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CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES

NYC Is About To Have Its Biggest Election In A Decade. Will New Yorkers Show Up?

June 22 is a big day for New York City: In primary elections for the largest government turnover in a decade, roughly two-thirds of the City Council is up for grabs, along with the comptroller, four borough presidents, district attorneys, and, of course, the next mayor.

But if this year is anything like previous years, few New Yorkers will show up and vote. As data makes clear, the New Yawk brand of loud and opinionated hasn’t quite translated to high voter turnout. In fact, New York consistently ranks among states with the worst turnout rates in the country. Combined with debates over its new ranked-choice voting system — which may turn off some voters even more — this year could see the low turnout trend continue, meaning the next mayor and other elected positions could be selected by just a sliver of the city’s population.

City Hall and local organizations are combining efforts to educate, engage, and, hopefully, persuade New Yorkers to vote in greater numbers this year. In April, the mayor’s office announced a $15 million voter outreach initiative under DemocracyNYC, the city’s civic engagement arm, to encourage New Yorkers to head to the polls. A portion of that has gone to educating constituents, including launching an interactive app, available in 16 languages, that helps voters practice ranked-choice voting on pretend ballots to decide designations like “favorite NYC landmark” and view how votes are tallied.

“The reality is a lot of New Yorkers just have so much else on their minds that they haven’t really focused on [ranked-choice voting] and the fact that this important election is coming up,” said Laura Wood, New York City’s Chief Democracy Officer. “Our mission is to make sure … New Yorkers have that information going into the June primary.” 

New York City’s Poor Voter Turnout

In 2016, there were 4.9 million registered voters in New York City. In the following year’s general election, Mayor Bill de Blasio clinched his second term with just 726,361 votes. That means only 14 percent of people who could vote, voted for de Blasio (it’s maybe part of why he’s so unpopular despite having been made mayor twice).

Last year, with a highly consequential presidential election at stake, the city saw a slight bump in voter turnout compared to 2016. According to a voter analysis report by the Campaign Finance Board, nearly 62 percent of city voters turned out in November with the biggest overall increase among younger voters ages 18 to 29. 

But voting tends to nose-dive after national elections and that could happen in the upcoming primaries. There’s no single reason behind New York’s underwhelming turnout numbers, but one that everyone seems to agree on is the state’s outdated voting laws which, intentionally or not, affect voting accessibility. And the harder it is for people to vote, the less likely they will. 

“Up until a couple of years ago, it was kind of hard to vote,” said Jan Combopiano, senior policy director at the Brooklyn Voters Alliance, an independent organization that works on voting access. New York did not allow early voting until recently (it was passed into law in 2019) and technically still doesn’t allow no-excuse absentee ballots (which have been temporarily allowed during the pandemic). Rigid rules around designated poll sites and online voter registration are other issues that Combopiano says can make voters less likely to participate. “We’ve never had a municipal election under these circumstances before where we did have early voting, where we did have easier access to an absentee ballot,” she said. “So we’re hoping to see a change in this election.”

Omar Suárez, director of partnerships and outreach for NYCVotes, says it’s all about messaging. “We don’t give local government the same sense of urgency that we do when it comes to national politics,” said Suárez, noting drop-off levels after presidential elections. “Something that is a constant focus of ours is, how can we retain those voters?” 

BVA volunteer Madeleine registering a voter in East Flatbush

As the Campaign Finance Board’s voter outreach initiative, NYCVotes is allocating $2 million to its get-out-the-vote efforts this year which includes town halls and voter training sessions. Additionally, a board spokesperson confirmed a portion of the $15 million from the mayor’s office will go towards amplifying NYCVotes’s ads and translating educational materials, but did not specify how much.

New York’s New System: Ranked-Choice Voting

With New York in pandemic recovery and with so many important city-level jobs on the line, this year’s local elections are a huge deal. The city’s primaries, in particular, are considered to hold more weight than the general elections given that 3,376,341 of active voters are registered Democrats (by contrast, just 501,848 are registered Republicans). 

But this year’s outreach campaigns have another challenge: educating New Yorkers about the new ranked-choice voting system, which was voted into law through a 2019 ballot referendum. Using this new system, voters can rank up to five candidates in a number of races, including for mayor, comptroller, borough presidents, city council, and public advocate. If no candidate achieves a majority of votes, the candidate with the lowest tally is eliminated. But those votes won’t go to waste; instead, in the next round of counting, citizens whose number one choice has been eliminated will have their votes counted towards their second-ranked candidate. The cycle continues until a clear majority winner is determined. 

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Ranked-choice voting was used for the first time in New York City in February, during a special election to fill seats for City Council Districts 24 and 31, the latter formerly occupied by Queens Borough President Donovan Richards (he is seeking reelection against four other Democratic candidates in June). To educate constituents on ranked-choice voting, his office created a Civic Engagement Committee made up of members from community organizations, civic associations, and individual volunteers. 

The committee, one of the lead partners with DemocracyNYC, is now using lessons from their previous ranked-choice outreach efforts ahead of June, focusing on in-person campaigns to push voter turnout in neighborhoods like Flushing, Jackson Heights, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.

BVA volunteer Gilda registering a new voter at a pop-up event on Atlantic Ave

“We know it’s important that we have communities of color, other marginalized communities, who oftentimes are not coming out to vote at the rate we’d like to see,” said Franck D. Joseph III, Richards’s chief of staff who oversees the committee. “We want to make sure we’re going into those communities and actively ensuring that folks understand what ranked-choice voting is, and they know how to fill out their ballot.” 

Research shows clear benefits to ranked-choice voting: low-visibility candidates have more chances of staying in the race while voters don’t have their votes wasted. But the new system has faced opposition, with some lawmakers questioning the city’s readiness for it and an impending lawsuit to halt the use of ranked-choice voting altogether. 

Anecdotally, some voters have shown disinterest in ranked-choice voting and many still don’t get how ranked-choice voting works. “One of the things we hear is people trying to game the system,” Combopiano shared, citing her organization’s weekly public trainings. “‘Oh, I don’t want this candidate to win. Should I mark them fifth?’ And we’re like — No! If you don’t want them to win, don’t put them on the ballot.”

Despite challenges, a survey from the special elections shows a promising response from voters toward ranked-choice voting. Of 635 surveyed voters who participated in that election, over 95 percent found filling out the ranked-choice voting ballot to be either very or somewhat simple. About 61 percent chose to rank multiple candidates on their ballots with 31 percent ranking up to the maximum five candidates. Joseph III views arguments around ranked-choice voting as a normal response to a new tool. For him, it reflects a lack of understanding about ranked-choice voting more than voter apathy. 

“I think once they get past the confusion, it really opens up the scope,” he said, “because we all know there’s no one perfect candidate for any office.”    ❖

Note: Early voting runs from June 12 to June 20.

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CITY HALL ARCHIVES From The Archives NEWS News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Crowded Field of Mayoral Candidates Zooming Toward Primary Day

“Zoom is not our friend. I just want to be very clear.” 

Andrew Yang was reflecting on the joy of campaigning, even during a pandemic. He was getting to know his city so well. People were thrilled to see him in the streets. 

The front-running mayoral candidate, speaking to reporters in Harlem on a frigid March day, seemed also to be growing aware of all he would probably miss: the teeming block parties, the raucous parades, the subway platforms thronged at rush hour. 

“Most New Yorkers are sick and tired of Zoom,” Yang added. “I think a lot of the country is sick and tired of Zoom.”

