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Rights on Hold

Civil libertarians’ attempt to safeguard Albany residents from the excesses of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act stalled by the Common Council

Despite lobbying by rights groups and testimony from concerned citizens, the Albany Common Council has yet to move on a resolution to oppose the civil-liberties infringements of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act.

The resolution, sponsored by Alderman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), directs federal, local and state authorities to inform the council monthly regarding the extent to which the basic civil rights of local citizens have been violated during terrorism-related investigations using surveillance powers granted by the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Yet, in light of the sizable public turnout in support of the resolution at Monday’s Common Council meeting, the resolution remains in the council’s Public Safety Committee, where it was the subject of intense debate and its passage was met with strong resistance.

The USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, was drafted by the U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General John Ashcroft shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Created ostensibly as a means for combating terrorism, the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act produced a number of new, broadly defined criminal categories and granted law-enforcement agencies with far-reaching powers of surveillance. Since its passage on Oct. 24, 2001, civil libertarians decried the new laws as attacks on the basic civil rights granted to every U.S. citizen by the Bill of Rights.

“Law enforcement shouldn’t have the right to search people’s personal records or check their reading habits,” Calsolaro said, referring to some of the surveillance powers granted by the new law. “This is not what America is about. It sounds to me like the Soviet Union 20 or 30 years ago.”

Calsolaro reported to the committee that he and a group of local citizens lobbying the council to pass the resolution opposing civil-liberties infringements [Newsfront, Feb. 27] had met with people from the office of U.S. Representative Michael McNulty (D-Green Island) to discuss the resolution and the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Calsolaro characterized the meeting as positive, and said he was pleased to find out that McNulty decided to sponsor a federal bill to correct some of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act’s misdoings.

However, Calsolaro said that McNulty warned him against asking a federal body like the FBI or ATF to report on terrorism-related investigations, as it was just unlikely to happen.

But Alderman Daniel Herring (Ward 13), also on the Public Safety Committee, took further issue with Calsolaro’s resolution. Considering that it was written to counteract a piece of federal legislation, Herring thought it would be best to wait for more action by legislators like McNulty to correct mistakes made at that level.

“[The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act] was passed by the U.S. Senate 98 to 0, and I find it hard to believe that 98 senators missed the dangers in this act,” Herring said. “And if on subsequent review they are presenting legislation to correct things, why not have a resolution to support these federal bills?”

But Albany resident Tanya Tarr, who spoke at the meeting’s public comment period, helped shed some light on how federal legislators may have missed some of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act’s excesses as it quickly flew through Congress. Tarr, who was working in Washington, D.C., with the General Accounting Office during the passage of the bill, said legislators had other things on their mind when the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was introduced—anthrax. In fact, Tarr said, the anthrax scares had cleared legislative offices in Washington, D.C. in the week prior to the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act passage.

“There was no one in those offices,” Tarr said. “And there was not a whole lot of nose-to-the-grindstone-policy analysis going on at the time anyway. This was a few weeks after Sept. 11—people were still mourning, and who was going to vote against something called the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act?”

Further, Alderwoman Shawn Morris (Ward 7), a non-committee member who was attending the meeting, said federal legislators’ lag in responding to the problem creates an even greater need for local governments to push for the same end.

“One-and-a-half years after [the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act] becomes law, they are still trying to find sponsors for the legislation to correct it,” Morris said. “It is going to take a lot longer to undo what they adopted too quickly, and this is something very local in nature that can have an effect on our community.”

Eventually, Calsolaro and the committee decided to hold the resolution while a few more kinks could be worked out, but the citizens group is ready to continue its push. Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said her group will continue to lobby the Common Council, looking to add Albany to the list of 83 city, town and county governments that have passed similar resolutions.

“We feel there is a very large groundswell from the public in Albany . . . yet we feel that from the meeting last night some of the Common Council members are dragging their feet,” Trimble said. “We feel very strongly that a local statement needs to be made about preserving our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and civil liberties. Our local officials need to make our voices heard.”

