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Shopping for peace: Julie Belles. Photo by John Whipple.

Visualize World Peace . . . Somewhere Else

Crossgates Mall bounces holiday shoppers for wearing T-shirts with “offensive” messages like “Peace on Earth”

When Julie Belles showed up at Crossgates Mall the Saturday before Christmas, she had a bit more on her agenda than just finishing up her holiday shopping. She wanted to send a silent message about world peace to other shoppers.

Belles and 20 other members of the group Upper Hudson Peace Action had agreed to cruise the mall with messages taped on to their clothing that promoted world peace. “We all agreed to walk around in groups of two to three with a message,” said Belles. “We agreed that we would not carry signs, hand out leaflets or chant, but simply stroll the mall for an hour, finish up some holiday shopping while wearing shirts with a message. Mine said ‘Peace on Earth . . . for a change’ on the front, and ‘Don’t invade Iraq’ on the back.”

She said that the plan was to simply walk the mall, shop and eat with the hopes that others would read her shirt.

“We were not out to stage a protest or cause any type of disruption at the mall,” said Belles. “In fact, we were not viewing this as a protest or demonstration, but rather a peaceful way to spread a message.”

But just 10 minutes after Belles and two other middle-aged women, one who was on crutches, entered the mall, they were approached by mall security, who told them that they either had to remove their message or leave the mall.

“They said our message was offensive,” said Belles. “We said that our message was simply about peace—and what better time of the year to promote such a message than at Christmas.”

Security personnel proceeded to follow them, she said, and kept walking in front of them, preventing them from shopping. “They became increasingly aggressive,” said Belles. “In fact they were quite rude about the whole thing.”

Belles was not the only one who was approached by security. Maureen Aumand, 56, who lives in Colonie and works as a school librarian in Watervliet, was also harassed by security.

“They told me that I had to leave if I did not remove my message, and if I did not that the police would escort me out,” said Aumand. “Once I started walking to my car, they followed me through the parking lot.”

Guilderland police were called to the scene to make sure that the protesters left. Slowly but surely, all of the other 20 or so sign-wearing shoppers were approached by mall security and given the ultimatum of either removing their signs or being kicked out. In fact, one protester, Joe Seeman, a 42-year-old computer programmer, removed his sign but was still told to leave the property.

Mark Wagner, general manager of Crossgates Mall, said that the incident “doesn’t warrant any comment.” However, he did say, “The mall is private property and we choose who we allow on the property for matters like that. It is for the shoppers.”

Mark Mishler, an Albany civil-rights lawyer, explained that a 1985 New York State Court of Appeals decision involving Sound & Hudson Against Atomic Development (S.H.A.D. Alliance) and the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island, ruled that since shopping malls are private property, management is free to banish people who engage in political activity such as leafleting or staging protests. However, Mishler added, the ruling may not apply to this particular situation because the participants were not engaged in active protests; they were simply walking quietly around the mall in groups of two or three.

“They were not leafleting,” said Mishler. “They did not have a table, they were not holding signs, and there was not a group congregation as with the S.H.A.D. case. So one question that gets raised here is, What is it that happened that gave any right to the mall to take any action?”

Belles said that the Upper Hudson Peace Action sent an open letter to Wagner, requesting a meeting to discuss the events that took place Dec. 21.

“We feel that mall security treated us unfair, violated our rights to free speech and exercised the practice of discriminatory censorship in regard to the clothing we were wearing. For this reason, we wanted to meet with Wagner.”

However, Wagner said that he sees no reason for such a meeting at this time.

“Potentially, this is more than just a peace issue,” said Seeman. “If kids go to the mall and wear the wrong T-shirt or wear their nose ring the wrong way, can they be thrown out? When you look around the mall, there are far more offensive messages than Peace on Earth.”

—Nancy Guerin

Considering civil liberties:
Helen Desfosses.
Photo by John Whipple.

You Can’t Do That Here

Cities and towns pass resolutions not to cooperate with federal investigations of citizens based on their ethnicity or beliefs

While many fear that the “war on terror” and the recently passed Homeland Security Act are steadily eroding our nation’s civil liberties, various cities across the United States have adopted resolutions to protect their citizens from potential investigative excess by the federal government.

According to Nancy Talanian, codirector of the Northampton, Mass.-based Bill of Rights Defense Committee, governments in nearly two dozen cities throughout the country have drafted and passed resolutions asking local authorities to respect civil liberties when engaging in federal investigations to fight terrorism. For example, the resolution BORDC helped draft for the town of Amherst, Mass., asks “town employees not to cooperate with federal investigators seeking to interrogate people on the basis of their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, or the beliefs of their families and friends.”

