Billing the poor protestors
If you want to come to Albany to protest the injustices of poverty, you’ll want to have money, not to mention an appreciation for irony.
Demonstrators calling themselves the Poor People’s Campaign have been staging a series of protests in New York’s capital city for the past several weeks to call attention to a host of issues — among them poverty, gun violence, voting rights, racism, and health care. Along the way, they’ve caused some inconveniences — mainly traffic congestion — in the name of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In response, the city sent them a $1,451 bill for police coverage at the May 21 protest, with more on the way.
That’s right: The city billed poor people, and advocates for poor people, for complaining about poverty.
Modeled after the Poor People’s Campaign conceived by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the modern-day movement, known as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, involves demonstrations in more than three dozen state capitals across the country over six weeks, culminating in a [Saturday] rally in Washington, D.C.
About the nicest thing one could say about Albany’s decision to bill the protesters is that it’s exceedingly clueless. Mark Mishler, a longtime civil rights activist and the attorney for the local group, goes further, calling it “an effort to chill, intimidate, or bully people from continuing to engage.” We’d like to think that’s not Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s intent, but those are certainly predictable assumptions when a government starts slapping people of little means with bills for exercising their rights.
And really, Mayor Sheehan should know better. Here, after all, is a mayor who has declared Albany a sanctuary city against the Trump administration’s threats to penalize communities and states that refuse to aid its bigoted, xenophobic agenda. A mayor who last year launched an anti-poverty program. A mayor who is leaving the middle-class Buckingham Lake-Crestwood neighborhood for a home in need of major rehab in the lower-income Ten Broeck Triangle.
Perhaps most conspicuously, here’s a mayor who annually asks the state for millions of dollars more in aid, partly on the argument that Albany, as the seat of state government, has added costs, particularly for public safety. Yet after securing $12 million in extra aid this year, the city turns around and bills people for expenses that state aid was supposed to cover?
And then there’s the rather arbitrary sense of the city’s billing system, which we asked the mayor’s office to explain Monday and didn’t get a call back. But surely, not every protester gets a bill. So is some speech free and other speech not? And are the decisions as to who pays and who doesn’t content-neutral — as government is expected to be in regulating speech?
People come to Albany to exercise not just free speech but another of the most important rights in a representative republic — to petition government for a redress of grievances. A government that bills people for exercising that right might justifiably be served with a petition of its own.
The Albany Times Union