Though relatively few New Yorkers may be aware of this fact, they will probably be choosing their mayor for the next eight years three months from now, on June 22. In heavily Democratic New York City, the primary winner will steamroll over nominal GOP opposition. Incumbents usually get re-elected — Bill de Blasio, for all his challenges, easily did. 

But this mayoral race, for many reasons, is unlike any other. The vaccination pace is heating up, but COVID-19 still lingers as a threat, shrinking crowds and keeping commuters at home. Mass death rates, along with job losses, have taken a significant toll. 

In 2013, the last time there was an open Democratic primary, candidates jostled for attention for many months, the race culminating in an election at the close of a turbulent summer. Hundreds of town halls, street festivals, parades, and rallies built to a satisfying crescendo. There were no fewer than three front-runners — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the scandalous Anthony Weiner, and, finally, de Blasio — plus a city comptroller’s race that featured Eliot Spitzer, the governor who resigned after he was caught soliciting a prostitute. 

These days, the primary is in June, not September. After a federal judge ruled that congressional primaries be moved to June to allow sufficient time to get absentee ballots to military voters for the general election, the state legislature eventually decided to set all primaries in June, including the mayoral race. This year, such a condensed contest will probably benefit those who’ve already built up support bases around the city. 

Yang is well-known to most New Yorkers from his long-shot presidential bid, but the rest of the field is not. The parades and parties aren’t yet materializing. There will be relatively few opportunities to meet voters face-to-face. 

The race, many campaigns believe, may be decided wholly on screens — traditional cable television, digital advertising, and whatever online chatter can be generated. 

“In this race right now, it’s really hard to do any level of retail campaigning,” says Peter Ragone, a former senior adviser to de Blasio and a veteran Democratic operative. “It’s really going to be, number one, are you on television? And are you creating any content yourself that has huge levels of engagement?” 

A traditional Democratic primary in New York City is arrayed around huge parades, captivating stunts for television, and other mass events. All the candidates in 2013 pressed the flesh at the famous West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, with Weiner blaring music and shouting through a bullhorn on his blue and orange float. The Democrats all staged a sleepover at a public housing development with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Bill Thompson, the runner-up in the race, dragged reporters on a 24-hour tour of New York City, bringing them to a frozen meat locker in the pre-dawn hours. 

Top candidates would routinely invite reporters along for trips to the subway and door-knocking expeditions. Every day promised another debate, a rally with supporters, or a visit to a community center, synagogue, or nursing home. Everywhere were the voters — it was an imperfect system, but ordinary people, on a given afternoon on Broadway or in the South Bronx, could run into the future mayor and strike up a conversation. 

For the campaigns themselves, there was a feedback loop that is clearly missing now. A campaign event, if well-attended or interesting enough, could draw journalists and end up on the nightly news. This footage could be used for paid television ads a month later. Journalists, meanwhile, could attempt to gauge how well a candidate might be connecting with New Yorkers. Were they becoming increasingly recognizable? Did they have notable interactions with voters? 

“In every other campaign I’ve worked on, the retail campaigning is front and center. Not only do you get to meet voters, reporters have something to cover, television news stories have rallies to get pictures of, and there’s this whole ecosystem of political communication that goes on apart from paid advertising,” says a top ad maker attached to one of the current mayoral campaigns. “This time around, because we have so little capacity to do old-fashioned handshakes and hugs and big rallies, there’s going to be a greater reliance on paid communication to reach voters — radio, digital, and direct mail.” 

This isn’t the first campaign to be run during the pandemic. Last year, numerous candidates for state office in New York had to suspend operations and recalibrate for a June primary that came right after the peak number of coronavirus deaths in the city. Door-knocking was ditched and campaigns turned to glossy mailers, digital ads, and phone calls to reach as many voters as they could. But these were all small-scale campaigns, operating in districts where fewer than 20,000 people could vote. The mayoral primary is expected to draw anywhere from 700,000 to a million voters, with many campaigns planning for a spike from the middling 2013 turnout. 

To make matters more challenging, voters have other pressing concerns. The pandemic is on the wane but remains a concrete, unsettling reality. Then there are the scandals surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo, all-consuming online, in the newspapers, and on cable television. Granular, daily coverage of the mayoral race — the type seen in 2013 — has been far less evident. “All of our attention is drawn to stuff that isn’t the mayoral race,” said Micah Lasher, campaign manager for Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and one of the leading candidates. 

The top campaigns are gearing up for heavy cable TV expenditures in the months to come in the hope of breaking through. Most of the campaigns expect to dedicate a far larger share of their spending on television than they would have in a more ordinary year. Others, like the progressive Dianne Morales, who reported that she just qualified for public matching funds, are leaning heavily into digital campaigning, rapidly accruing online followings. 

One of the mayoral candidates, the financial executive Ray McGuire, is not participating in the public matching funds system at all, a move that will allow him to spend as much as he wants  — those abiding by the Campaign Finance Board’s regulations receive generous matching funds in return for adhering to a strict spending cap — but also permit his rivals to spend more as well. A spokesman for the CFB said a determination on whether to raise the cap in the race will be made after April 26, the final deadline for candidates to join the matching funds program. 

The system is designed to incentivize small-donor giving. While a mayoral campaign can receive a $2,000 check, only donations up to $250 are eligible to be matched, amplifying the power of a $25 or $50 donation. Based on the CFB’s criteria, all participating campaigns will be able to spend at least several million more. The current cap, at about $7.3 million, rises to $10,929,000 if a nonparticipating candidate spends at least $3,643,000. (Surpassing $21,858,000, which the billionaire Michael Bloomberg routinely did, would mean lifting the cap entirely.) 

McGuire is no billionaire, but he has already spent more than $3.7 million. Raising the cap would most benefit the candidates who have raised enough to take advantage of it: Yang, Stringer, Eric Adams, and former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, whose campaign has recently reached the matching threshhold. Stringer and Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, have already banked more than $6 and $7 million respectively. 

For campaigns, TV advertising is the least efficient but most effective way of reaching a broad swath of voters. Enough older Democrats are still watching CNN and MSNBC every day, as well as local stations like NY1. The ads cannot be perfectly tailored or targeted like digital solicitations on Facebook — a resident of New Jersey can end up seeing a 30-second spot for a mayoral candidate — but they can reach, on a given day, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. 

It is all exceedingly expensive: a strong ad buy can easily run $1 million a week. With multiple candidates spending millions to purchase ads, there’s a fear of being drowned out. At the same time, not being there carries great risk, with a rival hogging precious airtime. A Democrat attempting to break into the top tier, Shaun Donovan, a veteran of the Obama and Bloomberg administrations, has already been spending on weekly TV ads. (Outside Super PACs are also stepping up for Donovan and McGuire.)

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To complicate the picture in 2021, well-funded candidates will be targeting popular connected TV services such as Roku, Hulu, and Apple TV, which were barely part of the mix in 2013. De Blasio won that race eight years ago for many reasons, including Weiner’s implosion and de Blasio’s own disciplined, anti-Bloomberg messaging, but television played a decisive role. De Blasio was prescient, dedicating a larger share of his campaign spending to television advertising than his rivals and foregoing direct mail. Years later, the “Dante” ad is still discussed in mythic terms: how 30 seconds of de Blasio’s biracial son talking about his father’s promise to “really break from the Bloomberg years” captivated Democratic voters and entered the popular culture. 

Most ads don’t carry such emotional impact — at best, they may introduce a candidate, make an argument, or attack a rival. Yang is the public polling leader, and could be, in the weeks to come, the focus of negative advertising, particularly if a wealthy interest group or labor union aligned with a rival decides to spend against him. 

