Possible Pretext Behind the NYPD Parade Permit Proposal
A few weeks ago, the NYPD unilaterally amended the definition of a "parade", thereby increasing the instances in which New Yorkers must secure permits before using public streets, and thus expanding the circumstances under which the police can detain people for moving en masse (or two at a time!) without a parade permit.
As I wrote about recently, one of the more laughable (yet not very funny) expansions of the meaning of a "parade" includes at least two pedestrians or bicyclists traveling together on a public street who violate any traffic law, rule or regulation. Failure to obtain a permit before engaging in this activity --- literally speaking, whether two old folks jaywalking (particularly if wearing anti-Bush pins) or a couple of friends biking on the wrong side of the street (particularly if sporting t-shirts saying "Abolish Prisons") --- gives the police grounds to arrest.
Alarmingly, these new regulations would most adversely affect political organizers, grassroots movements, and protest-minded citizens by restricting spontaneous political rallies and potentially dissuading organized marches by adding to them further bureaucratic hurdles.
Less conspicuously, these police-initiated restrictions on the use of public space present a potentially broader threat, not particularly to people in prosperous, safer neighborhoods where unconstitutional police searches and seizures are rare, but to people living in minority-dominated, often poor neighborhoods accustomed to constant, aggressive policing.
For many years, under the guise of public safety, local governments have unevenly enforced laws neutral on their face as a means of controlling public spaces and limiting free expression in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. From Chicago's anti-loitering laws to Giuliani's "zero tolerance" policing strategies, "order maintenance" statutes (advertised as beneficial to poor communities) are often mere pretext (or quickly become such) for far-reaching, unchecked harassment by law enforcement. The new parade statute is no different.
Just as the police have used trespass laws as an easy way to stop, detain, question, search, and arrest thousands and thousands of innocent Bronx residents (in their own buildings, those of family members, while trying to visit friends, or merely standing outside), under the preposterous "parade" parameters they could stop every group of two or more people (most likely African-American and Latino men between 17 and 35) crossing the street against the light (or not) and, if the subsequent illegal search yields no contraband, arrest them nonetheless for parading without a permit.
The point is not that the new rules create a new problem in this arena. The police have been routinely stopping and searching minority residents in certain communities for no legitimate reason and without adhering to any legal guidelines for years, often as a means of controlling public space, fighting crime, and, well, because they can.
The point is that overbroad statutes that criminalize non-criminal behavior in the name of public safety often threaten far more people than they protect --- particularly those people who have historically borne the brunt of abusive police behavior --- and further embolden excessive and unconstitutional behavior by the police.