Thursday, October 22, 2009
National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality...
Today was an important day for many reasons. I have waited for a while to release some important images exposing a group of Harlem police officers. October 22nd has been acclaimed as the National Day of Protest against Police Brutality and so I decided that perhaps today would be best. I'm sure not many have heard of this day and that it has not been publicized very much but I have decided to post specific photos I took some months ago. As a poet and citizen, I believe I have license to articulate my frustrations with the current state of the New York City administration but with the advice of good and loyal friends I have had to wait a while before writing this blog. Before moving to Chicago, I lived on one of the most notably beautiful blocks in Harlem better known as Strivers Row. Although I've moved around a bit in the past through out Harlem, this block was particularly special to have lived on because it reminds me most of my high school days, when I used to visit the Sugar Shack on the corner of 139th street and Fredrick Douglas for late night poetry. The Sugar Shack poetry nights were in its prime back then, I remember some nights were so packed we'd be standing out by the door leaning our heads through the bodies so we could get a listen to who ever was on the mic. In those days I was traveling from East NY, Brooklyn and I'd get in so much trouble for staying out past my curfew in Harlem. But I remembered the block as though it were a fixture in my childhood, it is a whimsical tree lined block where brown soul plays like the saxophone that used to hum me to sleep in the humid summer of New York. Harlem was never as intimidating as my mother thought it to be, it became home, like a walking talking picture book I flipped through so often the edges aged with my finger prints. The neighborhood was in the beginning stages of its gentrification so I needed not worry too much, it meant white folk were around, so the police I'm sure wouldn't be too far off. This is my issue. Harlem is losing the very vibrancy of its past and though I am aware of time and its many weathering ways, it seems that it is fighting almost every day for its right to be sanctuary to the stories it holds most sacred and secret. If the streets of Harlem could talk, I'd bet they'd shout, they'd shout like a storefront Baptist preacher on Sunday fighting to keep hope alive. And so this brings me to one late night evening in Harlem this past summer where I witnessed a situation much like a "high tech lynching" in the back of my building. Strivers Row is unique in that they are a few of the only blocks with alleyways in Harlem which arent many. From my apartment window I was able to take photos of an entire abusive police situation with two black brothers drinking liquor together and joking. At the time, I was on the phone with my homegirl from California, sitting on my couch with my back facing the window. In the middle of our conversation because my window was open wide, I heard a bunch of loud men talking outside and as they proceeded to get louder my friend asked me what was going on. That is when I turned around and propped myself up to the window ledge where I saw two black men trying to have a conversation with four police officers. I immediately informed my friend of the situation and she quieted so that we could both hear what was taking place. In listening to the discussion I quickly learned that the men were brothers, one was a bit more drunk and loud than the other, which made the more sober brother assertive and on the defense to try and calmly explain that they were residents of the near building and were simply engaging in a brotherly drinking session in their back alley. The officers asked for the men to show their ID's and this is the moment I believe the situation escalated because one of the brothers, the more loud and drunk one, began to exclaim that he was doing nothing wrong and therefore was not required to give him ID, that as a resident he believed this to be harassment. Though he were loud, I believe his articulation and presence immediately "alarmed" the officers. He simply believed that two brothers in an alley way drinking and enjoying a nice evening was harmless. I thought this man seemed to have forgotten that he was a black man, that he was "a large black man" and this above all things has been known to "threaten" the presence of whiteness. It seems the other more sober brother were more aware of where this scene was heading because he kept yelling for his brother to shut up, insisting to the officers that he just had a little too much to drink. At this point the count of officers quickly increased from four, to six, to nine, turning in to a mob of over fifteen officers surrounding these two men. I described the scene to my friend in a whisper . As I looked around to see if anyone else was looking, I watched as a white woman directly across from my building wearing a silk robe on her balcony looked down on to the scene with me. I was suddenly in awe of her composure, her shoulders were comfortable and relaxed, at ease with the visceral image at hand. She took a cup to her lips and sipped while her other hand rested on her hip. It angered me that she was so complacent. My shoulders tensed especially when the count of officers went from four to nine and while on the phone with my homegirl I picked up my newly given Nikon camera off the coffee table, began taking pictures, and because I had a lens best suited for close ups and portraits unfortunately I wasn't able to zoom in or out. However, the pictures were good enough to point out that there is something entirely wrong with over fifteen cops tackling two unarmed black men. While the men were already down on the ground under fifteen bodies one of the cops sprayed one of the men with mase which was completely unnecessary while what appeared to be the captain, stood aside throwing his fists onto the sides of these men.