“It’s not a paper endorsement,” says Kyle Bragg, the president of the influential building workers’ union, 32BJ SEIU. “Our members are super engaged voters.” 32BJ, like several other large unions in the city, is backing Adams, who is shaping up to be Yang’s top rival. Yang has shunned negative campaigning thus far, while Adams has criticized Yang for leaving the city in the early stages of the pandemic. Some of the Adams-supporting unions could train their fire at Yang if they view him as a durable threat. 

To drive media coverage, Yang has relied on his Twitter feed, with 2 million followers, and, unlike most of his rivals, frequent in-person campaign stops. Recently, he has started appearing with opponents at events, like the press conference in Harlem to promote an app for small businesses envisioned by Kathryn Garcia, a Democratic contender and the former Department of Sanitation Commissioner. These sorts of team-ups have grown more common as candidates vie to be second choices for voters who can now rank up to five candidates. According to Yang’s campaign, media turnout was much higher than a typical press conference, thanks to the unusual nature of a multi-candidate appearance. 

In 2013, one of de Blasio’s fiercest rivals in the early months was John Liu, the city comptroller at the time. Liu was renowned for his vigorous campaign schedule, appearing at as many as a dozen rallies, block parties, and subway stops a day. Now a state senator, and happily watching the race from the sidelines, Liu says the candidates must learn to adapt to the new normal: lots of Zoom, lots of TV, and a lot of time online. 

And get used to not being the center of attention. 

“It’s New York City. At what given moment is there not a whole lot of shit going down?” Liu asks. “In 2013, we had months of the Weiner circus. I think candidates can be thankful they don’t have to deal with that.” 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC 2021 NEWS News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Singer Naomi Shelton Made New Yorkers — and Everyone Else — Feel the Love

Once upon a time, back in the P.C. (pre-COVID) era, every New Yorker had their go-to spots for eatin’, drinkin’, and shakin’ a leg. Places you’d religiously visit, that you loved so much you might be torn about sharing them, fearing that the Hipster Horde (in which, if you looked closely enough in that group selfie, you just might recognize yourself) could descend and make everything too cool for locals school. The Fat Cat, located next to the Christopher Street subway stop in Greenwich Village, was and wasn’t one of those places, pending the time and day you descended into the basement venue. The joint would often be crammed with beer-drinking co-eds more interested in slouching around on musty couches or smacking balls — pong or billiard — than paying mind to some tired musicians wedged along a dimly lit wall trying their best to entertain. 

But for nearly a decade on Friday nights at 9 p.m. sharp, when blind Chitlin’ Circuit vet and bandleader Cliff Driver would hit a few thick chords on the house Hammond organ, thus setting in motion fifty minutes (maybe fifty-five if the tip jar was feelin’ it) of gloriously greasy gospel delivered by Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, folks’ souls took notice. Graced with a vocal register more subwoofer than tweeter, Mrs. Shelton — often adorned in glittery Big Apple cap and equally gilded sneakers and buttressed by three harmonizing Queens and a four-piece backup band (five, if you counted the adjacent subway line) — barked, rumbled, and rolled through traditional and original numbers slathered in funky R&B that’d have locals and tourists alike muttering, “OMG.” It was — guaranteed — the best-damned $3 spent that week. And if you just couldn’t wait to feel the love again you could catch them on Sunday, in some brownstone basement church in Harlem or Crown Heights, belting the same gutbucket praise to the Lord (in front of a much-better-dressed, mostly African American crowd, mind you). “I’m not a sweet singer, I’m a hard singer,” Shelton once told me. “’Cause I got a big mouth.” 

The library of sacred and secular music is crammed with so many unwritten books about and unrecorded songs by the countless big-mouthed woulda/coulda/shouldas. But when Naomi Shelton died, at the age of 78, on February 17 in Brooklyn, no one could claim her big voice was missing from that analog card catalog. Naomi Virginia Davis was born on October 14, 1942, outside Midway, Alabama (population midway to 1,000). Not knowing she’d have to wait sixty more years for her album debut, she declared herself a singer as a six-year-old, and every Sunday at 6 a.m. sang gospel along with two of her six siblings — sisters Hattie and Ann — at the radio station in Tuskegee that her father helped build. Inspired by the success of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, as well as the Blind Boys of Alabama, Naomi eventually left Midway after high school and headed north to big-mouthed Brooklyn, in search of that dream gig. By day that gig was housekeeping, and by night she’d take the 41 bus to sing at neighborhood spots like the Night Cap on Flatbush Avenue. 

“I met Naomi around ’67 or ’68 while playing in Cliff Driver’s band at the Night Cap,” recalls bassist Fred Thomas, who would go on to replace Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s sonic circus as well as sing with Shelton for fifty years. “She was strictly singing R&B and soul then, not gospel. Her voice sounded tough.” She also caught Driver’s ear; he had worked closely with and recorded such singers as Baby Washington. “She had a different type of voice,” he told me before he died, in 2016. “She had that raspy sound, like Mavis Staples.” 

Shelton preferred the male voices of Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, however — “hard” voices that demanded attention, which she got more of after Gabe Roth stumbled into Flannery’s one night to learn a few licks from his idol Fred Thomas, who happened to be accompanied by Shelton and Driver, and convinced the latter duo to record a few 45s. “Naomi has that raw gospel sound, that phrasing,” Roth told me once. “I don’t know if there’re any singers that can sing like her.” Roth’s Bushwick-based label Daptone Records was starting to make sonic ripples due to another local heavyweight, Sharon Jones. And although Shelton would eventually record two full-length gospel albums — 2009’s What Have You Done, My Brother? and 2014’s Cold World — she never matched the sales or widespread recognition of her label-mates Jones and Charles “Screaming Eagle of Soul” Bradley. Even so, she was the queen — so respected was Naomi that the late Jones, at her own sold-out 50th birthday concert, sang backup for her

“Naomi has a unique ability to literally throw love out of her mouth at people,” says Roth. “When she sings, everybody around literally just feels better.” No more evident was this gift than during a public radio interview in which a troubled listener called in. “I have been suicidal for two weeks,” she informed Naomi. “And in listening to your song, I feel like I’ve got something to live for.”

“My whole thing was if I could just reach out and touch peoples,” Shelton says in the interview, “Then that is money in my pocket already.” And continue to touch her music did, as Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens traveled throughout the boroughs, the U.S., Canada, and Europe, even after myositis landed her in a wheelchair. Over the past three years, while the disease slowly weakened her body, you could still see her energetic bi-monthly gospel brunch on Sundays at Bed-Stuy’s Bar Lunatico, right up until COVID-19 pulled the plug.

Naomi Shelton wasn’t pure; like all of us, she had a skeleton or two lurking in that proverbial closet. She could curse you out like a woman from Bullock County who countenanced no bull. But if you had the chance to feel the grit of her voice sand your troubles into momentary dust, to field her questions about you and your family, to witness her laughing harder than a Muppet, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking she was. At her show, when she grabbed your hand and squeezed, and urged you to squeeze that of the stranger standing next to you—you did it because she made you care. And when she sang, “What is this? Got me feeling’ so gooood, right now?” there was only one answer: It is you, Naomi. It is you.   ❖

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NEWS News 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Gun Rights Absolutists Celebrate Martin Luther King Day in Virginia

MONDAY, JANUARY 18, 2021, RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — The revolution was occupied by the absurd on Monday. A day officials feared would descend into anti-government violence instead stumbled into a surreal pageant of YouTube celebrities dressed in colorful wigs and clownish outfits interviewing heavily armed militias. All had converged on the state Capitol of Virginia, the gun rights activists openly defying city ordinances a year after Governor Ralph Northam had banned the open display of firearms at protests in the Capitol area.

