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No censorship: Demonstrators gather outside Troy City Hall after controversial citations against the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

Code of Unethics?

Demonstrators gather in Troy as controversy mounts over suspicious shutdown of art exhibit

Chicago-based artist Wafaa Bilal’s exhibit The Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi first lost its home on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute due to an apparently squeamish administration and the outcry of a minority of the college’s students. Then, after finding refuge at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in North Troy, the installation was ousted again, this time under the guise of a 13-month-old code violation. The irony that Bilal’s was the first in the Sanctuary’s series of exhibits celebrating democracy and the freedom of speech was not lost on hundreds of protesters who gathered Tuesday outside Troy City Hall. The demonstrators decried the use of a code violation to shut down events at the Sanctuary as a politically motivated attempt by the city to shut down an art exhibit that key members of the administration found distasteful.

Jon Christian, a math and philosophy major at RPI, was one of the many students gathered at the protest. “I think it is very insulting to Mr. Bilal that his artwork has been pushed away from two different venues in the same city,” he said. “If I were him, I certainly wouldn’t be coming back to Troy. I think it is our job to show him that some people believe in his right to say what he wants.”

Last week, the day after Bilal’s opening, the Sanctuary received notice that it could no longer host assemblies until it widened its front doors by 3 inches. No small feat, and one that will cost the small nonprofit more than $10,000. Steve Pierce, spokesman for the Sanctuary, however, said that they are moving ahead with plans to fix the doors.

The day of the opening, Pierce pointed out, code officials visited the sanctuary, and gave them the go-ahead for the planned event.

“As soon as we got the notice, we started to move on fixing the doors. Which we would have done if the city had told us to do that earlier,” he said. “Essentially, what the city is saying is that we have known for 13 months about these violations, and that is true.” But what they are not saying, he added, is that the Sanctuary replied immediately to the original months-old violations notice and presented to the city a detailed, prioritized list of projects that would be undertaken.

“We don’t have a ton of money,” he said, “but we are doing it as fast as we can. They know very well, if they read their mail, that we have been planning to fix the doors. The implication is that we received a code violation and ignored it, which isn’t true.” He added that there has been no response from the city to multiple letters from the Sanctuary. No response, that is, until last week, the day after a protest of Bilal’s work outside the Sanctuary, organized by none other than Troy commissioner of public works Bob Mirch, under whose authority the code department operates.

Many in the crowd join Pierce in finding the timing entirely suspect. Mirch has a reputation in the city of Troy for using the code department to exact revenge against political adversaries, and the current violation of the Sanctuary seems to follow that pattern.

Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian finds that idea absurd.

“Bob Mirch,” Tutunjian claimed, “had nothing to do with the shutting down of the Sanctuary for Independent Media.” He said that this was not about the art itself, but the building.

“It isn’t about the content,” he said. “It is about the venue. That building wasn’t safe for a large gathering of people. That is my only concern as mayor of the city. The liability issues that it would have posed, to have people gather in that building when they city knew it wasn’t up to code would have been staggering had something happened.”

The city, he said, couldn’t face the potential lawsuits.

“I am concerned that code didn’t shut it down sooner,” he added.

As for the controversy surrounding the artwork, Tutunjian is adamantly neutral. He believes in free speech, he said, pointing to a past controversy surrounding artwork hung in City Hall. One of the pieces was decried by many in the community as pornographic and a call was raised to have the piece removed.

Tutunjian refused.

“I am a first-generation American,” he said. “My father is from Syria. My grandparents escaped persecution in Armenia. To portray me as a bigot, and that I want to limit free speech, is wrong. I am not opposed to what they are doing tonight or what they were doing last week.”

Troy City Councilman Ken Zalewski (D-District) was the only elected official at the protest. He said that he is concerned over the accusations of Mirch’s misuse of code. “I will be speaking with my colleagues on the city council and see what we can do as a legislative body, possibly even launching an investigation into what is going on here. There seems to be a pattern of selective use of code enforcement to punish political enemies. As an elected official, representing taxpayers, we have to make sure we are not using code enforcement for political purposes.”

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Play Nice or Play Alone

After last week’s surge of violent protesting in Tibet, the Dalai Lama is threatening to step down as political leader. More than 80 people were said to have been killed in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, during the Chinese crackdown on the demonstrations. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been accusing the spiritual leader of organizing the protests, though the Dalai Lama has lashed out at these claims, stressing that he denounces violence and answered with a threat: “If things go out of control, then my only option is to completely resign.” Tibet is formally an autonomous region of China, although the Dalai Lama has claimed that the country treats them as “second class.”

