File spoon-archives/avant-garde.archive/avant-garde_1996/96-11-03.013, message 28

Date: Fri, 20 Sep 1996 08:37:08 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 1st Amendment Freedom: Community Vigilantes: N.Y.C. Community Court (fwd)

Subject: Community Vigilantes: N.Y.C. Community Court

This Community Wants Its Very Own
 Kangaroo Court
                           by Robert Lederman

On Tuesday night (9/17/96) I attended a meeting of
Community Board #2's Community Court Task
Force. As the president of A.R.T.I.S.T., an
advocacy group for N.Y.C. street artists, my concern
is that CB#2 and City Council Member Kathryn Freed
will use the proposed Community Court to further
harass and persecute street artists in SoHo and the
West Village. Having been an artist-defendant a
number of times in the 54th Street Community Court,
which CB#2 acknowledges as their role model, I
wanted to find out just what CB#2 had in mind.

The 54th Street Community Court specializes in
targeting minorities, the poor, the homeless, disabled
veteran vendors and street artists accused of
"violating" the community. These "violations"
usually involve nothing more than being in the area.
It is neither a court of equal justice nor of
constitutional law. This "court" functions as a
mechanism for business interests and local
community "activists" to harass and eliminate so-
called "undesirables" whom the police are unable to
focus attention on while dealing with legitimate
issues of public safety and crime.

Alan Gerson is the chair of the CB#2 Community
Court Task Force. He took issue with a letter I had
written to a local newspaper criticizing the proposed
Court as a vehicle for Council Member Freed's
particular brand of vigilantism and assured me I'd
"...gotten it all wrong". At first, Gerson vigorously
denied that Council Member Freed had anything to do
with the proposed Community Court. Later he
admitted that he was appointed to CB#2 and to the
chair of the Committee by Council Member Freed and
that numerous other board members were also
appointed by Freed. Ms. Freed has built a career on
"quality of life" issues and is working with the Fifth
Avenue Association, the SoHo Alliance and other
real estate interests to eliminate First Amendment
protection for visual art as a means of eliminating
artists from New York City's streets.

Gerson had a large pile of copies of a document he'd
written entitled, "Outline For CB#2's Community
Court". After much pressuring, he allowed me a brief
look at the document and then quickly took it back.
The document was later leaked to me by a board

Like the 54th Street Court on which it is modeled the
goal of CB#2's Court is to address so-called "quality
of life" violations rather than robberies, rapes or
serious criminal offenses. According to Gerson's
outline, "Late night hours would be utilized by the
police to bring individuals they find engaged in illicit
activity to the court for immediate intake." The
"illicit activities" would presumably include
displaying art, playing a radio, loitering,
panhandling, sleeping on the street, distributing
handbills, vending or holding an open beer.

CB#2's proposed court would not just be a vehicle
for police activity. Local residents would be
encouraged to identify quality of life violators and
bring them before the court. "Community
residents...must have standing to initiate 'citizen
suits' alleging the violation of the administrative
code...[by] signing a petition or [by] the endorsement
of the community board." While the initial target of
this neighborhood "cleanup" will be "outsiders", the
outline acknowledges that, "...most such alleged
violations involve accusations among neighbors,
including neighboring residents and businesses". In
other words, anyone with a petty grudge against his
or her neighbor will now have a means of dragging
them into court on the pretext of having violated their
"life quality".

While expressing deep admiration for the 54th Street
Court, CB#2 wants to go even further in their
practice of "justice" than its role model does. "In
criminal violations, the court must be authorized to
conduct trials. In that way our court would differ
>from the Midtown Court which only deals with
defendants who plead guilty, and refers other
defendants to the regular courts. The CB#2 Court
could therefore conduct any necessary trials." In the
midtown court defendants who are not successfully
coerced into pleading guilty and doing community
service are immediately rescheduled for arraignment
in Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street.

Justice will be swift and certain in CB#2's court.
"The Court must be set up to conduct intake for
persons accused of criminal violations...and would
therefore need to include a holding area supervised
by Court Officers. The immediacy of intake would
send a positive message to defendants and potential
defendants using our streets...".

Nevertheless, CB#2 does not intend to sentence
defendants to actual jail time. "Our Community Court
would never impose jail sentences. In addition to
imposing fines, the Court would utilize alternative
sentencing for persons who plead guilty or are found
guilty of criminal violations. The court would retain
jurisdiction over the sentenced defendant until he or
she completes their sentence. Persons who refuse to
complete their sentence, and repeat offenders, would
be referred to the regular criminal court system,
where jail time remains an option." Alternative
sentencing includes cleaning and sweeping CB#2's
streets, painting buildings and doing landscaping and
maintenance for the "community".

