Stroll Around with 50 of Your Closest Friends
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ex-mayor and authoritarian nonpareil Rudolph Giuliani wasn’t all that big on freedom of assembly. Among other things, Hizzoner worked tirelessly to make City Hall (once host to all manner of demonstrations) a no-protest zone, obstructing even city council members’ attempts to hold press conferences on the building’s steps.
It’s been under Giuliani successor Michael Bloomberg, however, that the city has really tightened the screws on parades and public gatherings. Perhaps the first sign of things to come arrived in early 2003 when demonstrators protesting the impending Iraq War were denied permission to march past the U.N. building and rerouted several blocks north instead. Given that the city was then operating under Homeland Security Threat Level Orange, said rerouting was widely viewed as a reasonable enough precaution and the protesters seen for the dirty, whiny hippies that they were. Five years later, the dirty, whiny hippies were right, Threat Level Orange is a daily joke, and Bill Kristol has a column at the New York Times. So, basically, we all kind of lost.
In the meantime, though, there was also the 2004 Republican Convention’s great grass debacle, in which Bloomberg decided that Central Park’s sod must not be sacrificed in the name of political protest, and, most recently, the NYPD’s 2007 rewriting of the parade rules to require a permit for groups of 50 or more. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for permits every bit as much as the next fellow, but when a local law enforcement agency with no actual legislative power decides to unilaterally determine the parameters within which eight million or so citizens can exercise their First Amendment rights, well, a person doesn’t have to be Norm Siegel to cry foul.
Visit Downtown On the Down-Low
If you’re camera shy, you might want to wrap up any business you’ve got downtown in the next year or so. After that it’s going to get pretty hard to venture below Canal Street without posing for a portrait.
Meet the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative — Bloomberg’s plan to swaddle the southern tip of the island in a security blanket comprising some 3,000 cameras, license plate readers, a command center and movable roadblocks. Modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel”, the $90 million (according to recent estimates) project aims to achieve total surveillance of the public’s comings, goings and doings about the streets of Lower Manhattan. It’ll be kind of like having City Hall constantly posting status updates to your Facebook profile. (“Adam Bonislawski is enjoying a Chipotle burrito at the intersection of Broadway and Stone.”) Creepy? A little bit. Illegal? Thus far, not so much.
As a matter of fact, even before this latest scheme, New York was swimming with all manner of surveillance cameras both public and private. Three years ago, a study conducted by the NYCLU found some 2,200 surveillance cameras in Greenwich Village and Soho alone. Thousands more operate all across the city. On the street, in the subway, in elevators and office buildings, inside stores, outside apartments — from the moment you head out in the morning until you return at the end of the day, you can pretty much assume you’re always being watched by someone. Consider it just a little something to keep in mind the next time you’re thinking of running to the bodega in that t-shirt with the pit stains. After all, as a resident of a city under constant surveillance, don’t you owe it to yourself to never leave the house looking anything less than your best?
“We can dance if we want to,” sang the boys of Men Without Hats. But while that might have flown in Montreal, New York is a different story. In 1926, the city, in an attempt to push back against creeping societal scourges like interracial dancing and the Lindy Hop, passed a package of “cabaret laws” regulating nightlife establishments in the five boroughs. They were enforced over the years with varying degrees of vigilance (ensuring, among other things, that musicians like Billie Holiday and Thelonius Monk were banned for a time from performing on city stages) before falling into well-deserved obsolescence several decades back.
In fact, everyone had more or less forgotten about the things until 1997, when then-mayor Giuliani dusted off an old provision outlawing dancing save for in specially licensed venues and took it up as yet another cudgel in his quality-of-life campaign. The mayor used the law to shut down establishments the city deemed overly rowdy or in some way a nuisance, a practice that has continued (albeit somewhat less enthusiastically) under the Bloomberg administration. And so we’re provided such curious delights as “No Dancing” signs taped to the walls of dive bars and occasional confrontations between unaware out-of-towners and the barkeeps forced to scold them for tearing it up a touch too vigorously to ‘Little Red Corvette’. Ladies and Gentleman, we give you New York City — the Nightlife Capital of America! Sigh. Where’s Kevin Bacon when you need him?
