate for police to display their badges at all times. 

Inez Barron said she commends her colleagues in the Council on the chokehold bill, but they need to stay resolute in the face of opposition from the police commissioner.

“I encourage them to stand tall and dig in because there’s going to be pushback,” she said. “There’s already talk about, ‘Well we need to amend that and not include the restrictions on other airway passages, we need to not have that in.’”

Otherwise, Inez Barron said the new disciplinary matrix loses some of its footing in reform because the police commissioner has no obligation to act on the findings. To introduce the type of accountability she wants to see in the NYPD, she said she is cosponsoring a bill with Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, also a Black Brooklynite, to reform the Civilian Complaint Review Board. 

The CCRB is an agency that can receive complaints about certain types of alleged NYPD office misconduct, investigate those claims, and make recommendations on disciplinary actions. But Inez Barron said she found fault in the process because the police do not have to execute the recommendations and only a small percent of complaints are substantiated, meaning the CCRB finds enough evidence “to believe that the subject officer committed the alleged act without legal justification.” Jon Darche, the executive director of the CCRB, confirmed that 10 percent of complaints ultimately become substantiated in a June board meeting. 

The mayor, City Council, public advocate and police commissioner appoint the members of the CCRB, and that is one of Inez’s primary concerns in replacing the agency. The Barron-Ampry-Samuel legislation would section the city into 17 districts and hold elections in those districts for members of a new civilian review board. In addition, the four districts with the highest incidents of police misconduct complaints would receive an extra representative, for a total of 21 members. 

“This is legislation that is not just a knee-jerk response to the most recent conditions that we’re facing of police misconduct and police causing death,” said Inez. “This is legislation that’s been five, six years in the making.”

The Council member said the bill will also address another of her primary concerns, the CCRB’s power in investigating misconduct. She said the proposed new body would be able to hold hearings, have subpoena power, and implement binding decisions the commissioner cannot change but the individual who filed the complaint may appeal.

The last piece of the legislation would create the appointment of an independent prosecutor who is elected by the people and has the authority to prosecute police abuse cases that “rise to the level of a crime.”

Inez Barron said she and Ampry-Samuel will likely introduce the bill in the next several weeks, and have received calls from other Council members who want to support the proposal.

She said that officers who commit certain offenses, especially the shooting of unarmed civilians, should be immediately dismissed. She pointed again to what she said was a police force without adequate repercussions or accountability for their actions. 

“Things are not gonna change when they know the consequences for their actions are minimal,” said Inez. “They continue to be on the job, they continue to get increases in salary and rise through the ranks. It’s criminal, it’s really criminal.”

A Divisive City Budget 
The city budget that passed for the July 1 start to the new fiscal year served as another piece in the recent and ongoing public safety and police reform debate. Many protestors and elected officials called for an at least $1 billion reduction to the roughly $6 billion NYPD annual operating budget.

Inez Barron was among those officials, and she voted “no” on the budget deal -- as did Council Members Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca, Jimmy Van Bramer, Ben Kallos, Antonio Reynoso, Carlina Rivera, Donovan Richards, and Helen Rosenthal -- because she said it did not meet those demands, not going far enough to “defund the NYPD” and shift resources to youth and social services.

Both Charles and Inez Barron noted some claims, chiefly by Mayor de Blasio, that the new budget moved $1 billion from the police, but said clearly, as acknowledged by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and others, that it did not in actuality. While explaining her “no” vote during the City Council budget proceedings on June 30, Inez Barron said the mayor did not acknowledge the demands of the protestors in the actions he took, and argued for a “reduction in the ranks” of those officers “killing Black and brown people.”

“We need a hiring freeze, no new academy classes, and a reduction in uniformed officers’ headcount,” Barron said. “And just as the city had to pivot on a dime to address the COVID-19 pandemic, we must do likewise regarding the NYPD. There is, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, quote, ‘the fierce urgency of now’ end quote. I vote no.”

The Barrons’ call for defunding the NYPD and, more broadly, for abolition of the police as it is currently structured, stands in some contrast to several Black City Council members who supported the budget deal reached between the mayor and the Council. Several of those Black elected officials, like Brooklyn’s Laurie Cumbo and Robert Cornegy and the Bronx’s Vanessa Gibson, have argued they while they want fairer policing their communities also want a strong police presence, and that while they favored moving some resources from the NYPD in the recent city budget, they were not supportive of a major “defunding” of the police department. Richards, who is likely to become the next Queens Borough President based on the recent Democratic primary he won, was the only Black Council member aside from Inez Barron who voted against the budget deal.

In particular with the city budget, the Barrons both called attention to school safety agents' planned multi-year move from the NYPD to the Department of Education as a soft reform and accounting gimmick.

“It was, I don’t want to say symbolic,” Inez Barron told Gotham Gazette of the NYPD changes in the budget. “It was, in fact, the act of defunding but it did not affect the officers themselves. I think as long as [Mayor de Blasio] has the commissioner that he has in place there’s going to be a lot of continuation of situations that are not beneficial to Black and brown people, particularly as they get involved in issues with the NYPD.”

Charles’ strong opinions have been recognized by most elected officials, including Mayor de Blasio. In a 2018 ceremony unveiling the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, named after a 6-year-old boy who was murdered in East New York, Charles suggested that as much as they were celebrating the new center, a revolution was imminent, and he repeated calls to abolish jails and shelters while investing more in jobs, youth centers, and economic development.

“So I want to say about the Assembly member – what you see is what you get,” de Blasio said after Barron’s remarks. “And that’s a compliment.” 

Youth services is also a significant point of contention for the Barrons in this year’s city finances. Charles said people should not consider the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which the adopted budget partially restored through the Summer Bridge initiative after de Blasio had cut the entire SYEP in his executive budget plan, as a win in the city budget.

“On the youth program alone I wouldn’t have passed this budget, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” Charles Barron said. “How can they feel good about 35,000 youth slots and you got $88 billion [total budget]? You cut it from 70 [thousand slots] and then brag about how you saved it.”

Both Barrons also brought up $450 million the mayor said was being moved from planned NYPD capital spending and reserved for youth and recreation centers and how, in their experience, the bureaucracy around creating those buildings delays plans by three to five years. Inez Barron did say, however, that she saw the restoration of funding for CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as an accomplishment. ASAP offers special financial and academic resources for students to graduate from associate-degree programs. Both Barrons are CUNY Hunter College alumni; Inez served as teacher, administrator, and principal in education for years before running for office, and she serves as the chair of the Council’s Committee on Higher Education, where she has pushed for making CUNY tuition-free again.

In light of what they considered disappointing reforms and budgeting amid a more widespread reckoning about race and power, their pursuit of a Black-led political movement seems top of mind for both Barrons. They said they will continue to grow their movement until it is strong enough to stand as its own political party without being co-opted by people who do not share their same aims.

“I plan on speaking truth to power no matter what the consequences are,” said Charles Barron. “Inevitably, I believe our struggle may be long, but our victory is certain.”

by Melissa Lent, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated to list all the correct neighborhoods in Council District 42.

'A Very Pathetic Response': Charles and Inez Barron on Protest, Police Reform and Radical, Black-Led Politics Mon, 10 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
2020 Primary Results Certified by Board of Elections; Show 23% Turnout Among New York City Democrats voting New York City booths

Voters cast many absentee ballots (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Over a month after the June primary, the New York State Board of Elections has certified the results, which show a relatively large voter turnout aided in part by the pandemic-induced expansion of absentee balloting. Almost all of the primaries in New York City were among Democrats, including a number of hotly-contested races for the House of Representatives, both houses of the State Legislature, Queens Borough President, and more.

The elections saw several Democratic incumbents toppled by progressive insurgents while the ascendent New York “left,” led by activists and groups including the Working Families Party and New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, also did well in “open” races where there was no incumbent. But several incumbents also held onto their seats amid challenges.

In the only citywide race, the Democratic presidential primary, there were 844,448 votes cast, including 528,976 in-person votes and 315,472 absentee/military ballots; therefore, absentee ballots represented 37.4% of all ballots counted in New York City in that primary, with in-person voting accounting for 62.6%.

Those more than 315,000 absentee ballots were the ones accepted and counted by the Board of Elections, while roughly another 84,000 (84,108 according to The New York Post) were returned by voters but disqualified for a variety of reasons. After Governor Cuomo ordered boards of election to send all eligible voters an absentee ballot application due to the pandemic, about 778,100 New York City voters requested and were sent an absentee ballot, though many thousands were sent late, and voters returned just over 400,000, more than three-quarters of which were counted. 

With 3,617,982 registered Democrats in the city as of this February -- including 1,172,317 in Brooklyn; 837,162 in Queens; 832,312 in Manhattan; 636,791 in the Bronx; and 139,400 on Staten Island -- the 844,448 presidential primary votes represents a turnout rate of 23.3% among New York City Democrats.

By comparison, in the April 2016 New York Democratic presidential primary, 1,007,161 voters in New York City cast ballots, for a turnout rate of 32.8%. That Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton primary was still competitive at the time, unlike this year’s primary, which was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak and, by the time the vote occurred, saw Joe Biden clear the field. On the other hand, this year’s primary included both universal absentee ballot access and a combined primary day for all federal and state races.

By borough this year, for the Democratic presidential primary, absentee ballots accounted for 106,591 (49.4%) of Manhattan’s 215,557 votes’ 35,901 (26.2%) of the Bronx’s 136,890 votes; 95,126 (34.8%) of Brooklyn’s 273,310 votes; 66,982 (34.6%) of Queens’ 193,537 votes; and 10,872 (43.2%) of Staten Island’s 25,154 votes.

