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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Protestors Say They Were Banned From Espada's Town Hall

Pedro Espada addresses a crowd at a town hall meeting on May 19 (photos by Alma Watkins)

A group of housing advocates who tried to attend State Senator Pedro Espada’s town hall meeting last week say they were physically barred from entering the building, according to two people who attempted to join the meeting.

Michael Leonard, a local resident and self-described activist, says he was stopped outside the Davidson Community Center, where the session was held, and told by a man in a suit that he wasn’t welcome there.

Another woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution, said she was pushed away and had her hand ripped from the door when she tried to enter the building. The man blocking her entrance told her to “get the hell out” of there, she said.

The woman said Espada's staffers recognized her from some of the senator’s previous rallies, which she had attended to protest his controversial rent freeze bill  - legislation Espada has been pushing for months that he says would freeze rent prices for a number of New Yorkers but that tenant advocates claim is pro-landlord legislation in disguise.

Five people were banned from the meeting, according to the woman. They called the police when they were refused admission, and when cops arrived, Espada’s staff told the officers that the event was private, she said.

A spokesman from Espada's office said the meeting was open to the public, with mailers being sent to addresses throughout the district. Police officers were at the meeting, he said, but only as a normal police presence that comes to oversee any public event. Some people were asked not to come inside because they were holding signs and chanting and would disrupt the purpose of the event, according to the spokesman, who denied that anyone was physically removed or blocked.

According to the woman, the group then set up shop on the curb and handed out fliers about Espada’s housing bill to people passing by. Espada’s staffers took the fliers out of passersby’s hands and tore them up, she said.

“In my view, this was not a 'town hall' meeting or any sort of viable community forum," Leonard said. "This was a pep rally for Espada."

A protestor outside Espada's town hall meeting last week

The meeting was “successful,” according to a press release sent out by Espada spokesman Franck LaBoy. Espada held a similar event back in March -- a "virtual" meeting, streamed over the internet.

The press release contained three videos from the event, where Espada discusses his rent freeze bill, charter schools and then holds a question and answer session. You can watch the videos here, here, and here.

It’s not the first time there’s been a confrontation at an Espada event. Back in 2008, blogger and well-known City Hall gadfly Rafael Martínez Alequín got into a scuffle with Espada staffers at a campaign rally. Martínez Alequín was filming and asking questions, he said, when Espada’s son Alejandro pushed him and broke his camera.

“People were pushing me, they were hitting me,” Martínez Alequín said. “I asked Pedro to stop them.”

A lawsuit stemming from the incident led to the eventual reimbursement from Alejandro for the cost of the broken camera. You can watch footage of the altercation here, on Martínez Alequín’s blog.


  1. The headline for this article is misleading. It suggests agreement with the Espada version of events by calling those banned "protesters". Mr. Leonard lives in the 33rd. He is a constituent of Mr. Espada. Why not say, "constituents" were banned? I know of at least one other woman also lives in the district and was banned from the meeting. One other person I spoke to about the event was a concerned citizen of NYC (Pedro, remember, likes to tout the fact that he is Vice President for Urban Policy of the Senate, shouldn't any resident of any urban part of the State be able to attend his forums to hear about Urban Policy like his so-called rent freeze bill?) From my discussions with several of the banned attendees, my sense is they were hoping this would be what was advertised -- an open town hall and they would be able to participate, possibly ask questions (yes, maybe tough questions) and make points in opposition when possible. That does not make these people "protesters" -- it makes them concerned and engaged citizens --exactly the kind of people who should be attending a legitimate "town hall". Unfortunately this event was nothing of the sort.

  2. And even with the oppression of these voices of dissent, Espada will still win this election thanks to the massive apathy of the electorate and diluted anti-Pedro vote attributed to the ambitions of his opponents.

  3. I agree with the above comment from 'Jack.' The bottom line is: Constituents were not allowed into a TOWN HALL MEETING. When it comes to Senator Espada, only his elite, hand-picked circle are invited to the table solely for the purpose of making him look good. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Bronx is left out in the cold . . .literally. Elections can't come soon enough!

  4. I must respectfully disagree with Jack on this issue. It is accurate for a journalist to identify as a "protester" an activist who has participated in previous protests and was holding printed signs that, in fact, protested the elected official. Constituents can, after all, also be protesters.

    Without taking a position on this particular incident, I must also disagree with the notion that it is wrong to prohibit group protests inside a public meeting. Whether you agree or disagree with an elected official, it is important for people to behave responsibly toward their fellow citizens who have also come to attend.

    You may not believe the elected official him/herself deserves respect. The other members of the public at the meeting, however, do deserve respect. My experience has been that disruptive tactics rob everyone else in attendance of their opportunity to voice their concerns. In my opinion, signs and groups who are chanting should not be allowed into any public meeting because their behavior does not constitute any form of free speech, but rather robs others of their right.

    Everyone should be allowed to speak. They most certainly should be allowed to ask tough question. But for there to be any meaningful civic discourse, each of us must be responsible enough to allow others to speak when it is their turn. People who refuse to show that measure of responsibility should not be allowed to strip their neighbors of their rights.

    If the activists were denied entry because their opinions were known, I would definitely agree that was wrong. But if they were waving signs and chanting, they shouldn't have been allowed inside.

