The hundreds of blue chairs filling the auditorium at One Police Plaza were far from filled for today’s hearing on the NYPD’s proposal to restrict street protests—but considering that the event was at 11 a.m. on the Monday after Thanksgiving, it was notable even that several dozen folks made it through the metal detectors to hear the Bar Association, the Brooklyn Greens, and 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement lambaste the new rules, the police commissioner who wrote them, and … the City Council?
“Miss Quinn? Miss Quinn? Hmmm. She doesn’t seem to be here today,” said Tim Doody, one of several speakers who faulted the Council and its speaker for leaving it to Ray Kelly to legislate the very rules his department will enforce. While Miss Quinn wasn’t on hand to answer Doody, several other council members—Gale Brewer, Bill DeBlasio, Alan Gerson, Rosie Mendez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and a rep for Jessica Lappin—were. They’d come over from City Hall to tell the police department what they thought the rules ought to be. “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” Doody asked.
The new rules would make any procession on a city street of ten or more people or bikes (or herded animals) that doesn’t follow traffic rules an illegal parade. It would make any procession on a city street of 30 people or more an illegal parade even if it did follow traffic rules, unless the group got a permit.
On one level, the proposed rules (a revision of what the NYPD proposed this summer but withdrew after public harrumphing) are an outgrowth of the two-year-long pissing match between police and the bikers who participate in Manhattan Critical Mass, a series of confrontations that resulted in arrests, injuries, and the city getting rebuffed in both state and federal court. But the rules are also a pawn in the longer battle between civil libertarians and the Bloomberg administration over the right to protest, running from revising the Handschu rules in 2002, to the anti-war marches in early 2003, through the 2004 RNC, and into last year’s hubbub over videotaping protests.
So, the arguments made on Monday were well practiced. Generally, the rules are “critically flawed … vague, overdrawn, and not tailored to address public safety concerns,” said Peter Barber from the Bar Association. Specifically, the rules threatened peaceful recreational bike outings, made even school outings and funeral processions into potential illegal acts, and created the prospect that a biker might face arrest if just one member of their group broke traffic rules. There were whiffs of hyperbole—speakers compared the rules to the Nuremburg Laws, and the treatment of cyclists to that of blacks under Jim Crow—but some speakers tried to establish a conciliatory tone. “Y’all don’t have to do this and I hope you can find another way,” said biker Roger Manning.
But opponents of the rules seemed just as upset about the process as about the content. “A law enforcement agency should under no circumstances be allowed to create legislation,” said Noah Leader from 100 Blacks, to sustained cheers and stomping of feet. “For a police commissioner to act as a legislator smacks of a police state,” Leader continued, slapping the Council for bowing to Kelly “without as much as a whimper,” before leaving the microphone, to a standing ovation.