Some of the above and below numbers may change, however, because after plaintiffs won a lawsuit against the State Board of Elections in which a judge ordered the counting of thousands of dismissed absentee ballots, the BOE is appealing the decision. Those ballots, disqualified because they were not postmarked by the post office, have not yet been counted.

Here are the certified results in many of the more competitive New York primaries for the House, State Senate, State Assembly, and Queens Borough President - all are Democratic primaries unless otherwise noted:

NY-6 - Queens
Total votes: 47,127
Grace Meng (incumbent): 30,757 (65.3%)
Melquiades Gagarin: 9,444 (20.0%)
Sandra Choi: 6,756 (14.3%)

NY-9 - Brooklyn
Total votes: 95,911
Yvette Clarke (incumbent): 52,114 (54.3%)
Adam Bunkeddeko: 23,564 (24.6%)
Isiah James: 9,910 (10.3%)
Chaim Deutch: 9,342 (9.7%)
Lutchi Gayot: 839 (0.9%)

NY-10 - Manhattan/Brooklyn
Total Votes: 75,795
Jerry Nadler (incumbent): 51,037 (67.3%)
Lindsey Boylan: 16,495 (21.8%)
Jonathan Herzog: 7,818 (10.3%)

NY-11 - Staten Island (Republican)
Total Votes: 22,839
Nicole Malliotakis: 15,688 (68.7%)
Joseph Caldarera: 7,040 (30.8%)

NY-12 - Manhattan/Queens/Brooklyn
Total Votes: 93,520
Carolyn Maloney (incumbent): 40,176 (43.0%)
Suraj Patel: 36,680 (39.2%)
Lauren Aschcraft: 12,530 (13.4%)
Peter Harrison: 3,938 (4.2%)

NY-13 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 78,154
Adriano Espaillat (incumbent): 46,064 (58.9%)
James Keith: 19,798 (25.3%)
Ramon Rodriguez: 11,858 (15.2%)

NY-15 - Bronx
Total Votes: 59,473
Ritchie Torres: 19,090 (32.1%)
Michael Blake: 10,725 (18.0%)
Ruben Diaz Sr.: 8,559 (14.4%)
Samelys Lopez: 8,272 (13.9%)
Ydanis Rodriguez: 6,291 (10.6%)
Melissa Mark-Viverito: 2,561 (4.3%)
Tomas Ramos: 1,442 (2.4%)
Chivona Newsome: 1,366 (2.3%)
Marlene Tapper: 392 (0.7%)
Julio Pabon: 244 (0.4%)
Frangell Basora: 189 (0.3%)

NY-16 - Bronx/Westchester
Total Votes: 89,139
Jamaal Bowman: 49,367 (55.4%)
Eliot Engel (incumbent): 36,149 (40.6%)
Chris Fink: 1,625 (1.8%)
Sammy Ravelo: 1,139 (1.3%)
Andom Ghebreghiorgis: 761 (0.9%)

District 18 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 33,010
Julia Salazar (incumbent): 28,590 (86.6%)
Andy Marte: 2,627 (8.0%)

District 25 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 57,398
Jabari Brisport: 32,967 (57.4%)
Tremaine Wright: 20,009 (34.8%)
Jason Salmon: 4,215 (7.3%)

District 31 - Queens
Total Votes: 9,602
Khaleel Anderson: 3,565 (38.1%)
Richard David: 2,770 (28.8%)
Lisa George: 1,819 (18.9%)
Shea Uzoigwe: 690 (7.2%)
Derrick DeFlorimonte: 392 (4.1%)
Tavia Blakley: 342 (3.6%)

District 34 - Queens
Total Votes: 9,893
Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas: 4,087 (41.3%)
Michael DenDekker (incumbent): 2,374 (24.0%)
Joy Chowdhury: 1,457 (14.7%)
Nuala O’Doherty-Naranjo: 1,347 (13.6%)
Angel Cruz: 579 (5.9%)

District 35 - Queens
Total Votes: 7,994
Jeffion Aubry (incumbent): 5,197 (65.0%)
Hiram Monserrate: 2,759 (34.5%)

District 36 - Queens
Total Votes: 16,426
Zohran Mamdani: 8,410 (51.2%)
Aravella Simotas: 7,986 (48.6%)

District 38 - Queens
Total Votes: 7,346
Jenifer Rajkumar: 3,816 (51.9%)
Michael Miller (incumbent): 1,851 (25.2%)
Joseph De Jesus: 1,667 (22.7%)

District 50 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 18,708
Emily Gallagher: 9,727 (52.0%)
Joe Lentol (incumbent): 8,895 (47.5%)

District 51 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 10,280
Marcela Mitaynes: 3,591 (34.9%)
Felix Ortiz (incumbent): 3,319 (32.3%)
Katherine Walsh: 2,437 (23.7%)
Genesis Aquino: 933 (9.1%)

District 56 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 17,954
Stefani Zinerman: 10,171 (56.7%)
Justin Cohen: 7,665 (42.7%)

District 57 - Brooklyn
Total Votes: 27,885
Phara S. Forrest: 15,376 (55.1%)
Walter Mosley (incumbent): 12,464 (44.7%)

District 65 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 13,673
Yuh-Line Niou (incumbent): 8,748 (64.0%)
Grace Lee: 4,875 (35.7%)

District 68 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 12,683
Robert Rodriguez (incumbent): 7,041 (55.5%)
Tamika Mapp: 5,541 (43.7%)

District 73 - Manhattan
Total Votes: 13,148
Dan Quart (incumbent): 8,672 (66.0%)
Cameron Koffman: 4,427 (33.7%%)

District 79 - Bronx
Total Votes: 11,357
Chantel Jackson: 2,944 (25.9%)
Cynthia Cox: 2,599 (22.9%)
George Alvarez: 2,456 (21.6%)
Elvis Santana: 1,536 (13.5%)
Eric Stevenson: 1,383 (12.2%)
Dion Powell: 410 (3.6%)

Total Votes: 192,919
Donovan Richards: 65,122 (33.8%)
Elizabeth Crowley: 52,502 (27.2%)
Costa Constantinides: 32,823 (17.0%)
Anthony Miranda: 22,717 (11.8%)
Dao Yin: 8,504 (4.4%)

by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

2020 Primary Results Certified by Board of Elections; Show 23% Turnout Among New York City Democrats Thu, 06 Aug 2020 04:00:00 +0000
How a Big Brooklyn Upset Unfolded 1 how unfold

Emily Gallagher with campaign supporters (photo: @em4assembly)

Community activist Emily Gallagher ran a successful insurgent Democratic primary campaign like few others: one with no endorsements from elected officials, no support from ascendent lefitist groups the Working Families Party or New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, and relatively little money compared to her opponent, a 47-year incumbent State Assembly member who had not even faced a primary challenge for a decade.

Gallagher, who has lived in North Brooklyn’s Assembly District 50 for 13 years and been active on issues of sexual assault, the environment, and tenants’ rights, among others, declared victory on Wednesday after thousands of absentee ballots were finally counted, overcoming a 15-point deficit from the in-person tally against incumbent Joe Lentol, who has been something of an institution in state government.

Gallagher’s victory was part of a trend but also unique, given that several other primary challengers unseated incumbents in this year’s primaries but Gallagher did so without some of the support and firepower that others had. She was also taking on an officeholder who appeared to have limited room for criticism from the left, given Lentol’s track record on issues like criminal justice reform and climate change.

Nevertheless, Gallagher had organized an impressive campaign team and won several important endorsements from progressive leaders and groups, and made the case to voters in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Clinton Hill that it was time for generational change and a representative promising more independence and aggressiveness on crucial issues like affordable housing.

“I’m really grateful and I’m never going to forget what is like outside of the chambers that I’m about to go into,” Gallagher said of her win, in an interview on Thursday. “And I’m going to try to bring as many people in as I can.”

Gallagher ran on a platform that includes passing a New York Homes Guarantee (a slate of legislation pushed by activist organization Housing Justice for All that includes universal rent control), decriminalization of drugs and sex work, increasing the funding and power of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and support for defunding the NYPD. Some of these policies went further left than Lentol, like decriminalizing all drugs (although he does support legalizing marijuana) while others were shared by both candidates, like the homes guarantee.

In some ways Lentol seemed to many like an odd representative for leftists to pick a fight with given his progressive track record, including recent police reforms like the repeal of a law blocking the release of officer discipline records, and ways he had delivered for the district, such as with new green space. Lentol had seniority in the Assembly majority and apparent sway with Speaker Carl Heastie, and he was endorsed by a slew of Democratic elected officials, progressive organizations, and major labor unions, including Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the teachers’ and nurses’ unions, and the Working Families Party.

But, looking deeper, Gallagher seized on key issues that galvanized supporters and carved out differences between herself and Lentol. She seemed able to appeal to some long-time district residents through her knowledge of hyperlocal issues from her decade of activism, but also to newer, younger residents who make up a significant portion of the district and appeared to appreciate her far-left politics and the chance to have someone of their own generation and experiences represent them. She also ran an insurgent campaign with volunteers and staff that appear to have overmatched an incumbent completely out of practice at competitive elections.

“Despite the understandable perception in the wider political world that this was a nearly unwinnable or at least massively difficult race, I honestly never felt that way,” said Andrew Epstein, Gallagher’s campaign manager, in an interview. “Partially, that just had to do with how I was seeing the district vote.”

Gallagher started her Assembly run focused on issues of transportation rights and environmentalism, two key concerns for residents of the district, home to large numbers of commuters, including many cyclists, and a great deal of waterfront.

