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Report from Chapter NY Chapter Director Barrie Gewanter, June 2009

  • Since November 2008, I have been working with NYCLU attorneys and colleagues in Syracuse to address the need for clarity and accountability regarding the police presence in Syracuse public schools. This issue came to a head after the school resource officer (SRO) assigned to Corcoran High School punched a female student repeatedly in the face. Following NYCLU demand letter to the school district, I participated in several meetings with parents, administrators and civil/human rights colleagues. The school district will soon implement a policy that sets the lines of authority between SROs and school administrators, which was one of our main demands.
  • In April, I received complaints from three parents in the Red Creek School District about an invasive search of their children by district officials and several state troopers. More than 18 students were pulled off a bus destined for the area BOCES and were escorted by state troopers to the high school principal’s office where district employees searched the students’ belongings and clothing. Girls were searched in the presence of male students, administrators and troopers. Some of the students were directed to remove items of clothing or lift their shirts. District officials conducted this invasive search on all of the students even though they suspected only four of using or possessing drugs. The NYCLU has interviewed four families and issued a demand letter to the district superintendant. We are awaiting the district’s official response.
  • This spring, a member of the Cortland City School Board contacted me about a proposed change in the district’s Code of Student Conduct. The proposal would have removed language in the code requiring school officials to consult parents before a student is questioned or searched by police, replacing it with a statement that students had to be informed of their right to remain silent and have an attorney present. After consulting with me, the school board member was able to delay adoption of this change. I followed up with a call to the superintendent and an in-person statement to the full board at its next meeting. The proposal has since been tabled, and returned to a committee, which will consider my recommendations.

We have seen the ugly face of hate in our communities and worked in coalition to respond:

  • Since last November, I have been working with leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community to respond to the murder of Latiesha “Tiesh” Green (born Moses Cannon) on the West Side of Syracuse. The man accused of murdering Tiesh was subsequently indicted on a hate-crime charge. The implication is that this individual, Dwight DeLee, murdered Tiesh because of her sexual orientation or gender identity. The response to this tragedy has included a vigil outside Tiesh’s home, a meeting with the Commissioner of the State Division of Human Rights, a forum entitled Reporting with Respect for area media, and a courtroom presence each time DeLee has appeared before a judge. This is the first time that a murder has ever been prosecuted as a hate crime in Onondaga County. The trial is scheduled to begin July 13th.
  • I have also been in communication with Cortland resident Dan Mullins, since his home was burned to the ground in 2008 by a parolee with a history of hate crimes and white supremacist connections. I have assisted Dan in working with the DA and victims assistance groups, and provided support as the prosecution has progressed. Although facts in the case made it impossible to prosecute it as a hate crime, it is clear to all that Dan was singled out because he is openly gay. The arsonist recently accepted a plea deal and is due to be sentenced this week.
  • For the past year, I have been working with Matthew Lattimer, an official from the Department of Justice Community Relations Service, to identify ways to respond to local concerns about race relations following the appearance of two nooses in government offices. I have helped Mr. Lattimer identify key people in minority communities and government positions and have worked with Julius Edwards, the Director of the City/County Human Rights Commission, to bring many of these people to meetings with Lattimer. He will return again over the summer to begin mediation sessions aimed at addressing tensions between the police and the African-American community. Julius and I will again work together to bring key participants to the table.

We have fought for free speech rights in local cities:

  • I worked for several months to establish reasonable parameters for the use of the street in front of the Syracuse City Hall for the recent Pride Rally and Parade. These negotiations were aimed at striking a balance between the need for Pride organizers to keep aggressive right wing counter-protestors from disrupting these events as they had in the past, and maintaining the rights of these protestors to address their audience.
  • As a result of my intervention with the city attorney in Utica, a Pax Christi group was able to pursue its annual tradition of conducting a socially conscious re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross downtown, without the burden of securing a million-dollar insurance policy.
  • Over a series of months, I worked with the attorney for CENTRO to establish a policy through which protestors can obtain a permit to demonstrate on the grounds of the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse.
  • We also weighed in on the debate over renewing the Cable Franchise Agreement with Time Warner in Syracuse, demonstrating the importance of free speech considerations in supporting cable access TV stations and programs.
  • We also showed a little free speech humor by marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Syracuse with a banner celebrating “The Freedom to Be Green.”

