Violating Homeless People’s Right to Assemble: Briefing the UN Special Rapporteur

PTH Civil Rights Organizer Nikita Price speaks with Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Picture the Homeless was excited to be part of a delegation that met on Tuesday with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, to brief him on how the New York Police Department functions vis-a-vis those rights.

“I try to be a voice for civil society at the government level – to raise your issues, to lend my voice to your issues.”

Which is a big deal, because right after meeting with us, the Special Rapporteur was meeting with NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who has refused to meet with us! We are really excited for the rapporteur to bring our issues to Bratton, and hope that he will take the concerns of a UN high official more seriously than those of people without homes.

“The NYPD has an explicit policy of denying homeless people the right to assemble,” PTH Civil Rights Organizer Nikita Price told the Special Rapporteur, sharing a copy of the official NYPD document identifying homeless “hot spots” as “outdoor locations where two or more individuals are gathered,” and requiring officers who encounter hot spots “to notify the chief of department” who will call in the “multi-agency homeless task force” so homeless “individuals will be directed to immediately remove all their property from the area” and depart. Nikita continued: “Homeless New Yorkers are constantly told to “move on” from public spaces like street corners and park benches, even when they’re not breaking any laws.”

Mr. Kiai had a lot of follow-up questions about this explicit attack on the right to assemble – effectively stating that homeless people do not have the right to associate with each other.

Other lawyers and organizers and activists in the room shared stories about how the NYPD uses fraudulent charges to make mass arrests of protesters engaged in peaceful protest, their use of Sting Ray/cell site simulators to log all the cell phones in an area and generate a list of protesters, and the way that local police have been working with the Israeli military to adopt crowd control measures and disrupt nonviolent demonstrations.

“I’m surprised to hear all this,” the Rapporteur said at one point, “the impression one gets from the press is that the NYPD is mostly behaving itself, with other cities like Cleveland and Ferguson are the ones with problems.”

That got a good laugh out of everyone in the room.

But these issues aren’t funny. We’re gratified that the UN Special Rapporteur took the time to meet with us, and to bring our issues to the people with the power to do something about them. Because something needs to be done.

“For the NYPD, it’s been open season on homeless people,” said PTH member ‘Doc.’ “Even when we’re just standing around, they roll up on us, tell us to move along. I’ve had MTA & NYPD cops jump me, cuff me, then release me with no charges. Cops are trying to run us out of this city so people with more money can feel more comfortable. So much development is happening in Harlem right now, but who’s getting rich? Not us. Not Harlemites. I’ve been running up and down Harlem streets since I was eighteen. Store owners know me, they tell the cops to leave me alone, they ask about me when I don’t come around. I’m part of this community. I won’t be thrown out.”