In the ongoing struggle to provide safety to the public within public space—enforcing the law against illegal camping in the American River Parkway for instance—through the maintenance of public order, the legal profession often proves more of a hindrance than help, as this story from a 1992 City Journal article notes.
“Norman Siegel has fond memories of his youth in Brooklyn—and of his earliest clashes with authority. “There’s a kind of zaniness and spirit that I got by growing up in Brooklyn, standing on the street corner and singing Doo Wop,” he says. “That was my first experience with police misconduct. They always told us to get off the street corner because it was 11 o’clock at night. They’d say people were making complaints, but we’d ask the people in the neighborhood if they made complaints. There weren’t complaints. [The cops] just didn’t like our rock music; they didn’t like us hanging out on the street corner… But we had nowhere else to go.”
“Siegel may not have been able to find out who was complaining about him three decades ago, but today it is easy: As the leading opponent of the city’s efforts to combat public disorder, the 47-year-old executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the state’s ACLU chapter, has become one of the most controversial men in New York, antagonizing politicians, community leaders, police, and even some of the ACLU’s traditional supporters.
“Siegel’s strident activism, combined with the ever-present threat of legal action, has made the NYCLU a powerful obstacle to city officials’ efforts to keep public spaces clean and safe. The organization’s involvement in the well-publicized, three-year-long clash over Tompkins Square Park illustrates the NYCLU’s effectiveness and persistence.
“During the Eighties, the Lower East Side park became a gathering place for a motley crew of anarchists, skinheads, squatters, and other belligerents, as well as a camp for homeless people. On the hot Saturday night of August 6, 1988, a “squatters’ concert” was held at the park, featuring local rock bands such as Public Nuisance and Letch Patrol. Things got out of hand, and a riot erupted between protesters and police who had been called in to keep the peace. Fifty people were injured, 31 were arrested, and 121 filed complaints of police brutality.
“The following Monday, some four hundred Lower East Side residents met at St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B and East Seventh Street. Siegel was there, bringing tempers to a boil by denouncing the “police riot” and urging his audience to find out “who gave the order to send the cops into the crowd to beat” the demonstrators.
“Siegel called for a march on the Ninth Precinct, which went off two days later and, according to Newsday, drew about four hundred “yippies, hippies, punk rockers, anarchists, communists, a few homeless people, and members of the sizable squatters movement.” Siegel led the marchers in the chant “Free the Park,” although some improvised their own slogan: “Kill Cops!”
“The police, subject to such unrelenting criticism, were unable to quell the disorder and sporadic violence that plagued the park during the next three years. Finally in June 1991 the Dinkins administration closed the park for a renovation that had been planned for some time. Siegel was outraged. “The closing of the park represents the visible failure of the Dinkins administration to address serious urban problems,” he said. In an interview, he elaborated, saying that he believed the park could have been cleared by improving social services for the homeless: “People would leave voluntarily if [the city provided] even one floor of a shelter, and let the homeless people, in association with the Human Resources Administration, manage it.”
“The battle to close the park left Robert Rohn, a Lower East Side community leader, furious with Siegel. “We can’t make a move down here on the Lower East Side without first clearing it with him,” Rohn said. “He’s not an elected official, yet he has managed to thwart the city’s plans with his ridiculous lawsuits on behalf of the city’s lowlifes.”
“Although the NYCLU never actually went to court over Tompkins Square Park, Siegel’s position on the matter reflects a familiar pattern. What most people regard as social disorder, civil libertarians frequently construe as expressions of individual freedom; society, in their view, may enforce standards of public behavior only extremely sparingly and with layer upon layer of safeguards against potential abuse.”