—Travis Durfee

Street gallery: window display at 51 3rd St. in Troy. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

When Art and Bureaucracy Collide

Troy studio ticketed by Code Enforcement for unusual window display

"You got a historic permit for that doll’s head full of teeth?”

That’s what the city of Troy’s Bureau of Code Enforcement wanted to know when it ticketed the owner of the residential building/art studio at 51 3rd St. for having an “illegal window display.”

On March 31, a code inspector issued a violation to the building owner, Igor Vamos, stating that his building’s artfully crafted display failed to comply with a city ordinance requiring historic district review. But further inquiry into the city’s codes, the bureau’s charges don’t seem to hold much water.

“The issue is that it’s in a historic district,” said Terry Dubois, director of Troy’s Bureau of Code Enforcement. “Any changes to any window dressings, be it painting the trim or changing the doorway, anything, it needs historic review. I’m not questioning what’s there, though I can’t really understand why it was put there, but that is not the point. The point is it is in the historic district.”

According to Dubois, complaints were lodged about the building’s eccentric window display, which showcases the work of some of the artists who use the building’s studio.

“A woman went by a couple of weeks ago with a young child and said that they looked at the display and they were horrified by what it looked like,” Dubois said. “I’m not really sure what the purpose was of the owner putting it up in the first place, but that’s again not the point. The city isn’t saying, at this point, that we don’t want it there because of the contents. There may be something that we could look into, but that was not my motivation. The issue is the historic district.”

But V. Zubkovs, a city planner, said the violation, if based on the assumption that the building is in a local historic district, is unfounded.

“I don’t believe that is in the local historic district,” said Zubkovs. “River Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street are in the local historic district. It is definitely in the National Register of Historic Places district—all of downtown is. You would need to ask Code Enforcement what the signage requirements are for the historic register, but it is not in the local historic district.”

When confronted with the information provided by Zubkovs, Dubois backtracked.

“Well, if it isn’t in the historic district, then I sent that notice in error,” Dubois said. “If you were the owner of the property and said to me ‘Terry, I talked to V. and he said it is not in the historic district. What’s the problem?’ I’d say to you ‘Mr. Owner, there is no problem. Mea culpa.’”

The window display features a cornucopia of unconventional art. Much of the display is occupied by taxidermic animals: for example, an embalmed and stuffed fox with its hips, neck and ear wrapped in Ace bandages perches on a piece of wood, under which hides its colostomy bag. Pheasants, chickens and assorted fowl sit in similar states, wings gauzed and wrapped in bandages. Some wear crowns and flowers; others are apparently going through some stage of dialysis treatment.

Doll art is another theme in the display. In one section, a toy train full of yellowing and browned teeth ride an arced track into a doll’s head, also full of teeth. Elsewhere sit painted jack-in-the-boxes, reloaded with dolls and wooden figures on heavy springs. Throughout the window display, melted, merged or otherwise deformed baby dolls rest in straw.

“I think that one of the joys of living in downtown Troy is viewing some of the impromptu and unusual window displays that people come up with,” said Vamos, a professor in the electronic arts department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“Right around the corner here, there is an amazing window display where there are a bunch of American troops fighting a Klingon with a big Wanted: Osama bin Laden sign in the background,” Vamos said. “I guess they couldn’t find the appropriate action figures to represent either Iraqis or the Taliban, and so they used the Klingon instead. He’s standing in a Jeep. It’s amazing actually. That is the kind of thing that makes for a dynamic and interesting urban environment, and whoever put up the U.S.-military-versus-Klingon window display has a unique vision as well.”

Even if the building were in a historic district, Vamos noted the irony of his window display being considered offensive when a number of other buildings on the block are boarded up or vacant.

“There definitely is a double standard here,” Vamos said. “There are so many other buildings with broken windows, many of which are owned by wealthy people who could easily fix them if they wanted to.

“It seems like a lot of things that are happening in the world right now are much more disturbing than that window display,” Vamos said. “In a way, maybe that display is referring to a lot of the violence in the world right now and something that we shouldn’t be sweeping under the rug. We should be examining that and be self-reflecting, considering the way we are all behaving as part of a violent culture.”