When she launched her campaign, she said it was essential to replace Lentol because residents in the district “have crumbling infrastructure next to gleaming glass towers. We have regular floods of raw sewage lapping up on our long-promised parks. Bikers and pedestrians are killed every week,” and she would be able to better address these issues.

Gallagher’s platform included policies like pushing for a 100% reduction in sewage dumping in rivers and increasing the number of bike lanes in the district.

Then it expanded to canceling rent during the coronavirus crisis that quickly left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers newly-unemployed as the primary was unfolding. The public health and socio-economic crises brought on by COVID-19 altered races and campaigning across the city, and for some voters surely made certain issues and questions of government representation more pressing.

In the midst of the campaign and the multiple coronavirus-related crises, Lentol helped push through the Assembly and Legislature a rent-relief bill to support certain impacted New Yorkers. But it drew criticism from progressives who said it didn’t do enough, a marker of the divide between many incumbents accepting compromise on one hand and challengers and activists demanding bolder action on the other.

Gallagher’s campaign appealed to the significant population of younger voters in a district that overlaps with that of State Senator Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist elected in 2018 on a platform significantly focused on housing, and that in recent Democratic primaries swung heavily for progressives like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016 and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon in 2018, even though they both performed poorly overall in Brooklyn.

But the district, which has seen a great deal of change over the last 10 to 15 years, including a lot of housing development and influx of younger residents, in some ways appeared ripe for a younger, far-left candidate, despite Lentol’s significant strengths.

Still, Gallagher’s win is surprising to many. For one, Lentol’s name recognition, track record in the district (which was also represented by his father and grandfather), and initial campaign war chest of more than $350,000 from past fundraising efforts. Lentol raised close to $200,000 more (including $45,000 from the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee) as of July 16 and had outside groups spend almost $400,000 in support of him between January 1 and primary day, June 23, through independent expenditures. Those two buckets brought the total spending in support of Lentol to close to $1 million, a virtually unheard of amount for an Assembly campaign.

Meanwhile, Gallagher raised a little over $80,000 and spent about $70,000 of it as of her most recent campaign finance filing, submitted June 12 (another filing is overdue). While Gallagher had only three paid staff on her campaign, the campaign manager and two field operation leaders, Lentol was able to hire more staff and outside consultants, like Red Horse Media Strategies, and spend big on mailers and other campaign materials.

Michael Kinnucan, a member of the New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America who worked as deputy campaign manager for Salazar’s 2018 campaign, where she upset incumbent State Senator Martin Dilan, said at a certain point money becomes less effective.

“There are real diminishing returns to money in campaigns,” Kinnucan said. “Fundamentally, Joe [Lentol] spent, what, $600,000 or something like that on the race? And what was he doing with it? I mean once you send six mailers, sending a seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, if the message isn’t connecting, is not going to move the ball.”

Kinnucan went on to say that despite absentee ballots historically being used by older voters who tend to be more loyal to establishment candidates, his experience with campaigns this cycle as a DSA member showed a surprising number of young voters excited at the prospect of voting absentee.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo extended eligibility for absentee ballots for the June primary so the “temporary illness” “excuse” included the possibility of contracting COVID-19, Kinnucan said many young voters seemed more comfortable with ordering an absentee ballot online, as opposed to traditional in-person voting. Gallagher could likely appeal more of these younger voters, who are potentially less aware of Lentol’s track record, tend to identify with her anti-establishment, self-identified democratic socialist campaign, and whose votes for candidates like Sanders and Nixon were what made Epstein confident the district was open to change in the first place.

According to census data, the median age in district 50 is about 30, while the median age in New York City is closer to 37; while 23% of the district is between the ages of 30 and 39, that number is only 16% for the city. The district is also 72% white (both Lentol and Gallagher are white), according to the same data, and includes Williamsburg and Greenpoint, two of the most gentrified neighborhoods in the city — other qualities often friendly to progressive challengers.

But other progressive challengers — at least those who find success — usually have the backing of organizations like the WFP or DSA, which can provide them with organized support and volunteers and give their candidacies added credibility, at least among some target voters. Yet Gallagher was not without important endorsers and validators as she sought to gather support in the primary.

Besides her existing activist network, Gallagher won the backing of groups including the New Kings Democrats (NKD), a reform club founded by former Obama volunteers committed to breaking the Brooklyn Democratic Party “machine” through a focus on local offices. NKD had previously approached Gallagher to run for District Leader of the same district in 2016, which she did but lost by less than 350 votes to another long-term incumbent, Linda Minucci, who had been in the position for over 30 years.

“New Kings Democrats, Brooklyn Young Democrats and, actually…Our Progressive Future, they were so helpful, and I think it’s because they are also activists,” Gallagher said. “All of them saw me and knew me and wanted to be a part of it. They really stuck their neck out for me. In many of the meetings that I went into, they would say, ‘Who’s supporting you?’ and that was what I had to name. I didn’t have a [elected] politician I could name, even though I fought full out, everybody was a little uncomfortable with what I was doing.”

Gallagher said her community ties paid off in this way, and others, with people coming up to her during her campaign who said they knew her from things like a 2016 meeting about violence in the park, or her regular column in the Greenpoint Star, or other activist projects of hers that were often about hyperlocal issues.

Though she did not have any elected officials behind her, Gallagher did get support from groups and some progressive stars, namely Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon, two recent candidates who with a lot of lefist support.

Epstein said sometimes endorsements from organizations could be just on paper, but Gallagher’s came with credibility and resources, including a three-page document on strategies used by past candidates who have had success in the district, provided by NKD. That document was an often-referenced “roadmap” to victory for the campaign.

Gallagher was also endorsed by progressive organizations New York Communities for Change, True Blue New York, The Broad Room, and StreetsPAC, as well as Phara Souffrant Forrest, a NYC-DSA-backed candidate who also pulled off a surprising, insurgent victory over an incumbent, in her case Assemblymember Walter Mosley in Brooklyn’s 57th District. Like Lentol, Mosley had a strong progressive track record, the support of the Working Families Party, and also establishment ties. Gallagher also picked up a seal of approval from good government group Citizens Union.

“She has this really wonderful way of listening to people and putting her ego aside and listening to the data, listening to what people in the district are citing as their most relevant concerns and she built a campaign around it and its genuine,” said Jessica Thurston, Vice President of Political Affairs for NKD, of Gallagher. “I trust her, and I imagine the voters did to, to thoughtfully address these issues that affect people in the district in very disparate ways.”

Thurston mentioned real estate development as an example, an issue that benefits newer residents and gentrifiers who end up living in new apartment buildings, but also can displace other, previously existing residents. Both groups will make up Gallagher’s constituents, and Thurston said she trusts her to represent both interests.

The issues of gentrification, displacement, and tenants’ rights formed perhaps the most prominent broad theme of the campaign, which makes sense for the district. Gallagher sought to differentiate herself from Lentol by standing further to the left on housing.

While Lentol co-sponsored the $100 million, means-tested rent-voucher bill that passed the State Legislature amid the pandemic, Gallagher was among those calling for rent cancelation legislation. In a previous interview with Gotham Gazette during the heat of the primary, Lentol described the voucher bill as a solid, realistic compromise that could help those struggling to pay rent due to the pandemic while not hurting smaller landlords who need rental income they generate to stay afloat, and called legislation to cancel rent (which would have applied to economically-devastated tenants and included provisions for landlords) “a free rent program that’s never going to pass.”

This, Gallagher said, was one way in which Lentol may have been out of touch with his district, which Census data shows is made up of over 80% renters.

“Joining in the call to cancel rent during the quarantine was a really big thing that people appreciated,” said Gallagher, who has referenced her own struggles to maintain housing throughout her campaign. “The majority here are renters but I would say that the people who routinely have had their voices very clearly heard are small homeowners.”

And so it is unsurprising that New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based activist organization for which housing is a top issue, was one of Gallagher’s relatively small number of endorsements. Executive Director Jonathan Westin said the group was proud to have supported her in what he described as one of the biggest upsets he’s seen.

“Affordability and housing are the top issues in the district, and I think across the city and, frankly, across the state,” Westin said in an interview. “Even more so now that people are out of work, they don’t have the money to pay the rent and they want real solutions here and not piecemeal, frankly bullshit, which is what the Assembly passed. The priorities of Albany are absolutely absurd, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in the upending of so many incumbents.”

Westin said Gallagher’s and other leftist candidates’ primary wins showed the rejection by voters of a Democratic establishment he said is “out of touch with the everyday voter,” something Lentol himself seemed to partly acknowledge in a concession statement on Wednesday.

"It's decided: The voters in the 50th Assembly District voted for change. It's been a great honor to represent the people of North Brooklyn in the Assembly. I'm proud of my years of service, delivering important legislation and always attending to constituents' needs,” Lentol said. “My successor will be busy as the new Assembly Member. I wish her well as she faces the enormous challenges ahead."

Brooklyn Democratic Party Leader and  Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte said in a statement that Lentol has been “a progressive champion for his district, Brooklyn and New York State in its entirety,” and thanked him for the work he’s done, while congratulating Gallagher on the win and saying she looks forward to working with her “to continue that progressive agenda.” Lentol was not made available by his campaign for an interview for this story.

Despite his track record of significant progressive legislation, Lentol only seemed to out-perform Gallagher in South Williamsburg, an area with a large population of Hasidic Jews with close ties to the incumbent. Still, this gave him a 2,000-vote lead in strictly in-person voting, although it’s something Gallagher’s campaign had anticipated from the outset.

