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Deportation by Detention: What Are the Options for Green-Card Holders Locked Up Without Bail?

At 6 a.m. on a Saturday in August of 2015, Tony and Tracy Chen woke up to knocks on the front door of their Brooklyn apartment. Tony fumbled down the stairs to find three ICE officers. “Are you Mr. Chen?” one asked. “Get dressed and come with us. We need you to sign some papers at immigration court.”

Tony, 46, was a lawful permanent resident, which means he has a green card; his wife, Tracy, and their three children are U.S. citizens. As Tony changed out of his pajamas in a corner of the living room, Tracy pleaded with the officers. “What did he do wrong? Where are you taking him?”

“Don’t worry,” an officer said as he handcuffed her husband. “Give him $20 for the subway. He’ll be home soon.”

Tony was gone for over eight months.

Tony was arrested more than a year before the President Trump executive action that could spur an era of increased deportation. But for years, ICE has been arresting green-card holders like Tony with nonviolent criminal records and warehousing them in detention facilities without bond hearings. Now the Supreme Court is about to decide whether this practice violates due-process rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The case is Jennings v. Rodriguez, and the plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

If the Court upholds a lower court’s decision and rules in favor of the ACLU, it will require the government to give detainees a bond hearing within six months of detention. In a bond hearing, a judge can decide that a detainee is at “low flight risk and not a danger” and grant release, allowing him to return to family and work while his case is pending. If the Court rules against the ACLU, prolonged detention of immigrants will continue and, under Trump’s immigrant crackdown, likely grow to an unprecedented level.

Tony and Tracy moved to New York City from Guangzhou nearly twenty years ago. At first, life unfolded as they had hoped. Tony opened a shipping store and Tracy focused on raising their three children. But as Tony’s business profits grew, he began gambling with clients in Atlantic City. One night, he gambled $500 and won $80,000 within an hour. “I felt so lucky, I started going two times a week. I couldn’t focus on my business. Every second I had money in my pocket, I wondered if I should call a cab and go to New Jersey.”

In 2007, Tony quit gambling with the help of a therapist, but his problems didn’t end there. In 2010, police arrested Tony because boxes sent from China to his shipping business contained  counterfeit jewelry and purses. He was also charged with welfare fraud for underreporting household income and receiving Medicaid. Tony pleaded guilty to counterfeit and fraud — both felonies — and received five years’ probation. At the height of his gambling luck and business profits, Tony was rich. By 2010, he was destitute and ashamed.

Over the next five years, Tony paid fines and followed probation rules. Some nights he came home early enough to cook red-seared pork or salmon with star anise and ginger. Despite financial troubles, Tracy says “there was a lot of joy and laughter in our family.”

After completing probation in April 2015, Tony traveled to Toronto for his nephew’s graduation. On his way home, airport customs officers warned him.

“They said there was a problem with my green card,” Tony remembers. “I was shocked.”

 

The Chens at home in Brooklyn: Ji Ming, Tracy, Tony, Kathine, and Kelly
The Chens at home in Brooklyn: Ji Ming, Tracy, Tony, Kathine, and Kelly

When ICE arrested Tony later that summer, he was brought to a section of the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey nicknamed Chinatown for its Chinese detainees. ICE contracts with places like Bergen, which it pays an estimated $200 a night for a detainee to stay in a wing that advocates say has worse conditions than most prisons.

Immigration lawyers asked for $50,000 to take on Tony’s case. “I’m not sure your father stands a chance,” Tracy warned her kids. The next week, they visited Tony. They found him on the other side of a glass partition, wearing an orange jumpsuit, weeping.

“I don’t want you to bring the kids to visit,” Tony told Tracy. “It’s too painful for them to see me like this.”

“No,” Tracy replied. “Your whole family is here for you.”

As he struggled to make sense of his situation, Tony met other green-card holders whose criminal cases had long been resolved — paid for in probation, fines, or prison time. Some, like Tony, had been rearrested after traveling internationally. A law designated them “arriving aliens” because of their criminal record. This, Tony learned from other detainees, triggered deportation proceedings. Some planned to represent themselves at their hearings, to hasten deportation. At least that way they could work in their home country and send money to family in New York. Tony feared he might have to do the same.

On September 16, guards awoke Tony at 2 a.m. and announced he was headed for the Varick Street courthouse in Manhattan. Tony saw other detainees pulling extra socks over their feet and hands. That was the Varick uniform, meant to protect against the bone-chilling cold of the courthouse waiting room.

Tony planned to represent himself, but at Varick, he met Zoey Jones, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services. BDS is part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which provides free representation to detainees whose household income is less than 200 percent of the national poverty level. Tony qualified.

With the prospect of a drawn-out case, Tony entered the conundrum at the heart of Jennings v. Rodriguez: whether he was entitled to a bond hearing. Michael Tan, an ACLU lawyer, says: “Most people would be shocked to know that we have a prison system in America where the government can lock you up without the right to see a judge who can determine whether you should be locked up in the first place.”

As studies by the ACLU have found, the majority of detainees given a bond hearing are deemed not to pose a flight risk and are allowed to leave detention. Many ultimately win their claim to remain in the U.S., which supports the ACLU’s argument that denial of bond hearings disproportionately affects immigrants, like Tony, with strong cases.

