Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Parade Rule Hearings: Sham or Democracy?

November 28, 2006--Public hearings held to discuss new parade rules being proposed by the city's police department were derided by some as a veiled attempt to put an end to the Friday critical mass events at the same time that attendance was hobbled by large security lines that turned cyclists away.

Bike riders gathered at 10 a.m. to travel from Union Square on 14th St., a location symbolic also as the starting point for most monthly critical mass rides, to the location of the public hearings being held at One Police Plaza. Some of the group of about 35 cyclists wore sheep hats, and as drivers passed they offered a thumb's up in support.

After waiting on long lines to get through x-ray machines, where many cyclists holding pumps, liquids and other bike accessories were turned away, advocates and lawyers long involved in defending the rights of cyclists and free speech advocates made prepared but impassioned speeches against the measure, many of using strong language in front of a packed audience of more than 100 people.

Despite polite treatment by police officers through security, as well as the more than 20 that lined the interior of the hearing room, those attending the event remarked that with its tight security and overwhelming police presence, One Police Plaza was not the appropriate venue for a public hearing.

Norman Siegel the lawyer who has been representing many cyclists after they were arrested for appearing in spontaneous bike rides said that the rules were about "getting critical mass," because it is clear that vehicles who ride in the same large groups, "don't need permission when they obey the laws."

He was referring to the new definition of a parade outlined in the proposal which says that if 30 people or more are marching or riding without a permit, and obeying traffic rules, they would be subject to arrest. The new rule also proposes that between 10 and 29 people without a permit who do not obey traffic rules would also be breaking the law.

Mr. Siegel then motioned to the panel made up of officials who were there to listen to the public comment, and called them "props in a presentation." Turning to the audience he said, "You are the hope."

A lawyer representing the New York Bar Association Peter T. Barbur, said New York law can only be enforced by the police department, not legislated and It is the job of the city council to define parades and the criteria for granting permits. He also said that if adopted, Chapter 19 of Title 38 of the Official Rules of New York, would "impose dramatic new restrictions on peaceful protests and other public gatherings," in addition to normal outings like funerals, weddings, baseball games, and school trips.

Spontaneous protests are "means of expression that are the cornerstone of our democratic system," he added.

Steve Stollman, a longtime activist who offers his space on Houston St. for many cyclists' gatherings especially after critical mass rides said, "This city is guilty of not enforcing laws against the most dangerous vehicle", and that they were "ignoring the potential to make this city a more attractive place."

Daniel Lieberman, the founder of ebikes, one of the most important and influential electronic exchanges in the city that allows cyclists to discuss issues in a private forum, referenced Franz Kafka well known for his book, "The Trial" about a character named Josef K., who awakens one morning and, for reasons unknown to him, is arrested and subjected to the rigours of the judicial process for an unspecified crime. "When is a ride a parade?" he asked, noting that the law was too broad and vague.

It was unclear at the end of the day whether the words of cyclists and rights advocates had any effect. As Mr. Siegel pointed out, members of the panel sat mutely through the proceedings, not asking for clarification from speakers.

Gale Brewer, councilwoman for District 6 of the upper west side said that cyclists and pedestrians, the two groups targeted by this proposed rule, alleviate traffic burdens and shouldn’t be hindered.

David Yassky, councilman, (33rd Bklyn. ) said the proposed rules were "no different than the loitering laws that time-and-again have been found unconstitutional," and called them "a mistake."

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that the proposed law “opens the door to the arrest of law-abiding citizens,” and that "The NYPD already has the power it needs” to make arrests. She also noted that the permitting process is bureaucratic and unreliable, and needs to be moved to another agency.

Christine Quinn, City Council Speaker was notably absent from the hearings, though she has said publicly that the new proposal is an improvement over the last proposal put forward by the police department.

Other important and impassioned pleas were heard from Noah Budnick, deputy director of advocacy for Transportation Alternatives, the oldest, and most well-known bike advocate group in the city; Roger Wareham, activist and attorney for the December 12th Movement; Susan Stetzer, district manager, Community Board 3 in Manhattan; Rosie Mendez, councilwoman, Dist.2 Manh.; Ken Coughlin, longtime advocate and head of Carfree Central Park; Sargeant Noel Leader, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care; Leticia James, councilwoman dist. 35, Bklyn; Dr. Alex Vitale, professor of Sociology of Crime and Deviance at Brooklyn College; and Mitchel Cohen, editor of Green Politix, Green Party USA newspaper.

This story was reported by Eugene Boronow, who was on the scene, and written by Jen Benepe


Eugene said...

By attending the hearings and going along with the process, we seem to be legitimizing the NYPD's attempt to legislate. One of the main points of contention with the proposed rules, is that the NYPD shouldn't have the authority to make laws; it's the job of City Council. Norman Siegel called it a "usurpation of power". I'm wondering if there's a higher power that could be appealed to that would stop the NYPD's actions before they go any further.

Eugene said...

Another thought: The NYPD is quickly becoming the most powerful organization in NY. They're often above the law, they have the luxury to investigate themselves when misconduct occurs, now they're assuming the role of unelected legislators. It's a frightening amount of power and control that seems to be going unchecked.