“The thing about this race was, from the beginning I knew that we were going to have to win 65-75% in Greenpoint and the Northern part of Williamsburg just because of the historic relationship between Hasidic leadership and Assemblymember Lentol,” Epstein said. “And that was going to be a huge deficit for us and to overcome that we were just going to have to run up spectacular margins in Greenpoint and North Williamsburg.”

And that’s what they did. Two days after election day, Gallagher tweeted a graphic showing how those two areas that she performed well in were also the areas where a greater number of absentee ballots were requested. Like with some other insurgent campaigns, such as Marcela Mitaynes’ in Brooklyn’s 51st District, where she upset Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, a deficit turned into a lead when absentee ballots were counted. Assuming they win their likely uncompetitive general elections, if they even have them, Gallagher and Mitaynes will be among a fairly long list of new, younger, diverse, and independent Assembly members promising to move the chamber further to the left and have it deliver on long-stated priorities like single-payer health care, higher taxes on the wealthy, and marijuana legalization, as well as others like stronger eviction protections.

To run its absentee balloting operation, Epstein said the Gallagher campaign used open source software developed by grassroots campaigns, like the text-banking tool called “Spoke” used by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign or the app “Reach” created by a Long Island City developer for Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. He also said that, besides spurring some people to want change, the pandemic provided an advantage in some ways due to the fact that it made apps like these more effective and mailers typically used by old-guard politicians like Lentol less so, because many people had left the city and might be more easily reached by cell phone.

Epstein also said absentee ballots reduced the advantage of name recognition incumbents often have, as voters had more time to consider and research the candidates before sending in their votes by mail, instead of going to the voting booth on election day and being unable or less likely to look up candidates they didn’t recognize on their ballot.

Gallagher’s phone-banking initiative was a major focus of the campaign, according to the candidate, who said she got her mom to make calls for her, as well as a friend who had to temporarily move back to Scotland due to the pandemic but still made plenty of calls while outside the country. Overall, she described a passionate, volunteer-run phone-banking operation that worked at least three hours a day three days a week for months, although Gallagher herself (and her mom, among others) would call potential voters each day. According to her campaign, this resulted in an accumulated 10,000 phone calls. And after an initial round of text-banking to reach 15,000 people two to three times each, the campaign had two text-banking sessions a week where they would contact around 2,000-4,000 people.

“Fewer people are picking up the phone, but the willingness to engage in meaningful political conversations on the phone was so much more present than I had ever seen it before,” Epstein said, attributing this partly to more people being at home due to the pandemic.

Through phone-banking, Gallagher was able to do what many of her supporters and staffers said she was good at: listen to people.

“I think what people wanted in this moment was to have a conversation and be in conversation with someone who could really understand the emergency they were going through right now,” Gallagher said. “As the year wore on, the sick and tired feeling just grew and grew and grew, and we didn’t want somebody who was saying, ‘Oh, I’ve evolved so much in the last few years and I have power and you should trust me,’ we wanted someone to say ‘This is broken and it’s not working and it’s time to fix it now and the old ways don’t work.’”

[Read: Wins Pile Up for the New York Left]

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

How a Big Brooklyn Upset Unfolded Sat, 25 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Wins Pile Up for the New York Left phara souffrant forrest

Phara Souffrant Forrest (photo: @phara4assembly)

Leftist organizations like the Working Families Party and New York City branch of the Democratic Socialists of America are piling up wins in the June primaries, with absentee ballot counting near an end and a wide array of candidates they supported — many of whom are challengers to incumbents — on the verge of winning seats in Congress and the New York State Legislature.

The wins shatter preconceived notions that incumbents are heavily favored to win, conventional wisdom that was deeply shaken in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional primary, followed by group of insurgent State Senate candidates unseating seven incumbent Democrats to dramatically alter the legislative landscape.

That effort only picked up steam this year, where some of the insurgent leftists unseated incumbents and others won “open” Democratic primaries with no incumbent in the race but often overcoming another candidate supported by the traditional political establishment. Given almost every election district in New York City is dominated by Democrats, prevailing in the party primary is often a guarantee of winning the seat.

For the most part, the candidates backed by some combination of the WFP, DSA, and other groups and prominent progressive endorsers ran on single-payer health care, raising taxes on the wealthy to put more funding into education and other social services, eviction protections, legalizing adult use of marijuana, and more. They ran on going further than the Democrats in power, especially Governor Andrew Cuomo, on virtually all fronts, from criminal justice reform to combating climate change.

In some contested primaries, there was minimal daylight between candidates, but the leftist promised demographic representation more closely resembling district residents and a more vocal, independent presence in government.

“Because of the way our election results are trickling out over weeks, it's not getting the attention it deserves, but NY just unseated a whole slew of incumbents and replaced them with progressive candidates of color at the state and Congressional level,” wrote Shannon Stagman, an organizer with the progressive group Empire State Indivisible, in a Wednesday tweet.

Stagman and many others -- in New York’s progressive movement and not -- reacted on Wednesday to the news of additional primary upsets, the latest evidence that leftist forces were picking up legislative seats and building momentum to alter New York politics.

On Wednesday it was Democratic primary wins for Phara Souffrant Forrest over Assemblymember Walter Mosley in Brooklyn’s 57th District; Emily Gallagher over Assemblymember Joe Lentol in Brooklyn’s 50th District; and Zohran Mamdani over Assemblymember Aravella Simotas in Queens’ 36th District. If that was it, the New York left would in most years have had a very strong showing, knocking off three incumbents. But that was far from it.

Those wins came on the heels of Marcela Mitaynes defeating Assemblymember Felix Ortiz in Brooklyn’s 51st District; Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas defeating Assemblymember Michael DenDekker in Queens’ 34th District; Jenifer Rajkumar defeating Assemblymember Michael Miller in Queens’ 38th District; Amanda Septimo winning over ballot-disqualified Assemblymember Carmen Arroyo in the Bronx’s 84th District; and “open” seat victories for Khaleel Anderson in Queens’ 31st Assembly District and Jabari Brisport in Brooklyn’s 25th State Senate District.

Leftist candidates like Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar and Manhattan Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou also held onto their seats in the face of more centrist challengers.

And the state legislative wins come alongside the historic victories of Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones (both backed by the WFP and other progressive groups and individuals, while Bowman had the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America) in New York’s 16th and 17th Congressional Districts, respectively. Ritchie Torres is also making history in the 15th Congressional District, though many leftist groups, including the WFP and DSA, backed one of his primary opponents, Samelyz Lopez, in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jose Serrano.

Indeed, not all the lines were clear cut, and progressive groups did not always all back the same candidates or even endorse in some races. The all-volunteer DSA endorses in far fewer races than the better-funded, more professional Working Families Party, which issues dozens of New York endorsements, not to mention a variety of other groups and clubs.

But the unmistakable trend is a continued ascension by the left wing of the Democratic Party in New York.

Even if the scorecard is a bit complicated. For example: the WFP backed several winning insurgents, like Gonzalez Rojas and Anderson, that were not on the DSA roster; the DSA backed Mamdani while the WFP stayed out of that race. Neither the WFP nor the DSA backed Gallagher or Rajkumar. Both Mitaynes and Brisport had the backing of both the WFP and DSA.

Also important to a number of the leftist successes in these races were groups like Make the Road Action, Empire State Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, New York Communities for Change, the New Kings Democrats, and others. Essential to campaigns were many staff and volunteers, some of whom came from these groups and others who did not. DSA is becoming especially known for its army of volunteers that accompanies local endorsements, and though the group endorses a relatively small slate -- seven candidates in the New York primaries -- it makes the support count.

“NYC-DSA has proven that we can hold our own against the corporate-backed machine in past elections,” NYC-DSA Brooklyn Electoral Working Group Co-Chair Julian Graham said in a statement one day after the June 23 primaries. “Tonight, we proved we can do it on a city-wide scale. All of our candidates started out as underdogs, but you don’t need wealth and connections when you have a movement fighting alongside you.”

The DSA’s state legislative slate of Salazar, Brisport, Mitaynes, Mamdani, and Souffrant Forrest all appear headed to victory. The group also backed Ocasio-Cortez for reelection and Lopez in her bid to enter Congress, the only loss of the bunch. In his race, Brisport beat a sitting Assemblymember, Tremaine Wright, who gave up her seat to seek a promotion to the Senate, in the competition to replace retiring Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who endorsed Wright.

Several DSA candidates had significant disadvantages when it came to funding, at times due to incumbents’ war chests, left over from previous elections. For example, about a week before election day Mitaynes had raised a little over $70,000, while her opponent, 26-year incumbent Ortiz, had raised about $80,000 in the same time period but also had an additional $156,000 to start with from past election cycles. But Souffrant Forrest outraised incumbent Mosley by $20,000, according to the most recent filings, and Mamdani raised about $240,000 through nearly 6,000 individual transactions — very large numbers for an Assembly campaign.

Gallagher was drastically outspent by Lentol, but nevertheless was victorious on the strength of her message, roots in the district, and many volunteers. Gallagher had raised only $60,000 as of a month before primary day, compared to Lentol’s $400,000 at the time, much of which came from previous election cycles. Several of the incumbent Assembly members also benefited from large gifts from Speaker Carl Heastie through the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee or his own Speaker Heastie PAC (political action committee).

In a tweet, Gallagher credited progressive stalwart and law professor Zephyr Teachout and activist and actor Cynthia Nixon, both of whom have run for office as progressive insurgents in recent election cycles, for aiding her campaign through their endorsements.

“This is a @ZephyrTeachout and @CynthiaNixon appreciation tweet. We weren't endorsed by a single elected official. We were astronomically outspent. But they saw what we were building, stepped up and threw in with the underdogs. That's what courage and vision looks like,” Gallagher wrote.