The cities that have taken these actions are not just the nation’s liberal hotbeds, either. Cities as large as Chicago and Tampa, Fla., have passed resolutions.

“In Northhampton, we asked local law enforcement to protect the local people’s rights under the U.S. and Massachusetts constitution[s],” said Talanian. “We asked them not to engage in racial profiling and detentions without trials, and to let [the community] know what is going on when these things are happening.”

After the passage of the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act in October 2001 and the creation of plans for an Office of Homeland Security, Talanian said her group became concerned that the United States government was revisiting frightening territory: blatantly targeting activists, nonconformists and ethnic and religious minorities à la the counterintelligence programs of the 1960s and the Committee on Un-American Activities of the 1950s.

Talanian said BORDC posted the idea of local resolutions on the Internet and has since been advising grassroots organization in towns, cities and counties across the country on how to garner support for similar resolutions.

“We implement it locally and then let the federal legislators know,” Talanian said. “The community members contact us and organize it and then bring it to the city council and try to get the city council to pass it. We work with the organizers as a grassroots democracy. That is a very important part.”

Talanian said that after Northampton’s resolution passed, her group sent copies to elected officials in Washington, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who expressed interest.

Steve Greenfield of the New Paltz Greens contacted Talanian and has since been working with community groups throughout the town, collecting signatures to bring to local elected officials. Greenfield is aware of the criticism that has greeted similar antiwar resolutions drafted by local governments, but said he is looking to do more than make a statement.

“Most of the things we’re pushing for are under local jurisdiction, so this is not just a symbolic measure,” said Greenfield. “Obviously, we can’t interfere with anything the FBI is doing on its own, but our law enforcement agencies are under the jurisdiction of the local town board, and they don’t have to engage in [investigations] on behalf of any outside federal agency.”

New Paltz’s town board has not yet considered the resolution, but Greenfield said he discussed the idea with the mayor and received positive feedback. Greenfield hopes the resolution will come to a vote in New Paltz by the end of the month.

Locally, Helen Desfosses, Albany Common Council president, said she has not been approached by a group in Albany interested in passing a resolution of this nature, but she views the idea favorably and would ask the council to consider it.

“I think it is a great idea,” Desfosses said. “The process of resolution discussion and passage brings the issue to the public. It helps surface and focus debate. As I understand it, the USA P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act is thousands of pages long and contains countless sleeper horrors, and anything that sheds light on the legal process is critical.”


Brother, Can You Spare a Nickel?

With a $10 billion budget gap looming, some say New York state should expand its returnable-containers law

With New York facing a wide- mouthed budget gap this year, many say the state should start collecting empty bottles.

Advocates of a plan to revamp New York’s returnable-containers law said placing nickel deposits on noncarbonated beverages and allowing the state to collect the unclaimed dollars could help fill state coffers in a year in which the budget gap has been estimated at $10 billion. Consumer advocates, environmental groups and politicians are hoping both houses of the state Legislature will revisit bills introduced last year calling for an expansion of New York’s returnable-bottle law.

As it was adopted in 1983, New York’s Bottle Bill required nickel deposits on soft-drink, beer, malt-beverage, wine-cooler, mineral-water and soda-water containers, but no deposit was required on containers for spring water, teas and sports drinks. But Judith Enck, environmental policy advisor to New York state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (who has endorsed the proposal), said these containers were exempted from the law because, at the time, they didn’t exist.

“It is just a fluke of the bottle law that it only covered carbonated beverages,” said Enck. “We call that the burp loophole. There wasn’t much of a market [for noncarbonated beverages] back then. If you wanted water you’d just go to the tap. This is basically updating the law to include noncarbonated beverages.”

The money from unreturned containers, estimated at $83 million annually, is currently claimed by the beverage industry, but Enck said the money could be used to help fund the state’s recycling program. If the law is expanded to cover deposits on noncarbonated beverages, Enck estimates the figure could climb to more than $100 million.

“[One] aspect of the law is to use the money to fund local recycling and waste-prevention programs,” Enck said. “Recycling is now funded from the environmental protection fund. The legislation is crafted so that this fund would get a massive increase in new money.”

