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Rye to resurrect Human Rights Commission

January 26, 2017 3:54 pm  by  James Pero

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A perceived uptick in racially motivated vandalism and rhetoric has left some members of the Rye City Council calling for the revival of a local Human Rights Commission; a long defunct arm of the broader county organization.

City Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein, a Democrat, who was approached by Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican, about reviving the committee, has been tasked with leading its charge.

Rye Councilwoman Danielle Tagger-Epstein, a Democrat, will lead the charge in reviving the city Human Rights Commission following what she described as an “uptick” in racial intolerance. Photo/Andrew Dapolite

“Danielle stood out naturally as a leader in the area, especially given her focus on condemning hate crimes,” Sack said. “My charge to her is to use her imagination and skill to resurrect this committee and to reclaim its goal in addressing human rights issues.”

The call to reignite the commission, which has been inactive since 2004, also comes in the wake of a rash of racially motivated vandalism countywide, including multiple instances of swastikas being scrawled on county property; an issue which Tagger-Epstein points out has taken hold nationally.

“If you have one day when 16 or 20 [Jewish community centers] are getting bomb threats; we have a problem,” said Tagger-Epstein, referring to a recent slew of reported threats to Jewish centers across the country.

Even within Rye’s own borders, according to an email sent out by county Legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat and former member of the Rye City Council, since late November, racial tensions have boiled over.

Specifically, the letter detailed a Latino woman being taunted at the Westchester Children’s Museum on the Playland boardwalk and told to “go back to her own country.”

Sack’s proposal would mark a return to a local commission format which, throughout the course of the last two decades, has been phased out by municipalities across the county in favor of a broader county-centric commission.

The absence of the local body has not served the city well, according to Tagger-Epstein.

“We should really be addressing [issues] on our own,” she said. “To put it on the county is a cop-out.”

According to Tagger-Epstein, a local commission would play a more active role in bringing together city institutions—including schools, the Police Department and government—in public forums meant to address issues of inequality or bigotry.

Ideally, she said, the commission would also play a role in helping track issues of intolerance or hate crimes by aggregating potential complaints and responding when necessary.

In the past, Tagger-Epstein said, the city Human Rights Commission had been successful in responding to issues of inequality in its own community; namely during the late 1970s when women launched a discrimination complaint regarding a policy of preferential tee times for men at the city-owned Rye Golf Club.

According to Rye resident Linda Lefkowitz, who was a part of the original complaint leveled more than 40 years ago, access to the Human Rights Commission turned out to be a linchpin for policy changes at the club.

According to minutes from the committee’s last meeting, in January 2004, nine members of the group, in addition to outside guests, discussed a range of topics relating to diversity, including affordable housing, coordination of diversity workshops, and even television programming focused on potential racism in comedy. The meeting lasted approximately one hour.

Since the 2016 presidential election, issues regarding racist rhetoric and bigotry have fallen into the both national and regional spotlight, fueled locally by vandalism depicting swastikas on a walkway adjacent to the Bronx River Parkway, school buildings at Purchase College, and punctuated by a speech from Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, condemning such acts of hate.

While discussions around hate crimes and racial tensions have centered on the current political climate, for Tagger-Epstein, tamping down inequality transcends the political arena.

“This has nothing to do with the political spectrum,” Tagger-Epstein said. “This is a human issue.”