Physically distanced, you can line up at Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, or for a soup kitchen, but Mayor Bill de Blasio is asserting an emergency power to ban all outdoor First Amendment activity even if people wear masks and follow distancing guidelines.
When Reclaim Pride tried to hold a press conference on Sunday, May 3 outside Mount Sinai Beth Israel on First Avenue at 16th Street to condemn the embrace of the anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse by the hospital, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a dozen physically distanced members of Reclaim Pride and Rise and Resist — all wearing masks — were ordered to disperse “immediately” under threat of arrest by a police officer who over his bullhorn said, “Gatherings of any kind have been prohibited by the governor and the mayor. This gathering is unlawful.”
The distanced placard holders did disperse, but the press conference went forward — but not before the police threatened to stop it and to arrest some of the press covering it. The only summons — for criminal violation of “an emergency measure by Mayor” — was issued to Ann Northrop of Reclaim Pride, one of the leaders of the action.
In reaction to Reclaim Pride’s push against Franklin Graham, demos are out
Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who worked with Reclaim Pride to secure their right to hold the first Queer Liberation March last June, called the bust of the press conference “extremely troubling” and “an abuse of police power.”
“I watched it online,” Siegel said. “People were wearing masks and were at least six feet apart.”
He said elected officials have press conferences — including Cuomo, who does so without a mask — and this is “selective enforcement.”
“We have to respect medical guidelines,” Siegel said, “but we also have to respect the First Amendment rights of New Yorkers.”
He is prepared to go to court to protect this right. (Siegel’s May 5 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea is at tinyurl.com/y7b4jawd.)
The press conference was planned when Reclaim Pride obtained an April 21 internal memo from Mount Sinai Beth Israel president Dr. Jeremy Boal telling staff that once Samaritan’s Purse packed up its field tents in Central Park — something that Reclaim Pride and Rise and Resist had previously protested in the park — the Christian fundamentalist group, which excludes volunteers who will not sign off on their anti-LGBTQ “Statement of Faith,” would be providing services at the re-opened Beth Israel branch of Mount Sinai. But just the threat of the press conference and condemnations of the continued relationship with the bigoted organization by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Councilmember Carlina Rivera, chair of the Hospitals Committee, led Mount Sinai to announce it would end its collaboration with Samaritan’s Purse within two weeks.
At the mayor’s press conference on Monday, May 4, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said in response to a question about the crackdown, “You’re talking about some of the values that we hold in the highest regard in this country and certainly this city: the right of people to gather and the right of free speech and the right of protest. But now comes the bad news. We’re in a pandemic and an executive order has been issued and these are not policies of the police department, there are now laws that have passed down through executive order to keep people alive. So while we greatly, greatly respect the right of people to protest, there should not be protests taking place in the middle of a pandemic, gathering outside and putting people at risk.”
De Blasio added, “For people who want to make their voices heard, there are plenty of ways to do it without gathering in person. The question is always, whoever has whatever cause they want to speak to: ‘Are they interested in protecting people’s lives?’ If they are, use all the other tools you have to get your point across but avoid anything that might put other people in harm’s way.”
Response to Shea and de Blasio’s comments from activists was blunt.
“It is criminal and disgusting that the mayor would imply that we don’t care about other people’s lives,” Northrop said.
Siegel said, “The mayor and police commissioner’s views with regard to First Amendment peaceful protest during a pandemic are both alarming and constitutionally wrong. The First Amendment cannot be suspended at any time — including in a pandemic. If the government wants to regulate free speech by requiring masks and social distancing they can do that, but banning peaceful protest is unconstitutional. You can’t argue that the First Amendment is not ‘essential.’”
The mayor’s press office cited Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.10 of March 7 that says, “Non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason (e.g. parties, celebrations or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time.”
Mayoral Executive Order 103, Sec. § 3. B from March 25 reads, “In order to avoid the mass congregation of people in public places and to reduce the opportunity for the spread of COVID-19 any non-essential gathering of individuals of any size for any reason shall be canceled or postponed.”
That order was issued in response to large, crowded groups of people without masks or distancing gathering for events such as funerals, weddings, sports competitions, and religious services.
