City Still Hassles ’04 RNC Protesters

The Republican National Convention took place almost four years ago, but the protesters arrested that August weekend are still fighting the city in court.

The legal fracas has generated an interesting side battle over the city’s stubborn campaign to obtain internal records from a lawyers’ group that represented many of the detainees.

The city’s Law Department has sent four subpoenas to the National Lawyers Guild seeking e-mails and notes written by its members, a list of the lawyers who attended the protests, and videotapes and photographs.

Guild lawyers often attend mass protests to monitor them and offer free advice and representation to people arrested by the police. The group started doing it during the 1968 protests at Columbia University.

More than 1,000 people were arrested during the 2004 convention, many of them detained without charges for more than 24 hours.

Typically, a lawyer’s notes and e-mails are considered sacrosanct because of the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship, a basic protection in the legal system. So the guild naturally contends that the city’s tactic violates the First Amendment, drags out the dispute, and could scare legal volunteers from assisting members of the public in the future.

“Essentially, the city has no business seeking this stuff,” says Danny Meyers, president of the guild. “It’s a form of vindictiveness.”

However, there’s not just madness, but cleverness as well, behind the city’s method of pouring taxpayer dollars into this fight. “It’s an enormous waste of resources for the city and for our small organization,” says Deborah Hrbek, a Manhattan lawyer who does pro bono work for the guild.

The subpoenas were sent in connection with a class-action lawsuit filed by Julia Cohen and other people scooped up by police during the convention. The guild is not a named party in the lawsuit. Initially, the city asked for the videotapes and photographs, and followed up with a demand for the e-mails.

A judge quashed the subpoenas, but the city appealed. That appeal is still pending. (Gail Donoghue, special counsel for the Law Department, declines comment on pending litigation.)

Meanwhile, the city sent the guild yet another subpoena, this one for all of the notes written by the guild’s legal observers during the convention concerning the arrests. The city also asked it to produce someone to testify about the guild’s evidence-gathering procedures and its training of legal observers, Boyle says.

The guild responded with another motion to quash the subpoenas. That issue is pending in front of a federal magistrate.


Deep South of Houston: Is a Soul-Food Restaurant Too Black for Soho?

Lola, a soul-food restaurant that featured live rhythm-and-blues acts, attracts a largely black clientele, and also went by the name Lola Is Soul, decided in 2004, for business reasons, to move from Chelsea to Soho. But once they got there, the owners—a biracial couple—ran into surprisingly stiff opposition from the Soho Alliance, a community group that has opposed Lola’s liquor license and its legal petition to have live entertainment at its new location.

Cries of racism have, not surprisingly, been leveled by Lola’s supporters. But Don Clark MacPherson, a longtime resident of the neighborhood and a member of the Soho Alliance—as well as the publisher of the Soho Journal—says that the accusations of racism are unfounded. Lola, he tells the Voice, just moved to Soho at a bad time: Frustrated by the large number of nightclubs already in the area, the alliance saw in Lola simply one liquor license too many. “Race in this issue is a red herring,” he says. “I don’t think that the type of music had anything to do with it. The objection started before anyone heard about the type of music Lola played.”

That may be true. But MacPherson might want to compare notes with Soho Alliance director Sean Sweeney about his reasons for opposing the restaurant. Lola is a place that appeals to a professional African-American set, and besides dishes like “shrimp & grits” and catfish salad, also offers “fluke en papillote,” pineapple pork belly, and pecan-crusted rack of lamb. But Sweeney apparently hasn’t looked at the menu very closely.

“I don’t think you need a martini to go with chitlins and collard greens. What wine goes with jambalaya? I can’t think of one,” he says, ridiculing Lola’s need for a license. “There is a place right next to them that sells empañadas, and they don’t serve liquor. You don’t really need liquor if you are a good restaurant to stay in business. Liquor is like cream.”

It’s hard to imagine an upscale restaurant trying to appeal to the well-dressed set and getting by on water alone, but Sweeney’s swipe at traditional African-American fare appears to lend credence to accusations by Lola’s supporters that what has motivated some in the Soho Alliance to oppose the restaurant is the combination of black music and black customers in the deluxe shopping district.

Tom and Gayle Patrick-Odeen (he’s white; she’s black) bought the restaurant from its previous owners in 1991. After taking over the eatery, Gayle added “Lola” to her name to match the restaurant. When the couple decided to move it to Soho, they applied for a new liquor license from the State Liquor Authority and were granted one.

However, once they put up signs announcing Lola’s imminent opening in the windows of the new location, at the intersection of Watts and Thompson streets, the Soho Alliance—some of whose members sit on Community Board No. 2—began mustering opposition. Lola’s liquor license, meanwhile, went through the wringer: First it was annulled by a state court, then the annulment was overturned by an appellate court. But the Soho Alliance is opposing that reinstatement, and because Lola is opening within 500 feet of three or more other license holders, a state law requires the SLA to consider input from the community board and others in the area—like the alliance.

Also, in what the Patrick-Odeens say was a clerical error by someone at their attorney’s office, their application indicated only background music, not live bands. They’re petitioning to have it changed, and the alliance is opposing that as well.

The two also say that Sweeney has been particularly vocal at public hearings about Lola, and they suspect that he was behind an effort to paper the neighborhood with anti-Lola screeds. Flyers appeared around Soho warning that Lola’s r&b music would bring “unruly crowds” and “more crime” to the neighborhood. The Patrick-Odeens saw this as a racist attack, but Sweeney denies that he had anything to do with the flyers.

And he’s not shy about firing back at the couple.