Gov. George E. Pataki has not released his executive budget for the coming year, but he has asked all state agencies to shave 5 percent from their budgets. Considering how other environmental measures have fared throughout the state in the past—the fund to clean up polluted sites statewide has been bankrupt since April 2001—it is a safe bet that the environmental protection fund wouldn’t turn away an additional $20 million a year.

But Michael Vacek, president of the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association, strongly opposes the measure, saying it unfairly taxes his industry.

“You shouldn’t tax a specific product just because it is easy to tax,” Vacek said. “What it comes down to is a group of people conveniently volunteering someone else’s money to pay for a certain service. Why should beverage containers pay the cost? Why aren’t the corn cans and newspapers paying for it? Let’s have an advance disposal fee on all recyclable goods.”

Further, Vacek said, beverage distributors use the money from unclaimed deposits to finance bottle exchange: cleaning, storing and transporting the bottles.

“We still have all of the costs of redemption, but some of the incomes are now missing,” said Vacek. “That could lead to higher beverage prices. And look who pays, the consumer.”

According to a report by the NYSBWA, beer and soft-drink prices rose 11 to 18 percent following the initial implementation of the New York’s bottle law, though some of that increase was attributed to increasing costs in beer production. A 1984 study by Long Island University’s Center for Management Analysis stated that beer and soft drink sales dropped by 6 percent after the bottle bill was introduced. But the Container Recycling Institute said that nationally, sales figures increased at or near the national average for the three- to five-year period following the passage of redemption laws.

Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the expansion of the bottle law to include deposits on noncarbonated beverage containers has implications beyond the state economy.

“There are a lot social benefits as far as homeless people who make their living from picking up bottles and cans,” said Haight. “There have been a number of people who are involved in the bill and see the benefit from this bill, from scout troops to various charities. There is a lot of good in this bill.”

Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-C-Suffolk) and Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli (D-L-Nassau) introduced the legislation into their respective houses of the Legislature last year. As of December 2002, both pieces of legislation were supported by 98 national, state and regional groups representing government and community-based organizations.


The people speak. Photo by Teri Currie.

Don’t Leave Us Out in the Cold

At the People’s State of the State, advocates urge governor not to take New York’s fiscal crisis out on the poor

On Tuesday, the day before Gov. George E. Pataki’s State of the State address, local poverty activists and labor leaders braved the blistering cold outside the state Capitol to demand that state leaders respond to New York’s rising number of poor and homeless.

Because New York faces a nearly $10 billion budget deficit, a looming fiscal crisis that Gov. Pataki acknowledged in his inauguration speech last week, groups like the Hunger Action Network of New York fear that state government might slash emergency food and shelter funding this year. They are not alone: Many state departments and state-funded programs are bracing for a far-reaching reduction in funding. But according to speakers like Donna DeMaria, executive director of the Homeless Action Committee, there could not be a worse time for cutbacks that would affect New York’s poor.

“There are about two to four thousand people who end up homeless right here in Albany each year,” DeMaria said at the rally, which was dubbed “The People’s State of the State.” Local homeless shelters are completely full, DeMaria added, and local human-service and faith groups are trying to open an emergency overflow shelter that would operate out of Albany’s First Lutheran Church. Bich Ha Pham, executive director for Hunger Action, estimated that overall, New York has seen a 27-percent increase in the number of people seeking emergency food this year alone.

The rally, organized by Hunger Action, preceded the governor’s annual address to a joint session of the Legislature. The address usually gives a general overview of New York’s economic situation, the major issues of the year, and some idea of the governor’s legislative agenda. Pataki’s office did not return calls for comment on this story, but at press time, most of the governor’s speech was expected to keep with tradition: fairly broad subjects, without much direct discussion of what specific programs could face cuts.

“The People’s State of the State,” however, was relatively specific. While drawing attention to the state’s growing poverty problems, speakers also suggested alternatives to cutting important programs and argued that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and nationwide recession are not entirely to blame for New York’s problems. Instead, speakers largely faulted a trend of unfair taxation, problems with welfare and other services for the poor that further encourage income disparity, and corporate fraud.

“It’s something that’s been happening gradually over the years,” Bich Ha Pham said.

Mark Dunlea, president of Hunger Action, said that one of his organization’s main priorities this year will be to convince the Legislature to close corporate tax loopholes and temporarily raise taxes on people who make $100,000 a year or more. For example, some New York corporations transfer their funds out of state to avoid paying state taxes on them, according Richard Kirsch, executive director of the Citizen Action Network of New York. Kirsch also noted that because the federal government will be giving tax cuts this year—ones skewed to the upper class, he noted—those affected by a state tax hike would still pay less this year in the long run.

