Marching Orders

NYPD Seeks to Tighten Rules for Public Protest, Activists Cry Foul

A little-noticed proposal to amend the city rules governing parades and rallies could serve to restrict political dissenters, critics of the proposal say. Community activists and first amendment advocates complain that the new requirements would make it harder to hold a protest than a sports celebration.

On its face, the debate centers on the bureaucratic minutiae and legal niceties of the parade permit process. But those details present overarching problems of constitutionality and accessibility, argue opponents, which include community organizers, the National Lawyers Guild, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. At a December 1 public hearing before city officials at police headquarters, some speakers went so far as to suggest that those problems are not accidental.

"These are direct political attempts to restrict speech," testified anti-police-brutality activist Steve Yip. He was one of several who argued that a recent rise in political protest, particularly around the Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond police shootings, has triggered a backlash on the part of an already intolerant administration and police department.

Fueling activists' distrust is a proposed change that would allow police to deny a permit based on the belief that an event would involve disorderly conduct as defined under the city's penal law. In a letter to the NYPD's legal department, the NYCLU contends that any rule allowing police to presuppose illegal acts is unconstitutional. It is also an excuse for discrimination, activists argue, questioning whether any event other than a political protest would so trigger police suspicions.

"The target is people of color, people with AIDS, poor people," says Puerto Rican human rights activist Gabriel Torres. The pending rule would impact such communities the most, he argues, because "we are the ones who need to demonstrate."

Activists complain that, while the odds are being stacked against them, the amended regulations would give an automatic green light to certain events. An existing rule that allows the police commissioner and mayor to rubber-stamp "an occasion of extraordinary public interest" has been called vague and subjective. But the proposed clarification, which defines such occasions as "celebrations honoring the armed forces; sports achievements or championships; world leaders and extraordinary achievements of historic significance," is unconstitutionally "content-based," critics argue. The change, according to Leslie Ann Brody of the National Lawyers Guild, "is reflective of Mayor Giuliani's liking the Yankees" while ignoring issues that have clearly provoked "extraordinary public interest," such as the Amadou Diallo verdict.

Other, less obviously controversial proposals have sparked concern, including a new restriction that would recognize only titled "officers" of a "corporation, organization, or association" as legitimate permit applicants. Since grassroots groups usually rely on volunteers and keep informal structures, they would have a tough time meeting that requirement, says Brody.

Yet few are satisfied with the existing parade permit rules, which activists say are also biased and restrictive, and even police admit are too vague. When Sergeant Martin Gleeson of the NYPD's legal department says the goal of the new rules would be to "achieve clarity and be more specific," Arthur Eisenberg of the NYCLU is inclined to believe it. "They knew they had to do something," he says, in light of certain lawsuits brought against the Giuliani administration that have revealed the current rules to be "constitutionally wanting." Gleeson and other police representatives would not comment further on the permit amendment.

Indeed, community organizers would prefer a change to the current requirement that permit applications be submitted at least 36 hours in advance of an event. "We can't determine days in advance when we're going to have to take to the streets and protest," Local 1199 health care workers union lawyer Pamela Jeffrey testified at the hearing, offering as examples of unpredictability "eleventh hour" labor actions during contract negotiations and public reactions to sudden political developments.

But the 36-hour rule remains intact, while the pending changes, Eisenberg says, "continue a regime that invites discretionary decision-making" and fail to remedy past constitutional problems.

What makes seemingly innocuous regulations questionable is context, argues Richie Perez, a lead organizer with the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights and a coordinator of the multiracial grassroots coalition People's Justice 2000. The proposals, he says, cannot be viewed apart from recent NYPD practices such as the videotaping and other surveillance of protesters in violation of a longtime legal prohibition. The aggregate result is "a chilling effect on participation," according to Perez. By minimally advertising the hearing and holding it on World AIDS Day, fellow critics complain, the city continues to discourage participation of dissenters.

The two dozen who made it to the hearing denounced the amendment as passionately as if it had already gone into effect. In fact, they expressed little optimism that the police department would address activists' concerns, since it is bound by law only to hold, but not take into account, public hearings.

The shared sentiment, therefore, was that the proposed rules are begging to be broken. To fellow activists' applause, Perez declared before police and city representatives, "We are going to take it to the streets if you pass these rules. I promise you that."

 
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