Barbara Feldt, a community activist from the 54th
Street Court was a guest speaker at the meeting and
gave us some idea of just how this "alternative
sentencing" works. "My personal interest is in
maintaining trees", she explained. "So I call up the
54th Street Court Supervisor and have them send over
defendants, who I supervise in maintaining the trees
in my neighborhood". When I commented that this
sounded a bit like legalized slavery, she became
offended and assured me that she had never profited
in a personal way from any of the crews assigned to
work under her direction. She also described how she
and other 54th Street Court "community activists"
had obtained the names and addresses of men arrested
by undercover cops who pose as prostitutes and
solicit passing cars, and had written personal letters
to each of their wives.

Unlike the 54th Street court, which was built and
continues to be financed by the Fifth Avenue and
Times Sq. Business Improvement Districts, C.B. #2
believes their court, "...deserves full public
financing from the City and State", and proposes,
" aggressive campaign for grants from the
federal government and from foundations...". The
grants from foundations would include money from
N.Y.U. which could use the court as a, "...wonderful
opportunity for collaboration between the criminal
justice system and higher education".

The trend of developing Community Courts goes hand
in hand with the spread of B.I.D.s (Business
Improvement Districts). Business and community
"leaders" are dissatisfied with the delays caused by
bothersome constitutional protections such as the
First Amendment, due process and civil rights, and
the fact that many judges dismiss quality of life cases
because they know the defendants were arrested due
to their race or social status.

B.I.D.'s and community courts transfer the authority
of duly elected government officials and judges to
local business leaders who make no pretext of
understanding or caring about civil liberties. B.I.D.s
and Community Courts are simply advocates for
property owners and real estate interests. Protecting
the real or imaginary "rights" of property owners is
their sole mission.

Unlike Manhattan Criminal court, where only 80-
90% of the defendants are minorities, at the 54th
Street Community Court virtually 100% of the
defendants are African-American or Latino. Most
know nothing of their legal rights. Almost all accept
a guilty plea and do community service after being
coerced into doing so by their court appointed
lawyer, a judge answerable to and appointed by the
local community and helpful "intake personnel".
They are then used by the same "community
activists" who had them arrested and by the B.I.D.s
as a source of unpaid labor within the community.
The more arrests that are made the greater the supply
of free labor.

Admittedly, this is an ingenious return to the
plantation system which helped build this nation in
the 17th and 18th centuries. Community Court
convict-defendants usually wear orange or other
easily identifiable coveralls emblazoned with the
courts' logo while working out their sentences in the
community. Ms. Feldt calls this forced labor,
" something back to the community".

Rather than creating jobs or addressing social
inequality, this system puts poor people to work as a
punishment for being visible in an otherwise middle-
class or wealthy community. Community Courts are
similar to the vigilante justice practiced by groups
like the Klu Klux Klan and can ultimately lead to the
kind of police state that existed in Nazi Germany and
in the Soviet Union. There, every citizen acted as a
police informer reporting the real or imaginary
transgressions of foreigners, peddlers, outsiders and
eventually, their own neighbors. The motivation is
blatantly racist and classist. In the Manhattan D.A.'s
words it is, "A bad idea whose time has come".

              For more information on A.R.T.I.S.T. contact:
               Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T.
              (Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics)
                (718) 369-2111 E-mail
            A.R.T.I.S.T. web site [a journalistic resource]:

A Selection of Articles on the Street Artist issue......
Daily News 9/8/96 pg. 13, "Law Called Vend-
ictive"; Art In America, March 1996 pg. 128 "New
Allies for Street Artists"; New York Times, Sunday
July 14, 1996, City section pg 1); "The War of
Nerves Downtown; Kathryn Freed's War of Nerves"
[detailed expose of City Council Member Freed];
N.Y. Times 9/1/96 City Section pg 1; "Is This Man
Dangerous? The Portrait Artist in an Age of Zero
Tolerance; Inside the Quality of Life Wars";
Christian Science Monitor Wednesday, February 14,
1996 "Conflict On the Street: Artists v. N.Y.C.";
New York Times Wednesday, January 24, 1996
Metro section pg. B1 "Street Art: Free Speech or Just
Stuff?"; New York Magazine, January 23, 1995 pg 16
"Among the Artlaws"; N.Y. Post 5/26/94 pg. 54,
"Throwing the Book at Artist"; Christian Science
Monitor Thursday, July 14, 1994 pg. 11 "New York
Reins In Street Art";  Time Out Magazine Feb 21-27
1996 pg. 18 "Peddle Pushers"; New York Amsterdam
News Saturday, June 15, 1996 pg. 4 "Artists To Sue
Over First Amendment Right of Speech".

                   Council Member Freed (212) 788-7722
                          C.B.#2 (212) 979-2272
                       Manhattan D.A. (212) 335-9000

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