It was a day of calls for unity among disparate groups — Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, local militias, and an independent Black Lives Matter gun club — that share no inherent politics except a profound, almost religious reverence for protecting their right to bear arms. They had all come with a clear public relations agenda.

The New York Times and Reuters were there, too, alongside the YouTube personalities, the media far outnumbering police and protestors. Reporters asked grave questions about the state of American democracy. Camera crews from all over — Japan, the Netherlands, France — tailed the milling militias, fascinated by the spectacle of an America fracturing in armed revolt.

“It’s all bullshit,” said a reporter, who asked not to be named so his opinion would not break the line of neutrality his news organization prizes. “This is about normalizing guns at protests. The politics of the absurd are a key part of fascism. We’re all buying into it.”

Some Virginia residents call this annual protest “Lobby Day,” because it comes early in the General Assembly of Virginia’s annual legislative session. Since 2002, thousands of mostly second-amendment hard-liners, many of whom come armed, swarm the state Capitol, demanding that the government loosen restrictions on guns. Lobby Day was scheduled to coincide each year with Martin Luther King Jr. Day because, as one gun rights site states, “Many people are off work, street parking is free, and the Delegates and Senators are in their offices.”

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One wonders what the towering civil rights advocate, who preached and practiced nonviolent protest during the 1950s and ’60s, and who was slain with a Remington rifle 52 years ago, might have thought of such a dubious tribute.

One mile down the road from the militias, the media throngs, and the BLM gun rights group marching under a “Fred Hampton Gun Club” banner, a small and peaceful assembly organized by the local Black Lives Matter chapter was staging a cookout around a 60-foot-tall stone and bronze equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee.

The Confederate commander is now draped in a BLM flag. The statue sits in the middle of a traffic rotunda, which was occupied last summer at the height of the George Floyd protests. The stone base is covered with graffiti reading “BLM” and adorned with portraits of Floyd.

These two assemblies, one for gun rights and one for civil rights, have peacefully coexisted since 2002. But this year, with the country on edge two days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, officials mounted an aggressive defense. A brigade of state police circled the street at the base of the state Capitol, perched high on a rolling hill and sectioned off with steel fencing; the lower windows of the Capitol building were boarded with plywood. The National Guard had been activated days in advance. A state police helicopter hovered overhead.

Crackhead Barney unfurls the stars and stripes

But despite all of this, the day began with a brash display of defiance of Richmond’s rule of law. Mike Dunn, the leader of the Virginia faction of the Boogaloo Bois — an extremist group with fantasies of civil war against the government — marched his unit of about a dozen armed troops, clad in Hawaiian shirts and carrying assault-style rifles, to the threshold of the gun-free zone. Dunn then turned to address the crowd of police and armed militia groups, holding a battered “GUN FREE ZONE” sign, which had been ripped from a lamppost, over his head.

“This means infringement on our second amendment,” he proclaimed. Then he threw the sign at the feet of a police officer, who did not react. “This means we don’t care,” he added.

A reporter in the crowd asked what would happen if the police arrested them for breaking the local gun laws. “We will exercise our second amendment the way it was intended to prevent that from happening. We will defend ourselves. I hope that paints a picture for you.”

The police stood idly by as Dunn turned and commanded his unit to pass through the gun-free zone and up the hill to the fences encircling the Capitol. Some of the officers shifted uncomfortably, others looked on with loathing, though most just presented blank stares.

But the final battle would be for media attention. Mike Dickinson, who owns a local strip club and consistently fails to be elected to Richmond’s 1st District City Council, marched into the rally spewing anti-government rhetoric, shouting through his bullhorn that the boarded-up Capitol “looks like a ghetto.” A wannabe YouTube celebrity named Crackhead Barney, who earns views from her 800 subscribers by attending far-right events and asking absurd questions, trailed close behind him.

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Performing for her camera crew, Barney did three takes of her opening act, pulling an American flag from her underwear. Then she approached the Boogaloo Bois for an interview as they stood calmly in armed formation with police ranked behind them. When I asked why they chose to pose in front of the police, a Boogaloo Boi named Peezy said casually to me, “We thought it would be a meme-able picture. Plus, I think a lot of them are glad we’re openly defying gun laws in their city.”

Barney approached Dunn, and in front of her camera crew and about 30 other journalists, asked, “So, why are you here?”

The Boogaloo Bois leader spoke in the sly, quick vernacular of the internet culture that birthed their movement. He was well equipped to match the absurdity of Crackhead Barney.

“We’re here to support an armed revolution against the government,” Dunn said matter-of-factly.

“That’s scary,” she replied, adding that she, as a black woman, would be arrested for saying the same.

Dunn cocked his head. “Can you do me a favor?” he asked. “I want you to say it.”

For a brief moment, Crackhead Barney broke character, analyzing the risk of what she was about to say. She then snapped back into it.

“I want to do an armed revolution against the government,” she said into the camera. ❖

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NEWS News 2021 THE FRONT ARCHIVES Washington, D.C.

Militias Mostly No-Shows at Michigan Capitol Rally On Sunday

SUNDAY, JANUARY 17, 2021, LANSING, MICHIGAN — Six hundred miles from the nation’s capital, where 25,000 National Guard troops are on high alert, guarding against violence at Joseph Biden’s inauguration, the highway from Detroit to Lansing slices through a light, wet snow. Billboards looming over Interstate 96 display an FBI hotline — “Seeking Information: U.S. CAPITOL VIOLENCE.” 

The snow forms a gray slush on the streets of Lansing in front of the state’s landmark Capitol building, made of sandstone and steel. A demonstration planned for noon begins to gather. The building has been ringed with a six-foot, wire-mesh fence. Businesses are boarded up. Bomb-sniffing dogs work a perimeter while National Guard Humvees move to block off all entrance routes. Approximately four dozen state police officers march in pairs, encircling the building. A state police helicopter hovers overhead. 

A few days before, my colleague Seth Herald, a Detroit-based freelance photographer, received a text from a member of the Michigan faction of the Boogaloo Bois: “It’s gunna be bad man. We are going out but if I was press I would stay away.”

But on the ground, there’s an unsettling quiet to the thinly attended rally. An estimated 100 protesters are outnumbered roughly three to one by police and National Guard, as well as members of the national and international media. For those paying attention to the rise of violent extremism in Michigan, what is most notable this Sunday is not who is there, but who is not

Where are the Proud Boys? Where are the storied local militias? Where are the known faces of leaders of both of those groups, who marshaled hundreds of Trump loyalists back in April to come to Lansing and occupy the Capitol building, dozens of them leering down on lawmakers from the gallery while shouldering long guns? Where are the unmasked and unhinged foot soldiers of this movement, shouting into the faces of police, venting their rage at what they perceived as excessive lockdown orders? 

Back then, Trump had urged them all on with a rallying cry on Twitter: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” They took it seriously, and soon after the April occupation a local militia known as the Wolverine Watchmen allegedly plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Now, 13 men face federal and state charges in Michigan for the thwarted plot. 

Since the attack on the Capitol on January 6, and the ensuing arrests and unprecedented crackdown on the extremist social media sphere, the forces behind organizing these demonstrations have been thrown off course. Experts on far-right extremism say that the broad movement, emboldened and energized by Trump and fueled by conspiracy theories that ricochet around the internet, is going underground.