New York’s immigration court backlog is infamous. It can take years to resolve an immigration case, even longer when a case is appealed. Without the possibility of a bond hearing, more immigrants will stay locked up during this process. Jones, Tony’s lawyer, works on dozens of these cases. She was struck by Tony’s sweetness and his family’s desperation. “His case epitomizes the immigration system’s tendency to punish someone indefinitely for something he’s already paid for….What possible purpose does it serve to detain him while we litigate? It’s punitive, and it’s destructive to his family.”


For Tony, punishment took many forms. Detainees kept their belongings on rugs they constructed from plastic bags and ate each meal seated on their beds. Breakfast consisted of dry cereal, pancakes, and a choice of soda or coffee. Rice came once a week; chicken every two weeks. Detainees protested with a hunger strike, but guards said they had no control over the food. Tony lost thirty pounds.

For a dollar a day, Tony started cleaning toilets and floors. A buck twenty-five bought a cup of instant noodles, which could be traded for a haircut; three bought a chicken wing from another detainee’s dinner. With two AA batteries, Tony got an extra blanket.

Tracy started working three jobs, one in a daycare center with kids from single-parent homes. “Most of them are broken,” she says, “and the children really suffer.” Now she was a single parent herself, and the fractures she had witnessed in her clients’ lives began showing up in her own.

The teacher of her eleven-year-old daughter, Kelly, called to say Kelly was no longer doing her homework and had begun making macabre drawings of dead people. Tracy worked thirteen hours a day but couldn’t afford their monthly expenses. Ji Ming, the oldest son, grew evasive and started smoking marijuana.

Every week at Bergen, a fight or mental breakdown sent someone into solitary confinement. Tracy sent Tony tai chi instructions to calm his nerves, and they spoke on the phone daily. Jones filed petitions for a bond hearing for Tony, but a judge denied them. So Jones filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. (Few detainees can afford an attorney with the time and resources to do this, though the U.S. government argues that establishing a right to a bond hearing in six months is excessive, because detainees can access their right to due process through habeas corpus.) On April 6, 2016, Tony was released on bond.

Tony’s deportation hearing is scheduled for January 2018. Were it not for a free attorney from NYIFUP, Tony might be waiting in Bergen until then. Mayor de Blasio has proposed limiting NYIFUP, saying the city should no longer provide free counsel to detainees convicted of a list of 170 offenses ranging from murder to minor burglary. In some ways, Tony was lucky, and the fragility of his status shadows his daily life.

“It feels like the whole family is still paying for a conviction that Tony repaid to society years ago,” Tracy said.

Their son Ji Ming, now a high school senior, joined the Army. “This family will have one less mouth to feed,” he explained, and the Army will pay college tuition that his parents can’t afford.

Old business partners offered Tony the chance to open a restaurant, but he worries about getting deported after making an investment. “It’s like a time bomb,” he says, “and you don’t know when it will go off.”

And the situation only became more volatile after January 25, when Trump outlined plans to redefine priorities for deportation. There are an estimated 42,000 immigrants in detention now, and a study by the Los Angeles Times estimated that if authorities were to follow Trump’s new criteria, 8 million immigrants would become a priority for deportation. If the Supreme Court rules against Jennings, many will languish in detention centers without due process.

On a Sunday when Tony was at a restaurant job, Tracy, the kids, and her parents gathered in their living room to stuff shrimp and pork dumplings. Tracy’s mother murmured approvingly as her granddaughters folded dough. The family began to discuss the topic that’s usually too painful to broach: what they would do if Tony were deported.

“Let’s say your father goes back to his country of origin,” Ji Ming said, “and you only see him on a computer screen — that’s going to kill you, right?”

Tracy stroked her daughters’ hair and glanced at her mother, who had spent decades trying to leave the country that Tony might be sent back to. “Technology is awesome, but it’s not real,” she worried. “You can’t hug, you can’t kiss.”

When Tony was first in detention, the children imagined joining him in China if he were deported. But Tracy said it was impossible. “We can’t go back. You don’t read Chinese, and you can hardly speak it.” Neither daughter has Chinese citizenship; they would be foreigners there, without access to government services or publicly funded schools.

“No,” Tracy said. “We’ll stay here. We’ll fight to keep our family together.” She gestured around the table. “We’re all citizens here.”

 

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Forget It, Jake: Exploring Cuisine, Immigration, and Chinatown’s Underworld

Heather Lee, preeminent scholar of Chinese restaurants in America and assistant professor at NYU Shanghai, and I, just a guy, were making our way through the dry storage of Pulqueria, a Chinatown bar, on a recent Friday night. We had just left Chinese Tuxedo, the high-end contemporary-Cantonese restaurant that opened in the crook of Doyers Street’s elbow ten days after the presidential election. With Trump’s hundredth day in office having just passed, much of the country was feeling like us: lost in a subterranean passage with no way out.

It was Lee’s idea to go tunnel hunting in the first place. In the early years of last century, as she well knew, an entire network of well-organized tunnels coursed through Chinatown, used by criminal gangs called tongs and serving as underground arteries for the illicit. Today, only one tunnel remains, and it is bricked up in the bottom-most floor of Chinese Tuxedo’s triple-basement space. Postprandially, we were searching for the open end.

