Jazz will stay free

Yoni Golijov reports on a victory in the struggle to defend Joseph "Jazz" Hayden.

Jazz Hayden (second from right) and his supporters celebrate outside the courthouse (AllThingsHarlem.com)Jazz Hayden (second from right) and his supporters celebrate outside the courthouse (AllThingsHarlem.com)

THE MOVEMENTS against racism and the criminal injustice system in New York City and around the country won an important victory: Jazz Hayden will remain free. The prosecutors have admitted they can't win a conviction on the trumped-up charges made against him, and he has been offered an agreement that will end the threat he faced of years behind bars.

On October 11, almost 40 people were sitting in a Manhattan courtroom for Jazz's latest court date. When his name was called, they all stood--something the Campaign to Keep Jazz Free has done for more than 10 months as we pressured Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to drop the charges against Jazz, a 71-year-old Harlem activist involved in the struggle against stop-and-frisk and a founding member of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow.

"When the guy was bringing me out of the courtroom," Jazz said outside the courthouse, "he said, 'Man, you got a lot of people out there.' I said, 'Yeah, that's love...I want to thank everybody, man, I've never had this much love and support in my life, and it inspires me."

Jazz described the outcome of the case:

I want everyone to know we have a true victory...To get them to admit what they admitted in that courtroom was major...And we have to realize that this is 10 months later--almost a year that they held this over my head. They knew from the beginning that this was bogus.

Jazz was clear about why prosecutors finally relented. "Once again, the pressure that was applied made them reach this conclusion," he said. Jazz's legal team agreed. Sarah Kunstler, one of Jazz's lawyers, said, "All the advocacy that everyone has done outside the courtroom for Jazz makes a difference."

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IN DECEMBER of last year, Jazz was pulled over by two officers of the New York Police Department. While they still claim his car had a broken taillight, they wrote no ticket.

According to Jazz, the police said, "We know you," and illegally searched his car. He was charged with two counts of felony possession of a weapon--for having a broken penknife and a miniature Yankees souvenir baseball bat that Jazz's wife had gotten from her father.

And for that, the NYPD held Jazz in jail for two days and wanted bail set at $16,000. The charges they imposed on Jazz could have landed him in prison for up to 14 years.

In reality, the police were looking for revenge against Jazz because of his activism--he has continually videotaped stop-and-frisks and other police abuses and broadcast them on his website. The very same officers who stopped him in December had been caught on videotape only a few months before as they illegally searched the car of two young Black men.

In the end, the punishment against Jazz was whittled down to almost nothing: five days of community service and a $120 surcharge--with his record to be cleared in six months with no further violations. The fact that Jazz's punishment is community service when he was arrested for performing a community service apparently did not strike the DA as ironic.

Jose LaSalle of Stop Stop & Frisk talked about how Jazz's activism inspires so many others: "There are a lot of brothers and sisters out there who follow behind Jazz, and have been out there doing Copwatch and making sure they document stuff."

Dozens of organizers and community members came together over the past 10 months to build up a campaign of protests and online organizing. Thousands of people signed a petition for Jazz, and hundreds called the DA's office on multiple call-in days--on the first call-in day, the office had to assign someone to take calls for the entire day.

In addition, there were rallies throughout the nearly year-long battle, growing to 100 people at the courthouse, the DA's office and the 32nd Precinct. Organizers built enough pressure and awareness that even mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times had to report on Jazz's battle.

Jazz, his legal team of Sarah Kunstler and Gideon Oliver, and the other organizers of the campaign shared a clear vision that Sarah expressed earlier this year, "This is the way the system derails movements--by putting people on trial to distract from the work that we're doing. So we have to spin this on its head, and make these prosecutions part of the work we're all doing."

Building speak-outs at the 32nd Precinct was one important example of this strategy. The protests at the courts were also important to put pressure on the DA and the judges, but rallying in Harlem--on the doorstep of the precinct with the third-highest rate of use of force in the city--attracted new people to the struggle, built awareness around Jazz's case and his activism, and showed that there is power in numbers and unity.

This made clear the campaign's message: Jazz's arrest and prosecution is part and parcel of the assault on communities of color by the NYPD and the wider legal system--and thus the fight for Jazz is part and parcel of the fight against stop-and-frisk, racism in the courts, and the whole criminal justice system.

More than a dozen organizations came together to collaborate in the campaign, involving veteran activists and people new to protest alike. Building these connections will make collaboration easier and more effective in the battles ahead.

The victory itself comes at a critical time, with police killings taking place at almost twice the rate of last year, but the department also coming under increasing criticism for stop-and-frisk policies and facing a wider movement of families fighting for justice for their loved ones.

"One thing is for sure," Jazz said outside the courthouse. "The work is not going to stop. I'll be out there today with my camera. I have it right here on my back," as he gestured to his backpack. He continued:

So nothing's going to change in that respect. But building the movement and next steps is what's important. This is what we have to get together on, because this stop-and-frisk is just the tip of the iceberg--just a very small part of the bigger struggle that we all have to engage in.

I think our most immediate and pressing need, a prerequisite to building a movement, is waking people up, because...they're feeling the pain...[but] they don't see any solutions. They don't see themselves as collectively powerful enough to change things. And that's what we have to do. We have to expose the system--the way it operates and how it doesn't operate in their interest. And to do that, we have to reach them where they're at, living under a system that's totally against them, and let them know that they have the power to change things.