City in New York Restricts Clapping at Council Meetings

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If you're unhappy and you know it, don't clap your hands.

That's essentially the new rule for city council meetings in Peekskill, N.Y., a small town in Westchester County with a population of less than 25,000 where raucous city meetings have irked elected officials.

Members of the city council unanimously adopted new rules for the public two weeks ago in response to what they viewed as repeated outbursts from two local civil rights groups.

"It's a resolution to provide decorum and structure during meetings so people can speak about what they want to speak about without being -- people felt they were being intimidated when the audience was applauding or catcalling," said Deputy Mayor Donald Bennett, who laughed when he heard the phrase "no-clapping rule."

He said critics have seized on one graph in the resolution and taken it out of context.

"Let's clarify that. First and foremost, we're not telling them not to clap," he said. The graph says "don't clap while someone is talking."

But the groups, the Peekskill Committee for Justice and the Cortlandt Peekskill Anti-Racism Collaborative, say city officials are trying to silence them.

"It's an assault on democracy and free speech," said Darrell Davis, founder of the Peekskill Committee for Justice. He said his group has been going to the city council with specific complaints for the past two years.

At issue are charges against a Democratic administration -- over alleged racial discrimination in the city's department of public works and gentrification of public housing.

"Instead of addressing our issues, they've been changing the rules," he said, explaining that city officials began bringing police to the chambers in January and then abandoned a rule in February that allowed citizens to speak on any topic before the meeting.

The resolution states that members of the public are prohibited from "shouting, unruly behavior, distracting side conversations, or speaking out."

They're also prohibited from "clapping while another person is addressing the Common Council."

Bennett says the rules became necessary after the council had to cut short three different meetings this year that had gotten out of control.

"Two or three people start arguing and we can't get quiet in the chamber," he said. But he added that no one has been thrown out or arrested.

Drew Claxton, a member of the city council, said in an email that the rules were enacted "so that our residents feel that they can come to the council meetings and speak to their elected officials without being intimidated, heckled or called racial slurs."

On Monday, at the first meeting since the new rule was passed, Davis' group broke into applause for more than a minute during a moment of silence for longtime resident who died at 91.

Bennett said he sat down "disappointed and frustrated that they didn't recognize the moment of silence."

Davis said his group planned to remain standing and applaud after the pledge of allegiance was done. He said Bennett mumbled something about a moment of silence that his group never heard.

"We wouldn't disrespect the dead," he said. "That's what we've been dealing with. They don't tell the truth. They exaggerate."

Davis doesn't dispute that he and his group has been disruptive but he says it's by design.

"I'm embracing Gandhi's and King's philosophy of noncooperation," he said, referring to pacifist civil rights heroes Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Davis added that he's not going to stand by and watch injustice dished out. He said the rules have been "put in place to stifle political movement and participation."

"This is America," he said. "You're supposed to go to City Council and voice your concerns."