But that Chinese Tuxedo, a dazzling nexus of succulents, suits, and sex appeal in a former opera house, contains the terminus of one of the last tunnels wasn’t even the reason we were there. We are living at the dawn of a new nativism, and I wanted to check in with those who know how this might affect the way we eat, now and in the future. There seemed no better place to do this than at Chinese Tuxedo, and no better person to do it with than Professor Heather Lee.

Few ethnic groups have been more baldly discriminated against in America than the Chinese, the targets of 1882’s frustratingly prescient Chinese Exclusion Act. As for Lee, a second-generation Taiwanese academic who grew up on the West Coast, she has spent her career compiling a massive database of Chinese restaurants of the past. Part of Lee’s scholarship has explored how the American government’s anti-Chinese immigration laws — inadvertently, perhaps — gave rise to the proliferation of Chinese restaurants across the country. As she explains over a bowl of fried eggplant as crispy and sweet as a churro but with a can-can pepper kick, in 1915 a federal court ruled that Chinese restaurateurs were entitled to a merchant-status exemption from the blanket exclusionary acts. “As a result,” Lee tells me, “the Chinese have a much greater interest going into the restaurant industry. In the early twentieth century, there was an explosion of Chinese restaurants.” Today, there are more than 45,000 across the country.

Most of the early restaurants weren’t fancy, but some were. One, in fact, was famous: Chinese Tuxedo. The original version opened in 1905 on the corner of Doyers and the Bowery. It was a cushy spot, judging from postcards, filled with what Lee calls “slummers,” gussied-up white folks looking for a little bit of the Other. (It is now, naturally, a Chase bank.) As for its reincarnation, “I think the naming of this place is really clever,” says Lee, looking around the room.

But the existence of the current Chinese Tuxedo, and really any restaurant in New York, would be unthinkable if Trump had his way with our borders. First of all, like all restaurants, it runs on immigrant labor. Add to that the fact that co-owner Eddy Buckingham, who looks like an elongated Patrick Swayze, is from Australia, weirdly among our new nemeses, and there’s simply no way Chinese Tuxedo would ever get going in the first place.

Even more fundamentally, without immigration we would have neither the original template for Chinese Tuxedo nor the flavors for Chinese Tuxedo’s chef, a Scotsman named Paul Donnelly, to play with. There would be no bigeye tuna in strange-flavored dressing or char siu pork with a glaze sticky like Grandma’s no-sit furniture. “Overgrown fear of immigrants means that not only are we depriving others of their opportunities,” says Lee, “but we’re robbing ourselves of our own opportunities, too.”

Other than well-done steaks, what would we have? Doyers Street itself tells the story. The growth of the tongs and the burrowing of their tunnels was also, partially at least, an outgrowth of the government’s relentless persecution of Chinese immigrants. Without legal means of protection, many Chinese turned to illegal channels such as the tongs. These, of course, turned against one another, and for a while Doyers Street was called “the Bloody Angle” for the death that flowed along its crooked hundred meters. In 1905, where well-heeled Tinder date shtuppers and trendy noodle slurpers now dine, the street ran red after a deadly massacre.

As any historian worth her salt knows, you need to mine the past for the veins of the future. So, after dinner, we entered into any promising doorway on Doyers that looked like it led to a deeper story. Eventually we ended up here, stumbling past Metro shelves in sub-basements laden with nixtamalized corn flour. “I think this is it!” exclaimed Lee, ever the optimist. For my part, I was going over in my head what I might say to a startled barback, if we ran into one.

Eventually, Lee and I ended up in a dead-end closet that petered out into nothing. We turned around, retraced our steps, and headed up a narrow flight of stairs and back into the dark night of the present.

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Rakim, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shanté, and Other Rap Pioneers Celebrate Forty Years of Hip-Hop

Four decades ago, when the Bronx was famously burning, one nightclub brought together the boogie-down borough’s dancing queens, hustlers, graffiti kids, turntable ninjas, and fledgling MCs under one roof. “It was just Sal’s place up in the Bronx where it all went down, where everybody in the whole rap industry used to go hang out,” Marley Marl says. “Whenever Sal has a celebration, I’m always down to keep the Fever spirit alive.”

The club was Disco Fever, and “Sal” is Bronx-bred entrepreneur Sal Abbatiello, whose forty-year love affair with black and Latino club culture has made him a pivotal figure within the overlapping scenes of r&b, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, and salsa. This Saturday, with legendary producer Marley Marl and scratch-master Grand Wizard Theodore on turntables, a who’s-who of hip-hop pioneers, including Rakim, the Sugarhill Gang, Roxanne Shanté, Melle Mel, and Rob Base, will gather at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate hip-hop’s ground zero.

Growing up during the Fifties and Sixties in an increasingly nonwhite section of the South Bronx, Abbatiello decided that creating multicultural havens for music and laughter was better than falling prey to the dubious career paths offered by local wiseguys. So, one day in 1977, he persuaded his nightclub-owning father to let him transform their brand new r&b bar on Jerome Avenue into a space where — one night a week — emerging hip-hop DJs and rappers would perform. The overwhelming neighborhood turnout for those first weekly parties quickly transformed his father’s r&b bar into a hip-hop palace, strategically showcasing the most competitive street DJs and emcees seven nights a week.

