Photo by Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Like We Don’t Live Here

Fighting back against mass incarceration in the Bronx

On a cool Tuesday night, I’m at 181st and Ryer Avenue. The Bronx. 46th Precinct. I am nervously early in the way that beginners are. Tonight is the monthly community council at the precinct. Members of the community come together to hear about area crime and express varying levels of admiration, skepticism, and outright hostility to the police who patrol their neighborhoods. My hosts instruct me before the event that if I want “an unadulterated experience”, act like I don’t know them.

You don’t need to be Serpico to tell I don’t live in the area. The crowd is largely older, as community meetings tend to be. There are about 50 people, mostly decades-long or lifelong residents of the Bronx, often of the same street. I am the only young white male there. But more than that, I’m awkward. I move with zero familiarity. Against instructions, I immediately blurt out the group I wasn’t supposed to name (though I don’t name any people and fortunately it doesn’t seem to affect anything).

It’s like Catholic church: the meeting starts with a prayer and everyone knows when to stand except me. The prayer includes a request that god provide good relations between the community and the police. The woman who says the prayer will later ask if the police can invent a buzzer device that goes off whenever the cops walk by someone who is armed. She is told there are Constitutional issues with that. I’m asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time in over a decade.

I’m a guest of Why Accountability, a Bronx-based group that pushes back against overpolicing. They protest. They copwatch. But they are also a regular and informed presence at the more troublesome precinct meetings. They know all of the neighborhood news, and the police know the members right back. They are politically armed, but they also know the bylaws of the councils inside and out.

The front half of the meeting is allocated to the police. A representative from Transit goes first. Hoverboards are “a newfangled gadget” and they are forbidden. He, like many of the political representatives and police reps who will speak, comes off with a mix of desperation to appear at home within this community and a tired obligation.

The main attraction, though, is Deputy Inspector Philip Rivera. He is the one who will expound on the crimes in the neighborhood. He is the one at whom the anger over bad police behavior is largely directed. If anyone is in a “hot seat”, he’s the closest. He tilts Transit’s balancing act firmly to one side: his resting face looks mostly displeased. He tries to celebrate Women’s History Month. “We wouldn’t be here without women.” He pauses. “That’s another statement.”

Rivera begins by reading the precinct’s crime statistics: murders, rapes. Grand larceny, felony assaults, and robberies are all up. Slashings are up too just like all over the city, but he assures everyone the 46th’s are not random — the accused always knows the victim. He teaches me a new term: “gym creepers”. They’re people who go through unattended bags or lockers at gyms.

The list of offenses is detailed. People sigh or groan with disgust as he reads it. The incidents all happened on streets the attendees call home, streets I walked between the subway and precinct. If that isn’t uncomfortably close, at least three separate people in cuffs are led through the room by police. The meeting is in their path. At one point, Inspector Rivera conversationally points out that he misplaced his “shooting sheet”. Two strangers, within minutes of each other, ask me if this is what I thought I was getting into. I wonder how many different interpretations of his stats there are in the room.

I didn’t speak to folks on the record (I was just there to observe), and photos are forbidden. But people react to crime differently, not only in this meeting. They blame the system and overpolicing. They demand crime crushed quickly and mercilessly. They might think it’s some version of “kids today”. But those ideas can change one way or another when the crime is actually at your doorstep.

I’m from Baltimore. I’m no stranger to crime in areas I’ve lived. I am also keenly aware that it isn’t tapping me on the shoulder right now the way it does in the 46th, or as it has historically in the Bronx. Residents aren’t just here wrestling with crime numbers; they’re wrestling with what becomes of a generation with nothing to do and no prospects.

The speakers from the community confirm this. We hear about summer youth employment programs, youth basketball, a junior police academy, and a program called Bronx Rises Against Gun Violence. A small, free community center is announced. A speaker, asking everyone to spread the word on a teen program, says, “If you know anyone out there that’s high risk…” before he quickly stops. “I guess if you live in our community you’re high risk.”

“Incarceration permeates all facets of an individual’s life,” said Gem, a Why Accountability member. “There’s an effect on the ability to provide for self, family, and move as a ‘normal’ person in society. Incarceration affects the ability for families to be cohesive as well. So now look at the family dynamics of incarceration. It mimics the same separation that Slavery had on families.”

The meeting grows more contentious as it goes. The former President of the council has inexplicably quit. A new president and vice president were installed without the proper voting process. Shannon from Why Accountability and others from the community seize this opportunity to hold everyone, as you might expect, accountable. They demand the process be followed. In conversation after, Shannon tells me that the usurping of the process is part of a larger pattern of disrespect that doesn’t happen in “more white” precincts. Some members of the community feel if they let that slide, they could be the victims of anything. This is an opportunity for “community control”.

The Assistant District Attorney for the Bronx, Julie DeLeon, is in attendance. Shannon grills her over a raid of alleged gang members in the Bronx in December. Like many of these raids now, social media chatter is key to the prosecution’s case (this will be covered in later stories). People want to know where the oversight is. Where can we find out about the people arrested? Who is handling the cases? Who did the investigation? The answers are minimal.

The community shares concerns ranging from an ongoing and apparently notorious problem with parking in the area (which, incidentally, includes police parking on sidewalks) to a woman who was on the way to this, her very first community council, when she was stopped and frisked. This is not fully surprising. The 46th Precinct is frequently near the top in complaint rate in a city where those are rapidly rising.

From the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board’s Monthly Report, March 2016 (http://www.nyc.gov/html/ccrb/downloads/pdf/monthlystats_20160309.pdf)

Over the course of this year (and hopefully beyond), I will be working with individuals, neighborhoods, and organizations dealing with the effects of incarceration, from mass arrests to reentry struggles. Why Accountability became familair to me from various panels and protests in the city. It interests me because it is a way communities attempt to fight back against overpolicing and, by extension, mass incarceration — not just as political theory, but on their blocks.

And what I hear everywhere is that incarceration rarely means locking people away to make it safer in the neighborhood. If you ask the most affected communities, they often see people being locked away to hinder the present community while making it safer for more affluent people to move in. Many people have already said to me something like this: if people are dangerous because they are hungry, why have we chosen to lock up the danger instead of feeding the hunger? Isn’t hunger then (or poverty, or crumbling schools, or unequal access to resources, or closed community centers, or the lack of decent jobs) the real danger?

One problem is that communities — particularly poor ones — don’t often get to declare what dangers they face. The police, the government, or media outlets decide for them. Yet, at least early on, few people in heavily-policed areas told me their fear is crime. I have heard people say they are living in resource deserts, or that there is community-wide PTSD. They fear the police. Parents with straight-A students worry about their kids getting locked up. Some neighborhoods already function as “open-air jails”. So what’s happening inside them, and why don’t we hear it?

Thank you to Shannon and Gem from Why Accountability for their participation. Greylined will be an ongoing, evolving space sharing the voices and experiences of those affected by incarceration in NYC. To follow along, click here. Allen can be found on Twitter @LissomeLight.