Gallagher was behind by 15% — about 2,000 votes — before absentee ballots were counted, a significant deficit to overcome. But, like many other challengers, she performed extremely well when it came to absentee votes, and was ahead by 265 votes in total with a growing lead as of Tuesday, according to her Twitter. Mamdani, Souffrant Forrest, and Mitaynes were also in close races before pulling ahead when absentee ballots were taken into account.

Some if not all of the successful insurgent campaigns ran organized absentee ballot operations, including educating voters. After absentee ballots were counted, Mamdani partially attributed his victory to registering new voters in minority communities, such as Muslims and South Asians. As an Indian-American Muslim himself, Mamdani also emphasized the importance of demographic representation.

“We began this campaign with the idea that all New Yorkers deserve so much more than they’ve been offered by the status quo,” Mamdani said in the statement. “They deserve guaranteed housing as a human right. They deserve lower energy prices from publicly owned utilities. They deserve to live in safe and stable neighborhoods, free from police abuse and the violence of mass incarceration. And in particular, those New Yorkers who have long been excluded from our politics - including the vibrant Muslim and South Asian communities here in Astoria - deserve representation that speaks to their unique experience.”

As a housing counselor seeking to represent areas that have seen significant gentrification, Mamdani centered the negative effects of displacement throughout his campaign, and also used his opponent’s donations from some real estate developers and landlords as a major point of criticism, alleging she represented those interests and pointing out that she had broken a related fundraising pledge.

Housing development, affordability, and availability issues have been at the forefront many recent elections, and this cycle they were essential to the campaigns of Mamdani, Mitaynes, Souffrant Forrest, Gallagher, Brisport, and others. Both veteran tenant organizers, Mitaynes and Souffrant Forrest, whose profession is currently as a nurse, have worked with the nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors and Crown Heights Tenant Union, respectively. Souffrant Forrest made her 2016 experience, when her apartment building went through a condo conversion and she almost lost her home, a centerpiece of her campaign.

As has been the case in other recent elections, like Salazar’s 2018 victory over incumbent Senator Martin Dilan, many of the strongest leftist performances have been in some of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying areas, where housing development has been rampant and rents rising quickly. Yet at times members of DSA and others behind some of the leftist candidates have been called gentrifiers themselves, and those insurgents have often done far better in more gentrified parts within the districts at hand when the votes are cast. DSA wins have often been due to “mostly white, relatively affluent, college-educated voters in gentrifying neighborhoods,” reported City and State.

“Why did the DSA do so well elsewhere, but only come in fourth in that 15th congressional district?” asked a Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, about Lopez’s loss in the Bronx. “Because there is not a significant gentrifying phenomenon in that district. To me, that is very telling.”

Again, the dynamics don’t always cut cleanly, though, and the DSA, WFP, Make the Road Action, and other leftist groups have been supporting candidates of color with deep roots in their diverse communities. New York Communities for Change, a Brooklyn-based, housing-focused group led by people of color, put significant energy behind the housing-focused campaigns of Brisport, Gallagher, Mitaynes, and Souffrant Forrest.

Policies like the “good cause” eviction bill, which would protect tenants in market-rate apartments from being evicted without reason, and rent cancelation for those struggling financially due to the pandemic, were popular talking points of this primary’s leftist candidates, many of whom criticized the State Legislature for passing a $100 million rent voucher bill in place of rent cancelation legislation. Some incumbents like Lentol supported the bill as a doable step to help those struggling, but they were incessantly criticized for not doing enough. Others — perhaps feeling pressure from their far-left opponents — voted against it, like Simotas.

Brisport said the “good cause” eviction bill was among his top priorities in a previous interview with Gotham Gazette, something co-chair of the NYC-DSA Chi Anunwa also highlighted when speaking in support of the State Senate candidate.

“Jabari’s likely victory represents a big step forward for housing and racial justice politics in New York,” Anunwa said at the time. “With Jabari’s election, New York State will now have two socialists in the State Senate who are champions of the tenants’ rights movement and the movement for more radical police reform.”

Brisport and Salazar, the two democratic socialists who will likely be neighboring state senators, are now poster children for both the DSA and WFP: young people of color with independent streaks and far-left agendas.

Endorsing a much larger slate than the DSA, the WFP had an especially strong 2020 primary showing, starting with the congressional wins by Jones and Bowman, who appears ready to join Ocasio-Cortez and like-minded far-left members of Congress.

For state office, along with Salazar and Brisport, the WFP backed newcomer Assembly candidates Mitaynes, Gonzalez-Rojas, Anderson, and Septimo, as well as incumbents like Yuh-Line Niou and Dan Quart, all of whom appear on the verge if not guaranteed victory. The WFP lost in support of Lentol and Mosley.

As New York’s 2020 primaries are finally sealed, attention will turn to both this year’s general election, which will include minimal competition in New York City but important races for the House and State Senate elsewhere in the state, along with the closely-watched race in the 11th Congressional District between Democratic Rep. Max Rose, no close ally of democratic socialists, and his Republican opponent, Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis.

Leftist groups, candidates, and officeholders from New York City will likely be focused on helping Democrats hold the State Senate and U.S. House, flip the U.S. Senate, and take the presidency. Some are already looking at the 2021 city elections, which will feature dozens of races for “open” City Council seats, four Borough President positions with no incumbent running, and wide open races for Comptroller and Mayor.

It’s to be seen what momentum leftist groups will carry into 2021 and where they will focus their efforts. But well before votes are cast next year, the new crop of elected officials will begin to make their impact in Albany and Washington, D.C. How much change they can bring, individually and collectively, is another unknown. Like the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, the majority in the State Assembly is very large, at more than 100 members. Still, there is power in numbers and the leftist insurgents elected this year appear ready to work together and with allies who helped them get elected to shake things up and move state government left.

In a statement on her victory, Souffrant Forrest emphasized that her win, like many others, indicates a want for something different from the status quo.

“I am so honored and so proud to have the chance to represent my community. Our win is a victory for every person who is struggling in this state. It is a win for nurses without protective equipment, for Black and Brown people targeted by police violence and chronic disinvestment, for immigrants deprived of their democratic rights, for tenants who can’t make rent, and for the thousands of unemployed people struggling to survive,” Souffrant Forrest said. “Our win is a rejection of politics as usual. This win shows that our time is now.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Wins Pile Up for the New York Left Wed, 22 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry Eric Garner police reform NYPD

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, at a recent press conference (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

New York, and the nation, was teetering on the edge when it was suddenly and violently pushed over it on May 25, as George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer Derek Chauvin. It was an incident as shocking as it was familiar, an unarmed Black man dying at the hands of a police officer with the episode caught on video and broadcast to millions of people.

“I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried out, as Chauvin knelt on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes and three other officers either helped restrain the man or simply stood by while he was clearly in distress. It was eerily familiar to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island six years ago. Garner uttered those same words and his death was met with similar anger and protests.

But even though Garner was killed here, the levers of power in New York did not move with the same urgency then as they have now.

No one could have predicted what would happen after Floyd’s death. The country was in the middle of a historic pandemic, suffering from skyrocketing unemployment and an unprecedented fiscal crisis that further revealed and exacerbated the inequities suffered by Black and brown Americans. Almost overnight, there was an immense outpouring of anger and unrest as tens if not hundreds of thousands of people marched and rallied against the abuses of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and society at large every day for weeks.

What would eventually become the largest movement in the country’s history, and which is still continuing to this day, ushered in a seismic shift and, here in New York, prompted the passage of long-delayed legislation on police reform, some of which had languished since after Garner’s death, new executive measures on accountability at the state and city levels, and significantly shifted conversations about municipal budgets and the people and programs they prioritize. 

“I feel like it is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a longtime civil rights leader, in a phone interview, adding he feels a “guarded” sense of progress. “I’m just making sure that it’s sunlight and not the train coming.”

“It’s been a stunning couple of months,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, reflecting on all the action taken at the city and state levels.

Elected officials were spurred into action, from Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature -- which is led by two Black officials, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- to Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson. They said they realized the necessity of responding to the moment and acted accordingly, even if their actions left some activists wanting.

Among the laws that passed were those criminalizing chokeholds by police officers, allowing officer disciplinary records to be made public, standardizing NYPD disciplinary action, mandating disclosure of police surveillance technology, tracking enforcement of low-level offenses by demographics, creating a new hate crime category for filing a false police report based on race, and much more.

“We’ve been trying to do this for years,” said David Galarza, an activist with the New York Justice Committee. “These are movement victories,” he added, calling them nothing short of “monumental.”

Even as some like Galarza are taking stock, the totality of the sweep cannot yet be appreciated, as new laws must be implemented and enforced, executive orders are still being carried out, investigations of police conduct are ongoing, and many, many promises must be kept. And the changes have been met with fierce resistance from members of law enforcement and their close allies, including within the NYPD and leaders of police labor unions, as well as elected officials on the right and center.

For activists, the mass protests helped accomplish in a few weeks what they had sought through years of advocacy. It took five years, after all, for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, to be fired. Repeatedly disappointed in politicians who either opposed their demands or only offered piecemeal concessions, activists -- including mothers and other relatives of Black men killed by police officers -- were now achieving victories that would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. Elected officials who had more often than not acted to obstruct or water down police reforms were now bending over backwards to expedite them.

“You have to wonder in the stillness of the night, if we didn’t have the pandemic and everyone’s attention, would they have moved?,” Sharpton said.

The conditions of the pandemic, said Mark Winston-Griffith, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, “created this perfect storm where people had the anger, the bandwidth, the motivation, the focus to take to the streets in a way that was somewhat unprecedented.”