“There is a deep paranoia coursing through online communities containing extremists,” says Jared Holt, a research fellow studying disinformation and extremism for the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They are kind of in a holding pattern right now, trying to figure out how to recover from such a disastrous move and figure out their next steps forward.” 

On Sunday, the ragged camps that make up the broad-ranging anti-government movement trudge quietly through the slush around the state Capitol building. The only defined group is the Boogaloo Bois. They have come together with an eclectic mix of Trump supporters and deniers of the legitimacy of the election. But the stance of the Boogaloo Bois is notably more nihilistic: “We do believe that this election was fraudulent. But we believe the last election was fraudulent and the one before that, too,” said Timothy Teagan, a 22-year-old with long stringy hair and an AR-15 slung over his shoulder. 

An FBI memo released late in December claimed that a member of the Boogaloo Bois, an outfit with a penchant for Aloha floral garb and accelerationist fantasies of ushering in a civil war, had planned on “using a gasoline-based device with a tripwire in Lansing, Michigan, to cause a distraction while other individuals ‘take’ the capitol”—carrying on the momentum of the riot that erupted in Washington, D.C., less than two weeks prior. 

In Lansing, security forces were prepped to thwart an anticipated replay of insurrection. On Sunday, the Boogaloo Bois came with all of their intimidating street theater and open-carry weapons (in a state that allows them to do so). Some shouldered vintage World War II bolt action rifles, others carried modern assault-style weapons and wore tactical vests crammed with extra magazines. But the only shots came from a Nerf gun, fired by a counter-protestor, Wayne Koper, a northern Michigan resident in a Harley Davidson jacket and a clownish attitude, who said he was there to mock the posturing militias in his state. 

Reporter Will Herald conducts an interview
What the well-dressed reporter wears in 2021.

I spoke to a Boogaloo Boi, who said his name was Duncan Lemp, when one of those styrofoam rubber-tipped bullets bounced off his knee and landed at his feet. Lemp is a fake name. The real Duncan Lemp, a martyr of the boogaloo movement, was shot and killed in March 2020 by a Montgomery County, Maryland, police SWAT team carrying out a no-knock raid seeking illegal firearms. 

This ‘’Duncan Lemp’’ rested one hand on his AR-15, drawing on a cigarette through his American-flag neck gaiter with the other. He seemed eager to talk, and his narrative sounded well-rehearsed.

“This is about unity, it’s about coming together, left or right, and defending our constitutional rights as written,” he said quickly, when asked about their purpose at the demonstration.

But beneath the veneer of far-right jargon was the reality of one of the most sprawling federal manhunts in American history. So-called Lemp said he was taking out the trash at his job in northern Michigan, where he is a cook, when he was approached by two FBI agents in plainclothes. He said they asked him if he planned on being violent at Sunday’s protest.

“Do we look violent to you?” he asked me, still gripping his military-grade assault rifle. 

He adds, matter-of-factly, that he is being unjustly targeted by the federal crackdown on far-right extremism that began after the storming of the Capitol Building, where five people died. The FBI is reportedly searching for some 200 suspects in that armed insurrection. In Michigan, six people have already been arrested for taking part.

Even at this small demonstration, four people said they had entered the Capitol Building on January 6. 

One of those was Brian Cash. He became the symbol of Michigan’s anti-government crusaders when in April he was photographed screaming — and unmasked — into the faces of two police officers guarding the Michigan House of Representatives.

Cash represents those who started out with state-level agitation last year and carried that movement to the nation’s capital on January 6. He said he has considered traveling to D.C. to protest Biden’s inauguration and what he still believes was a fraudulently certified election. His hope is that members of Congress will be “arrested for treason.” 

But for now, he said, he doesn’t have a plan, and is keeping an eye on the massive buildup of National Guard troops and reports of checkpoints and roadblocks into Washington, D.C.

“It’s all locked down, there’s no way in,” he said. “It would be a suicide mission.”  ❖

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Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Thugs in Blue

THE BEAT GOES ON … AND ON
Once Again, Police Pummel a Plan for Reform

Last Wednesday, an enormous mob surged out of control, menaced citizens, pushed through police lines onto city hall steps, and blocked traffic on Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge. But uniformed cops stood by, smiling—for the maraud­ers were fellow cops, thousands of them. Yelling profanities and racist slurs, they rocked and dented cars; some kicked a New York Times reporter in the stomach, others chanted “asshole, asshole” at a be­wildered photographer and at stalled driv­ers who talked with journalists. One such driver, Virginia Santana, was near tears at the blockade; she was trying to get her kid to the hospital for chemotherapy. Vicky Cohen, standing beside her car, was en­raged. “All they care about is them­selves,” she said. Two cops, looking like frat pranksters, shimmied up the bridge exit sign to suspend a banner declaring: “Support US in Blue not the ACLU.”

Over on Murray Street, Rudy Giuliani addressed another police crowd. “The New York Police Department is the very finest in the United States,” he declared, then went after David Dinkins for being anti-police. He criticized the idea of creat­ing an all-civilian complaint review board. “In the words of my good friend, Guy Molinari, BULLSHIT.” The crowd roared.

Next was introduced Molinari’s daugh­ter Susan, a congresswoman from Staten Island, a big police booster, and a single woman. “Homo,” yelled one cop.

Over at city hall, chief David Scott had tried to urge the cops to clear out, since they had no permit to be there. He was met by a sea of flying middle fingers. “Retire! Retire!” chanted the crowd, many of whom were openly drinking alcohol.

This week, New York City launched yet another effort to bridge the precipitous gap between police and public with a proposal for a new, fully independent Civilian Com­plaint Review Board. Police replied with a Bronx cheer, turning out for one of their largest protests in years. Doubtless tons of time, money, and ink will be devoted to the slugfest, and it’ll be tough to beat the pow­erful Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which has already launched a radio blitz targeting the mayor.

The argument for an all-civilian CCRB is politically sexy; it sounds like a good anti­dote to reams of stories of police abuse. But a closer look suggests the proposal on the table is well-meaning but inadequate—for instance, it still leaves the police commis­sioner with the power to decide what, if any, discipline out-of-control cops should get.

Indeed, some reformers doubt that this is even the right battle to wage. Brutality ex­perts warn that the most efficient and fair ex-post-facto investigations of errant cops won’t remedy a more deep-seated problem. To do that requires a fundamental recali­brating of the police department: how it chooses officers, trains them, and what it tells them about their responsibility to the public.

Best solution or not, the CCRB proposal got new life after policeman Michael O’Keefe killed Jose Garcia in Washington Heights last July. Although a grand jury cleared O’Keefe and concluded he acted in self-defense, Garcia’s death galvanized the Latino community, which often finds itself on the business end of a nightstick. But it’s not just minorities who feel the police oper­ate with impunity—as Jeffrey Wassen and Jeffrey Bergida found out.

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CHELSEA: THE JEWS

It was 1:50 a.m. on December 20, 1989, when Jeffrey Wassen’s car hit a taxi near 23rd Street and 8th Avenue; he and his passenger, Jeffrey Bergida, suffered head injuries. Police officers Steven Cruz and Timothy Vandenberg arrived on the scene and asked Wassen if he’d been drinking. Wassen replied that he wanted the advice of Bergida, his friend and lawyer.