“I am not racist. [Gayle Patrick-Odeen] is from Barbados. She’s a British subject; she’s not African-American. She didn’t suffer Jim Crow, Reconstruction, lynching. . . . For her to exploit the true sufferings of African-Americans is disgraceful,” says Sweeney.

“The Soho Alliance is a group of property owners who have set themselves up as the gatekeepers of Soho,” Gayle Patrick-Odeen counters. “They think it’s their right to determine who can and who can not set up business in Soho. They are clearly a special-interest group.”

Three years after the move—and after thousands of dollars spent on lawyers—Lola has been open for a few months, but the Patrick-Odeens haven’t had the money to promote it. The absence of live acts, they say, is also hurting business. Recently, however, Lola patron Gardy Guierrer and several local promoters organized a dinner party to help get the word out about the restaurant and its conflicts. They put on a special “Save Lola’s” dinner party over two nights, with entertainment by DJ Herbert Hollar. All 150 tables were filled each night with urban professionals in business attire and cocktail dresses.

“We love this place, and the people are wrong,” said a woman at the party named Sharun, speaking of Lola’s opposition. “This neighborhood thinks because of Lola, there are going to be fights on the street. But the people who come here are TV anchors, lawyers, doctors, businessmen.”


The NYPD ‘Weeds’ Out Blacks and Latinos

In April 2001, when asked in an interview if he’d ever smoked pot, mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg replied: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” The billionaire mayor’s reign, however, has been anything but enjoyable for dope smokers, especially those who aren’t white. More people have already been locked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession during Bloomberg’s first six years in office—some 214,300—than during any other administration in city history, including the full eight years of former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani.

Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately busted on minor pot charges. That’s hardly shocking in a city where the Sean Bell case—yet another instance of an unarmed black person’s death at the hands of cops—currently dominates the news.

More people get arrested for misdemeanor pot possession in Bloomberg’s New York—about 35,700 a year, or 97 per day—than in any other city in the U.S. and “almost certainly” the world, says the author of a new study. (For perspective, when Ray Kelly was police commissioner for the first time in 1993, there were 1,600 misdemeanor marijuana-possession arrests, a pretty typical year back then.) These trippy stats come from “Marijuana Arrest Crusade,” a study by Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine and drug-law-reform activist Deborah Peterson Small.

Drug surveys routinely indicate that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot than blacks or Latinos, but Levine found that African-Americans have consistently accounted for about 52 percent of these low-level marijuana arrests over the past decade, even though they’re only about 26 percent of the city’s population. Latinos, at 27 percent of the total population, account for 31 percent of the arrests. Whites are 36 percent of the population but account for only 15 percent of pot arrests.

That racial breakdown mirrors another set of data that the NYPD has been reluctant to make public: the stop-and-frisk numbers. From 2004 through 2007, police made 1,692,488 stops—ostensibly for suspicious activity. Of those stopped, 51 percent were black, 29 percent Latino, and 10 percent white. A staggering 1,496,100—or 88 percent—of those stopped were never charged.

NYPD officials dating back to the Giuliani years have tried explaining away the skewed stop-and-frisk numbers by saying those percentages are roughly the same as the racial breakdown of suspect descriptions. For some reason, this has remained the pat answer going on 10 years, despite statistics showing that only about 19 percent of total stops were based on suspect descriptions. The majority, records have shown, result from officers’ subjective observations, such as “furtive movements,” “suspicious bulge,” and the always popular “other.”

There appears to be nothing even as tenuous as the “suspect description” excuse for the NYPD to fall back on to explain the racial disparities in pot busts. The marijuana-arrest rate for black New Yorkers is five times higher than whites; for Latinos, it’s three times higher—despite the fact, as previously noted, that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot, both nationally and in New York.

“I just don’t see how they can justify the fact that more whites smoke marijuana than blacks and Hispanics, but more blacks and Hispanics are arrested for it. I just don’t know how,” Levine tells the Voice.

If the NYPD knows, it’s not saying: Its spokesman won’t comment. And neither will Bloomberg’s aides.

Levine’s study also makes the startling claim that most of those who’ve been busted “were actually not guilty of what they were charged with.” Levine says that they estimated, after talking to Legal Aid and defense attorneys, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested “are not smoking in public,” but instead had marijuana in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal violation—not even a misdemeanor—and the cops used to just issue tickets for it. But the arrests cited in Levine’s study were all made for having marijuana “burning or open to public view,” a misdemeanor charge meant to dissuade open lawlessness.

Levine says that the charge is often achieved through trickery. For instance, according to Levine, the cop tells the person being detained, “Show me what’s in your pocket and I’ll go easy on you,” or may simply order in a loud voice: “Let’s see what’s in your pockets.” When the person pulls out the marijuana, it now becomes the misdemeanor offense of “open to public view.”

Levine contends that the skewed racial numbers aren’t merely a matter of prejudice by individual cops, but rather a “racially biased, discriminatory, unfair, and unjust” systematic focus within the NYPD on black and Latino young men.

Statistically, there are just as many young white people walking around the Upper West Side neighborhoods near Columbia University with pot in their pockets as there are blacks holding marijuana a few blocks away in Harlem. But Harlem has one of the highest marijuana-arrest rates, while the Upper West Side has one of the lowest.

That’s because more city cops are assigned to “high-crime” areas, most of which are disproportionately black or Latino, Levine says. The cops are then pushed to meet Kelly’s “productivity goals,” which the police union’s lawyers contend in pending lawsuits are actually “illegal quotas” for arrests and stop-and-frisks.

“The police catch so many more of one kind of fish because they are mostly searching in certain waters,” Levine says.