Winston-Griffith, who has been active in central Brooklyn and beyond for decades, pointed to the participation of people who were previously far removed from the justice movement, particularly the involvement of white people. “Ordinary people suddenly became politicized, suddenly got the courage to even utter the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and were able to consider things that have never been considered before,” he said, citing the debate around defunding police.

In the past months, words like “abolish” and “defund” went from the mouths of activists to the vocabulary of a much larger swathe of the general public. Black Lives Matter, a movement supported by a majority of Americans and already a household term, was now ubiquitous in every form of media. “These notions are things that would have reflexively been rejected before,” said Winston-Griffith, as he reflected on the historic events and how the Overton window shifted to the left on policing and public safety.

Further cementing the very core of the movement’s demands was that the official response to the protests, even in “progressive” New York City, often resembled authoritarian impulses of repressive regimes, with the NYPD repeatedly reinforcing activists’ complaints about brutal policing. Officers often acted as if with impunity, violently cracking down on demonstrations, largely with public approval from Mayor de Blasio, who variously defended his police department while promising to investigate and discipline any misconduct.

As de Blasio repeatedly turned a blind eye to unambiguous evidence that officers had crossed the bounds of permissible behavior, except in select instances where he said he did not like what he had seen, protestors and their supporters -- including many elected officials -- only grew more enraged.

“The veneer of invincibility, impunity has been peeled away,” said Lieberman. “That’s huge because what Black people have known, have lived now part of the consciousness of people of all races and ethnicity and that’s an important foundation for progress.”

“I’m glad I lived to see the day that we start seeing the break in the dam,” Sharpton said, “but I wish George Floyd had lived to see that day, I wish others had lived to see that day.”

Sweeping Sets of Stalled Bills Move Through Albany and City Hall
Within a month of the protests, elected officials at the city and state levels advanced legislation that had long languished and embraced ideas that activists had repeatedly fought for.  

“This is undeniable progress in bending the arc of history a little bit towards justice,” said Lieberman, who spoke of the exasperation that marked decades of incremental progress. “At times, you feel like you’re yelling into the void and there’s no way that people are ever going to get it.”

The state Legislature passed a package of bills that were the most consequential police reforms that New York has seen in decades. On June 12, Governor Cuomo signed what he called the “Say Their Name” agenda, a title meant to evoke the many victims of deadly police violence like Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, and Garner here in New York — among many others. The pieces of the package mostly had not been Cuomo priorities in the past, but were on the agendas of certain activists and legislators.

The State Legislature quickly passed and the governor signed a long list of bills, even beyond what Cuomo included in the “Say Their Name” agenda.

The state approved the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalized the use of chokeholds by police officers if such use leads to “serious injury or death.” Another significant measure repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which had shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. (The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity that investigates allegations of NYPD officer misconduct and abuse of power, quickly announced it will create a database to make those records available online.)

“We’re tearing down, finally, the wall of secrecy that the NYPD, and other police departments across the state, have used to hide behind to protect abusive police officers,” Galarza said.

Also among the package was a bill that codified a Cuomo executive order appointing the state Attorney General as a special prosecutor in incidents where an unarmed civilian is killed by police. Another was dubbed the ‘Amy Cooper’ bill, which makes it a hate crime to make false 911 calls that are race-based. The bill was prompted by a recent incident of a white woman who called police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park when he confronted her about leashing her dog. Her apparent attempt to weaponize his race against him, telling the police that a Black man was threatening her, led to a broad public outcry and even charges of filing a false report by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

The governor also signed the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT), which mandates that courts collect racial and demographic data on low-level offenses and publish it online every month. It also requires police departments to disclose any deaths during an arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a report due every year to the legislature and governor.

Other new laws require prompt reporting by officers when they discharge their weapons and one that requires that people in custody are given medical and mental health assistance when needed.

The governor also signed into law bills to require State Police patrol officers to wear body cameras and another to create the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the state Department of Law. The office will be tasked with investigating complaints of misconduct against any local law enforcement agency.

“Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” said Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, at the June 12 bill-signing. “The legislation that will be signed today will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism, and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

At the bill-signing, Cuomo called on the federal government to pass criminal justice reforms. But he also insisted that “New York State is the progressive capital. We never sit back and say just what the nation should do, we show the nation what it should do. We lead by example and we lead by getting it done. We are a state of action and that's us at our best.”

Activists, however, have expressed frustration that elected officials like Cuomo and many in the State Legislature and elsewhere only showed the willingness to get things done once it became too politically risky to not do so.

Constance Malcolm’s son, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012, and she has spent years rallying and marching for better, more accountable policing. “It's important to understand that the murder of George Floyd sparked uprisings across the country but police violence and systematic racism are not new issues,” she said in a phone interview.

Malcolm is among many other New Yorkers who have similarly lost family members at the hands of police and who work with the Justice Committee, a grassroots organization, to push for institutional reform. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, has also been active with the group, and worked to put pressure on elected officials to pass reforms. Malcolm noted how some, like Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who was killed by a police officer in 1994, have had to endure the same pain for so much longer.

“These are movement victories, not his doing,” Malcolm said of the governor. “In fact, Cuomo fought us every step of the way on these bills.”

“It’s sad to see that we’ve been fighting for so long, marching, protesting for this change and it took George Floyd’s death to really wake people up,” she added. “The same words that Eric Garner screamed and yelled...are the words that this man said before he died and it took his death to spark changes.”

In New York City, the City Council simultaneously passed a package of six bills that were not only a response to long-standing demands from advocates but also addressed issues that had arisen in the NYPD’s crackdown on protests.

The Council had its own chokehold bill, which was controversially amended after Floyd’s death to include a prohibition against an officer compressing an individual’s diaphragm during an arrest, and goes further than the state law in that and other ways, such as by criminalizing any instance where an officer uses a chokehold. Chokeholds have long been banned under NYPD policy but they will now be considered Class A misdemeanors. The bill also criminalizes other forms of restraint that place pressure on an individual’s back or neck that could prevent them from breathing or stop blood from reaching the brain.

Eric Garner Gwen Carr City Council“As God as my witness, I never want to see another human being cry out ‘I can’t breathe’ as their life is choked or squeezed out of them by a police officer,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the chokehold bill, shortly before its passage on June 18. Lancman first introduced a version of the chokehold bill soon after Garner’s death in 2014. Carr has appeared with him all along the way to fight for its passage, as well as her advocacy for firing Pantaleo and the passage of other reforms in Albany.

“This isn’t a radical idea,” Lancman said. “The NYPD banned chokeholds as a matter of policy nearly three decades ago. Tell that to Anthony Baez. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to the hundreds of New Yorkers who filed chokehold complaints with the [CCRB] in the years after Eric Garner’s death. Someone must police the police.”

The NYPD pushed back and lobbied hard against the diaphragm provision, with top brass claiming that they otherwise supported the bill despite their past opposition to it. After years of his own opposition to the prior version of the bill, de Blasio changed his tune amid the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing.

When he signed the bill into law at a celebratory event in the Bronx, after painting a Black Lives Matter mural, de Blasio recognized the NYPD concerns and, in an especially rare statement, indicated lawmakers might need to be open to amending the law.

“I am signing this bill, because I believe we can make it work,” de Blasio said. “I believe we can find a way to hear those real concerns, to keep people safe, to retrain our officers the right way,” he said. “But I also believe that we need to acknowledge those concerns, because they’re saying in the effort to keep us safe, they want to make sure they can do their job on our behalf, and I take that as an honest concern. So, we will work together. We will make these pieces of legislation work together. As with all legislation, if something happens that’s unintended, we will name it, and we will determine how to act together.”

The Council also approved another bill that was the subject of significant NYPD pushback, which appeared to keep both off the Council’s calendar for years, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which requires the NYPD to disclose the types of surveillance tools it uses and the privacy safeguards it has in place to protect the public.

The bill package also addressed accountability issues at the NYPD, requiring the creation of an internal disciplinary matrix to standardize discipline meted out to police officers for wrongdoing and improving the Early Intervention System that tracks officer behavior to prevent misconduct and flag those who need additional training or perhaps another line of work.

Other measures that had been introduced in the past seemed particularly pertinent after the NYPD’s actions during the protests – one, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, affirms the right of the public to record police activity and another requires that officers display their badges at all times. Repeatedly during demonstrations in the city, officers had attempted to interfere with members of the public and even press who sought to capture their actions on video. Dozens of officers also covered their badge numbers with black bands, a clear violation of NYPD policy. 

“Because of the advocates who pushed this need for years, we are now codifying the right to record into city law, further protecting the ability for the public to provide transparency and demand accountability as we move forward together in a holistic strategy to have safer streets and better policing at the same time,” said Williams, in a statement after the bill was signed. “We cannot give into the false and destructive notion that communities must choose between accountability and transparency in policing or safer streets. The people of this city deserve both. Working together, we can provide it.”

BLM de Blasio signingMayor de Blasio signed all the bills into law on July 15. ”Every time we do these things, we are saying Black lives matter in a tangible and real way,” he said. “Now, we’ve only begun and we have to do more, because...the day has to come where every interaction a New Yorker has with a police officer is filled with neutral respect. That is what neighborhood policing is building...It has to be done, and these bills will help us do it, because they will create more trust and more accountability.”

Promises from Executives
In the wake of the protests, both Cuomo and de Blasio took executive steps aimed at improving police discipline and tactics.

In mid-June, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded the 600-officer plainclothes anti-crime unit, which targeted getting illegal guns off the street, but was known for its aggressive tactics and was involved in a disproportionate number of shooting deaths of civilians, Shea explained.