That’s when the officers got nasty, ac­cording to a sworn deposition from Dean Burney, the emergency medical technician on the scene. Besides arresting Bergida for interference, they disparaged “Jew law­yers” (Bergida wore a chai) and repeatedly declared, “Maybe Hitler was right after all.” They also taunted: “I don’t think much of Jewish men, but I like Jewish women, they take it up the ass real good,” and “This is what happens when Jews have too much money and they don’t know what to do with it.” They called the two men “fag” and “Jew fag.” Later, when Bergida’s head had been bandaged, officers joked that with the red hospital markings, Ber­gida looked like a character from the TV series Alien Nation.

That episode was kids’ stuff compared with the pain of a fellow in Washington Square Park who was bitten in the testicles by a police dog. Or when cops doused an accused fare beater, Fernando Huerta, with ammonia—then held a lit match close to his head.

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JUST ANOTHER STATISTIC

No one would dispute that policing is a stressful, dangerous profession or that good cops deserve esteem. But with the power, the gun, and the nightstick goes a heavy responsibility which is too often shunted, and when it comes to malevolent, dis­turbed, or violent cops. New York City has a case of terminal denial. Virtually no poli­tician or powerful figure will publicly acknowledge what many privately maintain: that police brutality and abuse in New York City are much more than a blip on an otherwise placid screen.

“The police are given incredible leeway to do whatever they want when faced with a street encounter,” says Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment. “There is absolutely no gov­ernment oversight to rein in police abuse.” For Ciment and his colleagues, brutality is common as potholes.

Nobody actually knows how many people are threatened, insulted, intimidated, or groundlessly whacked by cops every day. That’s because the system designed to track brutality is hobbled by fear, disillusion­ment, and the self-interest of the data col­lectors. Oddly, in a field in which statistics are churned out like buttermilk, the NYPD won’t release figures for the number of offi­cers disciplined for brutality, the number dismissed, or even which precinct has the most repeat offenders.

All we have to go on are the figures recorded by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is staffed entirely by Police Department employees: From January to June of this year, 1854 complaints were filed, surpassing the number filed during that time last year, 1557. Since 1987, the numbers have generally declined, which the New York Civil Liberties Union says does not necessarily mean there’s less police abuse; just that fewer people are filing complaints.

James Fyfe, a noted criminologist and former NYC cop, says no matter how thoroughly most citizens’ complaints are in­vestigated, the majority are fated to be found unsubstantiated. The reason: They come down to swearing contests between cops and citizens. Of all complaints received in New York, only 3 percent are substantiated, far lower than other cities.

As Koch did before him, Dinkins down­plays the possibility of a systemic problem; Lee Brown, by many standards a progres­sive cop, did too. However, with more offi­cers than any other city, New York is unique: Even if 90 percent of the local cops did not engage in misconduct, that would still leave a staggering 3000 abusive cops. That group alone would constitute one of the largest police forces in America. And specialists say 10 percent is a conservative guess.

Polls may be a more accurate measure of the scope of the problem: In 1991, Gallup found that 43 percent of New Yorkers think the police department uses too much force, a big jump from the 29 percent who said so in 1989. Even the tepid CCRB, in a 1990 report, worried: “If the willingness to resort to unwarranted violence demonstrat­ed at Tompkins Square … is a reflection of the altitudes of the members of the police service, there is reason for concern about what is occurring when police supervisors, journalists, and other citizens are not present.”

Public attitudes sometimes exacerbate the problem. “A lot of people in this city believe cops should be able to kick a little ass,” says Dan Johnston, an attorney and ex-CCRB member. “I believe it’s very harmful to the city and to public safety for the police to treat people in a way [that] they lose respect for the law. But many believe the way to police is by fear.”

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QUEENS: THE POLE 

“Why they attacked these kids I don’t know,” says Joseph Karpinski, whose son spent his 18th birthday being beaten by city police. Karpinski makes an interesting ag­grieved party, since he’s a retired NYC cop.

On the night of February 22, 1989, Abi­gail Mullins happened to glance out her window as she waited for her daughter to come home. Just then, she saw a small group of teens standing in front of her house. One reached to light a cigarette for another, and missed. Both friends fell. Their companions were reaching to pull them out of this Keystone Kops predica­ment when a sedan squealed around the corner, nearly hitting the youths. Then, says Mullins, the car’s two occupants attacked the youths. Immediately, a different car ar­rived from the opposite direction, and its occupants, too, ran over and began beating the group. Mullins didn’t realize the at­tackers were police—in fact she thought she was witnessing a mugging—and called 911.

One of the four, a young woman, screamed, and an officer grabbed her, an­other grabbed her boyfriend, a third grabbed Chris Karpinski, and a fourth knocked down Steve Devaney. The young woman says she and her boyfriend spotted a shield around one man’s neck, and, real­izing they were police, stopped struggling. The officers warned them away—”get outta here”—and concentrated on Karpinski and Devaney. Another witness says that after the plainclothes officers had pummeled Karpinski, they threw him on a car, and he rolled over unconscious. While his body lay on the ground, the witness says, a uni­formed cop arrived and started kicking him. They also smacked the youths with their flashlights and radios. Chris lost one tooth; two to three others were cracked, and his face was seriously lacerated above his eye. He now suffers from severe jaw problems. (His father took snapshots; the offi­cial photos, according to the family, disappeared.)

The incident set off a domino chain of litigation; ultimately, criminal charges against Karpinski were thrown out and civ­il suits on both sides dropped. As for the CCRB, it decided there was no evidence to warrant disciplining the officers. Yet, since a judge decided Karpinski hadn’t prompted the attack by assaulting cops, as police al­leged, who was responsible for his injuries seen in the photographs?

In suing the cops, the Karpinskis were hardly alone. A report by Comptroller Eliz­abeth Holtzman shows that in 1991, 659 people filed civil actions against the cops for misconduct, a 25 percent increase from four years earlier. During that time, the city paid out $44 million to victims of police brutality.

Faced now with mounting demand that something be done, the city council last Thursday began discussing a bill to grant independence to the NYPD-controlled Ci­vilian Complaint Review Board, in hopes it will more aggressively investigate police abuses. An angry Mayor Dinkins, still reel­ing from the cop “Mutiny” the day before, reasserted his strong support for Intro 549, sponsored by Ronnie Eldridge, Virginia Fields, and Victor Robles, along with 15 cosponsors, and endorsed by 17 communi­ty boards.

Although revamping the CCRB to give it real power would be a step toward restoring some public confidence, it won’t even begin to address the underlying issues. Councilmember Sal Albanese of Brooklyn who, perhaps more than any other council mem­ber, knows police issues, calls it “a red herring. It doesn’t address the real issues.” The department, he feels, must require that cops be city residents, do better training, and upgrade detection systems to get rid of bad cops early on.

“The screening mechanism is not good enough, there are some white cops who never came into contact with the minority commu­nity before enlisting,” Albanese says.

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THE BOYS DOWN AT THE PBA

Nobody is more attentive to the police bru­tality debate—and no one takes it more personally—than the PBA, which stands ready to battle any reform.

“I want to welcome you to Fort Scape­goat,” PBA president Phil Caruso told a crowd of cops demonstrating in Brooklyn against “unfair treatment of police offi­cers.” Caruso is the Mary Matalin of police reps—always on the offensive for his mem­bers. Caruso groused: “There’s a pattern emerging in this city where the police offi­cers are getting scapegoated and the crimi­nals are getting royal treatment.”

Not so, says Dan Johnston, the ex-­CCRBer. Reviewing complaints was like listening to a broken record: Time and again, police had overreacted when a citi­zen challenged their authority. Johnston re­calls: “They would allow things to escalate instead of trying to keep the peace.”