—Travis Durfee

Hold the Opposition, Bring on the Apple Pie

Albany alderwoman’s antiwar resolution meets resistance from her colleagues on the Common Council

Carolyn McLaughlin received such a negative response from her colleagues on the Albany Common Council regarding a nonbinding resolution opposing the U.S. military invasion in Iraq that she decided not to bring it up for a vote at Monday’s meeting.

“A lot of them were using this rhetoric, and I call it rhetoric, that you cannot support the troops and be opposed to the war,” said the Ward 2 alderwoman. “Look, you don’t have to support the concept of war, but you can still support the individuals who are sworn to serve their country in that war.”

Alderman Michael Brown (Ward 3) rebuked McLaughlin’s sentiment during a speech at Monday’s meeting.

“I would be opposed to this resolution [were it to come up for a vote],” Brown said. “We all believe in the American values our troops are over there fighting for. Without them, those protesters wouldn’t be out there protesting and we wouldn’t be in here having this meeting.”

Though the antiwar resolution was not considered at Monday’s meeting, the council did unanimously pass two resolutions supporting the troops in their fight overseas.

News that an antiwar resolution would be coming before the council was previously reported in Metroland [Newsfront, April 3] and circulated through various social justice e-mail groups in the Capital Region. Nearly 100 people showed up for Monday’s council meeting.

Prior to the meeting, a number of high school and college students attempted to hold a “books not bombs” demonstration outside City Hall. They did not have a permit, and police ordered the group to break up. The protesters allege that our government is less willing to spend money on education than it is on the military.

“Our federal government is willing to spend $75 million on an unjust war with Iraq, but they’re not willing to take that money and use it for something positive,” said protester Yunus Fiske. “We have two public schools in the Albany area which are failing; we are facing a tuition hike in the state; they’re going to cut [the Tuition Assistance Program]. We have many problems in this country, and we could use the money [spent on this war] for social programs here.”

The announcement of McLaughlin’s decision to hold the resolution, which came just prior to the meeting’s beginning, drew sighs and statements of exasperation from the throng that flooded the lobby outside the council chambers.

“That’s bureaucracy for you,” muttered one.

A number of citizens signed up to speak during the meeting’s public- comment period, which lasted more than an hour due to the heavy attendance. Of the meeting’s 22 speakers, 14 urged the council to make the voices of citizens heard by passing the resolution. None spoke in opposition to the resolution.

Dan Wilcox, a member of Veterans for Peace who was drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1969, agreed with McLaughlin’s resolution, and addressed the idea that opposing the war means opposing the troops.

“This [resolution] is not about the troops, it is about the U.S.’s policy of a unilateral, preemptive attack on Iraq,” Wilcox said. “Is an attack on [Gov. George E.] Pataki an attack on state workers? Then why is an attack on [President George W.] Bush an attack on our troops? It isn’t. An attack on the troops is slashing veterans’ benefits.”

McLaughlin said she agreed with what Wilcox said, referring to the president’s vetoing a bill to restore federal funding to pay for veterans’ disability payments, and said she wanted to redraft her resolution to reflect similar sentiments.

“What a double message,” McLaughlin said. “He said when he was running for president that he was going to increase or restore the disability payments, and then he cuts $25 billion from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs budget over the next 10 years. How do you think these people coming back from Iraq are going to be? Do you think they’ll need benefits?”

McLaughlin, who began drafting the resolution before the war began, said she would now have to focus her resolution on restoring veterans’ benefits, opposing any further preemptive attacks by the U.S. military, and asking the Bush administration to return to a multilateralist approach to foreign-policy decisions by working with United Nations.

Should McLaughlin’s resolution pass the Common Council, Albany would join a list of more than 160 counties, towns and cities nationwide that have passed similar resolutions, including Ithaca, New Paltz, Syracuse and New York City in our state.

The council will next discuss a revised version of McLaughlin’s resolution when it holds a caucus meeting on April 16 at 5:30 PM in the council chambers of City Hall, 24 Lodge St., Albany.

—Travis Durfee

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