Add To Your Photo Album
Should you ever have cause to snap a picture of West Chelsea’s Bayview Correctional Facility, tread carefully. Otherwise, you might end up as I did on a recent winter afternoon, detained by an overzealous prison guard concerned that I was, as he put it, “casing the place for a breakout.” I wasn’t. I was just rounding up a little art for a story. And, after a few calls to the local precinct, and the intercession of a pair of plainclothes police, I was sent on my way. Still, it was kind of a hassle.
Bloomberg’s subway photo restrictions got shouted down a few years back, but street photography seems to have retained its shady reputation among the city’s law enforcement crowd. For example, the pair of cops who last December handcuffed and hauled off Columbia grad student Arun Wiita for photographing the entrance to a subway station. Or the MTA security guard who in early February tried to confiscate the video camera of artist Katherin McInnis as she stood on a Brooklyn sidewalk shooting Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards development site.
A year after the mayor’s photo ban attempt fell through, the MTA (at the behest of the NYCLU) sent out a memo further reminding its staff and city police that there is no prohibition on photographing MTA property. Apparently not everyone got the message. This is the problem with people who don’t check their work email.
Keep It Zipped On the Subway
Two weeks after the 2005 London Tube bombings, New York put in place procedures for random bag checks of subway passengers. Two weeks after that, the NYCLU, in a move that surprised approximately no one, filed a lawsuit to stop said bag checks. Also not terribly surprising — they lost.
Since then, subway luggage searches have occurred with roughly the same frequency as Knick playoff appearances, and the citizenry has by and large forgotten about the whole thing. Having grown accustomed over the years to emptying out our bags at airports, museums, baseball stadiums, what-have-you, we were apparently so inured to the inconvenience and injustice of it all that we really couldn’t bother caring (a 2005 Quinnipiac University poll put public support for the measures at just over 70%). For some, this reaction suggested a society of feckless automatons slouching towards Oceania. For others it indicated a reasonably well-adjusted populace willing (regardless of what Benjamin Franklin might have advised) to on occasion swap a bit of personal liberty for security. For still others it was simply the tack a person would naturally take toward a half-assed security measure that promised to be neither especially obtrusive nor particularly effective. For your drug delivery guy it meant that it was time to buy a bike.
Own a gun
Wait, what? We know, we know, but one would have to be a rather hearty hypocrite to agitate for civil liberties, yet ignore old numero dos simply because it’s the favorite amendment of the tobacco-stained. It’s not impossible to get a legal handgun in New York, but it’s certainly not easy. Of the city’s eight million-plus residents, about 36,000 of them possess handgun licenses. Doing the math, that’s some .45% of the population. Your more enthusiastic firearm proponents have long complained that it’s because the NYPD’s licensing process (an undeniably tedious slog involving a battery of forms and a personal interview) unduly inconveniences law-abiding New Yorkers looking to get their gun on. On the one hand, it probably ought to be something of a hassle to get a handgun permit. On the other hand, the fact that applicants often shell out hundreds of dollars hiring “licensing attorneys” to guide them through the process suggests that this hassle might have gotten a bit out of hand.
Beyond that, there’s just the general notion that there’s something infantilizing about having to ask permission to defend yourself. Countering that notion, of course, is the fact that so many of us still act like children.
Recite The Bill of Rights At a Group of Cops While Done Up In a Flashy Whitesuit
Last June, the Church of Stop Shopping’s white-suited patriarch, the Reverend Billy, gathered in Union Square with a number of his fellow freespeech enthusiasts to shout the First Amendment at a group of police in protest of the NYPD’s Critical Mass crackdown and new parade restrictions. (Go to YouTube and enter “Reverend Billy Arrest” for the video.) Several minutes into the demonstration, Billy was cuffed and stuffed into a white police van, the official charge at the time “Harassment of a Public Official.” At no time during the arrest did any of the cops/”public officials” utter the word “irony.” Any way you try to frame or reframe it (and there are huge packs of D.O.J. lawyers constantly trying to do just that), to arrest a man for reading the Bill of Rights is kind of ridiculous. Even if he’s reading it again and again and again and again and refuses to quiet down when you ask him to. Unless, say, he’s doing it in your living room. Then pretty much anything goes. •