ITHACA, N.Y.—After a year in which Ithaca likely saw its most prolonged and frequent local protests, many of them connected to defunding the police after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis in May 2020, the City of Ithaca has now expanded and detailed its rules for protests.

At this week’s City Administration Committee meeting, Acting Ithaca Police Department Chief of Police John Joly presented the draft guidelines, trying to codify what the police view as acceptable behavior from protesters and how the city wants their police department to respond in the case of a protest through different stages of escalation. The full presentation and discussion can be seen here.

There will apparently be a more detailed General Order document, prepared by IPD and the Community Police Board, available on the City of Ithaca website at some point soon. The guidelines were met with praise from the committee.

The “Protesting in the City of Ithaca—Guidelines and Expectations” document includes three tiers of conduct, categorized as green, yellow and red zones, with corresponding police response listed. Green zone protests are considered: speeches, teach-ins, marches and parades that don’t block traffic, singing, signs, posters, brochures and leaflets, public prayers, mocking and demanding action by public officials (there was plenty of this over the summer and fall) and, finally, performances or mock funerals.

The last reported formal mock funeral procession locally was held at Cornell University in 2009.

During Green Zone protests, police are expected to have “minimal” presence, serving only to direct traffic and de-escalate disputes.

Yellow Zone protests are considered demonstrations that do violate some law, but “generally do not present an immediate threat to public safety or health, material property damage or interfere with emergency services.” In the guidelines, the city left the decision to arrest during these incidents in the hands of IPD.

“We are specifically outlining that at protests, large demonstrations, we’re directing officers to not make arrests on the yellow categories violations,” Joly said. “They’re generally low-level violations and we don’t want to create a larger problem than what we have.”

Blocking streets, refusing to move when asked, passively resisting arrest, violating noise ordinances via audio equipment and unauthorized use of graffiti on public or private property are all considered Yellow Zone activities. Yellow Zone events will be “continuously monitored” by police, who are also advised to convince protesters to maintain order and “taking other steps to maintain public safety.” If a Yellow Zone event is “deemed unsafe,” police will use a dispersal order as a “last resort,” after which arrests are possible if those gathered do not comply.

Red Zone events mostly consist of violence, explosives or direct action against law enforcement officers, like trying to take a police officer’s weapon, and are all grounds for arrest either during or after a protest under the new guidelines.

There is some fairly vague language in the red zone criteria though. “Forcibly blocking streets, sidewalks, or access to public facilities or private businesses,” is one of the red zone activities—exactly what “forcibly” means isn’t yet clear, but that passage appears to focus on actions like last August, when activists tried to block landlords from going to eviction court against tenants.

Fighting between opposing protest groups, interfering with law enforcement making arrests (the latter of which will need more clarification as well) and vandalism of public property are all Red Zone activities, though setting fires is allowed when it is “contained, symbolic burning of one’s own property,” seemingly referring to the flag-burning incident that stirred controversy last fall.

Protests dominated headlines at different times throughout the year, from the anti-police protests during the spring and summer to a fall protest that included the first use of pepper spray to wild political protests in the run-up to the 2020 election. Joly said that the expectations document was prepared in response to those protests.

City Attorney Ari Lavine acknowledged during the meeting that the laws do not amend state law but try to navigate places where police should give more latitude for protesters than the state asks for; he said the guidance is based on rules in larger cities as well as tenets from the ACLU. “The yellow zone, in particular, shows where the police department would choose to exercise more restraint before making an arrest, even where state law says that making an arrest would be appropriate.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com