At the end of a long month of bias-based violence on Staten Island (for details, click on "Links In the News"), the City Commission on Human Rights on September 24 opened up its first permanent office on the island in the commission's 48-year history. The office was long-planned, says Human Rights Commissioner Pat Gatling. But the Bloomberg administration is clearly concerned. New York City mayoralties have been made and unmade by responses to bias violence.
In the summer of 1989, when Yusef Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, visited the mostly white Bensonhurst neighborhood in the borough, a mob of white youth killed him. That incident marked the end of the re-election bid of three-term Mayor Ed Koch, who had often been viewed as insensitive in racial matters. It also catapulted Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins into City Hall, the first African American to be mayor.
Just one year later, black New Yorkers rioted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after a car in a Hasidic motorcade sped through a red light and killed 7-year old Gavin Cato. Shouts of "Kill the Jew" went up and Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year old Australian rabbinical student, died from stab wounds inflicted by Lemrick Nelson in a case that was only recently resolved in the courts. The fact that it was not resolved in 1993 when Dinkins ran for re-election and Governor Mario Cuomo released a critical report on the matter during the campaign, contributed to Dinkins's narrow loss to Rudy Giuliani, who had been quite vocal in accusing the mayor of holding police back during the riots.
The first incident this past month occurred in a playground late at night Labor Day in Eltingville on Staten Island, when a mob of some 17 white men and women reportedly confronted an 18-year old black woman named Rachel Carter visiting from New Jersey. They uttered racial slurs and told her she didn't belong in the neighborhood. Then they attacked her and her five companions (who were white, black and Latino), using a sickle and a broken bottle --ugly stuff made worse because the police from the 122nd Precinct tried to discourage the victims from filing complaints. Eleven arrests have been made so far in the Labor Day attack.
Two weeks later, there were nine bias incidents citywide reported on a single weekend, including several on Staten Island, such as a black man accosted by a white mob in a Staten Island deli and a black man shooting at white teens. The cycle of bias violence continued on Staten Island a week after that, when one of the alleged perpetrators in the Labor Day attack was himself assaulted by three Latino men in what law enforcement officers reportedly described as a "retaliatory assault." All in all, in the month after Labor Day, there were a dozen suspected bias incidents on Staten Island alone. Some newspapers began painting Staten Island as a hotbed of bigotry.
None of these incidents are as incendiary as the bias murders of Yusef Hawkins and Yankel Rosenbaum. But the administration is careful to show their concern. At the opening of the human rights office on Staten Island, Commissioner Gatling said, "Mayor Bloomberg and the commission are committed to using all of our resources to ensure that the people of this city do not become hostages to prejudice. This new office will be used to educate, mediate, and enforce the strongest anti-bias laws in the country. Our message is a simple one: Discrimination will not be tolerated in our city." One action already taken is the disciplining of three police officers in connection with the handling of Rachel Carter's Labor Day complaint.
But it's not just individual police officers who are being criticized for their failure to take such civil rights violations seriously. The commission itself is under attack from the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York for not fulfilling its responsibility to enforce the city's human rights law. In a scathing report, attorney Craig Gurian, director of the non-profit center, said that the commission "had eliminated a decades-long backlog of cases in part by a newfound determination to do so, and in part by what the report refers to as 'the Big Case Dump.'" The report charges that the commission found no probable cause against discriminators in more than 98 percent of cases, leveled civil penalties just once, conducted only two trials, almost always failed to interview those accused of discrimination, and "failed to understand and apply basic principles of discrimination law."
Commissioner Gatling responded in the Times that the report "demonstrates a lack of understanding of the commission's objectives and practical application of the city's Human Rights Law," whatever that means. (She didn't elaborate.)
For all the criticism, the mayor has insisted that Staten Island is getting an unfair rap - that the incidents of bias have actually decreased by 25 percent on the island. Of course, these are the official statistics, based on people actually filing complaints - which, as evident from the police reaction to the Labor Day incident, is not always encouraged. But in a way, the mayor surely has a point in asking that Staten Island not be singled out. The truth is, bias violence is not restricted to one part of the city, nor targeted just at one group.
The New York City Gay and Lesbian Project has documented a 52 percent rise in attacks on people who either are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. A recent weekend saw three reported incidents, including six men beating a man after he exited a subway stop in Chelsea.
Clarence Patton of the Anti-Violence Project attributed the rise in anti-gay incidents to the massive increase in the visibility of gay people in the news and on TV entertainment shows, contributing to a backlash. He also cited the downturn in the economy and tensions over the war with Iraq.
Commissioner Gatling is also conscious of these factors. The main perpetrators of bias violence, she says, are young people 17 to 22 years old for whom "the economy looks bleak" and for whom there are fewer after-school options in the economic downturn. But even while acknowledging these factors in play, she said that New York is experiencing less bias violence than cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. "We don't have it like they do," she said.
Even while playing down the dimensions of the problem on Staten Island, Gatling said she has spoken to the superintendent of schools there about stepping up conflict resolution and tolerance programs, some of them offered by the commission itself. "I'm a big proponent of peer mediation," she said.
The commission and its critic, the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, do agree on testing neighborhood tolerance in at least one concrete way. They are both sending out testers to pose as people looking for a job or a home, to see if local real estate agents and employers treat all comers equally. Most often, a white tester and a black tester who pose as similar applicants (same educational level or same income level) approach the same employer or real estate agent at different times to see if they receive the same treatment. One finding so far: In Howard Beach, both testers were treated the same. This might be surprising to those who see the Queens neighborhood as a bastion of bigotry because of past incidents, most notoriously in 1986 when a gang of white youths attacked three black men, killing one of them.
Mayors and mediators, boosters and borough presidents like to say that New York, which is probably still the most diverse city on earth, is a largely successful experiment in peaceful coexistence. One question provoked by the latest incidents is whether New Yorkers get along as well as we do only as long as all members of each group stay in their own neighborhoods. This is a city that, as Gotham Gazette's demographics columnist Andrew Beveridge has pointed out, "remains among the most segregated areas of the United States" - or, as one observer famously said, the only place New York is integrated is on the subway.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.