That habitual overreaction may be in part because officers are so disconnected from the city and people they guard. After the Tompkins Square melee in 1988 in which police pummeled scores, Police Commissioner Ben Ward complained that many of the demonstrators at Tompkins Square were from outside the city—but so were the police. In fact, 40 percent of NYC cops live outside the city, and many others live in “cop neighborhoods” in Staten Is­land and other outer boroughs, often with­drawing into all-cop social lives that only emphasize the “us-versus-them” mentality.

PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini dis­agrees: “Most cops still live in the city. Even those who live outside the city were born here. Once they started earning decent incomes and raising families, they decided they wanted to be in a suburban setting. It doesn’t make them less committed to the city.”

But it’s indisputable that city cops suffer culture shock when they go from their ho­mogenous communities into unfamiliar ter­ritory. Fyfe, the former NYPD officer, grew up in “lily white” Bay Ridge, then found himself plopped into downtown Brooklyn, with its heavy concentration of blacks and Latinos. Fyfe might as well have been in Kathmandu. He learned how to deal with these cultures, but too late: “For a Hispanic man, looking an authority figure in the eye is a sign of disrespect,” he says. “For an Anglo, it’s the opposite. So I’d get angry at a Puerto Rican guy who didn’t look me in the eye, and start yelling at him.” And, too often, from small misunderstandings come larger consequences.

For cops, racial and ethnic strife begin at home—right inside the precinct house. The heads of the black and Latino officers’ asso­ciations say that intolerance permeates the department. “If you expect police to be equitable with people on the street, you won’t get it until they treat their own ranks properly,” says Detective Walter Alicea, head of the Hispanic Officers Association of the NYPD.

Detective Robert Rivers Jr., president of the Guardians Association, the black offi­cers’ group, has had his own brushes with the issue, outside of work. Once when off duty, he tried to speak with a uniformed officer. “I called out and he immediately reached for his gun. What did he see? A bald-headed black man.”

Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund says her group has seen a large increase in abusive cops. Language is a key difficulty—many Asian immigrants can’t understand police orders and few offi­cers speak their languages. And though Asians make up 7 percent of the city’s population, they make up less than 1 percent of the police force.

Cyril Nishimoto of Japanese American Social Services was pleased when the Mid­town South precinct invited him to come in and offer some “Sensitivity Training.” But Nishimoto says he came away feeling angry because officers ignored his presentation, actually turning their backs on him as he spoke.

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MIDTOWN: THE ITALIAN

According to the CCRB, the most common complaints—40 percent of those regis­tered—concern excessive force, with “dis­courtesy” second at 30 percent. The re­maining complaints are classified as “abuse of authority” (20 percent of grievances), and “ethnic slurs” (5 percent to 8 percent).

Depending on how you look at it, Greg­ory Garguilo drove into at least two and maybe three of these categories as he head­ed home from his job as a parking atten­dant on March 28 of this year.

It was 1 a.m and Garguilo, 28, was sitting at a light on Tenth Avenue, his car pointed north, he recalls. Another sedan, crawling along 59th Street, turned south on Tenth. Then, suddenly, it screeched a U and roared up behind the bewildered Garguilo. Mysterious men came running at his car, one with a gun drawn, yelling “get the fuck out of the car.” Garguilo recalls. The terri­fied Garguilo immediately complied. The men, who still had not identified them­selves, demanded, “Where the fuck did you steal the car?” “Asshole” and “fuck” he says, were part of every sentence. “They were very angry. I kept saying I was the owner. The one holding the gun said if I opened my mouth again he was going to bash it in.”

Garguilo says the plainclothes cops false­ly accused him of running a red light, and he mentioned so in the complaint he filed at the police station. Yet when a revised version of his report was mailed back to him, his claim had been deleted. Garguilo, a clean-cut, serious young man who drives into Manhattan every day from his home in Tappan (where many cops live), can only guess why the police even stopped him. “The cops had a hunch,” he says with a shrug, “and their adrenaline gets going.”

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SPARRING PARTNERS

When citizens complain about cops, PBA lawyers know how to counter. Legal Aid attorney Scott Ciment says when a citizen is charged with assaulting a police officer, its a good bet in many cases that police are covering up their own abuses. “Often as­sault will be the only charge,” Ciment says. “Why were they arrested in the first place? Not that many people go around assaulting cops.” Indeed, many people who have brought civil brutality suits say that when they filed a complaint, the police filed a cross suit, alleging assault. Attorneys famil­iar with such cases say the strategy is com­mon to defuse the original suit, hoping both parties will agree to drop charges.

Sometimes, cops move to protect them­selves well before anyone’s day in court. Another Legal Aid attorney, David Roun­tree, was at the Transit District 3 precinct last year, inside the subway station at 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, waiting for a lineup. An officer brought in a hand­cuffed suspect with a badly bloodied face. Rountree alleges that the desk sergeant, who appeared to know the suspect, re­marked to him that he “must have fallen down the stairs.” The officers present chuckled. After they’d locked him up, the arresting officer came out, and, according to Rountree, the sergeant said, “What do you think you’re doing? I don’t think we can send that guy downtown looking like that.” Then, the EMS arrived and stitched him up.

On a separate occasion, Rountree repre­sented a man who’d been arrested with one or two vials of crack and a small amount of marijuana—misdemeanors—in Times Square. At his arraignment, the man—who had no prior arrests, lived with his parents and worked in a music instrument store—sported a classic shiner. When the judge inquired where it came from, Rountree ex­plained that his client had been thrown to the ground by a rookie officer and kicked in the face with a boot. The D.A. then inter­jected, in an on-the-record comment, that he had been prepared to charge the defen­dant with a noncriminal violation, but based on these allegations of police brutal­ity, he would not make that offer.

Ciment says the D.A. will interview someone who makes allegations of police brutality, but can turn those statements against the defendant at his trial. Further­more, he says that even if defendants are acquitted, confirming that they were indeed victims of brutality, the D.A. will frequent­ly drop all interest in the brutality charge.

Most people won’t sue. If they do any­thing, they will seek redress from the CCRB. But brutality cases slip through like fine grains in a large-bore sieve. Even in the coarsest, most publicized cases, the com­plainants are rarely satisfied. For the enor­mous number of people who feel they’ve been unjustly insulted, humiliated, slurred, intimidated, terrorized, beaten, etc., the bottom line is low indeed: almost no cop is ever meted “serious justice” when citizens charge them with abuse. (The police depart­ment’s Internal Affairs Division simply doesn’t deal with most abuse situations.) “Even when officers are found guilty of using excessive force,” Newsday found in 1991, “the penalty many receive is a one­-week suspension—the same punishment given to an officer who accepts two free doughnuts from a restaurant, wears a turtle­neck while in uniform, or is discourteous to a supervisor.”

Even in well-publicized, outrageous cases like Judith Regan’s, getting justice is not easy. In 1990, Regan, a pregnant Simon & Schuster editor, told officers to stop taunt­ing her cab driver. She was yanked from the vehicle, thrown against the side, hand­cuffed and taken to a police station. There, she was held—still manacled tightly—for five hours and barraged with threats and lewd and anti-Semitic remarks. Cops asked Regan, an Irish-Italian Catholic, what her name was. “Judith,” she replied. No, said a cop, “Jew bitch.” The rough treatment threatened Regan’s pregnancy; she suffered internal bleeding.

“The CCRB, which is one of the biggest jokes in the world, cleared them of any wrongdoing,” she recalls. The D.A.’s office wasn’t much better. “They have to get along with the police. It’s all political. They issued a press release saying basically that they did not have enough evidence to pros­ecute me so they were dropping the charges, implying that I must have done something wrong. The D.A. didn’t want to help me, they wanted me to go away.”

