By Maurice Pinzon – Opinion
During recent weeks New Yorkers demanding change have confronted a small army of police. As we have seen on cable news and Twitter videos, these confrontations can be perilous to protesters, especially since the point of the protests has been to challenge inappropriate and racist police practices. Additionally, the rallies and marches on city streets are occurring as the city grapples with an epidemic that has ripped the city apart.
Is this the only way to demand change?
How did it come to this in one of the most liberal cities in this nation? Why is City Hall inaccessible? How can it be that semi-automatic weapon-wielding protestors are allowed to enter Michigan’s state Capitol to oppose Governor Whitmer’s coronavirus emergency orders, but New Yorkers can’t easily go to City Hall to advocate for step-by-step reform?
Well, that’s because Rudy Giuliani was once mayor, and it hasn’t been easy to get anywhere near the building since then. Protests are prohibited on the plaza in front of the building. There are limits to the size of news conferences, and close to impossible to hold one without a government sponsor. I’ve been going to City Hall first as a council aide, then as a reporter and photojournalist for a couple of decades. The last time I was there in May of 2018, I entered by the east gate to City Hall Plaza without a press card or City employee I.D. A police officer greeted me and asked me where I was going.
“Inside City Hall,” I said.
“To see who?” he asked.
“Does it matter? I have a right to be inside, it’s a public building. I’m not going to tell you who I’m seeing,” I responded.
“You need to tell me or I can’t let you in,” he said.
Then he turned on his body-camera as he told me to step away.
I wasn’t allowed to enter until I called the Mayor’s office for assistance. The officer’s supervisor told me later, “Well there have been people roaming City Hall.” Could be lobbyists, I thought, because surely, they have the run of the place.
It wasn’t always so.
Since 1812 when City Hall opened, the plaza and steps leading up to City Hall have been our central municipal public square. People gathered there to protest, gain media coverage, or perhaps announce a bid for public office. In addition, folks could get the attention of elected officials walking in and out of the building. Especially, as the city council and the mayor were negotiating the city budget in May and June, advocates and supporters would flood the plaza and the building to make sure funding was in place for programs they supported. Multiple news conferences would take place simultaneously. It was as rowdy and loud as you would expect in New York.
In September 1992, then-Mayor Dinkins proposed a bill to create an all-civilian complaint review board to monitor the police department, after numerous police brutality complaints. At the time, Rudy Giuliani was about to challenge Mayor Dinkins for office for a second time. When off-duty cops had a rally near City Hall to oppose the mayor’s proposed law, Giuliani helped egg-on 10,000 off-duty cops that subsequently forced Mayor Dinkins’ security detail to close the front doors to prevent the protesting off-duty cops from rushing the building. According to news reports at the time, some of the same off-duty police officers hurled racist insults at staff entering City Hall, including a racial slur to then Brooklyn council member Una Clarke.
Mayor Giuliani during his second term, ordered the construction of a metal gate around the plaza with guard posts, chains, and permanent metal barriers. He moved the metal detectors that used to be inside the building to the front gates on the West and East entrances to the plaza. Giuliani claimed it was because of terrorist attacks at U.S. embassies in Africa.
When the attack did come, on 9/11, it was aimed at a national symbol of American power and commerce within the city, not City Hall. In fact, Giuliani had decreased the city’s ability to respond effectively because he had placed the city’s emergency command center at the World Trade Center, against the advice of security experts.
When Michael Bloomberg succeeded Giuliani, he kept the barriers at City Hall, but in July 2003, a deranged male constituent shot Councilmember James Davis. The council member had invited him to attend a meeting as his guest. Both men were allowed to bypass metal detectors, a then common courtesy to council members. After the shooting, that exception was abolished by Mayor Bloomberg.
In retrospect, what the Giuliani barrier has done is to effectively limit the democratic space where law-abiding New Yorkers can take their grievances directly to their most local elected officials, and be heard. Since then, the city’s 311 system, developed under Mayor Bloomberg, has further distanced New Yorkers from direct contact with their city representatives, even as it has provided a more efficient way to make neighborhood complaints.
I had been going to City Hall for many years, so I knew who to call to eventually get inside. But what about one of the 20-something protestors who would rather take a less confrontational approach to change how the police work? What if she simply wants to enter City Hall to see if she can talk to her council member, as lobbyists do all the time. Her first encounter will be with a police officer, who will likely ask her the same questions he asked me.
It’s no wonder most people assume they have no right to go anywhere near the building where their elected officials hold public hearings. If you don’t have a specific meeting or appointment, you will simply not be allowed to enter. And what if the details you have to tell the police officer at the front gate is that you’re going to a hearing on legislation that his union has told him is anti-cop.
If you get past the first officer, there are still one or two additional officers by the x-ray screening machines. Fine if they’re checking for weapons. But why should you be greeted by the police department asking you what you’re doing at City Hall?
Why not hire a civilian from the mayor’s office to greet and direct people, or better yet, someone from the office of the New York City Public Advocate’s office?