Two days after that announcement, the mayor unveiled a set of reforms to the department’s disciplinary system that would ensure that officers would be disciplined faster, discipline decisions would be made public, and that body camera footage would be released in a timely manner. However, the department has been slow to implement previously promised reforms and has missed several of its own deadlines to do so. 

“I came into office with a promise to fundamentally change the way this city is policed - and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do,” the mayor said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Historic wounds run deep and we know much work lies ahead, but we won’t give up. This is another step in the right direction and we’re not stopping here.”

As de Blasio has announced these measures and his recalcitrant support for Council legislation, he’s also repeatedly argued that his administration has made significant progress in improving policing and police-community relations over his six-and-a-half years in office. He points to a major reduction in stop-and-frisk, an immense reduction in arrests and summonses, fewer complaints about police officer misconduct, and the new paradigm of neighborhood policing. But, the mayor remains committed to so-called “broken windows” policing that focuses on enforcement against low-level, quality-of-life offenses, which his critics say continues to disproportionately harm communities of color, and data on various fronts has repeatedly showed drastically disproportionate enforcement by race, from marijuana arrests or summonses to those for social distancing during the pandemic.

At the same time, Commissioner Shea has been decidedly opposed to how far the recent reforms have gone, in part blaming them and the protests for an increase in gun violence in the city. “I think if you examine New York City there has been a chipping away of tools that the NYPD uses, and I think those discussions are good and I think they’re helpful and I think you have to examine each one and what’s the impact on public safety,” he said in a CNN interview on July 16. “And I think that we have gone too far, I think we’ve crossed the tipping point on many levels in terms of taking tools away from the police in these last two months, it's just a completely different situation, where it’s a toxic environment.”

[Read: De Blasio Says He’s Reformed the NYPD and Improved Police-Community Relations. The Reality is Complicated.]

As with Cuomo, de Blasio’s rhetoric rings hollow to some who have spent their lives pursuing the cause of social justice, particularly after the passage of the recent city budget. Advocates had wanted the mayor and City Council to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion annual operating funding, but the final agreement made relatively minor cuts, offers a planned reduction in police overtime that is, based on past performance, highly unlikely to be met, and included a deal to shift school safety out of the police department’s purview and back to the Department of Education, over the course of multiple years.

“He should never have been mayor in the first place,” Constance Malcolm said. “He said he cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and we know that’s a lie. He’s proved time and time again that we can’t trust him. And then you have elected officials that say they’re protecting Black and brown people in our community when they voted against the budget cuts.”

Also in mid-June, Cuomo signed an executive order, titled “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” mandating that all police departments across the state adopt a plan, approved by the state, by April 1 of next year that “reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” If any police department fails to comply, it would risk losing state funding (though that funding is a very small portion of the NYPD budget).

Cuomo said localities must bring stakeholders around the table and should discuss a total reinvention of policing as they see fit, arguing that community voices must be heard and made to believe they are designing public safety. At the same time, he disparaged those calling for defunding the police by $1 billion as lacking clear demands for moving forward, though many of the activists and groups do subscribe to certain visions for the future of policing and public safety.

Winston-Griffith noted that the governor’s past actions undermine his newfound enthusiasm for change. Earlier this year, the governor was among those leading a push to roll back an extensive reform passed last year that had banned cash bail for most nonviolent offenses. “In the beginning part of this year, we saw an onslaught on the whole notion of bail reform,” Winston-Griffith said. “Just as the pandemic was breaking, we were fighting the governor because he spearheaded the repeal of bail reform, which essentially meant he was looking to put more people behind bars, to keep them there even in the midst of this pandemic. I don’t think that would have happened in May or June.”

Ongoing and Next Debates
Activists say their fight is far from over, particularly as they worry about the pushback against a movement that has gained much ground, especially amid an increase in gun violence in the city, growing criticism of the reforms, and calls for the NYPD to be re-empowered. 

Winston-Griffith said the push for cutting funds from the NYPD and reinvesting them in communities of color will continue in the next budget cycle. “It sets us up for a fight in next year's budget, where the concept of ‘defund’ has already been introduced,” he said.

Council Speaker Johnson, who conceded that he was “disappointed” with the scope of cuts in this year’s budget after arguing for a true $1 billion cut to the NYPD, has also indicated that that debate has not come to an end. “I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end,” Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who plans to run for mayor in next year’s election, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. Johnson said publicly that he was sorry it took Floyd’s death to get the Council to move the chokehold bill, and others, introduced after Garner’s death.

“American politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth,” said Sharpton. “And while it has started to look like it is swinging our way, we need to get much more done...because if it swings back the other way, the only thing that will protect us is if laws are in place.”

Sharpton said the next battle is at the federal level, where Democrats have announced similar sweeping police reform proposals that Republicans have resisted.

“We can’t stop until these laws are national, federal laws and that all 50 states are subject to those laws...We have the Eric Garner law in New York State on chokeholds, but if you go through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, that doesn’t cover you,” he said.

The pushback that Sharpton spoke of has already been underway, or rather, is a persistent factor. In the city, calls to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget weren’t fully met, and divided the City Council that includes 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with one empty seat, exposing complicated fault lines among the majority, with many Black and Latino members supportive of the budget deal, not clamoring for a blanket defunding of the NYPD, while also insisting on legislating reforms.

Law enforcement unions, in particular, have sought to curtail or reverse efforts at reform, often with misleading and incendiary rhetoric, warning that changes will lead to a return to “the bad old days” when crime was rampant. Though there is no clear connection to the reforms being passed, they point to a recent increase in crime citywide, particularly shootings, as proof of their warnings.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, voted against the recently approved city budget because of the cuts to the NYPD. “I think 2020 will be a marked moment when the pendulum began swinging back in the other direction after three decades of violent crime reduction,” he said in an interview. “Holding police accountable is important. It’s something the NYPD has long done but we will look back at this moment as a time when we reversed 30 years of good work from police and Democratic and Republican elected officials.”

He particularly opposes the city’s ‘chokehold bill,’ which would criminalize any arrest maneuver where an officer compresses a person’s diaphragm and many police officials and their allies have come to call the ‘diaphragm bill.’ Borelli echoed the NYPD and police union belief that it makes it impossible for officers to arrest a person who is resisting. “It changes the balance of criminality in the types of struggles that occur every single day between police officers and those they are trying to arrest,” he said.

“I challenge the mayor and any member of the City Council to put handcuffs on me without violating this rule. Show me how it’s done,” he added. The former Assembly member said he would have voted for the State Legislature’s proposal, which is less restrictive.  

There are also criminal justice proposals at the state and city levels that have gathered new momentum, such as a bill that would require that juveniles be allowed to speak with a lawyer before being interrogated by police officers, measures to end solitary confinement, expand elder parole, and more.

After being asked by Governor Cuomo to do so, Attorney General Letitia James is currently leading an investigation of the NYPD’s actions towards protesters during demonstrations in the city, with an eye towards systemic reforms. On July 8, she issued a preliminary report, which recommended, among other things, the creation of a commission to oversee the NYPD with the power to select and terminate the commissioner and other members of department leadership. James said her investigation of the NYPD’s tactics is ongoing, but that given the clear lack of trust many New Yorkers have in the police, she thought it was essential to offer broader reform proposals before her review is complete.

The Democratic leaders of the State Assembly and Senate have pledged to continue to pursue more reforms. “We know that this is the beginning, but it's a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust,” said Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins at the June 12 bill-signing held by Cuomo.

"The Assembly Majority has fought tirelessly over the years to deliver meaningful and necessary criminal justice reforms for our state. This year, our members answered the call from people from across New York and the country by passing sweeping law enforcement reforms that will build on the gains we have made,” said Speaker Heastie, in a statement. “We have accomplished a great deal, but we know our work is not finished. We will continue fighting to improve police and community relations, and to create a more fair and equitable system for all people.”

There are several other pieces of policy that advocates also want to pursue, said NYCLU’s Lieberman, including legalizing recreational marijuana (and investing the revenue in communities of color), eliminating the police’s enforcement of “walking while trans,” and removing cops from schools, as well as prison reforms like banning solitary confinement.

“These are the bills that could’ve and should’ve been passed as part of a fundamental change agenda by the State Legislature,” she said. “They speak to the moment. They’re about undoing injustice and bending New York towards justice and they’re yet to be done. So there’s work to do.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry Tue, 21 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
The NYPD's Facial Recognition Policy Leaves A Lot of Leeway the Department Says It's Not Using 2 facial recog

An NYPD command center (photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)

In the four months since the NYPD first published protocols limiting its use of facial recognition software, the coronavirus-caused state of emergency and recent civil unrest over police brutality made the considerable leeway in the policy all but total. Absent any formal legal framework at the city, state or federal level, the internal, non-binding departmental protocols are the only public policy governing New York's lawless frontier of biometric surveillance.

The police department has insisted it has not taken advantage of the expanded leeway, while privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse. State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would curtail the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance, but its fate is unclear. There is no city legislation despite the City Council's recent effort to pass police reforms, including a new law that will mandate the NYPD disclose the surveillance tools it employs.

Facial recognition programs use artificial intelligence to match photographs with faces from digital databases, helping authorities identify anyone, from a figure in a crowd to the pedestrian who believes they are anonymous on the sidewalks of New York City.

The NYPD has 20,000 security cameras, a fleet of surveillance drones (equipped with powerful zoom and thermal imaging), and 24,000 officers roving the streets with body-worn cameras, all the images from which could be analyzed with facial recognition software.