“I was a very bad example: a mother, in a nice outfit, in a nice job. They couldn’t call me a menace, or a drug addict.” Regan says she was harassed afterwards for a long time; a retired officer even called her husband, thinking he was an ex-husband, digging for dirt.

Regan sued, and the city recently paid her a six-figure amount in settlement. How­ever, not a single officer was publicly disciplined.

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CCRB: CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REJECTION BOARD?

Judith Regan’s “joke,” the Civilian Com­plaint Review Board, is made up of six civilians appointed by the mayor, and six NYPD civilian staffers. A majority of its investigators are uniformed cops. William Kuntz, a CCRB appointed member from 1987 until he resigned five months ago, found the coziness troubling. For example, he didn’t much like the board relying on legal opinions from NYPD attorneys, or its deference to the department.

The Tompkins Square report shows the rift between civilian and police members of the CCRB. “You should have seen the Tompkins Square report before I got my hands on it,” says Kuntz, now a Wall Street lawyer. “If I and some other civilian mem­bers of the board hadn’t been as forceful in putting out that what happened in Tomp­kins Square Park was disgraceful, it would have been very different.”

The most devastating evidence of CCRB’s failure came in a 1990 report on the Tompkins Square “Incident,” issued by the New York Civil Liberties Union. NYCLU reviewed the cases of several bystanders who were shown on videotape be­ing bludgeoned by police: fewer than one dozen were charged. but not one was convicted.

Of 143 allegations of abuse and brutality in the park. CCRB substantiated 29, but was unable to identify the cops involved. One reason: the NYPD refuses to take pro­file shots of its officers. After the Tompkins Square report came out, the CCRB recom­mended that the department snap full fron­tal, left and right profile shots of all officers. The NYPD, however, rejected the advice, arguing that the shots would essen­tially treat cops like criminals. (Another proposal, that I.D. numbers be painted on riot helmets, was accepted.)

Worse, though the board recommends, the police commissioner chooses the pun­ishment. Of 143 allegations, only one offi­cer received internal discipline by the de­partment of more than 30 days suspension. To boot, on that rare occasion when the CCRB dared whimper, the cops simply ignored it: Commissioner Ward let her off with a one-year suspension, instead of fir­ing her, as the board recommended. The board’s sleuths themselves leave something to be desired when it comes to investigating their buddies’ behavior. One Legal Aid at­torney recalls an interview between CCRB investigators and her client: “They sounded more like they were grilling a suspect than taking a report.”

Johnston, a former CCRB commissioner and ex-Des Moines district attorney now in private practice in Manhattan, agrees there’s a problem: “There’s nothing about being a street police officer that qualifies anyone to be an investigator.”

Under mounting pressure, the review board has begun to make wheezy, but slightly discernible adjustments. Only two months ago did it publish a brochure in Spanish. And members are for the first time starting to emerge from their cocoon to attend community board meetings.

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LIFE IN THE BLUE BUBBLE

Nothing moves a cop into high gear like a Code 1013 call, Officer Needs Assistance. But mutual support extends to what many call the Blue Wall of Silence, the unwilling­ness to rat on a fellow officer. Some equate it to the Mafia’s omerta, a blood oath.

Based on his trial experiences, attorney Meyerson breaks the bulk of officers into three groups: Those who don’t see what they see, others who tell a half-truth, and still others who outright lie about what they see. “Any police officer’s word is no more intrinsically credible than anybody else’s word,” says Meyerson. “Police officers will lie as readily as anybody else.”

“Coupled with the 10 percent of cops [who may be regularly abusive], you have an excruciatingly difficult problem that can’t be resolved by the most progressive police commissioner,” says Meyerson.

Cops are encouraged to see themselves as different from everyone else. “Because of the aura assigned to police officers by American society, officers have trouble un­derstanding police work is a job, not a way to spend an entire life,” says Guy Seymour, chief psychologist for the city of Atlanta, which is noted for its progressive policing. Seymour, an expert on police behavior, says cops often have trouble separating the rest of their existence from their work.

”People say, ‘I’m a police officer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,'” notes Sey­mour. “But that’s not true, it’s just that society sees them that way. If we could get police to look at their work more dispas­sionately, the way a good carpenter looks at his handiwork, I think we’d have a lot few­er problems.”

Anger and aggression, which build when cops feel they’re not accorded all the re­spect they deserve, spill over from their work to their personal lives, spawning a pattern of divorce and domestic violence.

“It comes from being accustomed to having people do what you say, and living your life so that you always want to be in control,” Seymour says.

Interestingly, much of the aggression takes place after a suspect has been sub­dued, suggesting that cops are not trained to deal with the adrenaline rush that comes from the chase. Andrew Vachss, who had broad experience with police as chief of a maximum security institution for violent youth and as a probation officer, cites the Rodney King case, in which King was im­mobilized before cops beat him. Vachss says that whenever cops have a confronta­tion involving physical injury to either par­ty, cops are always treated for ‘trauma.’ “That’s an attempt to decompress them.”

Seymour believes police need to learn how to be negotiators and mediators—the opposite of the police academy, where the emphasis is on getting and maintaining control at all costs.

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PBA: POLICE BREASTBEATERS ALLIANCE?

Besides better training, Seymour says police need closer supervision—by bosses who are not their buddies. Supervisors and line cops are both members of the PBA, which vocif­erously opposes independent controls. PBA successfully waged a fear campaign in 1966 that transformed the newly created CCRB from an all-civilian to an all-cop board. David Garth, the consultant who co-chaired the pro-civilian side, recalls the onslaught.

“We had everybody from the entire es­tablishment, but it didn’t make much dif­ference,” he says. “We got killed.”

Attorney Meyerson, who handles police abuse cases, blames outfits like the PBA, and its head, Phil Caruso, for an ostrich act that debilitates New York. “The greatest disservice Caruso does is to his member­ship, because Phil Caruso should be talking about the investment of great deals of mon­ey into psych services in this department, into new recruitment structures, into early intervention and warning systems.”

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ROLE MODELS, NOT ROBOCOP

Solutions and reforms worth trying are in no short supply. To broaden the fairly nar­row, white, working-class base of the NYPD, Adam Walinsky, who served on the state’s Commission of Investigation, pro­poses funding college educations for those willing to commit to four years service as a cop. The goal: a more representative slice of the population, including people who don’t intend to stay on the force forever, and therefore view the job differently.

Alicea of the Hispanic officers associa­tion calls for more aggressive recruitment among Hispanics from within city limits and notes that the so-called recruitment unit has just one Latino doing outreach.

Since the late ’60s, when NYPD was a leader in developing risk management and stress reduction, the city has lagged badly. It might look to Atlanta’s computerized ‘early warning’ system, which ties in dispa­rate sources of information within the po­lice department—internal affairs records, personnel information and field perfor­mance reviews—to warn of officers headed for trouble.

As for diligently tracking complaints, Johnston believes the city ought to be de­veloping a comprehensive career path for civilian investigators that would cover all city agencies, not the limited number the current Department of Investigation over­sees. And he advocates using undercover monitors to help identify abusive officers.

That’s just a slice of the advice pie. But nothing changes unless it comes from on high. “Ultimately,” says Johnston, “the question is: Do you have the right chief, the right commissioner, the right mayor? If people feel the police are out of control, they must let the mayor know that’s going to be an issue in the election.” ❖

Research: Renuka Parthasarathi