Tags: Emerging Threats | George Floyd Protests | Law Enforcement | Religion | deblasio | nypd

Filitti: There Are No Civil Rights When Law Not Evenly Applied

new york city mayor bill deblasio in brooklyn new york

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio spoke to health workers, in the borough of Queens, on April 10, 2020, in New York City. (Johnnes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

By    |   Tuesday, 07 July 2020 11:22 AM

In New York and nationally, Americans are facing unprecedented challenges to their health, livelihood, and conscience. In the face of a global pandemic and now civil unrest, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has chosen to throw civil rights by the wayside.

Beginning with a now-infamous tweet singling out "the Jewish community" for violating social distancing guidelines and continuing even now as tens of thousands of New Yorkers march through the streets, he has kept his focus on enforcing these guidelines against Jews specifically.

Amidst a public reckoning over civil rights and bias in policing, the mayor presents perhaps the clearest example of selective discriminatory treatment of a minority group.

This is a civil rights issue and it’s long past time we recognized it as such.

Most New Yorkers — including most Jewish New Yorkers — have taken significant precautions to remain safe during this pandemic.

However, not everyone has exercised due care.

Over the past few months, the media has been replete with images of New Yorkers gathering (in violation of social distancing guidelines) to watch the USNS Comfort dock in New York Harbor, enjoy a warm day in the park, watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds perform a fly-over, congregate in the streets with "take-out" alcoholic drinks, or — even gather for parties in the streets.

None of these groups of non-compliant New Yorkers were called out by the Mayor deBlasio. To the contrary, there are images of police officers handing out face masks to people who did not have them.

The story is quite different in minority communities.

Members of the Jewish community received summonses instead of masks.

Hispanic and African-American New Yorkers were even arrested.

The Lawfare Project, a legal think tank and litigation fund, issued requests to the NYPD and the Office of the Mayor under New York’s Freedom of Information Law to investigate what orders and assignments were given to police officers about enforcing social distancing guidelines, and to examine whether they disproportionately affected New York’s Jewish and other minority communities.

When the law is not applied fairly and evenly to everyone, civil rights violations occur.

Because of the NYPD’s intransigence in responding to these requests, and the ongoing focus of de Blasio’s enforcement efforts on Jewish and other minority communities, The Lawfare Project contacted the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the New York State Attorney General’s Office to present them with a report on disparate enforcement and urge them to undertake investigations into these potentially very serious civil rights violations.

On June 19, the DOJ responded with a letter to Mayor de Blasio, noting that "[d]uring the period in which all gatherings were banned, you reportedly sent police officers to break up numerous gatherings of the Jewish community in New York, including reported outdoor gatherings for funerals."

The DOJ has made it clear to the mayor that the First Amendment protects religious observers against unequal treatment, and he could not discriminate against religious gatherings compared to other nonreligious gatherings. It urged the mayor to "afford gatherings for religious exercise the same respect that you afford gatherings to exercise other First Amendment rights."

The other gatherings the DOJ referred to include, of course, the protests coming after the senseless tragedy of George Floyd’s death, in what seems like a clear violation of his civil rights by Minneapolis Police.

People nationwide, outraged by what they had seen, exercised their First Amendment right to protest — and rightly so. Mayor de Blasio said, "We support peaceful protest in this city," adding that "[t]hese protests have power and meaning."

He even spoke of his respect for his daughter, who participated in one of the protests.

Little mention was made of the fact that protesters were often not wearing face coverings and were certainly gathering in far larger numbers than the mayor’s guidelines allowed.

Furthermore, no mention was made of protesters receiving summonses for violating these guidelines. It certainly seems that protesting — and even the devolution of peaceful protests into looting and riots — immunizes participants from penalties for violating pandemic-related guidelines.

But not so for a group of Jewish families, kicked out of a park in Brooklyn by officers who could have been deployed to prevent the looting and violence occurring at protests a few miles away. Or, for Jewish families who wanted to pray together but were prevented from doing so by police acting on the mayor’s orders.

What does it say about a city's chief executive who thinks it's acceptable for people to gather in large numbers to protest the violation of civil rights, while at the same time he violates the civil rights of other minority communities who simply want to peacefully spend time with their families and perhaps to go to a church or temple to pray?

Why does one group of New Yorkers get preferential treatment, while another suffers indignity and criminal penalties?

As it turns out, the law doesn’t tolerate this kind of preferential treatment.

On June 26, a New York federal court determined that Mayor deBlasio was improperly giving preferential treatment to protesters, finding that the mayor’s decision to limit religious gatherings while encouraging and condoning protests "resulted in the curtailment of fundamental rights without compelling justification."

According to the court in Soos, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., "[t]he City’s argument that temporary selective enforcement of the challenged laws with respect to mass race protests is a matter of public safety . . . would perhaps be legitimate but for Mayor de Blasio’s simultaneous pro-protest/anti-religious gathering messages, which clearly undermine the legitimacy of the proffered reason for what seems to be a clear exemption, no matter the reason."

In essence, the court sent a clear message to Mayor de Blasio that his double standards are unconstitutional — he can’t impose greater restrictions on religious gatherings than he can on protesters or, for that matter, on restaurants and other businesses.

The mayor cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce or who to enforce them against.

Nor can he play favorites when it comes to whose rights are more "important."

The thousands of people protesting should serve as a reminder to the mayor that we are all equal under the law, and double standards are simply unacceptable.

No civil right violations should be allowed to be swept under the rug.

The mayor and his administration have a chance to fight for change by acknowledging their own shortcomings and allowing the public to be a part of an open and transparent conversation.

Now is the time to reckon with the brutal consequences of racism and inequality in America. We can't forget that civil rights violations like the ones we’ve seen in New York City during this pandemic help fuel inequality and injustice.

Just like the police officers in Minneapolis need to be held accountable for the death of George Floyd — the ultimate deprivation of his civil rights — it's essential that Mayor de Blasio be held accountable for his violation of the civil rights of New York’s Jewish and other minority communities.

When unaddressed by law, the words and actions of an elected official can easily create an institutionalized bias against minorities that, taken to the extreme, can result in more tragedies like Floyd’s death.

Gerard Filitti is Senior Counsel at The Lawfare Project, a legal think tank and litigation fund dedicated to defending the civil and human rights of the Jewish people.

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We can't forget that civil rights violations like the ones we’ve seen in New York City during this pandemic help fuel inequality and injustice.
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Tuesday, 07 July 2020 11:22 AM
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