Report from Chapter Director Barrie Gewanter

June 2011 -- Usually in these reports, I provide you with a litany of the things we have done over the past 12 months.

In this report, I want to focus on what has impressed me the most about our efforts and results: the cross-cultural and collaborative links we have fostered, and the coalition work we have been able to initiate and support as a result.

The NYCLU continues to work collaboratively and successfully on key issues statewide, but here in Central New York, the levels of cooperation and unity this year have truly inspired me and given me hope.

Here is some of what has happened as we have worked together across communities to wield collective demands for accountability, justice, and change.
 

The Formation and Work of the United as One Coalition in Syracuse

Some of this work has been spurred by tragedy. In May 2010, Chuniece Patterson, a young Africa-American woman, died at the Onondaga County Jail. She had writhed in agony for hours from an ectopic pregnancy. Kathleen Rumpf and I learned that custody and medical staff dismissed her cries and ignored pleas from other inmates to help her until it was too late. Kathleen recalled how the circumstances of her death were eerily similar to the death of Lucinda Bates 10 years ago from the same kind of medical crisis.

Then in August 2010, Raul Pinet Jr., a young Latino man, died after being carried into the jail, forcibly restrained and left lying face down in a rubber-lined cell. One deputy who tried to prevent Pinet’s death recalls the young man pleading, “Please don’t let them kill me. Please don’t let me die here.” After Pinet’s death, I got a call from Luz Encarnacion, the president of the League of United Latino Citizens. She asked me to join the Pinet family at Garland funeral home to document the condition of his body when it arrived from the morgue. Then we interviewed witnesses that had been present at the time of his arrest. Our investigations had made it clear: The deaths of Pinet and Patterson were preventable.

A few days after attending Pinet’s funeral, I got a call from the presidents of the local NAACP and the National Action League (NAN). We discussed how to respond to these two tragic deaths. I urged that we join together and turn our collective outrage into collective action. I asked them to reach out to Encarnacion and suggested we all organize community meeting. They agreed and we set to work. The NAACP hosted the first meeting at Hopps Memorial C.M.E. Church. Members of the Pinet family were present, as were people from the African-American, Latino, LGBT, disability and peace advocacy communities. Later, an activist group called the ANSWER Coalition held a meeting on the jail at the ArtRage Gallery. Encarnacion and members of the Patterson Family were key speakers. We combined lists of attendees from both events and called an organizational meeting to plan further action related to the conditions and medical care at the jail.

The result was the formation of a coalition we now call United as One. It is the most diverse civil rights coalition that I have seen in Syracuse. Our first collective action was a protest march from a predominately African-American neighborhood to a predominately Latino neighborhood and then to the jail. About 100 of us walked, chanted and sang. At the jail, 100 more joined us for a rally. Inmates from inside called out that they heard us. Soon after, the organizers of this event worked through the details of how this new coalition would persist, focus and function. Together we agreed that our mission would be to seek accountability and transparency from law enforcement in Syracuse and Onondaga County.

Since then, coalition members have:

  • Spoken at the county budget hearing, voicing strong questions and objections about the proposal to privatize medical and mental health care at the jail;
  • Insisted that community discussions be held before the City Council considered funding for the Syracuse Police Department to install surveillance cameras in the Near West Side neighborhood;
  • Demanded public input into the police policy that would guide the use of surveillance cameras;
  • Requested a meeting with county officials to review issues related to medical care at the jail and their oversight of the new private company contracted to provide that care;
  • Held a Know Your Rights training hosted by the pastor of the church were Chuniece Patterson’s family worships.

Currently, United as One is monitoring the Common Council’s process to reform the Civilian Review Board, drafting a flyer about how to seek redress for police misconduct, and planning vigils on the anniversaries of Patterson and Pinet’s death.
 

