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The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund — the organization founded by Thurgood Marshall and responsible for bringing Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia and many other seminal civil rights cases — has thrown its support behind efforts in the New York legislature to reform the state’s broken gravity knife statute.
In a letter sent this week, the organization urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a reform bill, passed by the legislature in June, designed to stop prosecutions that have attracted widespread criticism. “This law is problematic on its face and even more problematic in its application,” the organization wrote. “It punishes New Yorkers for an innocent act, and it is overwhelmingly applied against African Americans and Latinos.” (The full text of the letter is below.)
We’ve written ad nauseam about how the NYPD and local law enforcement have used the outdated “gravity knife” law — passed in the 1950s and intended to ban large, switchblade-like knives — to lock up working-class people (most of them people of color) for possession of common folding knives. By effectively criminalizing widely available pocket knives with a distorted reading of the law, NYPD officers have sent as many as 60,000 people to jail over the past decade. In some cases, simple possession of a folding knife can land defendants in prison for up to seven years. You can read our original investigation into the issue, and subsequent coverage here.
As a broad movement for reform has coalesced — involving, weirdly, both progressive groups and conservative Second Amendment advocates — virtually the only opposition has come from law enforcement organizations and mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked against the measure in the legislature.
The bill, introduced by downstate Democrats Dan Quart in the Assembly and Dianne Savino in the Senate, has yet to be presented to Governor Cuomo for a signature. But some officials, including former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, and other DAs in the state, are doing their best to scuttle the bill, urging Cuomo to veto it when it does come across his desk.
The latest endorsement means de Blasio, who rode into office on a criminal justice reform platform, is now at odds with the public positions of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; the Legal Aid Society, New York City’s largest public defender organization; Brooklyn Defender Services; the Office of Court Administration, the official body of the state judiciary; the New York Times Editorial Board; every member of the New York State Senate; and all but twelve members of the New York State Assembly. That’s not to mention conservative groups like Arizona-based Knife Rights and the NRA. (That groups like this agree on anything suggests just how ridiculous the situation in New York City has become.)
We asked the mayor’s office if he still opposes the measure, and we’ll update if we hear back.