It’s a world Netflix subscribers may recognize from Baz Luhrmann’s early-hip-hop fantasia, The Get Down. Abbatiello certainly did: Two years ago, when he brought his first Hip-Hop Fever reunion concert to the Lehman Center, The Get Down was not yet turning rap history into a colorful fairy tale, but Luhrmann showed up at the concert looking for inspiration. “He saw me, met Kurtis Blow, met all the rappers, got phone numbers, and I never heard from him again,” Abbatiello recalls, with barely contained frustration. “Now, if you stream the show, you’ll see how he ripped off and changed the image of the Fever to put this imaginary club up there called Les Inferno.” On the show, Les Inferno is run as an organized-crime front, a far cry from the way regulars remember the Fever.

“To me, the Fever was a safe haven for hip-hop,” says Marley Marl. “It was a dope place to go just to see the culture evolving, and to see all the players that were involved in the culture.”

One of the reasons almost every rap star who matters — even those loyal to rival crews, boroughs, and labels — remain supportive of Sal is because Disco Fever never exploited its clientele, routinely gave back to the surrounding community, and was determined to remain neutral ground amid irrational city turmoil. The entrance sported both an airport-grade metal detector and a locked weapons-check area. Departing patrons deemed too drunk or unfamiliar with the neighborhood for their own safety were escorted to cabs or the subway. Nonaggression pacts were negotiated with local gangs and drug lords, as well as with local police.

“My best personal memory of Disco Fever,” recalls battle-rapper and veteran Juice Crew member Shanté, “is being in there at the age of fourteen, in the back room, doing my homework at about three o’clock in the morning because I had to go to school the next day.” Usually escorted by other members of the crew, Shanté — whose life story is set to hit big screens this fall with the Pharrell-produced biopic Roxanne, Roxanne — stresses that Sal never let anyone take advantage of her or any woman in his club. “Sal was that real man of honor among ordinary men,” she says. “And that’s why I love and respect him so much to this day.”

As Marley and Shanté attest, nightly networking at Disco Fever consolidated a dynamic community of hip-hop managers, artists, producers, label owners, radio jocks, and mobile DJs. It was a unique environment with the innate potential to elevate everyone’s game. But this was the Bronx in the Seventies and Eighties, and Disco Fever saw its share of tragedy. Surviving devastating epidemics of drugs like cocaine, angel dust, and crack was no easier for the Fever family than for the patrons of any other New York nightclub. Over the course of a decade, substance abuse, gang activity, disease, and sheer urban misadventure killed several Fever habitués and employees, both on and off the premises. Abbatiello took every loss personally, and continues to raise money for cancer victims, foster kids, and college scholarships in memory of his fallen comrades.

When assessing the historical importance of Disco Fever, Rakim, one half of Eric B. and Rakim, the rap duo famous for landmark singles like “Paid in Full” and “I Know You Got Soul,” speaks of the taste-making gestalt of the club. “If you could make Fever your home, or get some shine for a track there, it was a turning point for an artist,” he says. “Fever was this unique universe where all of the aspects of a culture that was just starting to figure itself out had an open door. It defined New York for me at the time. But looking back, I now see how it helped all these different people come together to also start to define hip-hop.”

Thus Disco Fever’s fortieth anniversary concert will present soul survivors like the Sugarhill Gang, former Furious Five frontman Melle Mel, and the “God MC” Rakim, as living repositories of iconic star power, while also commemorating the contributions of lesser-known lights of hip-hop, less prolific innovators whom Abbatiello believes deserve tribute.

“The significance of these concerts for me is to at least give credit to all the pioneers who paved the way for others but didn’t really get financial gratitude out of it,” says Abbatiello, who could just as well be speaking about himself. “These guys are the ones who broke the ground for hip-hop to be as popular as it is around the world.”

HIP-HOP FEVER!
Lehman Center for the Performing Arts
250 Bedford Park Boulevard, Bronx
lehmancenter.org

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How the High Line Changed NYC

There is no better illustration of gilded, internet-age New York than the High Line. Anchored on the south by the relocated Whitney Museum and on the north by the high-rises of Hudson Yards, the elevated park sits at the center of a real estate frenzy that has uprooted earlier generations of gentrifiers, art galleries, and even the city’s sense of who should control public space.

The story of how we got here, however, has evolved over time. Before it opened with a series of ribbon-cuttings between 2009 and 2014, the High Line spent a decade in gestation, developing as the idea of a group of Chelsea residents, then spreading to the city’s gala-hopping elites, and eventually winning the embrace of the Bloomberg administration. During this era, much of the public discussion about the park was old-fashioned boosterism, gushing about its high-design, post-industrial aesthetic, its magnetic pull on tourists, and its role as lynchpin for the mushrooming art, restaurant, retail, and condominium scene in West Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

This type of cheerleading is epitomized by New York Post restaurant and real estate writer Steve Cuozzo, who earlier this year called the park a “masterpiece” and “true wonder of our age” that has enabled “limitless popular pleasure.” Anyone who has misgivings about the High Line, he said, implies “that the High Line is somehow a racist creation” and is sympathizing with “reactionary leftists who prefer the crime-and-decay-ridden New York of the 1980s.”

Inconveniently for Cuozzo, one person with second thoughts is Friends of the High Line co-founder Robert Hammond, who now thinks the High Line didn’t pay enough attention to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers, particularly those in public housing next door to the park. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” he told CityLab in February. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Lately, Hammond has been seeking redemption, pushing other high-profile park projects around the country to bake equity into their decision-making processes. Friends of the High Line has also been trying to make up for lost time, launching arts and jobs initiatives with residents of nearby public housing. Danya Sherman, former director of public programs, education, and community engagement for Friends of the High Line, details these efforts in her contribution to Deconstructing the High Line, a series of essays by academics, architects, and those involved in the making of the elevated park.

