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No One is Above the Constitution . . . Even if I Agree with Them

June 13, 2018

The Times Union Editorial Board declined my request to publish this response to their June 12th editorial. I’m publishing it here so the public can better understand the city’s efforts to keep residents and visitors safe.

I write in response to the Times Union editorial condemning me and the city of Albany for sending a bill to the Poor People’s Campaign. The editorial seems premised on the idea that the city should determine who does and does not need a permit to protest on city property based on whether we agree with the content of their speech — something that is both unconstitutional and antithetical to a free and just society.

As the Capital of New York, our city is an epicenter for free speech. We welcome it and we accommodate protests of all kinds on a regular basis, usually without incident. But as the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign know full well, if a group wants to shut down a city street to stage a protest, they need a permit.

We require a permit so that we can keep people safe. We want to make sure protesters are safe and we want to make sure that pedestrians, public transit riders and drivers are safe. One need only look to Charlottesville to see what can happen when law enforcement is not prepared in advance for a public protest.

We also require a permit so we can plan for disruptions that protests cause. It allows us to discuss impacts and potential alternatives with organizers. It allows us to work with CDTA to re-route buses and keep traffic flowing. And it allows us to deploy our scarce resources as efficiently as possible.

Since May, the Poor People’s Campaign has engaged in several disruptive protests that shut down city streets. To date, they have not applied for any permits from the city. They have applied for State permits for actions taking place on State property, but they refuse to provide the same courtesy to the city of Albany. The Campaign’s tactic of shutting down streets is disrupting the lives of ordinary working people — the people who clean the offices, file the paperwork, and maintain the buildings of those in power. And the impact on these ordinary citizens is disproportionately higher than any disruption the Campaign is causing to the powerful policy makers inside the State Capitol.

Tens of thousands of people work in downtown Albany. Thousands of them rely on public transportation to get to and from their jobs. Thousands of them are low and moderate-income workers. Many of them work multiple jobs. Many of them have children in daycare. So with every disruption, some of them don’t make it to their second job, and some are charged fees they can’t afford because they are late picking up their kids from daycare. And with every disruptive action, my office is flooded with phone calls from people, often in tears, who have been adversely impacted by the tactics the Poor People’s Campaign is using.

There was the woman with Lyme disease, who grows tired after walking only a few steps, who had to trek uphill to Lark Street to catch her bus because protesters blocked the stop outside her building. There was the woman who sat stuck on a bus at the intersection of Swan and Washington for more than an hour. She was trying to get to a doctor’s appointment. When she finally arrived an hour and a half late, she had to re-schedule the appointment and still make her co-pay. There was the college student driving for Lyft to earn money for books for her summer session. She lost 3 rides because she was stuck on Washington Avenue.

The Poor People’s Campaign and the Times Union may see these people as “necessary casualties” of a greater cause. I see them as people who have rights, and whose voices must be heard if I am to fairly represent the City of Albany.

The bill we sent to the Poor People’s Campaign reflects the cost of the extra APD resources we had to deploy to keep people safe as streets were blocked and frustrated commuters couldn’t get to where they needed to go. We were not able to re-route buses and minimize our costs in advance because the Campaign refused to apply for a permit. We send a bill anytime there is an identifiable sponsor of activity that blocks city streets without a permit. The Poor People’s Campaign should not be treated differently simply because I share their cause.

Yes, I support the objectives of the Poor People’s Campaign. We must address poverty, racism, gun violence, voting rights and health care. I imagine most of the residents and commuters impacted by the Campaign’s actions feel the same way. Unfortunately, the Campaign’s tactics of refusing to obtain permits and allowing us to plan for these actions are hurting the very people they purport to want to help, which has resulted in resentment and frustration in our community. As Mayor, I will not add to that frustration by treating the Poor People’s Campaign differently than I would the League of the South, the American Freedom Party, or any other organization whose views I do not share. It seems to me the Times Union, as a champion of free speech, should expect nothing less.

Kathy M. Sheehan

Mayor, City of Albany