Now it would seem to apply to two people standing on the street with signs.
Asked to respond to criticism that de Blasio is not treating First Amendment activity as “essential” and questions about how the Reclaim Pride press conference was different from any other distanced group of people or how it could harm anyone in any way, the mayor’s office wrote, “These are not choices the City makes lightly, especially considering the Mayor’s well documented commitment to the struggle for equal rights for LGBTQIA+ New Yorkers. But, this is an unprecedented situation and we are taking unprecedented steps pursuant to the Governor’s Executive Order to protect the health and safety of all New Yorkers.”
Speaker Johnson took a different view of the matter.
“Protesting is one of America’s most deeply held rights and I believe it can be done in a way that adheres to social distancing guidelines by keeping protestors six feet apart and wearing cloth masks,” he said in response to a Gay City News query.
The press office of Comptroller Scott Stringer, who like Johnson hopes to replace de Blasio in 2021, did not respond by press time to the question of whether the city should accommodate safe, distanced, outdoor First Amendment expression.
About 51 citations for failing to observe physical distancing guidelines were issued by the police across town on May 4. None was issued to distanced people waiting to get into stores — arrayed in the same formation as the Reclaim Pride folks. Police in Madison Park told people on the grass that they could not sit closely together unless they were from the same family group. A few got up and left as a result, but most remained and none was cited.
Outside Beth Israel, about eight speakers spoke of their fierce objections to the hospital working with the virulent homophobe Graham.
Calling Graham “a hate monger,” Jay W. Walker of Reclaim Pride said, “Now the NYPD is blocking freedom of the press and freedom of speech while stopping us from telling the truth to the people of New York. We have gotten Samaritan’s Purse out of New York — it will be gone within two weeks — but we want to maintain accountability that Mount Sinai will never again partner with bigots to bring them into our city in a time of crisis. The police have rudely injured the LGBTQ community many times over the last 50 years since Stonewall and they are trying to do it again by silencing us. We will not stand for anti-LGBTQ, anti-Islam, anti-choice bigots being brought into this city in any future time of crisis.”
Walker mentioned the many Mount Sinai employees who reached out to Reclaim Pride at “great risk to their jobs” to voice their objections to Samaritan’s Purse and “to give us the go-ahead to tell the world that they feel threatened by Samaritan’s Purse presence.”
The Reverend Pat Bumgardner of the Metropolitan Community Church was concerned about the “deals with the devil” that the mayor, governor, and Mount Sinai made with Franklin Graham and said there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t be made again. Mount Sinai has never condemned the bigotry of Graham, but terms it “a difference of opinion.” Bumgardner demanded “openness and transparency so that bigots will not run public health care,” and recalled the harm religious bigots inflicted on people with AIDS on their death beds.
Asked about Samaritan’s Purse nurses proselytizing the patients, she said, “I think there is nothing more immoral than scaring somebody on their death beds about what the future may or may not hold, but telling them, ‘If you do what I’ve done you can be spared [Hell].’ It’s the most immoral thing I’ve ever heard.”
Northrop argued that it was no coincidence that the Reclaim Pride event was where the city chose to take a stand against First Amendment gatherings.
“The police are trying to shut down this message to New York City that the mayor, the governor, and Mount Sinai hospital have brought a huge, dangerous bigot into our midst and we want to hold [them] accountable,” she said. “They don’t want that to happen so they’re trying to shut us down. It is completely inappropriate. We want the people of New York to know that they have been sold down the river by their leaders who have not cared about them in bringing bigotry into the city.”
The Reverend Billy Talen — who got arrested planting a Rainbow Flag next to the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park on April 5 and spent the night in jail and 14 days in quarantine as a result — said it needed to be made clear to LGBTQ young people everywhere who have “been threatened with Hell by Franklin Graham” that these “bigots are not here to hurt you [any more]. You are safe here.” At Indypendent.org, Reverend Billy wrote a reflection on his arrest and imprisonment, which he titled “Good Riddance to Samaritan’s Purse: The Hateful Virus that Infected Central Park.”
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