  5. Jay,

    My name is Michael Leonard, I am the individual quoted in the article. I'd like to provide a little context, since the article leaves out some key facts.

    First of all, as "Jack" correctly notes that I am one of Mr. Espada's constituents. I even received in the mail an invitation from Espada's office to come to the the meeting!

    Just because I describe myself as an activist does not mean I was there to protest. In fact,
    I have NEVER protested Mr. Espada. Furthermore, when I arrived at the town hall meeting I carried no banners, signs, bags, t-shirts, nor materials of any sort that could suggest I was there to disrupt the meeting. None of the staffers knew me and I have never had any prior contact with any of them.

    So their only basis for denying me entry to the meeting was that I held a single flyer calling into question Mr. Espada's rent freeze bill.
    As soon as the staffers saw the flyer, they informed me that I was "not welcomed" and that I could not enter. I realized that they were annoyed that I was holding the flyer, and I offered to ditch it. They said I was not going inside, no matter what. (They even started to take pictures of me without my permission, ostensibly for Mr. Espada's own "surveillance" purposes. Very unsettling).

    Now, I agree with you that everyone has a right to speak. And I think you are right to point out that "civil disobedience" can sometimes "rob" others of their right to speak. So on some level, there is a reason to limit peoples' right to enter a public meeting if their behavior is counter to productive discourse.

    But, if unhappy constituents are unable to attend a town hall meeting, then how are we supposed to have dialogue with our elected official? If the staff is told to eject anyone who is merely holding a flyer critical of the Senator's policies, how interested is the Senator in hearing the needs and ideas of his constituents? The reason I am so disappointed with the Senator's conduct is because I was not there to disrupt the meeting, nor did the staff have any real reason for believing so. They simply looked at my appearance, saw the flyer, and said 'no-go'. Aren't they going a little overboard here ?

  6. Thanks for the comments Jay. Not sure anyone is reading this anymore, since it is about to get pushed off the front page, but I wanted to respond to some of your points. The easiest way for me to do it is to paste some of your post as quotes in mine and respond.

    Jay wrote: "I must also disagree with the notion that it is wrong to prohibit group protests inside a public meeting. Whether you agree or disagree with an elected official, it is important for people to behave responsibly toward their fellow citizens who have also come to attend."

    Who expressed this notion? Certainly not me. If a group of people is disruptive inside a meeting -- they should be removed. Of course, a tough question or a statement in opposition would not be disruptive in my opinion. I think you agree.

    Jay wrote: "Everyone should be allowed to speak. They most certainly should be allowed to ask tough question. But for there to be any meaningful civic discourse, each of us must be responsible enough to allow others to speak when it is their turn. People who refuse to show that measure of responsibility should not be allowed to strip their neighbors of their rights."

    I could not agree more. But these points have no connection to what happened at this event. This was prior restraint based on appearance and what someone held in his/her hand -- not a response to disruption.

    Jay wrote:
    "But if they were waving signs and chanting, they shouldn't have been allowed inside."

    I don't think this is what happened at this event. I think people decided to hold signs and hand out flyers outside the event after being denied entrance. But even if they had done these things outside the event as people went in -- I do not agree that is a legitimate reason to ban them from the event. I think it would be perfectly legitimate to chant, hold signs and hand out flyers as people are going in. What could possibly be wrong these tactics as a way of informing people going into the meeting on a particular issue? A reasonable, honest, accesible politician who respects his constituents and respects an open exchange of ideas should welcome such activity. I even think flyers and signs inside can be used without being disruptive. Chanting inside, I agree, is counter-productive to having a open exchange of opinions.

    Bottom line -- it is clear to me what happened here. Espada staged an event that had the appearance of openness and access to his constituents. It was rigged from its inception so he would be able to control who showed up. He did everything he could to keep anyone who disagreed with him out -- including having his staff actually stop several people at the door. The fancy mailer he sent to constituents did not advertise the day, place or time. It instructed recipients to call his office and register. I did. I never got a call back telling me about this event. The only reason anyone outside his circle of supporters knew about this fake "town hall" was because the ace staff of BxNN saw the flyer at Davidson and posted a notice here. Finally, something that may get lost in all this discussion-- this was not a campaign event. This event was supposed to be Espada as our Senator -- not Espada as a candidate. The putative invite (which was a glossly fancy deal with Pedro's mug on it) was, I have assume, paid for with NYS Senate money -- i.e., our tax dollars. He had his official, on the NYS Senate payroll, staff there to answer questions. The fact that my tax dollars paid for this sham makes me all the more offended. As an anonymous poster said above -- this election can't come soon enough.

  7. Thanks for the additional details and correcting my mistaken impressions.

    I certainly agree about the lack of real notice about the "town hall." Had I had the details about the meeting ahead of time, I would have planned to attend. (And would have a better idea of what actually transpired at the door!)

    I also remember that the "virtual town hall" meeting did not include a question I submitted. This makes me suspect there were other difficult questions that were also screened out.

    I do remain concerned about some of the disruptive tactics people have been using at public meetings recently. As described, this incident may actually illustrate how those tactics can be counter-productive by lending a sense of legitimacy to efforts designed to prohibit dissenting voices.


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