To combat the upswing in bias-related incidents coinciding with the political ascendancy of Donald Trump, the New York Civil Liberties Union launched a discrimination reporting tool on Wednesday: Equality Watch.
According to NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn, the organization drew original inspiration for the platform directly from the 2016 election, which catalyzed "widely reported increases in incidents of hate and bias, across the country and in New York." Indeed, New York City alone saw a "sustained spike" in hate crimes beginning in 2016 and continuing through 2017. With that in mind, the NYCLU's goal was to provide a service that connects people with help when they experience or witness discrimination, rather than simply compiling more data on bigotry.
"There are some other websites where people can go and notify someone, for tracking purposes, of incidents that have happened," Dunn explains. "What we are actually trying to provide here is a resource for people to get help or prompt an investigation."
On its landing page, Equality Watch defines unlawful discrimination as unfair treatment "on the basis of legally-protected characteristics, such as your age, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion and more," whether that comes in the form of bullying, harassment, intimidation, violence, or the refusal of services.
Anyone who has been subjected to discrimination, or seen someone else subjected to it, can visit the site, fill out a form, and receive confidential assistance. Equality Watch furnishes contact information for investigative agencies—such as local Human Rights Commissions—and issue-specific community advocacy groups that can help them navigate the complaint process. Depending on the nature of the incident, Equality Watch might refer visitors to Respect for All, which polices harassment in schools; to the New York City Public Advocate's constituent services desk; to the Department of Education's Office of Equal Opportunity; or to the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York Attorney General's office. Where appropriate, it will also make connections to legal services (or, in some cases, offer them through the NYCLU).
Regardless, those who log an incident with Equality Watch will remain anonymous, unless they specifically request help from an NYCLU volunteer.
So, for example: "Someone gets thrown out of a restaurant by someone who says, 'We don't serve Muslims,'" Dunn explains. "They can go to the website, they can enter the information on where it happened, and the very basics of what happened." Those basics include the zip code where the incident occurred, and the setting: During an interaction with the criminal justice system—law enforcement, the courts, inside a prison (which seems useful, considering the litany of abuse allegations Rikers alone generates)—in a government or educational setting, online, in a healthcare setting, or in the course of daily life.
Once the user files all the requisite information, Equality Watch points them toward organizations that can help them figure out what to do next. The website does warn that "contact with a government agency may lead to unintended inquiries, including about your immigration or parole status, as well as legal consequences for you or the person who is the subject of your report," but again, users' identities will be kept anonymous unless they ask for individualized help from the NYCLU.
Dunn says Equality Watch mostly serves to connect people to the best available options: "Most problems that people are going to have are not going to lend themselves a formal legal process or a lawsuit," Dunn says. But often, when you experience or witness discrimination, it's hard to know who will take your complaint seriously—especially if you're not a native English speaker and you lack experience navigating bureaucratic agencies. So the next time you see someone getting bullied for speaking Spanish, or being chastised for the style in which they wear their hair, or subjected to targeted harassment because of their religion, you know where to say something.