Residents Win Uphill Campaign to Move Sept. 11 Terror Trial
BY MATT DUNNING TRIBECA TRIB
UPDATED JAN. 31
What started last November with a low rumble—little more than conversation around dinner tables and at small meetings held in community rooms in a pair of Chinatown apartment blocks—grew to a roar by late last month, so loud that the White House got the message: Move the Sept. 11 terror trials out of Lower Manhattan.
News that the Justice Department has abandoned New York City as a location for the trials of Khalid Sheik Muhammad and other suspected Sept. 11 terrorists seemed a quixotic dream when residents living near the intended venue, the Moynihan Federal Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street, took up the fight against overwhelming political odds.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement in November to hold the trial in Lower Manhattan came with the ringing endorsements of Sen. Charles Schumer, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin. Local elected officials said they would work to mitigate the impact, but viewed the years-long trials Downtown as inevitable.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the city had to make sure that residents “don’t get trampled.” But he called changing the mind of the Justice Department “not realistic.” “It would cause an international uproar,” he told a gathering of residents from Chatham Towers and Chatham Green.
City Councilman Alan Gerson opposed the government plan but politically, he said, “It looks like the decision has been made.”
Only this angry band of residents on the edge of Chinatown was saying otherwise.
“I’m so glad that people have come to their senses and woken up to the fact that we would be living under lockdown if this plan went through,” said Jeanie Chin, a 25-year resident of Chatham Towers and a leader in the fight.
Chin and her neighbors predicted that their western edge of Chinatown would turn into a military stronghold. Those fears were confirmed Jan. 19, as Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly laid out key elements of his department’s extensive, $200-million-a-year plan to safeguard Lower Manhattan against the threat of a terrorist attack during the trials.
“It would be the end of Chinatown as we know it,” Chin said. “Implementing that kind of security would have choked the life out of our residents and our businesses.”
The Police Department’s plan called for both Chatham Towers and Chatham Green to be located with a “hard zone” bounded by Worth, Madison, Pearl and Centre Streets, where security would be extraordinarily tight. The area would be surrounded on all sides by more than 2,000 metal barriers, restricting pedestrian and vehicle access. Sharpshooters would be placed on rooftops to guard against enemy snipers, while assault and canine teams would patrol the ground. Anyone entering what Kelly called the frozen zone would have to pass police inspection. Police helicopters would hover overhead.
“I think the government thought they could just throw us under the bus in Chinatown, that we were just a bunch of immigrants and no one would care,” Chin said, recounting the dozens of letters written to elected officials, and the protests and press conferences her group organized in the early days of their resistance, all of it receiving little if any city-wide coverage.
The group finally got the attention of Community Board 1 on Dec. 15, when more than two dozen residents attended the board’s monthly meeting to protest the trials at their doorsteps. Chin credits Marc Ameruso as one of the only members to embrace her group prior to the December meeting. Ameruso introduced a resolution, which was not voted on, asking that the President and Attorney General put the trials someplace “that will not affect the safety or quality of life of New Yorkers."
Julie Menin had already penned a column in the Huffington Post a month prior to the meeting supporting the decision to hold the trials Downtown, and wrote a second column in support of the plan two days after hearing from the Chinatown residents. The board would wait until January, she said, to discuss a position on the trials.
“I can’t understand [your] approving of having these trials here when they will devastate this community,” Chatham Towers resident Toby Turkel said at the December meeting, speaking directly to Menin. “It’s like a train wreck about to happen and the train is coming at us.”
In interviews with the Trib, Menin said she had a change of heart after police officials released preliminary cost estimates for its security plan. She said the price tag—an estimated $216 million for the first year of the trials and $200 million each subsequent year—was a clear sign that the lives of residents, workers and business owners near the courthouse would be put at too great a risk.
“I still think a civilian, federal trial is the most appropriate thing to do. I haven’t changed on that,” Menin said. “But when the cost estimate comes out to more than $1 billion over the course of a few years, that changes the dynamic. It suggests that the site may not be safe at all. Hearing that, who in their right mind could say that makes sense?”
Menin began vigorously lobbying officials for a change of venue and wrote a Jan. 17 New York Times op-ed piece calling for the trials to be moved to the former military outpost on nearby Governors Island. A CB1 committee unanimously supported the idea in a resolution later that week, but Commissioner Kelly rejected the plan as impractical, “principally because of risks related to transporting the prisoners to and from the island, as well as the general lack of modern infrastructure there.”
A week later, the full membership of the board passed a second resolution asking the Justice Department to consider one of three more alternate New York locations: Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh; the US Military Academy at West Point or the Bureau of Prisons jail complex in Orange County.
“It’s a real vindication,” Menin said following news that Justice officials appeared to be considering the board’s suggestions. “We made a real public stance on this issue, and rather than just throwing up our hands and saying ‘not in our backyard,’ we gave the Justice Department some very viable options for moving these trials.”
CB1’s efforts got a big boost from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another early advocate of holding the trials Downtown. As late as Jan. 22, the day Bloomberg called moving the trials to Governors Island “one of the dumber ideas” he had heard, the Mayor had not wavered from his early espousal of the Justice Department’s plan. But at a press conference six days later, a Trib reporter asked Bloomberg whether Lower Manhattan was still the most appropriate place for the trials, and for the first time he said he would support moving them.
“There are other places where it would be a lot less expensive and less inconvenient for people,” Bloomberg said, offering no specific suggestions. “Hopefully [the federal government] will look at that.”
That sentiment, which he echoed the next day to a New York Times reporter, prompted a number of other prominent politicians who had initially supported the idea—or thought it a fait accompli—to fall in line. Within hours of Bloomberg’s comments, elected officials, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, Sen. Charles Schumer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, all had released statements or were quoted in news reports urging the Justice Department to move the trials.
“The Lower Manhattan neighborhoods in which this courthouse is located are only now recovering from the physical, emotional and financial devastation caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and therefore the impacts of this trial site choice are likely to be extremely burdensome,” Nadler, Stringer and Silver said in a joint statement with several other elected officials.
Finally, on Jan. 28, Bloomberg said he had called the White House and the Justice Department, asking both to reconsider holding the trials in Lower Manhattan.
“I just pointed out again yesterday that it’s very expensive, and it's very disruptive to people who live in the area,” Bloomberg said in a radio interview the following morning. “I can tell you that I would prefer if it were elsewhere.”
Even as moving the trial appeared certain, Chin continued to stand her ground, taking nothing for granted. “We have to make sure it’s a done deal, because it’s the dumbest idea ever,” she said in a telephone interview. “If [Holder] needs to hear that even louder, we’d be glad to oblige him.”
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