Equity initiatives are worthwhile, but Hammond’s recent conversion and Sherman’s essay evoke a sinking feeling that these good intentions are simply too little, too late. Before the High Line proffered progressivism through its programming, other contributors to the book note, it cast cold, hard capitalism in concrete.

In recent years, mountains of ink have been spilled about how the ills facing contemporary New York and cities around the globe have been exacerbated by the High Line’s complicity, including its fostering of income inequality and “growth machine” politics, inequitable parks funding, and private influence over public space. Other books about the High Line either don’t engage these critiques or only do so through the eyes of Hammond and Friends of the High Line co-founder Joshua David, who authored a book promising “the inside story” in 2011.

Hammond often says the High Line “gets too much credit and too much blame” for the redevelopment of West Chelsea. But this elides the fact that the High Line was joined at the hip with the West Chelsea rezoning, which did not include affordable-housing mandates. The park’s sleek design and elite supporters also place the High Line at the center of a “creative class” vision for a hyper-gentrified Manhattan, to the point that the neighborhood’s transformation has even priced out all but the most expensive art galleries.

Defenders often praise the High Line as a modern-day project on par with Central Park, but beyond noting the role both parks serve as iconic green spaces, few make the connections illuminated by journalist Tom Baker. Both parks, he says, are pastoral constructions of an idealized past — for Central Park, a rural vision, and for the High Line, an industrial one — serving as romanticized respites in the ever-quickening city. Picking up that thread, architecture professor Christoph Lindner also notes the irony that both parks were built with the goal of spurring real estate development: These spaces are meant to be experienced slowly, but are also designed to accelerate the surrounding city.

Yet for all the High Line’s flaws, there is a silver lining, argues anthropologist Julian Brash: It was built primarily with public funds and envisioned from the start as a city park open to all. “We need to see the High Line not as representing a new paradigm of public space, or as its betrayal,” he writes. “Instead, we need to see the publicness of the High Line as an unfulfilled promise.” Without this belief in the High Line as a public endeavor, there would be little space for the parks-equity movement to question the wisdom of using private funding to support discrete components of the parks system while parks in less well-off areas face continued budget cuts.

While academics and the public continue to learn lessons at the intersection of private interests and public space, the billionaires who made the High Line possible are continuing down the road of ever-greater private influence. Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, who gave tens of millions of dollars to Friends of the High Line, have donated an even larger sum to the Hudson River Park Trust to build an elevated, undulating concert venue on stilts above the Hudson River at Pier 55. It would be open to the public but managed by a nonprofit created by Mr. Diller and his family foundation.

It’s this type of conspicuous, plutocrat-driven development that makes the High Line (and modern Manhattan itself) iconic, but it remains an example with limited utility to other places. Other elevated parks are either completed or proposed in Jersey City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and essays in Deconstructing the High Line look at efforts in Queens, São Paulo, and Rotterdam, each with its own series of parallel and divergent tracks from the glitzy West Side showpiece.

While other cities pursue their own elevated parks, the High Line’s location in the backyard of billionaires makes it a powerful symbol at the center of debates over our increasingly unequal and divided society.

But sometimes, it’s just a nice place to take a walk.

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The Trouble With the Mets: A Superfan Reckons With Baseball’s Domestic Abuse Problem

A couple of years ago, when the New York Mets made a playoff run that ultimately ended in defeat to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, I found myself, for the first time since childhood, interested in baseball.

I grew up not in Mets country, but in the suburbs of Boston, where baseball is inescapable. When I was a kid, in the 1990s, my friends would bemoan the decades that had passed since the last Red Sox World Series victory, in 1918, as though they personally had lived through them. The Sox, though, weren’t my team. My mother was a Long Island transplant, and so the Mets ruled in our house. Women make up only 30 percent of Major League Baseball’s regular audience, a statistic that always surprises me: Some of the most fanatical baseball fans I know are women. After all, my mom caught the bug from her own mother, who — during that 2015 playoff run — emailed us, “I have my Mets ’69 shirt on, drank my coffee from my Citi Field Inaugural mug & am about to put on a Mets hat to go to the PO.”

Despite my mother’s fanaticism, my interest in baseball came later. Perhaps more than other sports, baseball engenders a kind of personal involvement with individual players: Its appeal comes largely from the narratives that unspool on the sidelines. When I became a fan as an adult, watching the Mets four nights a week, it was largely for the human-interest side of the sport. My mother and I routinely discuss not only player performance but also, for instance, Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard’s love life. But that kind of personal involvement can cut both ways.

On April 20, Mets closer Jeurys Familia took the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field, his first appearance of the season. Familia, who notched 51 saves for the team last year — a franchise record — hit 98 mph on the radar gun, striking out two and not allowing a run. But he also walked two and labored through thirty pitches. The Mets lost that game 6-4.

Familia’s debut was delayed not because of injury, but due to a fifteen-game suspension he was handed at the end of March under Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy, instituted in 2015. The suspension stemmed from Familia’s arrest last November after his wife, Bianca Rivas, called 911 and summoned police to their Fort Lee, New Jersey, home. When officers arrived, they found Rivas with “a scratch mark on her chest and a bruise on her right cheek.” She later denied that Familia hit her, and no charges were filed.