“That’s the big Bush tax break for you,” Kirsch said. A state tax hike alone could rise up to $3 billion, he added.

Danny Donahue, president of the Civil Service Employees Union, urged the state government to stop giving tax breaks to corporations that do not necessarily need them in the name of encouraging them to create more jobs. One protestor, acting as Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, (R-C-Troy), referred to Empire Zones—regional tax cuts meant to en courage business development in struggling parts of the state—as an example. Since unemployment and hunger continue to rise, Donahue suggested that this policy has not worked.

“We didn’t cause the stock market to go down,” Donahue said. “Certainly Sept. 11 was a tragedy for everyone. But we shouldn’t be the ones bearing the burden.”

Many of the other points that were raised echoed messages that groups like Hunger Action have been sending for years. Most prominent were raising the minimum wage, reforming welfare laws to allow more job training and education, and creating universal health care, all of which Dunlea said would help New Yorkers to escape poverty more permanently.

But, in a year of such fiscal uncertainty, Dunlea, who has been working on issues like these at Hunger Action for nearly 20 years now, acknowledged that his uphill battle might be all the more steep.

“We like to try to start out optimistic,” he said. “The reality is we’re probably facing a very difficult budget.”

—David Riley

Calling All Arabs

Alien Middle Easterners required to register with the INS fear detention and deportation

Time is running out for Mo-hammed. He only has two more days to comply with a new federal mandate requiring him to register with authorities, or be in violation of his visa and risk being deported back to his homeland.

“I am scared to go down and register,” said Mohammed, who lives in Troy and is from Afghanistan. He doesn’t want his last name revealed in case he decides not to register. “I saw what happened to all of those people in California last month and I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Last month, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered males 16 and older from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria to register in person with the Immigration and Naturalization Service by Dec. 16. But in Southern California, when thousands of men showed up voluntarily to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned by INS, hundreds were detained because of various immigration violations.

“I feel very frightened,” said Mo hammed. “It seems like a very targeted campaign against one community, that follows one religion.”

INS spokesman Francisco Arcaute defended the detainments in California, saying that the agency arrested no one based on ethnicity or religion.

“The only people that were detained were those in violation of immigration law,” said Arcaute.

Now under way is the second phase of the “Special Registration” system, which extends the enrolment requirements to men visiting the Untied States from other countries including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, and the United Arab Emirates. The deadline for these men to register is tomorrow (Friday, Jan 10).

Amy Otten, spokeswoman for the INS Eastern region, based in Burlington, Vt., said that under the new program, the INS requires all male visitors older than 16, including foreigners in the United States on student, business or tourist visas, to register. She said that the purpose of the program is to improve the government’s monitoring of foreigners in the United States on temporary visas.

“The intent is all tied to national security,” said Otten. “We need to know who is visiting the country. The ultimate goal, as mandated by Congress, is a complete entry-exit system so that anyone who came in as a visitor would be registered.”

Otten explained that the Northeast region has not experienced the same problems as California, and people need not be afraid.

“We have not had the same problems here,” Otten said. “We encourage anybody who needs to register to do it. . . . If they don’t register, they could be asked to leave the country.”

Ziad Asali, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that he has great concerns that this program seems to be a vehicle for incarcerating large numbers of people who pose no threat to national security.

“There is no evidence,” said Asali, “that this action by the administration will enhance national security in the face of terrorist threats against the United States. On the contrary, it might play into the hands of those who claim that the U.S. government is motivated by anti-Islamic sentiments.”

Many others agree with Asali and have compared this program to the way that Japanese were treated during World War II or how the Jews were treated in Germany.

“Merely based on the fact of their race and their religion they are being discriminated against,” said Yunis Fiske, an activist who has organized a protest in front of the INS building in Latham tomorrow (Friday) at noon. “They are being interned like the Japanese. Their civil liberties don’t exist, they can be held indefinitely, [and] a lot of these people don’t have right to counsel. I find it appalling.”

But Otten said that anybody can bring a lawyer with them to the registration session if they so choose. The problem for many, however, is that they cannot afford representation.

“I know I have not done anything wrong,” said Mohammed. “So I may be shooting myself in the foot if I don’t show up. But I don’t think any of those other men would have shown up if they thought that they had done anything wrong either.”

—Nancy Guerin

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