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Protests grow at Capitol

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

The legislature is off this week, but the session so far has featured an unusual amount of protests and arrests, and more actions are expected when lawmakers return.

Twice already in the first few weeks of the 2017 legislative session, protesters have been arrested at the State Capitol.

Eight people were arrested in late January. They were demonstrating against Governor Cuomo’s veto of a bill that would have provided funding for legal services for indigent New Yorkers.

“We want lawyers!” they shouted.

In early February, four people were arrested after they refused to leave a sit-in at Governor Cuomo’s formal reception room outside his office, known as the War Room.  They were seeking solutions to the state’s record homeless problem.

The legislative budget hearings, normally somnolent events, have been punctuated by Occupy-style protesters interrupting proceedings.

The protests are in contrast to the large, staged rallies in recent years organized by, among others, union leaders and charter schools, and featuring elected officials. This year’s events are much smaller, involving no more than 100 people. They represent, and in some cases, are made up of, people that are generally marginalized in society.

Vocal New York, the group behind some of the protests, was formed in the 1980’s,  to advocate for people living with AIDS and HIV.  

In the day of the January 31 protest, the group’s Jeremy Saunders explained that they would like Governor Cuomo, a more moderate Democrat, to push harder for issues, including an expanded millionaire’s tax, and the money for legal services.

“We don’t want to be harsh on the governor,” Saunders said.

He says Cuomo backs keeping an income tax surcharge on all New Yorkers who earn more than a million dollars. But the group and some other Democrats want more higher income tax brackets for people making more than $5 million dollars and over $10 million dollars up to $100 million dollars. They say it could pay for legal services, help house the homeless, and fund better education and end inequities in public schools.

Saunders says the governor uses “soaring rhetoric”, but often “has not lived up to” those goals, and has  “watered them down” in the end.

Cuomo is pushing for an alternative plan to fund legal services, and he blames the legislature for lack of progress on funding housing for the homeless. He said recently that too many taxes will cause an exodus of rich people from the state.

“The fear is, that you could raise taxes so high that people leave the state,” Cuomo said on February 7th. “ I do believe there’s a tipping point.”

Cuomo’s spokesman says the groups are focusing on the wrong target, and are letting their “performance art” override the “facts”.

Saunders, speaking by phone Tuesday, says there’s a much larger context for the demonstrations. He says the group has stepped up its actions since the Presidential elections. He says it’s not just the win by President Donald Trump, which he fears will bring cuts to health care, but also the loss of Hillary Clinton, and with it, an end to the Clintons’ brand of Democratic politics. He says it’s been a wake-up call.

“Clintonian Democrats have long told us we need to go slower, we need to accept that we can’t win all these demands,” said Saunders, who said many on the left no longer believe that.

“To us, Cuomo represents a Clintonian style Democrat who tells us we need to be fiscally conservative at the expense of the needs that our state has,” Saunders said.

More actions, and perhaps arrests, expected at the Capitol in March, as the April 1 budget deadline draws near.

Vocal New York has so far focused on Governor Cuomo, but they plan a town hall meeting in the Bronx Thursday and have invited two of the legislative leaders who represent portions of the Bronx –Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein.

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