With Familia and infielder José Reyes, who was suspended for fifty-one games last year for allegedly assaulting his wife in a Maui hotel room in October 2015, the Mets have the dubious distinction of featuring on their roster two of the four players who have been suspended under MLB’s updated domestic violence policy. The first, New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, was banned for thirty games last year for an incident the previous October in which the then–Cincinnati Red allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots inside the garage of his Davie, Florida, home. The most severe penalty was dealt to former Atlanta Braves third baseman Héctor Olivera, who was sidelined for eighty-two games after an apparent altercation with a woman at a hotel near Washington, D.C., in April 2016. Chapman, later traded by the Yankees to the Chicago Cubs, was
part of that team’s 2016 World Series–winning playoff run; he returned to the Yankees as a free agent in the offseason on a five-year, $86 million deal. Olivera is currently an unsigned free agent.

Neither Familia nor Reyes has been convicted of a crime, but Familia’s case is more ambiguous. It is, of course, entirely possible that he did not hit his wife: According to Rivas, her one-year-old son was responsible for the scratch on her chest, and the bruise “came from resting her hand on her face while she was lying down.” Familia did admit to damaging a bedroom door but denied having assaulted his wife. It was, his statement read, “important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed, or threatened my wife that evening….I did, however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.”

Reyes, however, did not deny having assaulted his wife, Katherine Ramirez, following his arrest in Hawaii in October of 2015. Ramirez declined to participate in her husband’s prosecution, but sustained more serious injuries than
Rivas did — Reyes allegedly choked and slammed her against a glass wall — and Reyes’s suspension was correspondingly more severe. Widely viewed to be past his prime, Reyes was released by the Colorado Rockies in the wake of his suspension and subsequently signed by the Mets, the team that discovered him as an amateur out of the Dominican
Republic in 1999 and for whom he had played for nine years as a fan favorite. For New York, plagued by injury last summer, re-signing Reyes represented a low-risk investment: Because the Rockies had released him, the Mets would only be responsible for a prorated portion of the $507,500 major league minimum salary, while the Rockies paid out the remaining $38 million Reyes was owed under a deal he’d signed with the Miami Marlins in 2011.

The issue of domestic violence has long plagued sports. It has received increased levels of attention in recent years, however, in part due to the reverberations of the Ray Rice scandal in 2014, in which two separate videos of the star NFL running back assaulting his fiancée circulated endlessly online and on cable news. In the wake of the episode, the NFL, under the auspices of commissioner Roger Goodell, hurried to implement a new domestic violence policy, but it rapidly came under criticism and has, many feel, proved less than effective. Last year, Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for just one game after his 2015 arrest for repeatedly beating his pregnant wife, abuse he’d described in journals and letters. The Giants eventually released him, but only after significant public outcry.

Perhaps inspired by the NFL’s failure to reckon with domestic abusers, the NHL last year implemented mandatory domestic violence and sexual assault prevention sessions for all teams. During negotiations for the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the fall, it was reported that that league’s CBA would “likely clarify the disciplinary procedures in dealing with domestic violence policy violations.” Baseball, meanwhile,
continues with its 2015 policy, which includes suspensions; treatment for players involved in domestic violence incidents; and training, education, and resources for all players in the league.

A satisfying solution to the problem of domestic violence and sports, and indeed for the problem of domestic violence in society at large, is not forthcoming. Simply blacklisting players who may or may not have committed spousal abuse can backfire: Brown’s wife, Molly, and Chapman’s wife, Cristina, both worried that their husbands (or, in Molly Brown’s case, ex-husband) would be cut from their respective teams. Many players’ wives depend on their husbands financially, and as Dr. Beth Richie, who served on the NFL’s policy group for domestic violence education and prevention, told Jezebel in 2014, “it’s never a one-time incident” — so “isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else.” On the other hand, Bethany P. Withers, who conducted a study on domestic violence in sports, the results of which she detailed in a 2010 article for the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law, found that the vast majority of athletes accused of domestic violence are not punished at all, and many cases go unreported.

I remember Reyes in his heyday as an All-Star shortstop with the Mets. When he made his major league debut on June 10, 2003, one day short of his twentieth birthday, he was electric — young, buzzing with energy and an infectious smile, demonically fast around the bases. Even I, famously baseball-agnostic, liked José. So did everybody else — so much so, in fact, that many people seemed happy to have him back in Queens even years later, his best baseball behind him. That signing did spark some minor controversy — press coverage was mixed, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the Mets “should be ashamed” to bring him back into the fold. But when he appeared in his first game back with the team, on July 5 of last year, fans at Citi Field greeted him with a standing ovation.

Watching at home, I felt less welcoming. In fact, I was furious. Reyes’s public apologies were unsatisfying; though more explicit than Familia’s — whose sheepish claims that his “unacceptable” behavior had caused “problems” rang more evasive than sincere — Reyes’s statement strikes me as similarly awkward and vague. “I deeply regret the incident that occurred and remain remorseful and apologetic to my family,” he offered. “I am happy to put this all in the past and get back to doing what I love most, playing baseball.”

