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NEW FORM OF OPPRESSION--THE COMMUNITY COURT

System of legalized slavery puts poor people to work as a punishment for being present in an otherwise middle-class or wealthy community

Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T., an advocacy group for N.Y.C. street artists, has raised an alarm about the new 54th Street Community Court. Read what he has to say in his own words, with a few headlines added by us.


The Setting

On Tuesday night (9/17/96) I attended a meeting of Community Board #2's Community Court Task Force. As the president of A.R.T.I.S.T., an advocacy group for N.Y.C. street artists, my concern is that CB#2 and City Council Member Kathryn Freed will use the proposed Community Court to further harass and persecute street artists in SoHo and the West Village. Having been an artist-defendant a number of times in the 54th Street Community Court, which CB#2 acknowledges as their role model, I wanted to find out just what CB#2 had in mind.

The 54th Street Community Court specializes in targeting minorities, the poor, the homeless, disabled veteran vendors and street artists accused of "violating" the community. These "violations" usually involve nothing more than being in the area. It is neither a court of equal justice nor of constitutional law. This "court" functions as a mechanism for business interests and local community "activists" to harass and eliminate so-called "undesirables" whom the police are unable to focus attention on while dealing with legitimate issues of public safety and crime.


People declared to be menace to "Quality of Life"

Alan Gerson is the chair of the CB#2 Community Court Task Force. He took issue with a letter I had written to a local newspaper criticizing the proposed Court as a vehicle for Council Member Freed's particular brand of vigilantism and assured me I'd "...gotten it all wrong". At first, Gerson vigorously denied that Council Member Freed had anything to do with the proposed Community Court. Later he admitted that he was appointed to CB#2 and to the chair of the Committee by Council Member Freed and that numerous other board members were also appointed by Freed. Ms. Freed has built a career on "quality of life" issues and is working with the Fifth Avenue Association, the SoHo Alliance and other real estate interests to eliminate First Amendment protection for visual art as a means of eliminating artists from New York City's streets.

Like the 54th Street Court on which it is modeled the goal of CB#2's Court is to address so-called "quality of life" violations rather than robberies, rapes or serious criminal offenses. According to Gerson's outline, "Late night hours would be utilized by the police to bring individuals they find engaged in illicit activity to the court for immediate intake." The "illicit activities" would presumably include displaying art, playing a radio, loitering, panhandling, sleeping on the street, distributing handbills, vending or holding an open beer.

CB#2's proposed court would not just be a vehicle for police activity. Local residents would be encouraged to identify quality of life violators and bring them before the court. "Community residents...must have standing to initiate 'citizen suits' alleging the violation of the administrative code...[by] signing a petition or [by] the endorsement of the community board." While the initial target of this neighborhood "cleanup" will be "outsiders", the outline acknowledges that, "...most such alleged violations involve accusations among neighbors, including neighboring residents and businesses". In other words, anyone with a petty grudge against his or her neighbor will now have a means of dragging them into court on the pretext of having violated their "life quality".


New proposals even more frightening

While expressing deep admiration for the 54th Street Court, CB#2 wants to go even further in their practice of "justice" than its role model does. "In criminal violations, the court must be authorized to conduct trials. In that way our court would differ from the Midtown Court which only deals with defendants who plead guilty, and refers other defendants to the regular courts. The CB#2 Court could therefore conduct any necessary trials." In the midtown court defendants who are not successfully coerced into pleading guilty and doing community service are immediately rescheduled for arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street.


Punishment swift and certain for "using our streets"

Justice will be swift and certain in CB#2's court. "The Court must be set up to conduct intake for persons accused of criminal violations...and would therefore need to include a holding area supervised by Court Officers. The immediacy of intake would send a positive message to defendants and potential defendants using our streets...".

Nevertheless, CB#2 does not intend to sentence defendants to actual jail time. "Our Community Court would never impose jail sentences. In addition to imposing fines, the Court would utilize alternative sentencing for persons who plead guilty or are found guilty of criminal violations. The court would retain jurisdiction over the sentenced defendant until he or she completes their sentence. Persons who refuse to complete their sentence, and repeat offenders, would be referred to the regular criminal court system, where jail time remains an option." Alternative sentencing includes cleaning and sweeping CB#2's streets, painting buildings and doing landscaping and maintenance for the "community".

Barbara Feldt, a community activist from the 54th Street Court was a guest speaker at the meeting and gave us some idea of just how this "alternative sentencing" works. "My personal interest is in maintaining trees", she explained. "So I call up the 54th Street Court Supervisor and have them send over defendants, who I supervise in maintaining the trees in my neighborhood". When I commented that this sounded a bit like legalized slavery, she became offended and assured me that she had never profited in a personal way from any of the crews assigned to work under her direction.


Taxpayers will pay the bill

Unlike the 54th Street court, which was built and continues to be financed by the Fifth Avenue and Times Sq. Business Improvement Districts, C.B. #2 believes their court, "...deserves full public financing from the City and State", and proposes, "...an aggressive campaign for grants from the federal government and from foundations...". The grants from foundations would include money from N.Y.U. which could use the court as a, "...wonderful opportunity for collaboration between the criminal justice system and higher education".

The trend of developing Community Courts goes hand in hand with the spread of B.I.D.s (Business Improvement Districts). Business and community "leaders" are dissatisfied with the delays caused by bothersome constitutional protections such as the First Amendment, due process and civil rights, and the fact that many judges dismiss quality of life cases because they know the defendants were arrested due to their race or social status.


A ruling class of property owners is elevated above other citizens

B.I.D.'s and community courts transfer the authority of duly elected government officials and judges to local business leaders who make no pretext of understanding or caring about civil liberties. B.I.D.s and Community Courts are simply advocates for property owners and real estate interests. Protecting the real or imaginary "rights" of property owners is their sole mission.


"Community activists" can promote their pet projects by inducting hapless pedestrians into slavery

Unlike Manhattan Criminal court, where only 80- 90% of the defendants are minorities, at the 54th Street Community Court virtually 100% of the defendants are African-American or Latino. Most know nothing of their legal rights. Almost all accept a guilty plea and do community service after being coerced into doing so by their court appointed lawyer, a judge answerable to and appointed by the local community and helpful "intake personnel". They are then used by the same "community activists" who had them arrested and by the B.I.D.s as a source of unpaid labor within the community. The more arrests that are made the greater the supply of free labor.

Admittedly, this is an ingenious return to the plantation system which helped build this nation in the 17th and 18th centuries. Community Court convict-defendants usually wear orange or other easily identifiable coveralls emblazoned with the courts' logo while working out their sentences in the community. Ms. Feldt calls this forced labor, "...giving something back to the community".

Rather than creating jobs or addressing social inequality, this system puts poor people to work as a punishment for being visible in an otherwise middle- class or wealthy community. Community Courts are similar to the vigilante justice practiced by groups like the Klu Klux Klan and can ultimately lead to the kind of police state that existed in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. There, every citizen acted as a police informer reporting the real or imaginary transgressions of foreigners, peddlers, outsiders and eventually, their own neighbors. The motivation is blatantly racist and classist. In the Manhattan D.A.'s words it is, "A bad idea whose time has come".

For more information on A.R.T.I.S.T. contact:
Robert Lederman, president of A.R.T.I.S.T.
(Artists' Response To Illegal State Tactics)
(718) 369-2111 E-mail ARTISTpres@aol.com
A.R.T.I.S.T. web site [a journalistic resource]:
http://www.openair.org/alerts/artist/nyc.html

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