Deborah Peterson Small
A Tale of Two Cities
Two months ago I traveled to Poland for an international harm reduction conference. While there, I visited the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw and Krakow and was struck again by the number of Poles who lived during the Holocaust and claimed they had no idea of what was being done to their Jewish neighbors by the occupation forces even though, as I could see with my own eyes, the ghettos were located in the center of the city. But then I returned to my hometown, New York City, and became more aware of how people can be oblivious of things that are happening right around them.
I live in Harlem, a few blocks from 125th Street. Yes, the neighborhood is experiencing resurgence – construction is occurring everywhere and it seems a new business opens every month – but there is also a pervasive air of oppression and anger just below the surface. You can see it in the angry looks people give each other over the slightest physical encroachment of their space and you can hear it in their comments about long-time residents who are leaving because they can no longer afford to live here.
I recently visited with a close friend of mine who runs a high end boutique on Fifth Avenue in Central Harlem, where I’ve shopped consistently since she opened the business more than a decade ago. She told me that they are losing their lease; the landlord refuses to renew because they feel they can get a lot more money for the property. She’s decided not to relocate, but instead transition to an online business as she feels they can no longer afford to maintain the business in the community. This is a story I have heard repeatedly as long time small Harlem entrepreneurs are being priced out of the community in the face of chain stores and gentrification.
There has always been a significant police presence in the area, but in the past it seemed to be focused on serious crimes that hurt people or property. Now, I regularly see the police stopping and arresting young men for selling bootleg videos and cds, vending without a license, and hawking black market cigarettes. But these are all criminal offenses, you say; we have to uphold the law, don’t we? It’s true that these activities are against the law, but in a city where the unemployment rate for African-American men with a high school education is more than 40%, what exactly do we expect these men to do for money? (See the great report by the Community Service Society: Disconnected Youth [pdf]). Shouldn’t we be grateful that they are not engaged in more harmful activities, to themselves or others?
In my neighborhood and in poor communities of color throughout this city, young people, and particularly youth of color, are under constant assault by the police. For them, it’s like living in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were required to have a pass in order to be on the streets. They’re likely to be stopped, frisked, and questioned on the street at any time. They must have their i.d. with them at all times in order to avoid arrest, they can’t talk back or question why they’ve been detained or arrested, or they risk physical assault. If they are assaulted by the police, you can guarantee that the reason given will be the all-purpose, eternal excuse – the person resisted arrest.
For the past six weeks, NY Times columnist Bob Herbert has repeatedly written about the arbitrary and abusive manner in which NYPD officers routinely treat African-American and Latino youth. He recounted an incident when more than 30 youth were arrested on their way to a friend’s funeral and charged with disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly despite the testimony of several witnesses that the youth had done nothing wrong (“Arrested while Grieving”, 5.26.07). Herbert recounted another incident where a young woman was humiliated by a police officer at a subway station who publicly berated her as stupid on the subway platform in front of other students, and then refused her entry onto the train ( “Small incidents creating Big Problem with NYPD”, 5.29.07). At the recent Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, dozens of Latinos attending the parade were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and gang membership simply for wearing gold & black or yellow and black tee-shirts, which the police claimed are gang colors proving their membership in the Latin Kings.
So far, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has denied that his officers engaged in any misconduct and Mayor Bloomberg has refused to seriously question police practices and behavior in connection with these incidents. It seems it takes a fatal police shooting like the 50 shot fusillade that killed Sean Bell on the eve of his wedding to get this administration to even question police behavior and conduct in communities of color.
The other week, the NYPD took it up another notch. An African-American couple happened to observe the police chasing a man (whom they presumed to be a suspect) catch him, handcuff him and then proceed to beat and kick him on the street. The couple stopped to ask the police why they were beating a handcuffed man and were soon themselves the target of the officers’ ire. When the husband began writing down the license plate of the police vehicle, he was pulled from his car, hit, punched, and ultimately arrested. When his wife protested her husband’s treatment at the hands of the police, she was punched in the face by an officer. Both were arrested and charged with interfering with an arrest and resisting their own arrest. What the officers didn’t know -- and apparently wouldn’t have cared to know -- is that the couple they arrested are prominent civil rights attorneys well-known and well-respected in the neighborhood and whose inquiry into what appeared an incident of police misconduct was in keeping with whom their friends and supporters know them to be.
When I searched online for news articles about the event I found a few -- mostly in community or alternative newspapers -- those few stories generated a number of comments posted in response to the article that were vitriolic in their racism in ways I had failed to realize are still so common. It had me understand some things I have not wanted to face:
* That I live in a city where the NYPD made more than 500,000 stop and frisks in one year and the majority of New Yorkers never noticed it.
* That the police patrolling the city public schools regularly arrest youth for behavior that used to be considered “youthful indiscretions” and the majority of New Yorkers are unconcerned about it.
* That “quality of life policing” has become a euphemism for targeting blacks and Latinos, criminalizing their behavior, collecting information about them and controlling their movements and activities and the majority of New Yorkers are indifferent to it.
Why do I say that New Yorkers are oblivious, unconcerned and indifferent to the ways in which the police operate in low-income communities of color? Because these practices are not new, black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been complaining about police abuse and harassment for decades. Numerous studies have reported on the racial differences in perceptions about police practices and behavior. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in 2000 found sharp differences in attitudes about the police between white New Yorkers and black and Hispanic New Yorkers which I believe reflect the different experiences these communities have with the police. White voters approved of police 63 - 23 percent, while black voters had a negative 21 - 72 percent approval and Hispanic voters were also negative about the police 39% - 53%. Not surprisingly, Bob Herbert’s recent columns regarding police mistreatment of youth of color in New York City have generated minimal response in the New York Times readership as evidenced by the small number of reader comments posted on the Times website (most of which were written by people who don’t live in NYC). There has yet to be a call by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to investigate police practices in poor communities of color and most unfortunately, the elected representatives of the communities regularly targeted by the police have been similarly silent.
How can we believe that either of the two political leaders from New York seeking to be president -- or the one who is purportedly considering the idea -- will govern the country fairly and democratically either when they’ve created, supported or tolerated oppressive and racially discriminatory criminal justice policies in their home state? Or are the two cities that are New York simply an indicator of the country we're creating?