The Mets appeared to share that eagerness to move on. The day of Reyes’s return, SNY ran a hagiographic montage at the beginning of the broadcast, and commentators Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez talked themselves into knots attempting to justify his presence on the team. Cohen seemed to be convincing himself as he spoke; Hernandez, meanwhile, pointed out that domestic violence also occurs outside the United States.

I was desperate for anybody involved with the team to take a firm stance against Reyes’s signing even as I knew that no one was going to break rank. I do not doubt that many of the men in the organization felt sympathy for Reyes’s wife, but the message they were sending was clear: She was less important than winning a few more baseball games. Familia’s wife has likewise been absent from the conversation in the wake of his suspension and return to the game. Though Reyes’s re-signing did prompt some debate, Familia’s suspension has inspired almost none: Cohen, Hernandez, and fellow analyst and former Met Ron Darling have discussed it almost exclusively as a practical impediment to the team’s success. On the evening of Familia’s return, Darling cursorily noted that he had been “taken off the suspended list,” as if player suspensions were akin to being placed on the disabled list or taking leave for bereavement. It is as though, by having one brief and superficial conversation about Reyes, the Mets and those around the team have decided that there is no need to ever do so again.

Baseball players, like all professional athletes, are public figures, subjected to scrutiny as well as adulation. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, for instance, inspires awe across the country for his astonishing skill on the mound. Syndergaard is beloved by fans not only for his fastball, which routinely reaches 100 mph, but also for his affinity for Game of Thrones, his Twitter account, and his nickname, “Thor,” bestowed upon him because of his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame and flowing blond locks. When fans pledge their loyalty to a player, they are drawn to personality and persona as much as to athletic prowess: Wilmer Flores, who memorably cried on the field in 2015 when he learned that the Mets were planning to trade him to the Milwaukee Brewers — a deal that later fell apart — remains especially beloved.

Public figures inevitably also become objects of fantasy. I don’t mean sexual fantasy (although that is often a factor), but something more straightforward. My mother and I have never met Syndergaard, nor his good friend and fellow long-locked Mets righthander Jacob deGrom, but we have spent enough time talking and thinking about them that it sometimes feels like we have. Most players on the Mets are likable public presences, but Syndergaard and deGrom are particularly endearing. If you spend enough time watching athletes on television, you start to feel like you know them, even though all you’re seeing is men at work. But baseball is a leisurely sport, full of downtime and dugout antics, and players like Syndergaard and deGrom encourage its central fantasy, which is that the team coexists in perfect male-bonded harmony.

To some fans, especially some women, this impossible fantasy can be seductive. The world of baseball is entirely male, and in the absence of women, sexuality exists off-field and off-screen. The players, despite being specimens of athletic masculinity, remain boys in perpetuity — and boys, unlike men, cannot hurt you. Something about the all-male environment seems to encourage this sense of arrested development: While some players are very serious people, others, like Syndergaard and deGrom, pass the time by, for instance, playing hockey in the dugout with two large shovels and a spare ball. Familia is himself a great jokester around the clubhouse, known for pranking teammates, reporters, and visitors alike. Last summer, Adam Rubin tweeted that Familia “brought fake dog poo to work today and was trying to fool people into thinking it was real.” This is all very charming, until, all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore.

But the fantasy of baseball is not only for women. More than any other major American sport, baseball trades on self-mythologizing; its entire stock-in-trade is a fantasy of a collective, nostalgic American past, emblematized by Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth — and of our own individual pasts. When I started watching as an adult, I was shocked to discover how much baseball had infiltrated my childhood, despite my best intentions. Baseball, inherently, feels like the past; as much as it may want to modernize, it depends upon our nostalgia to survive. When a player is suspended for allegations of domestic violence, then, it is in the best interest of the league to minimize the story and get back to making viewers feel good.

But that is not always so easy. For me, the experience of watching a player who has been suspended because of an incident that involves domestic violence, even an alleged one, is alienating. Baseball players do not play in a vacuum: When the Mets signed José Reyes to play baseball, they also signed up their other players, employees, and broadcasters — as well as their fans — to participate in his rehabilitation. I knew that nobody was going to speak out against Reyes’s signing because I understood that the team had made up their minds for them. The few players who did discuss it publicly — including David Wright, Matt Harvey, and even Familia — uniformly condemned Reyes’s actions but supported his being offered a second chance.

This was disappointing, but unsurprising. The central problem for female fans — or at least for this female fan — is that the myth of baseball has been written, for the most part, by men. I wanted somebody to decry Reyes’s return, or to even fully acknowledge the reasons for Familia’s absence, because a player or commentator taking such a step would mean a baseball professional fully acknowledging women as people. Most chilling to me last year was the sight of Reyes hanging out in the dugout with the rest of the team, working, as he had said, “to put this all in the past.” He was warmly received by seemingly all the members of the team to whom I had grown so attached. For the first time, they and their antics did not seem charming or merely silly — they, too, seemed alien.

 

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Trump Tower’s Smoke & Mirrors

It’s spring, 1983. My Californian family is on a trip “back East,” a place still exotic to us. During a few days in New York — my first trip here — we visit the United Nations, Windows on the World, the Met. And we visit the partly opened Trump Tower, where we pay homage, as so many tourists did that year, to the sixty-foot waterfall, the marble atrium (described, over the years, as salmon, rose, or peach, but never pink), the brass TRUMP TOWER over the door (I’m sure I thought it was gold), and to Donald J. Trump himself.

