It might have been the wee hours of a Thursday morning, but the atmosphere in New York City Hall on June 27 was electrifying. All the seats were taken in the upper chamber, crowded with those who had come to witness the passage of the Community Safety Act (CSA), which will bring some degree of reform to the New York Police Department.
Both chambers rose in thunderous applause as Ruben Wills of Queens delivered his vote, guaranteeing a veto-proof majority for the two bills that make up the CSA. The first of the bills, the NYPD Oversight Act (Int. 1079), will create an office of inspector general to independently investigate the conduct of the NYPD. The second and more controversial bill, the NYPD End Discriminatory Profiling Act (Int. 1080), will strengthen the provisions against bias-based policing, expand the categories of protected individuals (to include gender identity, housing status and others) and give individuals who believe they have been profiled a private right of action.
The passage of the legislation came on the heels of last year’s revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD is engaged in broad-based surveillance of Muslim communities, as well as recent campaigning and legal efforts to highlight the department’s discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk, particularly against blacks and Latinos, but also trans and queer people, the homeless and others.
Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a broad coalition of community members, lawyers, researchers and activists, breathed the CSA into life by mobilizing the public to demand its passage. Council members Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander sponsored the legislation and shepherded it through a long process of consultation and rewriting.
At the late-night meeting, council members provided various rationales for voting in favor of the bills, but one sentiment was echoed across the board. As Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens put it, “The loss of the rights [of profiled New Yorkers] is not legitimate collateral damage in the struggle for a safer city.”
It was an uplifting moment in a week of extremes when it came to civil rights—in New York and beyond. Just days before, the Supreme Court had gutted the Voting Rights Act, virtually killing one of the most significant and substantive achievements of the civil rights movement. Then the next day, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), ending the ban that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
In short, within the span of twenty-four hours, the legislation that had ensured full citizenship rights to African-Americans was eviscerated, while gays and lesbians were ordained by the state as subjects worthy of protection.
These two events are inextricably connected. Some academics and activists use the word “homonationalism” to describe such parallel and interlinked processes. The idea is that gay rights have been invoked to depict certain others—particularly Muslims and other people of color—as dangerous and undesirable. Consider the fear-mongering rhetoric over the supposedly inherent threat that Islam poses to gays worldwide. African-American communities have similarly been marked as homophobic in relation to the (white) norm.