Marijuana pinches are generally easy and safe, and they provide overtime while giving the appearance of productivity, he says. And who’s easier to arrest: young and poor black and Latino men, who Levine says “usually lack the political and social connections that might make the arrests troublesome or embarrassing for the police,” or white college kids whose parents can probably afford lawyers who make a living picking apart weak cases?

Whether as a byproduct or by design, these mass pot arrests have enabled the NYPD to add thousands of new names, photographs, and fingerprints to their criminal-record databases. Levine’s study found that 60 percent of those arrested on misdemeanor pot charges since 1997 didn’t have prior criminal records.

“Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire data on young people, especially black and Latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal-justice databases,” Levine testified last year at a legislative hearing on a proposal to expand the state’s DNA database to include all those arrested for misdemeanors.

Levine argues that this costly enforcement strategy ultimately causes only more problems by “socializing” young blacks and Latinos to the jail culture and making a life of crime more likely, because many places where these young men might otherwise find employment don’t hire those with criminal records.


Bad NYPD Cops Only Get Tough Talk from the Civilian Complaint Board

This is how toothless New York’s civilian panel overseeing complaints against the city’s police officers has become: In its April meeting, the 13-member panel couldn’t muster a majority to approve sending a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly asking him where he stood on a point about the panel’s independence.

The letter would just be “futile,” said one panel member, who was actually for sending it.

It’s not unusual for big-city police-review boards to struggle in their efforts to see complaints against police investigated and prosecuted. But New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board is experiencing record levels of frustration and irrelevance.

In 2004, 88 cases against police officers actually made it to trial. Last year, that number was eight. And yet, the police department claims that it’s actually doing a better job of prosecuting bad cops. How? By employing a complex manipulation of statistics.

Complaints are prosecuted not by the CCRB itself but by the NYPD’s Department Advocate’s Office, which, since Julie Schwartz took over in 2004, has increasingly used a light hand with police officers who are found to deserve discipline. After Schwartz took over, the percentage of officers receiving “instructions” (what amounts to a talking-to, the lightest possible penalty) jumped from 29 percent of those disciplined in 2004 to 57 percent in 2005. In her second year, the number increased to 73 percent.

That’s a lot of stern lectures.

Last year, the percentage of disciplined officers receiving instructions actually came down—to 54 percent. But by then, the Advocate’s Office had come up with another way of dealing with CCRB cases—getting rid of them altogether by labeling them “DUP,” which stands for “Department unable to prosecute.”

Some members of the CCRB have another name for it: “Department unwilling to prosecute.”

Last year, more than a third (34 percent) of the 296 CCRB cases closed by the Advocate’s Office were labeled DUP. In contrast, between 2002 and 2006, the Advocate’s Office labeled as DUP a total of 49 cases, or 2.6 percent, of the 1,918 complaints referred by the CCRB.

In the first two months of 2008, 16 of the 57 CCRB cases closed by the Advocate’s Office, or about 28 percent, were DUP’ed. And of those disciplined, 70 percent of the officers received “instructions.”

CCRB chairwoman Franklin Stone has renewed the call for Kelly to allow the civilian board to prosecute its own cases.

“Some of these cases they’re DUP’ing are terrible cases that cry out to be tried,” she tells the Voice.

Calling it a “seismic shift” in policy, Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU’s associate legal director, asserts: “Between the dramatic increase in the number of CCRB cases the department is dismissing, and the large number of cases where officers get only a slap on the wrist in the form of instructions, the department has essentially given officers a free pass to engage in misconduct.”

Schwartz says the higher number of cases dismissed is simply the result of evaluating them more carefully. Under her stewardship, the Advocate’s Office “has engaged in a more up-front analysis of the cases received by the CCRB. This analysis includes both a determination of whether the appropriate legal standards were applied and the success of prosecution. Many times, the CCRB will substantiate allegations based solely on the civilian’s version, without any corroboration. . . . Since we have initiated this type of analysis, we are seeing a severe decline in the number of cases that need to be dismissed later or result in not-guilty findings after trial.”

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne points out that in 2007, the number of case dismissals decreased by 84 percent, and the number of officers acquitted in trial went down by 83 percent.

But CCRB officials argue that Browne’s statistics ignore the large number of cases ditched as DUP. If you include DUPs as dismissals, then the total percentage of cases dismissed has almost doubled, from 21 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2007.

It is true that the Advocate’s Office is having better luck getting convictions in trials—but that doesn’t mean much when hardly any cases get that far. In 2004, the year before Schwartz took over, the Advocate’s Office tried 88 officers accused in CCRB complaints, winning 26 cases—a 29.5 percent success rate. Last year, the percentage of successful cases did increase (to 37.5 percent), but the number of cases that actually went to trial was far smaller (eight, resulting in three guilty verdicts and five acquittals).

CCRB chair Stone, a former federal prosecutor, maintains that the quality of the review board’s investigations hasn’t changed over the past three years: “In fact, I think we’ve gotten better,” she says. For instance, last year, the CCRB added a panel of four lawyers—all former prosecutors—to vet investigations before passing them on to the board for final substantiation. And at a time when complaints have skyrocketed, the CCRB is substantiating fewer cases than it has in recent years. In 2007—a year when the CCRB received a total of 7,559 complaints—the panel only substantiated 217, or 8 percent, of the cases they fully investigated.

“It’s not like we’re out to get police officers,” Stone says. “It’s a really small percentage of the cases that we find the complainants are credible. What we’re saying is, try the cases . . . or let us.”

On April 15, the good-government group Citizens Union seconded Stone’s demand, calling for a “more independent Civilian Complaint Review Board that is given the power to try the cases it substantiates.”

But, not in so many words, Kelly has indicated that’s not happening.