Other Moments of Impact Born from Networking and Collaborations

Sometimes our results have come from networking that leads to unexpected connections. One such moment came on Yom Kippur, when I went to observe the court appearance of a Somali refugee, a woman who was blind, physically and mentally disabled, and used a wheelchair. I had learned about her from an informant in the jail. I went to visit this woman and walked away shaking with anger and frustration. The jail staff simply did not have the resources to communicate with her or to meet her basic needs. She did not belong in that facility. I emailed our chapter’s Legal Committee about the situation. A few days later, I went to court to watch as her case came before the judge. Ed Klein, a criminal defense attorney who serves on the NYCLU Board and on the chapter’s Legal Committee, arrived on an unrelated court matter. He indicated that he had read my email about this woman’s situation. He introduced me to a Somali interpreter he’d worked with. The woman’s husband and son arrived. We spoke to them through the interpreter. Her lawyer did not show up to court. At the judge’s request, Ed agreed to represent her. He asked that she be released from jail to her family. The judge granted Ed’s request over the prosecutor’s objection. She has been with her family ever since.

I’ve already mentioned our efforts to question the police camera surveillance program in Syracuse. However, I also met with a deputy police chief and a key Common Council member to discuss changes to the Police Department’s draft policy regulating the use of these cameras. I had prepared a list of about 60 comments from my analysis of the draft policy. Some of my points focused on civil liberties issues, but a lot of it addressed clarity and consistency within the language of the policy. A month or so later, I learned that police officials had adopted more than three-quarters of my suggestions.

In another unexpected collaboration, U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, a conservative Republican, asked to meet with me about Fourth Amendment issues concerning the Patriot Act. I had attended one of her town meetings, and approached her afterwards to challenge her on cuts to family planning funds, but also to say that she had misstated a key provision of the Patriot Act. I gave her my card and offered to explain that provision in more detail. A few weeks later I got a hand written note asking me to schedule an appointment. The meeting lasted for about 40 minutes. She listened intently while I reviewed the ways in which sections of the Patriot Act violated Fourth Amendment guarantees. It turned out that she had received criticism from her “Tea Party” constituents about her initial vote to extend provisions of the Patriot Act. She said that she really needed my briefing. I’m still in periodic contact with her and her lead aide. It just goes to show that the ACLU is truly a non-partisan organization.

While this relationship with Buerkle developed, so did the fight over proposed cuts to federal family planning funds and attacks on Planned Parenthood. I helped Planned Parenthood organize two demonstrations in the federal plaza in Syracuse. Both demonstrations were quite successful and I’m proud of our continuing support for reproductive rights and health services.

We also have an especially strong contingent of NYCLU activists in Utica. It is through people like Polly Ginsberg, Diane Berry, Kim Landon, and Sunithi Bajekal that I remain alert and responsive to civil liberties developments in that region. Polly took the lead in creating the support group that stood with Grace Pruitt throughout her struggle with the Utica Police Department. Diane created the “Smash the Blue Glass Ceiling” facebook page, and continues to watch for constitutional issues in the Utica City Council. (We are dealing with several such issues now.) Sunithi is my link to the Utica NAACP and the Peace Community there, and Kim has led two decades of Banned Book event at Utica College. Without their efforts, we would not have as strong a presence in Utica.
 

Successful statewide Collaboration with NYCLU Colleagues Around the State

I’m in constant contact with staff in our New York City headquarters, and with chapter colleagues around the state. Twice this spring, folks from the chapter joined NYCLU activists from around the state in Albany to lobby on important statewide issues. I am still working regularly with lawyers from our New York City office on our landmark litigation to reform the public defense system in New York State, and also on the case of a student who was tasered at Fowler High School in Syracuse. Meanwhile, our local casework volunteers John Wolf and Rae Rohfeld continue to screen requests for legal assistance.

This year, the NYCLU’s statewide advocacy efforts have truly born fruit. The NYCLU was a key actor in the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act in the State Legislature last year, and in Governor Cuomo’s recent suspension of the federal immigration dragnet program known as “Secure Communities.” These were major wins and each NYCLU Chapter had a role in helping to get it done.

And as I write this report, we are just one vote away from passing a marriage fairness bill in the State Senate. We had a respectable contingent in this year’s Syracuse Pride parade thanks to Dennis Heaphy, Ned Spencer, Ned, Chris Waters, David Reed, Sunithi Bajekal and new intern Trevor Raushi. I’ve been visible on this issue this month in Syracuse media. However, NYCLU lobbying in Albany and phone banking in places like Buffalo, Rochester, Westchester, and Long Island have been key in getting us to this point.

Update: Our hard work paid off. New York is now the largest state to give lesbian and gay couples the freedom to marry!