We have lobbied legislators in Albany to pass civil rights legislation:

  • In the past year, I have made three lobbying trips to Albany accompanied by chapter members. We lobbied for passage of the Reproductive Health Act and Rockefeller Drug Law Reform, as well as legislation to address the needs of the LGBT community. Chapter members Dennis Heaphy, Polly Ginsburg, Stephanie Hayes, Donna Reese, Jim Simonis, Ralph Valente, Liz Harris and John Wolf participated in one or more of these efforts.

Our intervention has stopped or forced changes to unconstitutional government policies:

  • After I contacted the personnel director of the Syracuse City School District on behalf of a recently married lesbian couple, the district agreed to change its health benefits sign up procedures so that married LGBT couples would be treated the same as married straight couples. Previously, the district had required all LGBT couples to fill out the additional documentation required to obtain benefits as domestic partners.
  • With the help of Chapter Board members Diane Berry and Sunithi Bajekal, we were able to raise enough opposition to another teen curfew proposal in Utica that it was voted down by an overwhelming margin. This proposal was particularly problematic because it would have imposed a curfew on teens in only one section of the city.
  • After several months of in-person observation of intrusive immigration enforcement activity by Border Patrol officers at the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse, the questioning of every traveler on outbound buses and trains appeared to cease. We like to think that the repeated and watchful presence of our intern Lance Clements and our Board President Dennis Heaphy played some role in this.

We reached out to educate youth, foreign visitors, leadership trainees and voters:

  • I made two presentations to at-risk students in an alternative high school program in Ithaca. Activist Task Force member Stephanie Hayes, a teacher at the school, asked me to talk to the students about how to interact with police. While the presentations went very well, we did not realize how much of a difference they would make until police confronted two students on the streets. In each case, the student modified their behavior and the police interaction did not escalate as had in the past.
  • I talked with visitors from Vietnam and Indonesia about the work of the ACLU and our chapter. These visits were part of an international visitor program supported by the US State Department. John Brule joined me in the lunch meeting with the visitors from Vietnam held at New Century, a north side Vietnamese restaurant.
  • My presentation on the legislative process and the mechanics of lobbying has become a regular feature of an annual Women’s Leadership Training Program given by the American Friends Service Council for lower income and minority women in Syracuse.
  • Prior to the 2008 presidential election, I distributed more than 1,500 ACLU/NYCLU palm cards with information about voting rights and procedures.
  • I helped leaders of four agencies that serve people with disabilities to address dysfunctions in the voting process that may have disenfranchised voters with disabilities in the 2008 presidential election. As a result of several conversations with the two commissioners of the Onondaga County Board of Elections, a 15-minute segment on assisting voters with disabilities was added to the annual training for election inspectors who work at the polls.

New committed and talented volunteers, interns and staff joined our local efforts:

  • In May, we hired a new administrative assistant. Kevin Atwater joined our team to manage our finances and assist me in running the office. This summer we were also pleased to welcome New York Law School student Jill Partridge and Wells College student Breanna Rolland as interns. John Wolf has also joined Rae Roefeld and Ed Johnson on our team of weekly casework volunteers.
  • At the request of the NYCLU, we have formed the first Central New York Activist Task Force. Stephanie Hayes of Cortland and Jeffrey Sterling of Utica joined Barbara Humphries, Donna Reese and Betty Levy of Syracuse in pursuing our first goal – assisting the NYCLU in pushing for reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The NYCLU’s Statewide Advocacy Initiative Coalition has already designated Immigrant’s Rights as the focus of our campaign for the next 10 months. We welcome new people to join the work of our Task Force as we begin this campaign.


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