In a March 11 letter to the board, Kelly explained that the reason for the increase in DUPs is “largely due to a change in the nature” of the CCRB complaints, and an increase in harder-to-prove abuse-of-authority complaints. (The commissioner didn’t mention that the increase in abuse-of-authority complaints might have something to do with his aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policy, which has resulted in 865,557 New Yorkers being stopped over the past two years without being charged with anything.) In the letter, Kelly indicated that the Advocate’s Office lawyers “are best suited” to analyze those cases.

Kelly didn’t, however, specifically say that he was against letting the CCRB prosecute its own cases—so, at the review board’s monthly meeting on April 9, CCRB member Dennis deLeon proposed sending Kelly a letter to get him on record. The vote? Two for; four against, including two of the police commissioner’s designees (the third was absent); and four abstentions, including Stone, who said she was for it but believes that it was “a futile act” given Kelly’s past statements.

Afterward, one naysayer—board member Tosano “Tony” Simonetti, a seventysomething retired NYPD first deputy commissioner—had this to say about the CCRB’s chances of ever gaining prosecutorial powers: “Not in my lifetime.”

Simonetti, one of the police commissioner’s designees, didn’t make clear if this was a prediction or a promise.

Bennett Raglin/WireImage/Getty Images


Meet the Harlem Artist With Good Promotion, Sales— and Down Syndrome

Haile King Rubie’s paintings are lovely. Considering the subject matter (stick figures, balloons, simplistically rendered buildings), the lines, and the rich use of color, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the artist is a precociously talented grade-schooler. Some of it is moving, some of it isn’t. But this third-grader, you might think, has a big future ahead of him.

Rubie, however, isn’t a child in grade school. He’s actually 17 years old and living with Down syndrome. It’s inspiring that he loves to paint and that his parents encourage him so much.

But is a Rubie painting really worth $1,200?

On a rainy afternoon, Bernardo Rubie is glowing as he shows off his son’s artwork. “This one is about global warming,” he says. A deep red sky conveys the heat, wilting a double line of smudgy trees. Childlike? Sure, but it seems to make its point. And it’s making that point in, of all places, a bank lobby: a North Fork branch on 145th Street in Harlem.

As to how a teenager with Down syndrome is selling his paintings at a local bank, that brings us back to Bernardo and his wife, Audrey. The couple acknowledge that they promote Haile’s art in the hopes that financial success will bring him independence. (Haile’s a high-school junior at the Manhattan Occupational Training Center and is looking forward to attending college.) And what promotion: a website (, the bank show, press releases, greeting cards, even a clothing line.

“Painting is something that he loves,” says Audrey. “I don’t know if he is looking at it the way we are looking at it for him. He will sit there and just paint, and that is what we want him to do.” Sales have ranged from $500 to over $1,200 for a Haile original.

They were moving so well, in fact, that Audrey decided to freeze all sales of originals or they’d be gone too soon. “I would like to hold onto his original pieces until he or his work gain some more recognition,” she says.

Sensitive to the question of whether they’re using him as a cash cow, Audrey and Bernardo insist that Haile only paints when he wants to. And, they point out, he has other talents as well—he practices martial arts, plays the drums, and loves to cook—but painting has turned out to be the most profitable. That was a surprise they weren’t expecting when they paired Haile with fellow artist Carl Thelemaque three years ago. Since then, Thelemaque has become Haile’s mentor and collaborator.

“If you’ve met Haile, you don’t really know him until you see him in his art environment,” says the Haitian-born artist. “You have to act like a buddy to him. He’ll open up, and you won’t realize that he has a disability.”

Thelemaque works with Haile at his studio in the Malcolm Shabazz Market on 116th Street, but says he gets no financial compensation from the Rubies. “The easier you make it for people to get to know his work, the more valuable his work is going to be,” he says. “For the vision his parents have for him, this is a way for Haile to live forever. That is their dream for him.”

Hugo Donaldson paid $800 for one of Haile’s paintings after coming across his work at an artHarlem show. He says that “Haile’s talent goes beyond his disability. When you look at the work, it makes you forget that he’s disabled. . . . I am not an art expert, but I was able to understand his feeling and projection.”

Bernardo, meanwhile, says the family is looking to have Haile’s work appear in other galleries. “He’s received letters from the Studio Museum and showed in artHarlem and Casa Frela. They love his work.” Back at the family brownstone, Haile’s paintings adorn the walls, as do a few framed newspaper stories. Bernardo is an economist and worked for some years in commodities trading with West Africa; Audrey runs a day-care center in their home.

As a child, Haile underwent heart surgery to correct irregular valves. Since then, he’s enjoyed relatively good health—until just recently. Last week, after a bout with pneumonia, Haile underwent another open-heart surgery. Heart disease affects many with Down syndrome, shortening their lives.

Before his illness, Haile showed a reporter around his home studio. Although his speech is impaired, it was clear that his favorite paintings are one that he did of his father and another that he did of a gorilla after seeing King Kong. He said that he’d like to attend a historically black college, as his older sister did, and also that he’d like to open a pizza parlor.

At his shows, Haile makes sure that visitors sign his guestbook, and he sells autographed posters of his prints for $20 each. “He collects the money,” explains Audrey. “He’ll stuff it in his pocket. He likes money.”


Calling Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah’s publisher wouldn’t allow the Voice to interview him, so the Voice sought out the author himself last week at a public appearance in Manhattan.

Beah, the elusive author of a celebrated—and controversial—memoir about his experiences as a child soldier during the civil war in Sierra Leone, surfaced Thursday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a talk sponsored by the Department of African Studies.

