Opinion

The Unbridgeable Chasm Between the Bronx and the Police

“Is there a possibility for this community and police to restore a relationship?” Artist Shaun Leonardo asked three panelists at the Laundromat Project. The answer was a unequivocal no.

John Fekner, “Falsas Promesas/Broken Promises Charlotte Street Stencils South Bronx, NY” (1980) (© the artist)

Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to an article Hyperallergic published by Seph Rodney on March 7, 2017, about Shaun Leonardo’s performance at the Laundromat Project and an ensuing panel discussion with three Bronx community organizers. 

The Bronx faces many obstacles. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been on this trajectory since Robert Moses plowed through its center to build the Cross Bronx Expressway, creating a direct route for the Manhattan businessman to commute home to his suburb in Westchester and invoking a mass exodus of white Bronxites not too keen on living next to the Black and Puerto Rican people moving in from neighboring Harlem. The people who remained in the Bronx withstood the many plagues that followed, while city and state agencies, acting on New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s philosophy of “benign neglect,” instituted planned shrinkage, essentially withdrawing city services such as sanitation, street repair, and firehouses. They’re the fires that the Bronx continues to be known for, and the phoenix that was born from its ashes, Hip-Hop. Yet the people of the Bronx have endured. We are still here, generations later. We are still facing obstacles as they mutate and manifest anew. We are still living. Today, the hallmarks of these obstacles continue to be housing, neglect from the city, and policing.

The landlords who burned this borough down, and retired in Florida with the insurance money, were never sought after, never indicted, or held responsible. Landlords continue to operate with impunity as countless people in the Bronx continue to live with mold growing on their walls, rat infestations, and broken boilers. Pass by 161st Street on any given day, and you will see the line at housing court wrap around the block. Evictions in the Bronx are a daily occurrence. Securing housing and keeping it has become increasingly more difficult for New Yorkers in general, so one might imagine that families in the Bronx — the poorest congressional district of the United States — are paying the highest price. With the massive influx of families displaced from Brooklyn, the problem deepens.

Impending gentrification now has these landlords frothing at the mouth, as they see big profits coming their way and they have rushed to repair intercoms, replace windows, and evict families that have dealt with them for decades. The city does not fall behind in these implications, as it continues to hand over warehoused property to the private sector. The biggest slumlord in the city continues to be the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) who has neglected the housing projects of this city deliberately almost to the point of no return. But that hasn’t stopped the Mayor from trying to privatize these units since they happen to sit on some of the best land in the city. Bill de Blasio’s administration has been a friend to developers, and he has cleared the way for them to build new iterations of Williamsburg and Bushwick, coaxing artists and college students further into the outer boroughs who inadvertently end up displacing the people of this city.

In the Bronx, that looks like a new police station for the 40th precinct designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group. That the city and landlords are appeasing police is not a coincidence or a new tactic. They have been employing police as guard dogs to keep the poor and working class people of this city in line since their creation. The 40th precinct, notorious for their violent behavior towards the residents of Port Morris and the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, is being courted in a such a way makes sense, since they will be the precinct to assist the new 25-story luxury towers built by Keith Rubenstein who infamously tried to rename that area of the Bronx “The Piano District” and was heavily protested. This is a slap in the face to the people of that community who have been in need of resources for decades and for the residence of Mott Haven Houses, whose apartments are falling apart. But the city has 50 million dollars to build a shiny new state-of-the-art police precinct?

No one in the Bronx is surprised. For the most part, the police and the people of the Bronx have never been friends. There are few people who have not been abused by police in the Bronx including the writer of this piece. The police have always been an occupying army. On our streets. In our schools. In our building hallways. They have always been inept or unwilling to help when relied upon and have always treated the people of the Bronx with hostility and contempt. There is a deep history of police abuse in the Bronx. It’s the reason why Larry Davis is a folk hero in the Bronx. In 1986, Davis shot six police officers from the 44th precinct, who raided his sister’s apartment in an attempt to kill him and escaped. There was a 19-day man hunt for Davis who turned himself in to the FBI and blew the whistle on cop drug dealers, who forced kids in the neighborhood to sell for them under threat of arrest or death. Davis, 22 at the time, was acquitted of all charges related to the shooting of those officers by a jury of Bronxites, and was represented by the late Lynne F. Stewart and William M. Kunstler. Today, it’s the reason why teenagers yell “Fuck the Police” in my neighborhood where a block away Kalief Browder grew up and killed himself.

It was with this history in mind that when confronted with Shaun Leonardo’s question on the evening of his performance at the Laundromat Project, “Is there a possibility for this community and police to restore a relationship?” The answer was a unequivocal NO.

On February 25, Shaun Leonardo was invited to the Bronx on behalf of the Laundromat Project to conduct his performance “I Can’t Breathe.” This performance was to be followed by a panel discussion with local grassroots activists working in the community. Invited to speak on this panel was myself, as in addition to my art practice, I am also a community activist, organizing with a group called Take Back the Bronx/the Bronx Social Center. Also invited to this panel was Shannon Jones of Why Accountability and Omar Arponare of People Power Movement.