Now in order to address my reason for holding these photos I need to articulate what took place in the coming days after. When sharing them with a friend who worked for the city council member, Inez Dickens, he saw incredible wrong being done and informed me of options for action with photos like these. He remained mostly neutral and protective of my safety, after much back and forth he suggested that there may be more use made of them if Dickens handled them and addressed the issue with Mayor Bloomberg. Although it seemed to be a sketchy political move, I figured that perhaps giving them would get the officers of the Precinct reprimanded, thoroughly investigated, and forced to apologize to the men and community. Because I did not want direct or really any involvement in the sharing of these photos I chose to remain anonymous. The photos were shown to Inez Dickens and I was then informed that Dickens immediately scheduled a meeting with Bloomberg and another of his representatives where she showed the pictures to the Mayor and apparently he was to take action in investigating the entire Precinct and the situation of arresting these two black men. Now I am not sure how much investigating Mr. good ol' Bloomberg did into this precinct but all I know is that a few days later, word around the block was that two "agents" (men in jetblack suits) went around knocking on doors, trying to get window view from people's apartments as to assess whose window were the pictures taken from. I assume they wanted my "testimony." Luckily, that no one in the neighborhood seemed to have seen or known anything. Not shortly after I spoke with a friend of mine who works for the Malcolm X Grassroots movement and informed him of the situation, at the time he was concerned with my safety and with also getting the pictures so that the movement could archive them etc. Unfortunately, at times like these you don't really know what to do or who to trust because these are issues of politics nowadays more than injustice etc. It is possible that these photos will not matter to anyone but particularly because I find politicians to be most dangerous to any cause other than themselves, I think its crucial to speak to the fact that we as a people need to create agency for ourselves where we can expose wrong without the fear of disappearing or being silenced. I am terrified of having to watch people in my neighborhood bow to the abuse of power exercised in communities where people of color are struggling to survive and afford their homes. They deserve protection and should not be treated as predators. There is no excuse for a mob of over fifteen police officers to two black men, no matter what they were doing.
It is a privilege in many ways to be deliberate with race expression and representation and though the many instances of police brutality in NYC may not be indicative of the entire police department, it addresses the hampering habit of practicing racial intimidation and the abuse of authority. This is not meant to impose or support an inferiority complex within the black community of Harlem, rather to express the social and political dilemmas that leadership must address. In regards to the two black men who may have been drinking publicly, let me say that our flaws and foolish actions are never a reflection or explanation of an entire race and simply because our physical presence has historically terrified whiteness we have always had to be apologetic. It was disheartening to watch as one of the brothers tried desperately to negotiate a conversation with officers, apologizing profusely for his brother speaking negatively of the police approach in hopes of avoiding a brutal aftermath. What makes this worse is that some of the police officers involved in this arrest were black, if I'm not mistaken so was the Captain. This means that whiteness is not just a physical embodiment but can also be a state of mind. It is a problem that a black person is almost readily even feverishly intimidated by the presence of a police officer more still that we are convinced we have done something wrong even before we have done anything at all. The contemporary black harlemite seems rather all-enduring conflicted by the change this country longs to see and the very real manifestations of white entitlement, to be but also live where they please. It may be in part true that black folk have given Harlem away to move elsewhere, I do not blame the aged of us that choose to leave a community where "safety" didn't become a concern for the police department until a specific type of persons moved into Harlem. Harlem, the cornerstone of Black Arts and movement, the home of where I've fallen in love with poetry and storytelling, has become a different neighborhood altogether. The Sugar Shack that I loved so very much in my high school adolesence is no longer existing and is now an up and running pizza/deli. The Strivers Row block that so confidently speaks of beautiful history is also witness to the horror of discrimination, abuse, and belittlement reminiscent of the early 1900 racism we've only heard of in textbooks and watched on black and white television screens.
This discourse can be applied to any gentrified neighborhood across this country and for those of us in much more remote places, in parts of this world where these cases are rarely spoken of because there aren't as many eyes watching, we should hold ourselves accountable to document these injustices taking place within our community and must voice our issues. I do think it is primarily important to be concerned with our own safety thus why I have been careful up until now with who I've spoken to about this situation. As for these two black men, there is no way to be sure of justice being served but perhaps this is ordinary to their expectations of the police department. I'm not sure as to what step should be taken next, if these men have even bothered with filing for a complaint but this is not okay and policing neighborhoods in this way is not ever called for. With the advancement of technology we are given agency, we have seen what cell phone cameras can capture, cases such as Oscar Grant and Derrion Albert, we must learn to be aware. And we must hold our leaders accountable to addressing these issues. Dear Mayor Bloomberg, what are you doing about the abuse of authority under your administration, about the loss of decency and respect, integrity and honesty? Where is the accountability for these men? These photos are now open to public view. I have so many of them that I wont post them all. I hope above all things that this blog helps to awaken the consciousness of us as a people in light of all that has been happening within our country. "We are the ones we've been waiting for" We must demand positive change and attention to the issues that concern us.