After standing in line while the author signed copies of A Long Way Gone, a Voice reporter asked Beah, 27, about an incident in the book in which two factions of child soldiers brawl inside a refugee camp in Freetown. Three of the youths were killed, he wrote.

An Australian newspaper has reported that neither aide workers nor journalists from the era could recall such an incident taking place. A spokesman for UNICEF, the organization that ran the camp, told the Voice that a “preliminary” investigation could not independently confirm that the incident occurred.

Beah did not directly answer the question. Instead, he said: “There was so much that happened in the war that was not recorded.”

This, of course, is true. However, an organization like UNICEF probably would have treated this particular incident with a great deal of concern. It is reasonable to believe that there would be some record of it.

Beah also suggested that since journalists didn’t arrive in Sierra Leone until the height of the conflict, there was no one around to record it. But, in fact, there were reporters working in Freetown at the time of the alleged incident.

The Voice also asked Beah about the questions that have emerged over the timeline in his book. He says that he was a child soldier from age 13 to 15, a period of two years. But journalist Peter Wilson found evidence that he was still in school for some of that period. In addition, there are questions about the key battle that begins Beah’s ordeal. He says it took place in 1993, when he was 12 or 13, but locals interviewed by Wilson told him that it actually took place in 1995, when Beah was 15—which means that he would’ve been a soldier for a few months at the most, not two years.

“What I have said is, I wrote to the best of my memory, the best of my recollection,” he told the Voice last Thursday.

Then, with a wry smile on his face, Beah went on to advise the Voice reporter to schedule an interview through his publisher.

The reporter replied that he had tried to obtain an interview with Beah repeatedly through his publisher over a period of nearly a month prior to publication of the Voice‘s recent cover story. Jeff Seroy, a spokesman with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, denied those requests. He also turned down a request to interview Beah’s editor, Sarah Crichton.

Beah seemed surprised, suggesting that his publisher never told him that the Voice wished to interview him.

With a proctor breathing down his neck, the Voice reporter was able to ask one last question: Did Beah use composite characters or take events that had happened to others and present them as his own? To this, Beah replied: “You should ask Peter Wilson that question. I’m sure he gave you all these questions.”

Beah was wrong in assuming that the questions were fed to the Voice by Wilson, but his response suggested that he is flustered by the doubts that have been raised about his book.

During the talk itself, Beah supplied students with an overview of his life story. He made no mention of the ongoing controversy.

The professor leading the event said that it was being held to “sensitize” the John Jay students to good writing. When question time rolled around, regretfully, the 200 members of the student body present were only able to muster six questions for the panel.


Tompkins Square’s Unquiet Riot

“It’s our fucking park!” says Jerry “the Peddler” Wade, denouncing the city after it denied him a permit to hold a punk-rock concert in Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the August 6, 1988, police riot that took place there.

That rallying cry apparently worked: Late last week, the city’s Parks Department gave in to Wade, the 58-year-old anarchist known for helping to organize the annual concert. After protests by Wade and his fellow East Village activists this month, the department reversed its original decision and approved the August concert.

Wade’s defiant cry was the same one used by the original protesters in the notorious 1988 urban battle, whose ranks included Wade himself. He’d joined an ad hoc coalition of neighborhood activists, punks, Yippies, and squatters to protest the park’s new 1 a.m. curfew. Legions of homeless people were living there, and the city was determined to kick them out. Wade says he was passing out whistles to the protesters when police began entering the park in waves. Soon, beer bottles were flying and police batons were swinging. “The cops started beating anybody and everybody in sight,” he recalls. At least 38 people, including bystanders, reporters, and police, were injured, and over 100 complaints of police brutality were later reported. Wade says that an officer on horseback kicked him to the ground: “I’ve been an activist since the late ’60s, and to this day, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

From then until the early 1990s, several other mini-riots erupted as protesters continued to fight for control of the park and, ultimately, their neighborhood. They won some battles—the city eventually ceded control of 11 buildings in the area to squatters—and lost some: In 1991, the city demolished the park’s beloved bandshell, which had been a stage for the radical political activism and punk rock that had once defined the neighborhood.

Since the original riot, Wade and a group of East Village activists organized a yearly memorial concert at Tompkins Square, meant to honor the history of the neighborhood’s resistance and remember the brutality of unchecked police power. For 18 years, he says, the permits were granted, the speakers and musicians lined up, and the concerts went off without much trouble. But last year, the Parks Department denied the permit, and the concert was grudgingly relocated to Washington Square Park. This year, the 20th anniversary of the riot, the department again denied a permit, saying that the requested weekend had already been denoted a “quiet weekend,” with no amplified sound allowed. Wade says that was a “bullshit excuse,” speculating that the real reason had something to do with the lineup of punk-rockers—including some who were beaten in ’88—and radical lawyers like Lynne Stewart, Ron Kuby, and Stanley Cohen.

John Penley, a neighborhood activist, says that as the East Village has been scrubbed up and gentrified, folks like him are being shut out in favor of “rich yuppies.” “From the riot till now, it’s become progressively harder and much more expensive to put on shows unless you’re a corporate entity,” he says. Permit fees have risen, the hours allowed for amplified sound have been cut back, and—at least in this instance—the intervention of lawyers was necessary simply to obtain a park permit. (Activist attorney Norman Siegel, who plans to speak at the anniversary concert, met with the Parks Department’s counsel last week.)

Now that the activists have won this particular battle, they hope to pressure the city into fixing up the park’s bathrooms, finishing the dog run, and maybe even building a new bandshell. “We accomplished a lot down here in the last 20 years,” says Wade. “It’s important that the punks and hippies in the suburbs and wastelands know what we did—and how we did it—so they can go home and do the same thing.”


