Why did the NYPD invade a Harlem project?

June 24, 2014

In the early morning hours of June 4, dozens of body-armored police stormed the Manhattanville and General Grant public housing complexes, along with other surrounding buildings located in West Harlem. Police helicopters hovered overhead while media crews were on hand to document the largest "gang bust" in New York City history.

At a press conference later that day, newly re-appointed Police Commissioner William Bratton claimed those arrested were "terrorizing the children and other families in the developments." Bratton and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. defended the military-style invasion in the name of ending what they claim is a never-ending cycle of violence that has created a war zone between the two housing complexes.

The June 4 raids were years in the making. They involved what has been celebrated as a new technique to scour postings on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and analyze hundreds of hours of video surveillance to create "complex conspiracy cases." Indictments charged 103 individuals, including 40 people swept into jail in the raids.

While the mainstream media continued to celebrate the NYPD's newly returned top cop and his latest "achievement," community leaders are organizing to fight against this latest attack on their lives and rights. Nikole Gellineau, the mother of two of the young men taken into custody in the June 4 raids, talked to Marilena Marchetti--and gave voice to those not represented in the media's accounting of the June 4 raid.

YOU'VE LIVED in Harlem for a long time, and you have a very different version of the story than Bratton and Vance are telling. Before you go into detail, can you describe your roots here?

I'M 43 years old, and I've been living in Harlem over 35 years. I'm very active in my community. I've owned businesses that have employed other community residents. I've sat on Community Education Councils (CECs) and PTAs all the years my children were in school. There isn't one block you can walk on and say my name where they won't tell you, "Oh Nikki, who does hair?" That's what I'm mostly known for.

The community understands two things about Nikole: she's serious about her business, and she's dead serious when it comes to these kids out here. Not just my two kids--the whole community of kids.

I'm devastated right now because I personally know every last one of the children in this recent indictment. Every last one of them has been to my house at one point or another. They've come to barbecues, or we went to their birthday parties or graduations. All those kids were school bound, had jobs or were starting college. My oldest was in college in Greensboro, North Carolina, when the incidents were starting.

Police left behind a trashed room in Nikole Gellineau's home
Police left behind a trashed room in Nikole Gellineau's home

Did they have arrest records? Absolutely--for silly stuff. How do you charge children for "loitering" in their own building? How do you claim kids to be in gangs when they literally grew up together, and half of them are related to each other? I'm out here not to fight for one child, but to fight for a neighborhood of children. Unfortunately, both my children were pulled into these new charges.

CAN YOU describe what happened the day of the raid?

I'M NATURALLY up early. I have two pets. Anytime between 5:30 and 6 a.m. is their morning walk. I'm in my kitchen, doing things that I normally do, making my coffee, and I hear them coming down the hallway, slamming down my neighbor's door. They're a married, elderly couple. The woman is on dialysis. We've been neighbors 30 years-plus.

Out of concern, I opened my door to see who was trying to bang down her door. It was the warrant squad--about 20 men. Bratton was there, too. I cursed him out. They forced me and my boyfriend to lay on the ground of my apartment. They threatened to shoot my dogs.

Finally, one officer had enough sense to passively remove my dogs from the room. Then they commenced to trash my house and tell me at the end of it how they were looking for my youngest son. They already knew he wasn't there because they had him in custody a month prior--for being lazy and jumping a turnstile at the subway station.

YOU SAID you looked out your window, and the whole block was lined with unmarked cars.

THE MAYOR was even outside in his bulletproof vest!

DE BLASIO was outside? Are you kidding me?

YES, if I wasn't so angry that day, I would have taken pictures. But the mayor has no control of NYPD. And let's make this clear--I don't have a problem going on record to say that 1 Police Plaza has been our number one gang since they formed. Period.

WHY WERE the police looking for your son?

TECHNICALLY, HE'S part of the 103 indicted defendants in this upcoming case of mass incarceration. He's indicted for "conspiracy."

He had a private conversation with his brother, my oldest son, on Facebook. He was explaining to my oldest son how he just got jumped by gang members in the back of our housing development, at a community center he's been attending since he was a child. He explained to my oldest son that they came over here and beat him up. So my oldest son was advising him to take it easy and go back to Queens, where he's been living. He said, "I know you went over there to see mommy, but please go back to Queens, because I don't want to have to kill one of them."

That's not what's in the indictment. In the indictment, all they have is my youngest son saying, "I got jumped," and my oldest son's response: "Ima kill 'em." That wasn't the conversation. They edited it.

WHAT YOU'RE saying sounds like a conspiracy on behalf of the police.

ABSOLUTELY! WE'RE talking about two children who are related! They're allowed to talk amongst themselves about whatever. They didn't conspire to do anything to anybody. They didn't say let's plan to go out and shoot--none of that happened in that conversation. Now they've shipped my oldest son to Rikers Island, and he has to appear in court on Monday, June 23 over that conversation--and they're going to charge him with conspiracy, too, with a sentence of 25 years to life.

Nothing happened over any of these "conspiracy" charges that these kids are facing. Everything they talked about was over events that already happened. How is that conspiracy?

