More police isn’t the answer in Queens

March 11, 2015

Allen Arthur reports on a forum that brought together a number of community organizations to discuss the epidemic of over-policing in Queens.

ON A snowy Thursday night in the midst of a notoriously miserable winter, over sixty people packed a room at the Queens Pride House to attend "The State of Policing in Queens", an event primarily organized by the Queens Pride House and Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU).

The sponsors and participants represented some of the main radical organizations in Western Queens, including the Queens International Socialist Organization, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), and Chhaya Community Development. Speakers came from the Sex Workers Project, Sanctuary for Families, Why Accountability, and QNU. Audience members included members from New Yorkers against Bratton and CopWatch.

Most of the event focused on three recent proposals that have incensed the community, all (not coincidentally) spearheaded by "progressive" Democrats.

One is led by Melissa Mark-Viverito, the New York City Council Speaker, who is asking for 1,000 extra police officers under the guise of "community policing" to add to the over 30,000 cops already in the city.

New York police make an arrest in Brooklyn
New York police make an arrest in Brooklyn (Douglas Palmer)

Another proposal from state Sen. Jose Peralta sought to increase the police presence on the already over-policed Roosevelt Avenue--a vibrant corridor through multiple immigrant neighborhoods--by consolidating its jurisdiction under one police precinct. Surprisingly but fortunately, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton himself rejected this idea already.

The third proposal and most immediate threat is the plan to expand a local Business Improvement District (BID) over miles of Roosevelt Avenue. BIDs are public-private partnerships that masquerade as efforts to "clean up" neighborhoods. In actuality, they are undemocratic, developer-driven plans to increase property values at the expense of longtime residents and business owners.

While dozens of BIDs exist in New York City, the proposal for Roosevelt Avenue in Queens is notable for two reasons. First, as the expansion of a smaller BID, it would be by far the biggest in the city. Second, this BID has galvanized residents to fight back harder than any previous attempt--and many are using the fight over BID to raise questions about underfunded schools, over-policing, poor city sanitation and the treatment of the LGBTQ community.

ALL THESE issues intersected in a room where more than half the attendees identified as community organizers. The event started with a panel, with members of Queens Neighborhoods United updating people on both the nature of the BID and their efforts to fight it.

QNU has been pursuing a fervent organizing campaign, talking to business owners in the area individually. They found that many people didn't know the BID proposal even existed or that they were expected to vote on it.

Somewhat insidiously, a non-vote is considered a vote in favor of the BID by the BID's board. As QNU pointed out, three-quarters of the board are property owners in the area, who often don't live in the community and are concerned more about property values than genuine improvement for renters.

They recounted stories of Roosevelt's vibrant street vendors being harassed in the area. Two vendors shared memories of police dumping soap on their food, threatening them with deportation, and ticketing them for fictional "public urination" when officers couldn't find violations. This was a common complaint during the night--one QNU speaker called public urination tickets "gifts from God" for the police.

A vendor, Claudia, recounted placing her produce on a laundry cart to open a door. Within seconds, a cop ticketed her for "selling from an unlicensed cart". He told her the ticket would be $25. In reality, it was $1000.

Lawyers from the Sex Workers Project and Sanctuary for Families took on the issue of trafficking in Queens, highlighting the struggles of and misconceptions around trafficking victims.

Victims of trafficking, the speakers said, often don't speak the same language as their attorney and are pressured to plead guilty after arrests. They stressed that policing is not how people escape trafficking since cops do not ask people whether they are victims of trafficking, and argued that if people are concerned about trafficking, they should focus on building community organization and education, as those have proven vastly more effective.

They emphasized the struggle that transgender people face as well--everything from police violence to outright refusal by police to even take reports when transgender people are victims.

The last panelist was Shannon from Why Accountability in the Bronx. Representing a group that was inspired by "a gut feeling, an observation and the statistical fact" that people of color are harassed more by the police, she pointed out that developers can't stop behaviors in the areas where they own or want property, so they go to "their agent"--the government and police, which criminalize the undesirable activity. "Zero tolerance policing makes judgments about the behavior of people of color--unlawful, deviant, disrespectful," she said.

THE BID and increased policing, all the speakers agreed, are reactionary responses to real issues. While trash removal in the area is an issue, Josselyn from QNU said, "We already pay taxes that go to sanitation. The real issue is why we don't actually get trash removal with that money."

While trafficking is prevalent in the area, the victims will not be served by increased policing. While crime is an issue for many residents, the focus should be on properly funding schools and job creation. And while abuses of LGBTQ persons are rampant, these are at best ignored by the police and often perpetrated by them.

Successes in organizing were recounted, specifically in attending public community and police precinct meetings. These interventions, it was suggested, put pressure on public officials and helped the community organizers. However, this was met with polite skepticism. The crowd largely wanted nothing to do with the political apparatus. But as Shannon pointed out, "These events show the community they have power and can organize. It lights a fire under them."

Organization and fire are key to any people-led movement, and it is notable that no one in the room trusted even the most "progressive" Democrat. After Mayor Bill de Blasio's post-election flip on policing in the city, among many other recent Democratic betrayals, it is not hard to see why.

There is a new campaign in New York City called Safety Beyond Policing, which is made up of the Coalition to End Broken Windows--of which QNU is a member--along with Black Lives Matter NYC and a number of other groups.

The campaign's overall strategy is a divestment plan for redirecting funds from policing and repression of working people, into jobs, community projects, housing and education. Most importantly, the initiative's supporters are also challenging the notion that police are here to protect us, an idea largely taken as a given among supposedly progressive arguments around police violence.

The "more police" position touted by so many politicians speaks not to a solution for community issues, but instead to criminalization of these communities. This position views policing as a remedy for social ailments, ignoring the fundamental problems of a broken immigration system and the continued criminalization of communities of color, transgender persons and working people.

It was clear the people in this room reject that idea, and want to hold people like Bratton and local duplicitous Democrats accountable. "They blame immigrants and communities," Josselyn said, "instead of the oppressive structure and system."

Perhaps New York's most diverse borough will also prove to be its most unified.

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