Belmont Park’s Backstretch Plays Home To a Most Unusual Day-Care Center

Just beyond the stable gate at Belmont Park, within earshot of the galloping fillies and disgruntled gamblers, 2,000 employees labor on the racetrack’s backstretch. Secluded on 400 acres by language and the peculiar codes of the track, they muck out the stalls, shove the horses into the starting gate, and hold the animals’ legs as fresh shoes are nailed into their hooves.

As a rule, they speak Spanish and begin the day at about 5 a.m. Because so many have children, this presents a monumental problem. After all, there aren’t many day-care centers on the border of Queens and Long Island that accommodate workers adhering to farmers’ hours.

Until recently, the children were left to fend for themselves, hanging out in cars or trainers’ offices, or sitting home and watching novelas with older siblings, who’d miss school themselves. Another option—according to Donna Chenkin, director of the Belmont Child Care Association—was being wedged into “illegal babysitting” arrangements, accompanied by a dozen or so other kids and one weary overseer with little incentive to teach.

Then, in 2003, Chenkin’s organization started the first day-care center on the grounds of an American racetrack, opening the doors at about 4:45 a.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year. “These are million-dollar horses,” Chenkin explains, “and you can’t just let them out. Their owners need them exercised and fed every single day.”

The workers get more than exercise. When they arrive at the day-care center, their kids are fine, but the workers have gnawed shoulders, chest bruises, black eyes, and broken feet—victims of the beasts they groom, train, ride, and occasionally bet on.

“Horses bite,” notes 49-year-old Robert Parilla, an exercise rider at Belmont Park, holding hands with his four-year-old daughter, Amy. “They kick.” He met his wife at the track in 1980, but he hopes that his daughter ponders the possibility of doing something else.

“It’s really an isolated community,” says Chenkin, a do-gooder from Roosevelt Island who spent six years with the U.N. setting up child-care facilities, primarily in Malaysia. “These kids know nothing but horses. They go into public schools without basic literacy or language skills, get dropped in some ESL program, and stay there until age 16 or so, when they start working at the racetrack themselves.”

Language differences aside, this practically forgotten community is not fodder for people upset by illegal immigration.

“You see the way some of these backstretch workers are treated, and it really upsets you,” says trainer David Donk. “You hear all this talk about illegal aliens. Well, these people are legal. But last summer, all the fees for the seasonal-work visas and the green-card processing went up. We had some guys held up in Mexico for three and four months after visiting their families—just because the whole system is disorganized. That means they couldn’t come here and make a living. And that’s all they’re trying to do: make an honest living.”

Frank Amonte Jr., a 49-year-old former trainer and son of the oldest jockey to ever win a race—at age 69 and 364 days—has little sympathy. “I don’t like the idea of the day-care center,” he complains while consorting with some buddies at the Aqueduct rail between races. “I’ve been on this track all my life, and they do everything for the Mexicans and nothing for the whites. Everything for them, and nothing for us. I don’t mind people working. And they work cheap. But get a babysitter, like we did.”

He pauses to reach into his pocket, remove an assortment of bills, and hand one to a friend. “Bet five to win on the five,” he quickly mumbles, before resuming the conversation.

Back at Anna’s House, Chenkin prepares for her next fundraiser. “We’re a charity, but we’re unknown outside the horse community,” she says. “We’re not in Manhattan. And even though we’re literally five feet from Queens, we’re not in New York City. So it’s like we’re invisible.”

It was about 10 years ago that some people at the tracks started seeing the light and began setting up the day-care center. Eugene Melnyk, a horse owner and founder of the drug developer Biovail, and his wife, Laura, all but earned naming rights when they pledged $1 million to the effort. As a result, when the center opened five years ago—on 7,500 square feet leased from the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for $1 a year—it was christened Anna’s House, after the couple’s young daughter.

Immigrants have always done the dirty work at Belmont. Once, the backstretch was dominated by Irish, then Haitians, and—since the 1980s—immigrants from Mexico, Chile, Peru, and other Latin-American countries. The single workers stay in dorms, modest brick buildings segregated by sex, with bicycles propped against the outside walls and three to four cots in each room. Most of the families live just off the grounds in Elmont, the bleak Long Island town adjoining the track, sharing apartments with other couples, and cutting across the parking lots of small businesses like Tobacco Junction and the Triple Crown Bar while walking to work. Some clans—the Sierras and Fragosos, among them—have been at Belmont for a generation or so, working at Aqueduct—nine miles away in South Ozone Park, Queens—from late October to early May, and Saratoga in upstate New York for six weeks every summer.

Others spend their winters in Florida, at tracks like Gulfstream Park, Palm Beach Downs, and Payson Park, as well as at horse farms in South Carolina. Because track attendance has declined in this age of Internet gambling, Indian casinos, and questionable marketing tactics by the horse-racing industry, a few have had to pick up work, parking cars and working elevators at Aqueduct during the winter. Still others just wander the Belmont backstretch while they wait for the next job.

Their children may have a different future. The center—catering to 50 preschoolers ranging in age from six weeks to five years—runs on a $960,000 annual budget, largely subsidized by owners and prominent trainers. This is apparent as soon as one enters the building and confronts a large mural paying homage to trainer Woody Stephens’s Belmont winners—Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale, Crème Fraiche, and Danzig Connection—and an atrium donated by owner Betty Moran. On a Monday morning, teacher Jasmine Torres—the daughter of an assistant trainer and hot walker—blows bubbles below a painting of Barbaro, the late Kentucky Derby winner whose owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, contributed $250,000 last year.