During the first day in court, the judge made it absolutely clear to the district attorney that these charges are bogus. He said that because they already went to the grand jury and indicted them, he has to charge them and set bails according to what they're charged with. But, he said, "You know better than me that if these kids pursue these cases and take it to trial, you have no chance." The judge said they didn't even leave warrants in half of the homes they raided. The district attorney said, "Oh, we're trying to get the rest of them together."

YOU MENTIONED to me before that when your youngest son was initially attacked by gang members, the police were present, but did nothing. Now, they're charging your son for having a conversation that they've doctored to look like a plot to kill someone. What do you think these raids are really about?

THEY'RE ABOUT a few things. We're talking about a neighborhood that's been gentrifying since as early as the 1970s. We're talking about a neighborhood that the wealthy are trying to come in and take. We have landmarks and beautiful brownstones--who wouldn't want to live in Harlem? After September 11, when all those folks in the lower Manhattan area wanted to migrate further uptown, Harlem became a bigger target.

They said: Let's buy up all the buildings and jack the rents up so high they can't afford to live here. Let's not pour our resources into the low-income housing developments. Let's not give them resources they need for their kids to go to school, graduate, come back and be productive enough to stay here. Let's not do that.

AND THIS is continuing despite the fact that New York City just elected the "tale of two cities" mayor, who says he recognizes inequality and wants to do something to fix it.

I CALL that the icing on the cake. This whole thing is about how to break down the New York City public housing system.

Manhattanville housing complex sits in Columbia University's crossway. What happened was a lot of developments became available for purchase up Broadway. Columbia bought all of that property. Our development sits in the way of their expanding. So they bought us out in 2008-09.

If this were still New York City Housing Authority housing, then they would have to include us in what they build. Now that they own us, we have no say in what goes up. So now they've been tearing everything down. I don't know what they're going to do--our lease agreements are in question, too. They own our buildings, but because we still sit on city property, they have to treat us as city housing. They're still trying to figure out how to purchase the land from the city.

My apartment is technically paid for, and I've already earned enough credit to probably carry me three to five years on maintenance fees. So they can't touch me or anyone who has been paying rent with money earned from their jobs. I don't have to be bought out, because technically, I've already purchased in.

But the people who are on public assistance--Section 8, Social Security and things like that--can't use that to apply for a purchase, because technically, that's state and city money. Unless they're paying their own portion of the rent, they have no say. So what will happen to those tenants?

They do this to urban neighborhoods because they know half the people aren't educated enough, or don't have the means to fight back. A lot of people are already saying, "Oh my god, I'm going to have to go to a shelter!" No you don't! Just calm down. I've been having a lot of tenants ask me for help. Right now there's nothing to do, but just be easy, trust and believe. Nobody's getting put out, nobody's going to be on the streets, nobody has to go to shelters.

Never, back in the day, did you hear that Grant and Manhattanville were going to start a fight--never. We always got along. If things were as bad as they're making them out to be, we would have left already. There are kids who've been fighting for a couple of years now--we have two kids dead. The police are using these murders to figure out how to implement gang laws in New York.

Los Angeles was the first place where they implemented gang laws. Once the Bloods and the Crips started to form in New York, the police were putting them in jail on assault charges for one to three years. But with gang assault charges, you get five to 10 years. See the difference?

New York is attempting to implement gang laws, but they want to use gang laws to go after neighborhood children. That's wrong.

WHAT DO you plan to do now?

UNFORTUNATELY, I already have the experience with my oldest son and the court system, and how the gang charges work--conspiracy, assault, weapons and things of that nature--so I'm really familiar with the verbiage. And I have my own experience studying at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

My first action is publicly coming out with the facts, because right now, the court doesn't have the facts. All they have is the district attorney's story. The only way we're going to be able to introduce the facts is through the defendants' attorneys.

The second way we can do it is to write the judge. Between now and October, we have to make sure the defendants' lawyers know the whole story from beginning to end, and start writing the judge. That's what I did with my oldest son. I wrote the judge consistently. I had his friends write their stories. I had his teachers write how the Crips were coming to his school and trying to induct him in a gang. I had our borough president at the time write a letter, and his college in Greensboro.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER the raids took, place grassroots organizations held emergency meetings, and a June 13 press conference and rally against the raids and mass incarceration brought out at least 200 people. Are more actions like this going to help?

ABSOLUTELY. IT'S going to force the city to answer questions and admit the truth. They don't have to admit the truth, but once we expose it, how can they respond to that? They can't! Facts are facts are facts.

They'll come up with all sorts of lies. That's how the system works: Let's throw out six charges, and see which one sticks. Let's gather up all these people, pressure them with so much time in prison, and see who snitches on who. This has been going on for years. That's how they work--that's how they do things.

HOW DOES it feel to be living here and knowing that at any given moment, your door could be busted down, and your world could be flipped upside down?

THIS IS going to sound so weird, but I'm still comfortable. I'm okay. I've been here too long not to be.

There's not a corner of Harlem I don't know. There's not a restaurant, a pub, a bar, an event I haven't attended. My name is all around the Harlem state office building. I went into business for myself, so I attend meetings and sit on boards. We're thriving. Harlem is better than ever, even with the gentrification. The whites moving in aren't ruining us.

I'm not a child who was raised to fear things. I was raised to always meet my fears head on, so I can move past them. My fear right now is having to live with my children doing 15 years. That's a fear for me. I'm looking forward to being a grandparent in the next five years. That can't happen if my kids are in jail.

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