Signs of the Times


Hell on Wheels

A Brooklyn neighborhood recently witnessed the installation of a dedicated bicycle lane to protect two-wheeled commuters and recreational cyclists. Conflict ensued when the local Hasidic community complained that in addition to disobeying traffic laws, the immodestly clad cyclists were offending their religious sensibilities. City officials responded by sandblasting away the bike lane markings, only to find them repainted overnight by a guerilla public-works operation. The search for the culprits led transportation officials to YouTube, where a group of hipster Brooklyn cyclists had posted a video showing how they had used stencils, white paint and roller brushes to undo the work of municipal line-erasing crews. The trail led to two offenders, who eventually surrendered and were charged with vandalism of public property and criminal mischief.


A good dose of Solomonic wisdom is sorely needed to sort out the sound arguments offered by each side in this dispute. For the Hasidim, the religious prohibition against staring lustfully at members of the opposite sex is a solemn one. The cyclists make the strong case that this 14-block stretch of road is a unique direct corridor into Manhattan and would continue to carry bikers even without a protected bike lane.

One hopes a compromise can be worked out that advances bicycle safety and still maintains respect for the Hasidim. If successful accommodation of religion in this case can leave behind vandalism and the threat of litigation, maybe Brooklyn can serve as a beacon for peaceful coexistence in places where disputes involve matters more threatening than traffic lanes and Lycra.

Reaping, Sowing, Googling

Google, the behemoth search-engine company, has been quietly buying up and scanning millions of out-of-print books and “orphan books,” that is, books whose copyrights or owners cannot be found. Google Books hopes to bring greater access to millions (perhaps billions) of readers and usher into the public domain the works of forgotten authors. A great deal for everyone? Not all agree. In 2005, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google, citing copyright law. In 2008, the company agreed to share 67 percent of the revenues generated by the project with both authors and publishers.

Now Denny Chin, a federal judge in New York, has given a green light to the agreement, though complaints are still pouring in from nonprofit groups like Consumer Watchdog and Internet Archive and (big surprise) competitors like The most salient complaint is whether the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers have the right to speak for orphan books and out-of-print works. A more ominous concern is the prospect of so much intellectual material in the hands of a single corporation, no matter how efficient or benign. Should Google have the right to disseminate and control the work of thousands of authors? (Wouldn’t the Library of Congress be a more natural online repository for American books?) Should Google make a profit from work they neither wrote, nor edited, nor published? (Much more equitable is a venture like Project Gutenberg, a volunteer-based organization that provides “downloadable” books with expired copyrights at little or no charge to the user.) We should keep an eye on Google, which seems to be reaping where it did not sow.

A Long Way From Home

After living for 10 years with his family in upstate New York, Kevin learned he was being deported. An undocumented migrant, he was taken to a detention center in New York City, from which he worked to gather evidence and legal assistance for his case. Then he was transferred to New Mexico. Kevin told Human Rights Watch of the difficulties this caused him. Records and evidence were not transferred; he had no local connections through which to find reliable legal counsel.

Kevin’s story is not unique. In 2008 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested and detained more than 375,000 undocumented immigrants, held in more than 300 detention facilities nationwide.

Unlike U.S. citizens, I.C.E. detainees do not have the right to face trial in the jurisdiction in which they were first detained. While I.C.E. must transfer some detainees to avoid overcrowding and unsafe conditions, the increasing frequency with which these transfers occur is cause for concern. Between 1999 and 2008, 1.4 million detainee transfers were processed, 53 percent of them between 2006 and 2008. The transfers separate detainees from familiar legal, financial and familial resources and too often result in confusion, isolation and even wrongful deportation.

Priests in South Africa are targets for robbers because they are believed to have money, several clerics said after a French missionary became the fourth priest to be murdered in the country during 2009. Five people, including three teenagers, have been arrested for the murder on Dec. 7 of Louis Blondel, 70, a priest of the Mission-aries of Africa, in Diepsloot in the Archdiocese of Pretoria. The robbers, who made off with less than $10 and a few possessions, entered through a small window and shot Father Blondel when he opened his bedroom door. Blondel’s murder was part of a violent week for Catholic clerics and religious in Africa, tragically accompanied by the killing of the Rev. Daneil Cizimya Nakamaga, 51, and Sister Denise Kahambu in separate attacks near Bukavu, Congo, and the murder on Dec. 11 of Jeremiah Roche, 68, an Irish priest, at his home in Kericho, Kenya.

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