Facial recognition is still a relatively nascient technology that has been shown to be less accurate on members of non-white minority groups, gender nonconforming people, and others. Privacy advocates believe once the technology is perfected the NYPD will, through its Domain Awareness System -- the department's bank of surveillance footage and data -- be capable of tracking a target's every move in public.

The new NYPD policy was published in the department's internal patrol guide on March 12, only after a BuzzFeed News investigative report revealed the NYPD was the single largest client of Clearview AI, the controversial company that developed one of the world's largest face databases by combing the internet for billions of images.

"This new policy clearly defines the permissible use of facial recognition technology and it strikes the right balance between public safety and privacy," said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in a statement when the policy was adopted, two weeks after the BuzzFeed report.

Under the policy, officers may scan footage for faces if, among other reasons, they believe a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, or if there is "an imminent threat to health or public safety." Facial recognition can also be used in missing persons cases, to identify potential crime victims or witnesses, or people under arrest who refuse to identify themselves. There are no expressly prohibited uses.

Experts and privacy advocates warn that latitude makes just about anything subject to artificial intelligence surveillance without a warrant, from marching without a permit to simply looking suspicious.

"The protocols described by the facial identification policy are quite broad and are still open to rampant abuse," said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) at the Urban Justice Center.

Under the state of emergency, where social distancing orders make simply being in public a potential crime, the number of activities that can constitute a violation are far greater. Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive orders restricting public activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which happened to go into effect within days of the NYPD's facial recognition policy, give local governments the authority to issue civil and criminal penalties for violations, such as being within six feet of others without a face covering.

The NYPD has been enforcing social distancing throughout the state of emergency, at times using helicopters and drones to identify potential violators. Between March 16 and May 5, police arrested 120 people in connection with social distancing violations, more than two-thirds of whom were Black, and a quarter of whom were Hispanic.

"I think there is always risk that the NYPD is going to use 'imminent' risk and 'threat to health or safety' as a catchall authorizing any number of uses," said Michael Sisitzky, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer who specializes in police transparency. "So the policy is not anywhere near as limited as it would seem on its face."

"These policies are crafted to give the NYPD carte blanche to use tools and technologies as they see fit," he added.

Advocates want to see legal limits set on the use of surveillance technology and protections against its abuse by law enforcement.

Since March, much public activity has been illegal, and simply being outside at a certain time could be the basis of criminal suspicion. Since the end of May, when massive protests for police reform, as well as some riots and looting, erupted, being any one of the countless New Yorkers found outside could mark a person for enhanced surveillance. That risk only expanded when the early-June curfew meant being on the street at night was explicitly outlawed.

Officials, including Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg, have said facial recognition is an important tool to combat terrorism and part of a necessary trade-off among safety, privacy, and the First Amendment.

“As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before,” Bloomberg said of the emerging technology in an interview with the Associated Press in 2011.

"We’re the number one terror target in America, and we need exceptional tools to fight terrorism, de Blasio echoed eight years later, in June 2019, on NY1 when asked about the civil rights concerns associated with facial recognition. "My mission is to keep everyone safe while respecting civil liberties, so it’s something we’ll have more to say on, but it’s not an either-or in my book."

In the NYPD’s Public Security Privacy Guidelines, last updated in 2009, it says the Domain Awareness System will monitor only public places "where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists."

The police department has used facial recognition for years in relation to criminal activity other than terrorism, at least as far back as 2012, when the tech helped identify a suspect in a barbershop shooting.

In 2019, before the patrol guide was updated, the Facial Identification Section -- the NYPD's designated unit of investigators who run and assess requests for AI matches -- received 9,850 inquiries and identified 2,510 possible matches, according to the department's website. Roughly half of the matches were related to murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, or grand larceny, according to the site, but it’s not clear how many are crime suspects.

The mayor's office and police department did not respond directly to Gotham Gazette inquiries about whether participating in recent demonstrations, violating the curfew, or breaking emergency executive orders were considered imminent threats.

"The NYPD uses facial recognition as a limited investigative tool, comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos," wrote NYPD spokesperson Al Baker in an email. "This technology helps bring justice to victims of crimes. Any facial recognition match is solely an investigative lead and not probable cause for arrest – no enforcement action is ever taken solely on the basis of a facial recognition match."

The mayor's office did not respond to requests for information or comment for this story.

A police department spokesperson told Gotham Gazette its Facial Identification Section, which is primarily responsible for assessing computer matches, has not been involved in enforcing emergency executive orders, like social distancing, and has no current requests related to recent demonstrations or the curfew, which lasted from June 1 to 7. (The NYPD did not say whether FIS had received requests related to the demonstrations at the height of activity over a month ago.)

"I guess NYPD is asking us to take their word for it," said State Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsors a bill that would ban biometric surveillance by law enforcement statewide. "As it stands now we have no substantive oversight of their use of facial recognition."

The NYPD did not respond when asked whether members of the department outside FIS are authorized to use facial recognition technology.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Patrol Guide is kinda garbage on this point," said Cahn, of STOP. The policy seems to be limited to the activities of FIS, he said, "but that doesn't mean it's a comprehensive set of regulations for all forms of facial recognition."

BuzzFeed's Clearview AI report notes over 11,000 searches were made by more than 30 officers, all before the patrol guide policies were put in place. The NYPD website now says facial comparisons are limited to the department's mugshot database, but certain top brass still have the discretion to scan photos against outside databases.

There is no guarantee that images captured at the protests or any other public activity will not be analyzed later using artificial intelligence like facial recognition software. The NYPD did not answer questions about how long it stores footage.

Most other elements of how the department uses surveillance technology are also under wraps. Advocates believe a new law called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, or POST Act, recently passed by the City Council and signed by de Blasio, will shed unprecedented light on what equipment the department has by requiring the NYPD to report on the tools it deploys and rules for their use.

The jury is still out on whether a facial recognition match can be the basis of a criminal prosecution, but official responses from the police department and district attorney offices indicate that a computer match alone is not sufficient.

"Facial recognition is mostly used in the investigation stage," wrote Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, adding that it is not used as evidence at trials.

"Our office does not disclose law enforcement operations or investigative techniques," wrote Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, in response to questions about the office's facial recognition policy.

Civil rights observers warn that facial recognition can discourage or even be used to intimidate people from engaging in constitutionally protected activities like free speech.

First Amendment activities, like public demonstrations and participating in a political group, are supposed to be protected from warrantless police surveillance under a 1985 NYPD consent decree, known as the Handschu Agreement, adopted following a class action suit charging the police department with years of systematic spying on political organizations like the Black Panther Party.

"All the different ways that the police can monitor protests, both ways that are visible and invisible, can have a chilling effect," said Angel Diaz, a national security lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"There are people for whom the fact that there might be an ongoing police presence or that you might attract police attention may dissuade them from participating in a protest," he said.

This is especially true of people who are undocumented, or who have had past criminal justice involvement, in some cases the same communittees effected by the policing policies at the center of recent demonstrations.

"They might feel less comfortable participating because of the downstream consequences that can go on," Diaz said. "Especially when we don't know how long the data is being kept."

Nevertheless, surveillance equipment was out in force at the recent demonstrations against police misconduct. On Friday, May 29, the first evening with serious clashes between police and protesters, traffic light cameras -- installed to catch motorists running red lights -- flashed repeatedly above peaceful marchers gathered near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. On June 1, the first night of curfew, drones flew over marchers throughout the night. Through the weeks of protest, thousands of officers wearing body cameras have been deployed and police helicopters have been a fixture above marches.

It's not clear that all or any of the drones were the NYPD's and the department wouldn't say what types of surveillance tools were used on protesters. In 2018, then Police Commissioner James O'Neill announced the department had acquired 14 military-grade surveillance drones for special operations. Police reporting from the first quarter of the year, which doesn't include the recent demonstrations, looting, or curfew, show 20 drone flights took place between January and March, mostly for training and testing purposes.

The patrol guide says NYPD drones are not themselves equipped with facial recognition software and that their footage will not be subject to digital analysis, "absent a public safety concern."

Cahn says the disclaimer is vaguely worded and, thus, toothless because footage can later be processed with facial recognition. "Any video of a photo source can effectively become a facial recognition camera simply with that extra step," he said.

"In some ways, the Handschu agreement feels increasingly out of date given the modern way that police are doing surveillance," Diaz said. It comes from an era when policecraft was more physical, he said, focusing more on undercover officers infiltrating political movements than ubiquitous digital information gathering. "It doesn't specifically address issues raised by things like facial recognition or even the way in which modern social media monitoring works."

Lawmakers in Albany are carrying two bills that could change how surveillance technology is used by law enforcement. One, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Ron Kim, two Queens Democrats, would prohibit the use of drones during activities protected by the First Amendment, and would require a warrant to use drones in criminal investigations. The law would also prohibit facial recognition from being used on drone footage, and sets up provisions for destroying the footage after a period of time.

Another bill, carried by Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats, would entirely prohibit the use of biometric surveillance by law enforcement and would create a task force to propose standards for its use in the future. The bill would ban biometric tools beyond facial recognition, like voice and gait analysis, but leaves carve-outs for more traditional police tools like fingerprints and DNA analysis.

"It's time to hit the pause button on this technology, gather experts, and develop some standards that require the NYPD and all law enforcement to follow," Hoylman said in an interview.

The police department has been resistant to any proposed limits on its use of facial recognition, and of surveillance equipment more broadly.

"I’d absolutely be opposed to a ban," said then-Police Commissioner James O'Neill at a press conference last October. "There is so much video in New York City today that to not use facial recognition would be irresponsible."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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The NYPD's Facial Recognition Policy Leaves A Lot of Leeway the Department Says It's Not Using Tue, 21 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000