A Tale of Two Cities

Two months ago I traveled to Poland for an international harm reduction conference http://www.harmreduction2007.org. While there I visited the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw and Krakow and was struck again by the number of Poles who lived during that time and claimed they were unaware of what was happening to the Jews even though as I could see with my own eyes the ghettoes were situated in the center of the city. But then I came back to my hometown New York City and experienced first hand how people can live in the same city and have totally different experiences.

I live in Harlem, a few blocks from 125th Street. Yes, the neighborhood is experiencing a 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. There’s always been a significant police presence in the area but in the past it seemed to be more focused on serious crime. Now, I regularly see the police stopping and arresting young men for selling bootleg videos and cds, vending without a license, hawking black market cigarettes or possessing small amounts of marijuana. But these are all criminal offenses you say – we have to uphold the law, don’t we? Yes, it’s true 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 them to do for money? www.cssny.org/pubs/special/2005_01_disconnectedyouth/2005_01_disconnectedyouth.pdf Shouldn’t we be grateful that they’re not engaged in more harmful or violent activities, to themselves or others?

In poor communities of color throughout this city, young people, particularly youth of color are under constant assault by the police. For them, it’s like living in apartheid South Africa. 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 even question why they’ve been detained or arrested or else they risk physical assault. If they are assaulted by the police, you can almost guarantee that the reason given will be the all-purpose, eternal excuse – the person resisted arrest.

For the past month 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 http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F0071EFC3C540C758EDDAC0894DF404482

Herbert recounted another incident where a young woman was humiliated by a police officer at a subway station who publicly berated as stupid on the subway platform in front of other students and refused entry on the train.(Small incidents creating Big Problem with NYPD, 5.29.07, http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FB061FFF3F540C7A8EDDAC0894DF404482)

At the recent Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue, dozens of young men 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. www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/nyregion/12parade.html?ex=1339300800&en=2e633b666547a9b5&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

So far Police Commissioner Kelly had denied that officers engaged in any misconduct and Mayor Bloomberg has refused to seriously question police practices and behavior in connection with these incidents.

Last week the NYPD took it up another notch. An African American couple while driving in their car 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 by the police, she was similarly 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 anyway – is that the couple they arrested are prominent civil rights attorneys well-known and well-respected in the community and whose inquiry into what appeared to them as an incident of police misconduct was in keeping with whom their friends and supporters know them to be.

When I looked on line 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 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 regularly patrol the city public schools and arrest youth of color 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 black and Latino New Yorkers, especially youth, criminalizing their behavior, collecting information about them and controlling their movements and activities and the majority of New Yorkers are indifferent to it. 

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 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 a harbinger of the country we’re creating?

About oshun55

Lawyer and public policy analyst focused on criminal justice, drug policy, racial justice, human rights, public health and gender equality
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