A set of twins sleep deeply on matching beds, an understandable circumstance given the fact that the toddlers were roused from their home in the middle of the night. In another room, Chilean-born Solange Olivares, the wife of an exercise rider, swabs down a changing table with a box of wipes.

Although the majority of the staff is bilingual, the kids are encouraged to communicate in English. It’s only a matter of time, the reasoning goes, before they’ll also speak the esoteric lingo of the racetrack. On a brisk Saturday at Aqueduct, for instance, a visitor hears about the “chalk,” or favorite; “holy ghost,” a horse that manages to win three times; and a “Woolworth,” the rare occasion when the No. 5 horse comes in first, followed by the No. 10—as in “five and dime.”

Despite the sparse turnouts at the track, the first-floor clubhouse offers a multi-sensory blend of foreign accents, cigarette smoke, and pointing fingers, as gamblers leap and shout at the races broadcast on large, indoor screens. Upstairs, handicappers seat themselves at “mini-theaters,” small tables where they can spread out their paperwork, formulate statistics, and dissect the conundrums of the turf.

Other protocols dominate downstairs in the jockeys’ room, where the silks man—named for the equestrians’ getups—washes and dries the muddy garments and hands them off to a valet, who hangs the items beside each rider’s whip, boots, and saddle.

As for the tradition of working in this closed world, Marta Hernandez, a 42-year-old hot walker—she walks horses to cool them down after workouts—hopes that the track may not be her children’s destiny. She has two kids, one 15, the other four and a pupil at the day-care center. “My little one knows a lot of things my older one didn’t,” she says in Spanish, running a rake through the dirt, amid the dogs, cats, and roosters, near one of the backstretch’s 63 barns. “He’ll go into school speaking English.”


Rikers Island Fight Club

The indictment last month of a city correction officer for using inmates to enforce discipline on his floor recalled the revelations contained in a Voice investigation from last summer.

When the Voice first disclosed that guards at Rikers Island were encouraging inmates to attack other inmates to enforce rules, correction officials insisted that such a thing was rare to nonexistent. They also attacked the credibility of a former correction officer who had been fired after reporting such misconduct and who had come forward to tell the Voice about the practice.

That case involved a 2005 beating by inmate Donald Jackson of another inmate who sustained serious head injuries. The injured man later won a $500,000 settlement from the city. Jackson, who was sent to prison for the assault, testified that the beating was instigated on the orders of a correction officer who was irked with an unruly inmate. The former officer has filed a lawsuit that cites the Voice article.

Now comes the case of jail guard Lloyd Nicholson, whose indictment was announced on February 25 by the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson.

The Nicholson case is even more troubling than the Jackson case because Nicholson, a seven-year veteran of the jails, allegedly used a select group of teenage inmates as enforcers under a regimen he called “the program,” sources said.

“Basically, it was like the movie A Few Good Men,” a source told the Voice. “Either you were in the program or not. He thought the ones who weren’t abiding with the program were misbehaving, and he used other inmates to discipline them.”

The holding area was a dorm-style facility. Nicholson told the inmates that he wanted no trouble during his shift. He didn’t want anyone getting out of bed, for example. If any inmates misbehaved, he told them, there would be a “moment of truth” where they would be taken into the day room and beaten.

According to the indictment, Nicholson, who was in charge of 50 offenders younger than 21, turned to an accused murderer, a 19-year-old youth charged with robbery and sexual assault, and four other accused felons and ordered them to beat up two other inmates on June 10 of last year. The incident took place right around the time that correction officials were saying such things never happen.

On the night in question, sources said, two inmates refused to follow the rules. Nicholson ordered his crew to beat them up. He told them, sources said, to avoid hitting the inmates in the face because it would leave tell-tale marks.

One of the inmates suffered a collapsed lung, but he was denied medical treatment for several hours until he was finally transported to Elmhurst Hospital. He barely survived the assault, prosecutors said in court.

Sources said Nicholson tried to delay reporting the injury until the next shift, but he finally relented when one of the inmates told him the injured youth desperately needed medical attention. Nicholson, the sources said, also told the inmates he would try to get the blame for the injuries pinned on them.

“Some of you are going to go down for this,” he told them, sources said.

Between May 18 and May 25, Nicholson beat an inmate himself, using a “wooden stick,” probably a broom or mop handle, the indictment says.

“He both watched and participated,” a prosecutor said during the arraignment.

Nicholson is charged with gang assault, assault in the second and third degrees, and official misconduct. He faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

His attorney, Peter Troxler, declined to comment, saying it was too early to make any statement on the charges.

Nicholson’s children and two adult relatives were present for his arraignment in Bronx court. One relative told the Voice: “He had nothing to do with this.”

The six inmates allegedly involved in the June 10 incident have already been indicted on gang assault charges.

“What pisses me off is, they’re charged, but what were they supposed to do?” said a lawyer close to the case. “They’re in jail, and a correction officer is ordering them to do this.”

The gang, prosecutors say, allegedly allowed Nicholson to avoid constantly having to monitor the floor during his overnight shift.

Prosecutors say Nicholson ran a “systematic program” of using inmates to enforce order under rules of conduct that he made up. In exchange, he gave them permission to extort commissary, telephone privileges, and property from other inmates.

Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, says: “We believe that such behavior by our correction officers is very infrequent.”


Yippie Apocalypse in the East Village

Even in the curious, aging Yippie subculture that still inhabits the East Village, the current dust-up between legendary WBAI radio host Bob Fass and counterculture dude turned self-described anti-Nazi A.J. Weberman is bizarre.

Fass irked Weberman recently by allowing the defrocked activist lawyer Lynne Stewart on his show, after his original guest, the notorious drug kingpin Larry Davis, couldn’t make it because he’d been murdered in prison.

