November 29 – December 5, 2006
By Albert Amateau
A Police Department hearing attracted more than 500 people to Police Plaza on Monday to denounce the department’s proposed new rules defining what constitutes a parade requiring a police permit.
Civil liberties and bicycle advocates, several city councilmembers and organizations including the city Bar Association, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, Transportation Alternatives, Time’s Up!, United for Peace and Justice and Assemble for Rights said at the Nov. 27 hearing that the proposed rule change was a threat to freedom of expression and assembly and a usurpation by police of the legislative function of the City Council.
The apparent target of the proposal, which would expand the permit requirement to cover groups of 10 or more in one category and 30 or more in a second category, is the monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride that starts at Union Square.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn, conspicuous by her absence, was the target of critics at the hearing who said she should have been on hand to assert the Council’s jurisdiction over the issue.
However, Quinn had said in August that she was glad the police had withdrawn an earlier version of the proposed amendment to the rules for parade permits. That proposal was replaced by the current one, which would require a parade permit for any march or race of 10 or more pedestrians, bicyclists, vehicles “or animal herd” proceeding on public streets or sidewalks for more than two blocks without complying with all traffic regulations.
In addition, any recognizable group of 30 or more proceeding more than two blocks, even if they do comply with all traffic regulations, would need a parade permit.
Quinn later issued a prepared statement saying the new rules were an improvement over the more restrictive ones proposed in August.
“We do hope, however, that the Police Department will carefully consider all of the comments that it receives, will be open to additional ways to better balance the competing interests at stake and will make further revisions to the proposal as necessary,” Quinn’s statement said.
At a Nov. 27 rally in front of Police Headquarters and in the auditorium at the hearing, protestors mocked the proposed rules, saying they could apply to funeral corteges, school field trips and informal bike rides. Opponents anticipated that police would enforce the rules selectively against dissenting groups.
“It’s antithetical to First Amendment rights and obviously intended to ‘get’ the Critical Mass ride,” said Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who represented bike-riding protestors who were jailed during the 2004 Republican National Convention.
City Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, Alan Gerson and Gale Brewer spoke in person against the change, and Councilmembers David Weprin and Tony Avella submitted written testimony opposing the rules.
Nevertheless, Siegel said, “The City Council is missing in action here. The speaker should be here to make the point that the Council is the legislative branch and the police are the executive.” He charged that Assistant Chief Bruce Smolka, commander of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are the prime movers in the proposal intended to curb Critical Mass.
“Hold off,” said Gerson, who suggested that the Council and police should try to reach a consensus about the need for new permit rules and, if so, determine the minimal rules necessary.
City agencies have the right to make enforcement rules on their own. But Gerson noted that the permit proposal should get Council approval, because it involves First Amendment issues. Gerson also said that city policy should encourage safe bike riding and added that the proposal leaves many unanswered questions.
“The police have a hard job,” Mendez acknowledged, “But N.Y.P.D. doesn’t get to provide public safety at the expense of our civil rights.” She told about a group of elderly Puerto Rican men in the East Village — the Puerto Rico Schwinn Club — who decorate their bikes and ride to public events. “Will they need a permit?” she asked. “My district doesn’t take infringement of our civil rights lightly,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Cycle Club weighed in against the proposed rules. Mitchell Cohn, of Brooklyn Greens, suggested that 31 cadets marching out of the Police Academy together at the end of the day should also be required to get a permit.
Leslie Cagan, chairperson of United for Peace and Justice, the antiwar group, said the changes would put a crimp in small spontaneous gatherings. “N.Y.P.D. does not have the right to say who has the right to free speech or where or when,” she said.
Peter Barber, representing the Bar Association of the City of New York, read from a 16-page brief arguing that the First Amendment requires that any restriction on the time, place and manner of parades must be narrowly tailored to serve significant government interests and must leave open ample alternatives for expression.
“Prohibiting all permitless marches is inconsistent with the First Amendment because it would destroy the spontaneity and enthusiasm which public demonstrations of this nature are meant to engender,” he said.
Noel Leader, of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, received show-stopping applause by saying, “If Ray Kelly wants to write laws he should run for office and let the people decide.” He went on to say, “For the police commissioner to act as a legislator smacks of a police state.” Leader faulted the City Council for allowing the commissioner to “whittle away their authority without a whimper.”
“Ray Kelly wasn’t elected by anyone,” echoed Mark Taylor, of Assemble for Rights, the group that mobilized opponents to attend the hearing.
Susan Stetzer, Community Board 3 district manager, said the board had voted in September to oppose any attempt by police to rewrite parade permit rules. Stetzer also complained that the hearing, on the Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend, did not receive adequate public notice. It was not posted on the N.Y.P.D. Web site or revealed in 311 phone calls, she said.
Noah Budnick, of Transportation Alternatives, observed that bike riding in numbers promotes safety. About 15 Critical Mass cyclists rode down to Police Plaza from Union Square on Monday morning escorted by an equal number of police on motor scooters.
“There were more of them than there were of us at first, but a lot of them peeled off by the time we started,” said Rick Krollman, a volunteer with Time’s Up!, the group that sponsors Critical Mass.
At the same time nearby in City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg was meeting with community representatives, including Reverend Al Sharpton, regarding the shooting by police last Saturday in which an unarmed man, Sean Bell, was killed in a hail of 50 shots fired by police investigating a strip club in Jamaica, Queens.
And nearby in Federal Court, a lawsuit filed by a group of protesters who were arrested a few years ago during a protest about the use of Vieques, Puerto Rico, as a naval bombing range was also being heard.