Pulling The Plug In Times Square


For years the small group of black men has occupied the center island of Times Square several times a week preaching against white devils and declaring that they are the true descendants of the biblical Hebrews.

Known as the Black Israelites, their nonstop barrage, amplified by a loudspeaker, has allowed them to drown out the noise of blaring automobile horns streaming past the neon lights of Broadway and 44th Street.Using large charts, the group, officially called the Israeli Church of Universal Practical Knowledge, has attracted curious tourists and cynical New Yorkers to their hours-long sessions.

And, according to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s office, annoyed some occupants in several skyscrapers overlooking the concrete slice of a street whose southern base is anchored by the historic armed forces recruiting center.

As of this week, the New York City Police Department said it will no longer grant the church — or anyone else — “sound permits” for amplified sound on the Times Square island, Deputy Commissioner Marilyn Mode told The Jewish Week. The decision was made last week, she said.

Mode said that amplified sound at the island in Times Square — billed as the crossroads of the world — puts motorists and pedestrians at risk.

“The area is very congested and it’s a safety hazard in the distraction that it causes,” Mode explained.

Asked how Commissioner Howard Safir arrived at the decision to halt sound permits, Mode said, “It’s a judgment we made after analyzing the situation. Let’s leave it at that.”

Safir was asked to look into the matter by the mayor, according to Giuliani chief of staff Bruce Teitelbaum.

Teitelbaum said the office received a complaint from a tenant at 1500 Broadway and referred a reporter to building manager Charles Bendit. Bendit said he personally had no complaint but merely forwarded to the mayor a copy of a complaint letter from tenant and theatrical agent Alexander Cohen.

Asked for the letter, neither Bendit nor Teitelbaum said they had a copy. Cohen did not return phone calls.

Asked why the mayor had asked the police to investigate the situation, Teitelbaum said, “It’s part of the mayor’s plan to try and make New York a more civil, habitable place to live.”

He was referring to Giuliani’s major policy address on civility two weeks ago calling for drivers to obey speed limits, pedestrians to stop jaywalking and citizens generally to be more polite.

Teitelbaum said the Black Israelites broadcasting their message through a microphone is not part of the mayor’s vision of civility.

“The mayor decided that the people in that neighborhood don’t have to be subjected to that profane, vulgar, abusive language,” he said.

“He can’t do that,” said Norman Siegel, director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The mayor’s program for civility has to take a back seat to First Amendment principles.”

Mode said the ban on loudspeakers is for everyone. She said the local police precinct, Midtown South, will no longer issue the temporary sound permits.

But a spokesman for the Black Israelites told The Jewish Week that it was clear the city was picking on them, violating the First Amendment. They threatened legal action.

“[Giuliani] is going against the Constitution of the United States,” said the spokesman, who identified himself as Priest Chaakam.

“We know it’s personally aimed at us,” he said. “We know that there’s a war against the Hebrew Israelites because of the nature of what we’re teaching.”

These teachings include, he said, that the real Jews are the so-called Negroes, and that Jesus will soon come to destroy the white power structure.

The spokesman said the church was created in 1970 and has been preaching on the island for years. He would not divulge how many members it has.

Siegel said the Times Square island is a historical site for First Amendment activity, attracting everything from Beat poets to antiwar protesters. Most recently, demonstrators have rallied against a planned attack on Iraq by the United States.

“As one who has used that site on many occasions with a bullhorn and a microphone, I can say there is no conclusive evidence that there is a safety hazard,” he said.

Prominent defense attorney Ronald Kuby also derided the city’s action.

“What the mayor is doing is using a subterfuge to censor the content of speech,” said Kuby, also a radio talk show co-host.

Kuby compared the situation to the American South, where white community leaders chose to close all the swimming pools rather than let blacks have access.

“The courts saw through that, and the courts will see through this,” he said.

As to the police claim that the loudspeakers are a hazard, Kuby said it is “a disgusting lie,” noting the spectacle of colorful neon lights, a high-tech news zipper and the new giant video screen broadcasting news shows that dominates the refurbished Times Square area.

Meanwhile, the day after Mode said there would be no more sound permits, a music video film crew had taken over the island, complete with a pair of two-story-high green and white video screens, and giant speakers playing pop music. The spectacle attracted dozens of gawkers lining the sidewalks and spilling into the street.

Mode said the permit was either issued weeks ago or approved by the mayor’s office in charge of film production.