Weberman and Mordechai Levy, key members of a group called the Jewish Defense Organization, then embarked on a campaign of needling Fass for allowing Stewart—whom they call a supporter of terrorism—on his show.

Toss in the mystery over who broke the store window at the Yippie Café, where Weberman works, and stole a television set, which played slide shows from back in the day, and the Yippie underground is beside itself.

Some folks around the Village say the dispute might go all the way back to the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami.

“This thing has a history,” says Fass. “It’s a stupid, petty thing, but it’s really burning my ass.”

“It’s all a joke,” Weberman says. “I don’t know what Fass is so upset about. I like to call it ‘monkey warfare.’ “

The dispute is so twisted that even Aaron “the Pieman” Kay, the guy who used to lob pies at politicians, won’t talk about it. “I want no part of the feud,” he declares. “The only war I want to fight is the war against those who are anti-marijuana and anti-human-rights.”

David Peel, a Yippie folk singer who once wrote a song called “Fuck Big Brother,” says: “These people are getting older, and hunkering back and forth for power . . . It’s like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They come together and feast on the madness.”

In the meantime, the Yippies are enjoying something of a resurgence. An animated (!) documentary about the Chicago 10 is playing in local theaters, and Steven Spielberg is slated to make his own film about the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Meanwhile, pot activist and Ibogaine promoter Dana Beal and the folks at the Yippie Café are inching closer to opening a museum about the era, complete with lots of stuff about Abbie Hoffman and a Lenny Bruce Comedy Club.

Beal seemed irritated that the Voice was writing a story on the Fass-Weberman feud. He wanted to talk instead about medical marijuana and Ibogaine. “I’m a little mystified about how this is a story,” he says. “We’re engaging in navel-gazing, in picking lint from our belly buttons, instead of doing news stories.”

That view aside, let’s take a look at the players. First, there’s the 75-year-old Fass, who is known for his vast and priceless archive of interviews with counterculture heroes, which is said to include the largest stash of Abbie Hoffman interviews around.

“Fass is one of the most underrated cultural heroes of our time,” says longtime anti-war activist Mayer Vishner. “It’s one of those things where, when he dies, everybody will remember what a great guy he was.”

Weberman, who says he’s “about 64,” became known for hunting through Bob Dylan’s garbage and analyzing the rock singer’s lyrics in a relentless search for secret messages. Weberman can also boast that he’s been sued by Dylan, E. Howard Hunt, Paul Simon, and Bozo the Clown.

Levy runs the JDO, a group that attacks anyone it perceives as aiding terror or criticizing Israel. One of the JDO’s favorite targets is another activist lawyer, Stanley Cohen, who says the group once named him the world’s foremost “self-hating Jew.” Cohen has represented Hamas and Hezbollah members. He says the JDO published his home and work addresses and peppered him with crank calls.

“I don’t give a shit, frankly,” Cohen says. “I think basically they are an organization without a membership. It’s a handful of psychotics. The world has passed them by.”

The current dispute begins with Stewart, the lawyer now free on bail after being convicted of aiding terror as the counsel for the imprisoned terrorist, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.

After Davis was killed, Fass opted to invite Stewart, who is despised by the JDO. During her trial, the JDO handed out flyers that accused her of being a terrorist. Someone left a voice message on her office phone assuring her that they were “watching the trial, and would make sure the right thing was done,” says Stewart assistant Pat Levasseur.

“Back in the day, you thought everyone who smoked pot was a progressive, but we’ve learned that’s not really true,” she adds.

Weberman obtained Fass’s e-mail list and began shooting harassing messages to the radio host and his friends, including an e-mail that said Fass—who is Jewish—planned to sit shiva for Davis, the notorious drug lord.

“I gave the address and phone number and said light refreshments would be served,” Weberman admits. “I actually got responses from people who thought it was a wonderful idea.”

Levy repeatedly called Fass’s show, which airs on Thursday nights after midnight.

Fass believes the dispute really began years ago when he refused to allow Weberman on his radio show to discuss his over-the-top theories about those secret messages in Dylan’s songs.

Naturally, Fass views the attacks as “harassment.” He points out that Weberman even accosted his wife in the street.

“He told her she was crazy, told her he was going to fuck me up,” Fass says. “It’s all pathology. I would get calls where people would give precisely the same rant, as though they were reading from a script.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, Fass refuses to call the police. “I do not like to ask for the help of the police, especially on speech crimes,” Fass says. “I’ve never seen a situation that’s been improved by the presence of the police.”

Weberman admits that he approached Fass’s wife on the street one day. “I said some nasty things to her, but it was a coincidence that we ran into each other,” he says. “On that, I must admit I was wrong.”

He also acknowledges calling Fass at home and declaring that he was a “pimp.”

Weberman also admits, over the years, to leaving manure on Fass’s property, stenciling “Zippy” on his van, and warning him to get insurance for his storefront.

Weberman claims that he wants peace. “I would like all of this to come to an end,” he says. “I’ve been fighting Fass for so long, it’s not really worth it.”

The dispute even sucked in counterculture hall-of-famer Paul Krassner, who lives all the way out in California. Krassner, whose books include One Hand Jerking and Pot Stories for the Soul, was particularly incensed at Weberman accosting Fass’s wife. “It’s just vicious, gratuitous hassling,” he says.

John Penley, an East Village activist, says the longstanding animosity sucks energy away from the movement.

“My hope is, the story will cause them to take a look at this craziness and drop it and get together,” Penley says. “All of these crazy internal feuds distract them from the real work. And everyone is getting old.”