What Ever Happened to Human Rights?

The human rights laws of New York City and State are so poorly enforced by their respective human rights agencies that a victim's chance for justice is next to nothing.

This charge is made against the city in a scathing December report from the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (ABCNY). The same charge is leveled against the state in a lawsuit naming Governor George Pataki by chapters of the National Organization for Women that is a live issue in the gubernatorial campaign. Much of this deterioration occurred while most civil rights leaders did nothing.

The City Human Rights Commission, which dates to the La Guardia administration, was created to process expeditiously discrimination complaints, investigate systemic discrimination, and promote better relations between communities. It was at one time famous for exposing racial discrimination among real estate agents by sending out black and white "testers" to inquire about apartment availability.

Under Mayor Giuliani, said Craig Gurian, author of the bar's study on the City Commission on Human Rights, "this was one city with two standards. If it was law enforcement, it was important, unless it was anti-discrimination law enforcement." Giuliani's spokesperson refused comment.

Starting in the fiscally constricted Dinkins years and accelerating during the flush Giuliani terms, the city commission's budget was slashed by 75 percent. Staff went from 152 in 1992 to 37 today. "This was Giuliani's way to eliminate the agency without the political cost of coming out and saying that it was eliminated," Gurian said.

Giuliani ended his term perversely by getting charter status for the defunded commission from the voters. But the agency has a chronic backlog of almost 4000 cases, and most languish for years*sometimes to the point where witnesses and even plaintiffs cannot be located. When the commission does settle cases, awards average $2000*hardly a deterrent to discriminators. And there is virtually no use of the commission's power to investigate systemic discrimination in particular sectors with the use of testers.

How could this happen in a city that is home to some of the most active civil rights groups in the country? (I include myself in that indictment, having served on the commission in the early 1990s and lobbied hard to minimize budget cuts then.) Why did we surrender to Giuliani's cuts?

City Councilmember Christine Quinn, a Chelsea Democrat, said, "The devastation at the HRC is a result of what a good strategist Mayor Giuliani was. He had all of us on the left fighting on so many fronts that we couldn't protect all of them."

Steve DiBrienza, who had oversight of the commission as chair of the City Council's General Welfare Committee until this year, said, "We would ask them why they were decimating their field units, and they would say that they're a law enforcement agency. The loss of staff belied what they were saying. But it just wasn't as dramatic and high profile an issue as Giuliani's destruction of things like the Division of AIDS Services and homeless services."

"Maybe it reflected a shift in the political climate," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But it is unacceptable that the backlog is such that the commission does not provide meaningful recourse."

Dennis deLeon, Dinkins' human rights commissioner, who now heads the Latino Commission on AIDS, said Giuliani came in pledging to treat the HRC as a law enforcement agency, but didn't follow through as mayor. Nor did Rudy do the kind of press conferences on high-profile cases that "Koch and Dinkins did to say, 'If you do discriminate, we will come after you,' " said deLeon. "Giuliani had no interest in these issues."

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has given some signals that he will treat human rights violations more seriously than Giuliani. At his inauguration, he said, "I will not allow any form of bias to drain our energy or divide our communities." His appearances with the Reverend Al Sharpton are seen as one sign that he wants to be a more unifying figure than his predecessor. Bloomberg is, however, marching in the discriminatory Saint Patrick's Day parade on March 16, pledging to "work from within" to end its exclusion of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. He resigned from several discriminatory clubs just prior to his mayoral bid rather than work from within them.

While the mayor insists that he will put more resources into the police department if crime rises, there is no new money to fight the thousands of alleged violations of the city's human rights law. Bloomberg's preliminary budget keeps the HRC at about $3 million, far short of the minimum $20 million the ABCNY says is necessary.

Giuliani's human rights commissioner, Marta Varela, refused to be interviewed but agreed with the bar association that the HRC's Law Enforcement Bureau needs "more resources." Bloomberg's appointee, Patricia Gatling, a former prosecutor with the Brooklyn district attorney, said she was not ready to comment, having just taken office last week. But Matt Foreman, a gay activist and criminal justice professional who served on the mayor's transition team, said, "She is not the kind of person who will take over an agency that is not permitted to act forcefully."

The New York State Division of Human Rights is arguably in even worse shape today with a backlog of close to 10,500 cases*even though there were nearly 17,000 when it was sued in 1994 in NYS/NOW v. Pataki. (The numbers are down in part because some old cases were thrown out after plaintiffs or witnesses were lost.) "We didn't endorse Mario Cuomo in 1994 because he wouldn't settle the case," said former NOW state president, Noreen Connell. Things are still so bad that David Raff, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said that Pataki's recent call for passage of the gay rights bill was "pandering*telling the gay community you'll get rights but not putting in a single dime to support those rights." Complainants to the division face a wait of "seven to 10 years," Raff said, by which time it is often impossible to assemble case witnesses.

The state gay bill passed the assembly January 28 as it has for years, this time by a record 115-to-27 margin. The Republican-run senate has refused to vote on it for 31 years, despite Pataki's support and, more recently, that of Majority Leader Joe Bruno. But Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, which lobbies for the bill, is not trying to get more money for the state Human Rights division that will have to enforce it. "It will be on our agenda as soon as we're included in the law and not a moment before," he said. He favors "systemic reform" of the agency, not more money.

Matthea Marquart, president of NOW/NYC, said Pataki "is saying to corporations, 'You locate here and we'll stall your Title VII claims.' The Division of Human Rights has become a corporate perk."

Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Andrew Cuomo and Comptroller H. Carl McCall wrote separate letters to Pataki in January urging him to boost the division. McCall cited his October audit showing that "case processing time has increased" and called on Pataki to settle the case with NOW. Cuomo said that the "massive backlog" necessitates an increase in the division's budget from $12.5 million to $37 million annually. (Pataki has put in for a $35,000 increase.)

Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, said backlogs at the city and state human rights commissions have been a "chronic problem" going back to the days when Eleanor Holmes Norton headed the city agency in the 1970s. "They need budgets sufficient to the size of the problem," he said, "which on race, gender, and sexual orientation is huge."

"It's Time to Enforce the Law: A Report on Fulfilling the Promise of the New York City Human Rights Law" is online at www.abcny.org.


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