Still Divided

The Barack Obama campaign faced a racially charged controversy over the past couple of weeks, after videos of the senator’s one-time preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, made the rounds on YouTube. Right-wing pundits seized upon Wright’s incendiary remarks as evidence that Obama, who attended Wright’s sermons for two decades, might also harbor militant views regarding the United States and its racial history. Facing down these criticisms, Obama, in a speech on Monday that was widely hailed for its eloquence, addressed the complex issues surrounding the race-based angers that still thrive in many communities. Obama condemned many of the most inflammatory statements by Wright, but defended his personal relationship with him, just as he defended his relationship with his white grandmother who was prone to making uncomfortable comments about race.

Longer Than World War II

This week, the United States passed the five-year mark for its involvement in the war in Iraq. The numbers are staggering: 4.5 million estimated Iraqis displaced; nearly 4,000 American soldiers killed; nearly 30,000 soldiers wounded; 90,000 Iraqi civilians killed; $3 trillion estimated spent. To mark this unfortunate milestone, dozens of soldiers gathered for Winter Soldier, to share, as Democracy Now! reported, their “eyewitness accounts of the war and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The stories of these antiwar veterans of Iraq, DN! reported, were largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Complaint Filed

Common Council members and activists voice long-standing concerns with the Albany Citizen’s Police Review Board

Alice Green told the Albany Citizen’s Police Review Board last week that they have no right to act surprised that the Albany Police Department has withheld civilian complaints from them, despite the practice being in direct violation of the wording and intent of the CPRB’s founding legislation, because she has been telling them for years that a number of citizens have been discouraged from going to the CPRB by the APD. Staying for only a portion of the CPRB meeting, Albany Police Chief James Tuffey announced that he had “a fix that should work for all of us” that would make sure the CPRB is notified of all complainants if not the details of all complaints. Tuffey proposed that the APD provide the CPRB with the contact information of all citizen complainants, even the ones who do not wish for their cases to be reviewed by the board. Although Tuffey departed before the public-comment period, a number of Albany Common Council members and citizen activists expressed agitation not only at the chief’s proposal but also with the board itself.

Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) made it clear that he felt the chief had no standing to make changes to the structure of reporting to the CPRB, and that it was a legislative matter. Ellis said the board should know better than to think the chief can make such a drastic legislative change. One of the original authors of the legislation, Common Councilman Richard Conti (Ward 6), agreed with Ellis.

After the chief’s comments, board chairman Jason Allen announced changes he thought should be made to ensure that the board functions more effectively. First on that list was the chief’s suggestion about forwarding complainants’ contact information, which a number of the board members seemed to be hearing for the first time that night. Allen further suggested utilizing video cameras in police cars. He lamented not having enough hard evidence to go on to substantiate most cases, and suggested cameras would go a long way to rectify the situation.

Allen then went on to admonish an anonymous member of the board who had spoken to the Times Union. Allen drew the ire of two Common Council members. First, Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) admonished the Chairman for criticizing the anonymous board member for speaking his mind about the board, and asserted that any member should be able to speak about his or her concerns. He further noted that he felt Allen had overstepped his bounds by announcing his support of Tuffey’s proposed change without consulting all the members of the board.

Ellis, citing Allen’s complaints about a lack of “real evidence,” demanded of Allen, “Do you support subpoena powers for the board?” Allen indicated that he did not. A visibly frustrated Ellis wondered aloud how the board expected to secure evidence without investigatory or subpoena powers. Later in the meeting, Allen recanted his statement. However, a number of other board members began indicating that they would love to be granted more power, and they invited council members to make the needed changes. Calsolaro and Ellis both discussed the idea of creating a board with independent investigative power. Conti made it clear that it was time to review how effective the board can be in its current condition.

Green said that she is no longer sure there is anything in the board worth saving. “It’s not really a citizen’s board; it’s like a police board now. It’s come to that. Those of us who were hesitant about the board at first went forward with the understanding that it was going to be a work in progress. That is what we called it at the time. The first year we laid out key things that should happen, as the board was going to become a functioning review board. We talked about the power to investigate, mediation, all those things, and we haven’t gotten anywhere.”

Furthermore, Green said that the CPRB has simply become controlled by the APD thanks to a rotating cast of board members who are not familiar with the history of the board and who are spoon fed cases the chief wants them to see.

“The police department sees the board as their tool,” said Green. “If the police chief can decide what complaints are and when they get them, who can complain, whether there is standing to bring a complaint then everything he is doing is chipping away at the extent of what the board can do.”

Meanwhile, Mark Mishler, an attorney who was involved in the creation of the review board, told the board that he is representing a client who has alleged brutality by the APD, and who has signed a statement specifically stating that he did not want his case before the CPRB. Mishler doubts that his client came up with adding that phrase to his statement on his own.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that anybody goes to internal affairs with the intention of giving information to the Albany Police Department,” he said, “and already has it in their head they don’t want the complaint turned over to the review board.”

Currently, Mishler, Green, Ellis, and Calsolaro seem to be headed toward the same conclusion: The CPRB has become a farce, and they would like to see a new body with independent investigatory powers take its place. Said Green, “I don’t see how to save the board, and we’ve basically come to the conclusion it should be dissolved.”

—David King

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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