Take Back the Bronx has been working in the Bronx against police brutality, community violence, slum housing, worker exploitation, and for community power and control since 2011. In 2015 we launched the Bronx Social Center, a volunteer-run space free from the entanglements of nonprofit funding, in the basement of a building in the South Bronx. The space runs art workshops, martial arts classes, and political education classes for teens. The space has a library and we offer homework help and do movie nights for folks in the community to build together.

Why Accountability is a Black, female-led grassroots community organization committed to the fight against police brutality and racial injustice since the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Since the video release, Why Accountability has been successful in disrupting the NYPD safe space that is the precinct community council meeting. Members of the organization have attended over 40 precinct community meetings throughout the Bronx addressing the lack of balance between community input and police statistical reporting and other propaganda. Why Accountability is also responsible for the widely known and loved #swipeitforward campaign, where participants descend on a busy subway station in neighborhoods across the city and swipe people into the subway with MetroCards, highlighting the predatory police practice of criminalizing poverty.

People Power Movement (PPM) is a youth-led organization that describes itself as “dedicated to educating, agitating, and organizing for Popular Control of our schools, workplaces, housing, transportation, policing, levels of government, and all areas that affect our lives, to achieve Fundamental Social Change.” PPM was instrumental in reinvigorating the fight against the Kingsbridge Armory deal in the Bronx and taking on the Jerome Avenue rezoning fight.

When Leonardo posed this question about “restoring relationships” with police, he directed it to the audience first. The feedback was sporadic and of the few people that did respond, they expressed no desire to work with police. There was one dissenting voice that evening. That was the voice of Hyperallergic staff writer Seph Rodney, who proposed a model from the UK, which would essentially amount to the CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board) and is widely known to be corrupt and inept.

It is at this moment that Shannon Jones of Why Accountability interjected with the statement, “This question is rooted in a fallacy, it presumes there was ever a relationship to restore.” Below is a direct quote from Hyperallergic staff writer Seph Rodney’s piece regarding the evening in question.

… when Leonardo posed a question soliciting suggestions on what might reconfigure or restore trust between police and the communities represented by the panel, Jones loudly denounced the question as invalid. Here her speech ironically reminded me of the kinds of polemics spouted at rallies by supporters of the current President: a shallow grasp of US history, insistence on conformity to a certain linguistic orthodoxy, the rejection of any information that is not relayed through personally known sources, a suspicion of institutions (like the press) and all knowledge they circulate, a valorizing of overblown rhetoric, and contempt for views that don’t comport with their own. The panelists seemed ill equipped to reach others beyond the circles in which they already were active, and so imagined survival as rooted in shutting everyone else out.

Rodney takes great care to describe the tenderness that Leonardo’s performance uses to teach us all these self-defense techniques. I wish he would have used this great care when it came to listening and conveying the incredible amount of work Why Accountability, Take Back the Bronx, Bronx Social Center, and People Power Movement do in the Bronx, which was spoken about at great length that evening. That he could be so flippant and generic with this portion of his writing is sad. He wasn’t listening.

The many questions posed to myself and the panelists representing these groups regarding “strategies and approach” was of course going to include honest discussions about the interconnectedness of issues affecting our community and how overwhelming of a task it is when organizing. One is never just fighting police violence, but also landlords and NYCHA, and the city, etc. There are many nuances to incite a people to rise up, which was the initial question we began with that evening. “How do we get the community to say enough and stand and fight?” It’s a question that plagues the mind of every community organizer.

Given these complexities, that he chose to portray our work as unfocused was irresponsible. Jones, Arponare, and myself reiterated constantly the importance of members of our communities to see “exhibitions of resistance” in their own neighborhoods — a sentiment all three organizations on the panel share. We spoke about the importance of implicating each member of the community and the cross-generational fight to gain collective power, and taking ownership of their communities as being essential. Shannon shared at length about her experience with the fights she had with the Department of Education, demanding to keep her son out of the clutches of the school-to-prison pipeline when he was a teenager. I spoke about the Bronx 120 case, how 120 young men were removed from their communities overnight by a joint task force of ATF, ICE, HLS, and NYPD on conspiracy charges, and how the parents of these boys now face eviction from NYCHA. That the author did not retain any of this information, or didn’t care to speak to these very specific conversations is alarming.

That Rodney could bring himself to compare Jones or the activists present that evening to Trump protesters for rejecting this question about “restoring” relationships between the people of the Bronx and police is beyond disrespectful. Rodney refers to Shannon as speaking “loudly.” He paints the panelists as ignorant, not rigorous and not intellectual. He accuses the community organizers of “linguistic orthodoxy,” and works very hard using pompous flowery language to reduce Jones, myself, and Arponare down to conspiracy theorists. It is he, who again simplifies who we are and by extension how we communicate to an “orthodoxy.”

