Free speech supporters decry New York’s selective social distancing enforcement

Police take nine people into custody at City Hall Park on Saturday.

First Amendment advocates in New York City believe the NYPD and City Hall are going too far in taking punitive actions against protesters during the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest incident happened on Saturday afternoon at City Hall Park, where nine people were taken into custody after protesting the ongoing New York PAUSE program, which aims to curb the coronavirus spread through business closures and public gathering bans. That episode capped a week in which a number of rallies and other gatherings were either stopped or severely curtailed. 

Civil rights advocates have also criticized the administration for their assembly crackdown that has resulted in 68% of black and brown people receiving summonses, with 25% Latino residents and 7% white residents being summonsed by police.

The May 9 rally at City Hall Park saw a phalanx of police officers quickly descended on the anti-lockdown demonstrators. The rally’s organizer claimed the protesters “were all socially distanced by six or more feet and wore masks.”

The episode happened after a similar May 1 protest was also broken up by cops. During that incident, the anti-lockdown protesters and a group of counter-demonstrators were ejected from the park. Cops did not issue any summonses then or make any arrests.

On May 3, during a protest organized by members of Reclaim Pride at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center on the East Side, about 50 officers descended on the group. The protest was directed largely against the hospital’s affiliation with Samaritan’s Purse, a group they say preaches “homophobia,” and conservative life-styles.

That group of about 10 people maintained social distancing in excess of six feet and one woman was given a summons standing more than 10 feet from anyone.

Ann Northrop was given a summons for the gathering, even though she wore PPE and was socially distant from anyone. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

But even as these gatherings were broken up, at least five other rallies involving large numbers of essential workers went on. This included demonstrations by the New York State Nurses Association, a press conference by the Uniformed Firefighters Association and several press gaggles by the mayor in which police had a clear hands off approach.

At one rally on May 7, more than 50 nurses, bystanders and members of the media gathered at the roadway entrance to Rikers Island in Queens where the New York State Nurses Association was seeking a “seat at the table” in deciding health care policy in the state. Corrections cops were more concerned that they were blocking the signage to the facility than the gathering itself.

Police from the 114th Precinct remained across the street and didn’t engage those gathered.

The nurses union held three other rallies of 20 or more demonstrators without police interference across from Bellevue Hospital, Brooklyn Hospital and at Brookfield Properties at World Financial Center where security attempted to force the rally to leave, but were unsuccessful because police did not intervene. 

Nurses union get together at World Financial Center at 200 Vesey Street. (Photo by Lloyd Mitchell)

The Uniformed Firefighters Association also held a press gaggle outside their headquarters on East 23rd Street on Wednesday where they trashed the idea that first responders jobs might be lost in a financial crunch. Police from the same precinct that tried to interrupt Reclaim Pride, did not intervene.

Tom Zmich, an organizer of those demonstrating against economic lockdown at City Hall Park, says the crackdown is a “tale of two cities,” one in which those government doesn’t agree with are arrested, while those in favor can do as they wish.

“We were all social distanced, six feet apart, if not 5 feet, 8 inches,” Zmich said. “The law should be applied equally and this will not stand up in court. The mayor clearly doesn’t want protests. This is tyranny.”

First Amendment attorney Norman Siegel wrote a letter to the mayor and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea on behalf of Reclaim Pride’s demonstration at Mt. Sinai in which he stated:

“At the press conference participants wore face masks and were at a social distance of at least 6 feet from each other. The police issued a summons to Reclaim Pride member Ann Northrop for ‘Violating an Emergency Measure by Mayor.’ It is my understanding that photojournalists were informed that if they took pictures, they too could be issued summonses.”

Siegel went on to criticize the city for taking away constitutional rights: “The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to peacefully protest in public spaces. It states that government may not ‘abridg[e] the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.'”

About a dozen protestors against the partnership of Mt Sinai Hospital with Samaritan’s Purse because of homophobic ideology, came to a head as cops moved in to break up the gathering, even threatening journalists covering the event, lieutenant tries to convince media to leave, but was satisfied that people gave more space.(Photo by Todd Maisel)

The NYPD has also been criticized for enforcement disparity based on race, with several incidents being shown on social media of incidents with police becoming violent, thus adding to the controversy.

Reverend Al Sharpton criticized the city for this disparity, also calling it “a tale of two cities.”

Asked about the disparity during his Sunday morning press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t have an explanation, but insisted that “nobody should be gathering” during the pandemic.

“This is common sense. We are in a time in history where you can get your point across without gathering including social media such as Twitter, plenty of methodologies to use and you don’t need to gather,” de Blasio said. “It doesn’t make sense in a pandemic for people to protest in public. If you attempt to gather, you are endangering people and that is the job of the NYPD not to let that happen.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police captain himself, called on the NYPD to get “out of the business of social distancing.” He recognized that the enforcement was causing a rift with the department and community.

The mayor announced on May 10 that 2,300 people would be going out to parks and other gathering places to advise people on social distancing and distribute masks to the public. This, de Blasio indicated, would take some of the onus off of the NYPD and possibly reduce the number of summonses being issued.

De Blasio did not directly address the inconsistencies in social distancing enforcement involving recent protests.

“I am a huge believer in the First Amendment, but if instructions are not followed, then the police are right to summons,” de Blasio said Sunday. “I just don’t know why anyone is gathering and it is out of step with the times and if any one wants to express themselves, they should do it online.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Dan Nigro at this gathering helped distribute food at EMS station 4 in Manhattan from Harolds Restaurant from the Lower East Side. (Photo by Todd Maisel)


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