The Poor People’s Campaign says it will not pay a bill from the city of Albany for law enforcement provided for a 90-minute march that tied up one of the city's busiest streets.
The Poor People’s Campaign is in its fifth week of protests around the state capitol, demanding New York lawmakers address inequality. The group's initial downtown protest on May 21st snarled traffic along the busy Central Avenue corridor, causing delays and forced rerouting of CDTA buses. The event struck a sour note with Albany City Hall. Mayor Kathy Sheehan: "Clearly, the Poor People's Campaign organizers understand the permit process. They have had the courtesy of registering and getting permits from the state in order for them to assemble on state property. They have not afforded that same courtesy to the city of Albany. They have not applied for permits to block the streets in the city of Albany. If people seek to protest and assemble in the city of Albany, whether it’s in a park or on a street, they have to apply for a permit. And that allows us to plan for traffic safety, for the safety of those who are protesting, and to be able to work out how that's going to happen and what the potential cost of that might be."
Turns out the actual cost, as tallied by the city, is $1,451.49. The Poor People's Campaign isn't going to pay it. Mark Mishler is the group's attorney: "The Poor People's Campaign and others have the right to engage in First Amendment-protected assembly, speech, association. We do not need permission from the mayor or the city of Albany to exercise our First Amendment protected rights."
Albany Police Department spokesman Steve Smith: "The Albany Police Department understands that we are the Capital City and respect everyone's right to free speech. We respect their right to protest and speak out against issues, you know, speak their opinion. But when things occur in the city that require police resources, we don't think it's unreasonable to bill, especially if the protests come up unplanned, there's no conversations with the police department and they affect people who are trying to get from point a to point b and live their lives."
Mishler concedes there is a city permit policy. "Based on how the city has dealt with protests and rallies and First Amendment-protected activities, there is, in essence, no such policy. And I say that because there are many, many marches, rallies, protests that take place in the city of Albany, including people marching in the street and blocking traffic. These things have happened many many many times in the past several years with a variety of groups ranging from anti-police brutality groups protesting the killing of Dontay Ivy, to immigrant rights groups, the coalition against Islamophobia, protesting President Trump's policies such as the Muslim ban. There have been demonstrations in the streets, marches in the streets, many, many times over the past several years without anybody getting permits in advance, without requesting permission in advance, and in many instances without letting the city know anything about what was planned. And in none of those instances was there a problem between the city and the protestors, and in none of those instances that I've cited was any group ever billed for police services."
The mayor, a Democrat, disagrees. "We treated them in no different way than we would have treated any other organization. If the NRA had come and blocked the streets in Albany without a permit we would have sent them a bill as well."
The bill comes due June 29th. If the Poor People's Campaign doesn't pay up, it will head to the city’s law department for collection.