The insults he hurls at Jones, and the rest of the panelists are elitist. He belittles our individual and collective analysis with the accusation that we base our ideas only on, as he says, “personally known sources.” As if we learned about redlining, rezoning, and school-to-prison pipeline on the street — and to a degree we absolutely did! This knowledge is just as much experiential as it is academic. Sadly, he couldn’t imagine that the comrades whom we organize with, also happen to be urban planners, housing lawyers, social workers, teachers, and PhD candidates for a range of subjects from Human Geography, Political Science, to Sociology, Critical Theory in the Arts, and Psychology. Perhaps Rodney doesn’t expect much from this riff raff. These assertive Black, Puerto Rican, and Indigenous people from the Bronx, who are just loud and vulgar and uninformed. Rodney perpetrates the worst stereotypes about the people on the front lines in the Bronx. He displays the kind of elitist behavior we have seen many times in the Bronx. Because Rodney is a black man, it is less easy to discern. But his blackness does not exempt him from being held accountable for the poor behavior he exemplifies in his report back from the Bronx and his encounters with the natives. Rodney repeatedly refers to his experience that evening regarding Leonardo’s performance as a brotherhood, erasing the women present in the room sharing in that experience, and the women who coordinated the performance. Was it that a woman boldly challenged him in a room where we was experiencing such brotherhood that provoked this ugly misogynistic adverb reserved for black women, “loudly”?

Rodney is incorrect to say that the panelists don’t entertain other people’s views. Had he cared to inquire, he would have found vast ideological differences between the panelists themselves. However, what we all agree on is that we don’t want anything to do with the police. Who in their right mind, given the violence and predatory behavior they inflict in our communities, would argue otherwise, unless of course they had “a shallow grasp of US history”? It is Rodney who possesses this “shallow grasp.” He glosses over the violence perpetrated against black people in the US and suggests that we, the activists on that panel, are at some fault for not envisioning a pathway to restoring a relationship that has never existed with the police. In this sense, his remarks invoke rhetoric that seeks to place the blame on poor black people for their conditions who must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rodney insensitively describes a scenario where police and citizens might “restore” a nonexistent relationship on the historic grounds of some of the worst police and state violence this city has ever seen. He ignores the echoes of that history present in the place where he was sitting that evening and in the bodies of the people of that community. It cannot be reemphasized enough that police in the Bronx, as in many major cities across this country, are an occupying army. They mediate our encounters with everything. How we travel, where we learn, where we live, etc. In essence, this answers Leonardo’s initial question, “How do we incite the community to take control and stand up?” When we remove ourselves from the psychological chokehold of the state, constricted by the blue mafia. Rodney disagreed with the position of the panelists and chose to launch a personal attack via his platform on Hyperallergic to discredit the activists who fight every day in this borough.

That he is so dismissive of the issues we point to by referring to them as “overblown rhetoric” is a slap in the face. One wonders what he sees as “overblown rhetoric.” Is it police violence? The upsurge in deportation? The landmines of speculation, rezoning, and real estate development popping up across the borough? Or is it the school-to-prison pipeline sending our kids to jail, younger and younger each year? Unwillingness to work with police seemed to be the point of contention that evening for him. The language he uses is forceful, reactionary, and meant to draw blood. Again he trivializes the most acute matters facing our communities in the Bronx. He’s dismissive. This goes past ideological differences between the author and the panelists. He has a disdain for what he calls our “rhetoric.” As a journalist, he of course has the right to report what he sees to the public and one expects him to do so. But what has been written in this article is not journalism. This is ego. This is an abuse of power. That he has ideological disagreements with the panelists is not an excuse to belittle the work we do in the Bronx, nor to insult Shannon Jones the way he did.

Lastly, Rodney states that we were “ill equipped to reach others outside our circles.” It’s incredible that he could make such a statement, as if he has spent any time pounding the pavement with any of the groups on the panel. He has no idea what relationships we have in our neighborhoods or how we communicate with people across the city to build coalitions. It’s worth noting that the room that day was not reflective of the community of the Bronx, sadly. In fact, the room was mainly full of artist and art school kids who trekked it from Brooklyn to see Leonardo’s performance. This was not the goal of the Laundromat project, as is my understanding. This was supposed to be for the community who wouldn’t otherwise get this opportunity unless they traveled out of the borough to Leonardo’s next performance. That wasn’t the case. Perhaps this is what troubles Rodney? That a room full of white people and art school kids might have felt uncomfortable with such brutal honesty. The kind of brutal honesty that comes from the urgency of the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Perhaps he was uncomfortable for them? It was unnecessary. The only person who could not digest people of color boldly fighting for their lives and the lives of their community that evening was Rodney.

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Seph Rodney as describing Shannon Jones as “loud.” He said that she spoke “loudly.”

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