We weren’t alone — “Tourists flock to 68 stories of elegance,” the Los Angeles Times, our hometown paper, reported later that year (breathlessly, and incorrectly: While Trump has always maintained the building has a 68-story height, it has only 58 floors). It seems astonishing that my parents, for whom “gauche” and “gaudy” were favorite disapprobations; who lived surrounded, but unimpressed, by wealth in Los Angeles; whose travel with us was usually geared toward exposing us to American history, would want to see such a place.

The exterior, seen from across the street.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
Secret Service agents cleared the lobby moments before the president came downstairs for an unexpected visit.
An unknown man, in Grand Army Plaza, close to Trump Tower.

Clearly, to them, it was a piece of history. But of what kind? Were we marveling in the court of the Sun King, or gawking at his bad taste? I’m not sure it mattered to him. He had learned how to command our attention — with hyperbole, excess, gloss and shine (“we demolished a mountain of marble,” his wife, at the time, said) — and he never lost it. “My projects now sort of self-promote,” he told Graydon Carter, in an encounter better remembered for Carter’s light demolishment of his small hands. In the end Trump, diminutive hands and all, “self-promoted” his way to the presidency.

Like many megalomaniacs, he saw himself as an artist, with real estate as his medium. The power was nothing, he said in a 60 Minutes profile in 1985. It was the “creative process” he loved. In the twelve-hour documentary Trump: Made by America that will one day be crafted, the building of Trump Tower will be a pivot, like O.J. Simpson’s time at the University of Southern California.

With Trump Tower, Donald Trump realized what he could be, what people would let him be, what people wanted him to be. It is astonishing how many times he — a brash young developer with a few buildings to his name and the sulky mien of a teenager — was asked, in those years, whether he thought about running for president.

 

Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
Trump Tower as seen from the Top of the Rock.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.
A carriage horse on 59th Street.

Is it uniquely American to believe that if one excels — or manages to convince people he excels — in one area, he is graced with the genius to excel in every other? By the fall of 1984, with Trump Tower open only a year, Trump was announcing to the Washington Post his desire to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms:

“‘Some people have an ability to negotiate,’ he says. ‘It’s an art you’re basically born with. You either have it or you don’t….It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate.’”

Or doesn’t this, from the New York Times in 1983, sound like his presidency, with all its unfilled positions? “At Trump headquarters on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower astride Fifth Avenue, he opened the door of a room furnished with a vast table. ‘This was supposed to be a board room but what was the sense when there’s only one member,’ said Donald Trump. ‘We changed it to a conference room.’”

Twenty years later, when it came time to film The Apprentice, a boardroom set — a facsimile — was built in Trump Tower.

The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The intersection of 55th Street and Fifth Avenue.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.
New York City police officers protect the entrance to Trump Tower during a snowstorm.

Trump Tower should have dispatched his father complex, his hunger not just to impress, but to outdo, his old man. (“Everything he touches seems to turn to gold,” the Trump Organization website modestly quotes Fred Trump saying about his son, a hilariously literal, and possibly tongue-in-cheek, statement.) But such complexes are never dispatched. Trump’s hunger — for approval, for celebrity, for public embrace — has no end.

Trump didn’t make Manhattan safe for the wealthy — they were already there — but he made it hospitable for the crass: the kleptocrats and oligarchs and criminals who eventually found their way to Trump Tower and buildings like it. From the start, Trump sold his Tower as a residence for a new generation of Astors and Whitneys. The reality, as the Voice’s Wayne Barrett wrote, was that Trump Tower’s first residents were as likely to be Medicaid cheats and mobsters. He anticipated so much of what Manhattan would become: the ostentation and phallic reach, concentrated along 57th Street; the leveraging of public money for private gain; the barely occupied pieds-à-terre and tax havens for wealthy foreigners.

Inside Trump Tower
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.
Children in Trump Tower’s marble lobby.

The 1980s, when Trump built his Tower, planted his flag in Atlantic City, and bought the Plaza, turned out to be the apex of his career as a developer: Peak Trump. The milestones of his subsequent real estate career were golf courses and bankruptcies. Not only did I never visit Trump Tower during close to twenty years of living in New York, I never once thought about it, not even when I walked by.

None of that mattered. The myth was impermeable by then, the long con well under way. The dazzle of Trump Tower — the dazzle of publicity around Trump Tower — obscured everything afterward.

Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
Coffee mugs for sale in the Trump gift store.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.
A doorman looks out from the entrance of Trump Tower.

I met Trump once, although “met” may not be the correct word. It was the summer of 2001, six weeks before the September attacks. I was at a party in Jane Rosenthal’s apartment in the Dakota (I was there as a reporter, I should say, not a guest). The penthouse was packed with the famous and wealthy — Oscar de la Renta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Weinstein — who had come to hear former president Bill Clinton speak about the International AIDS Trust. Donald Trump was there too, and he and Clinton greeted each other like the friends they were then. Trump invited Clinton to come golf at one of his courses, and Trump turned to me, whom he took for Clinton’s lackey, to take down his phone number.

It’s a reminder how cozy Trump once was with the Manhattan liberal elite. It was his celebrity — the myth cemented by Trump Tower — that had granted him access.

The view out through the entrance.
The view out through the entrance.
Trump Tower’s escalators
Trump Tower’s escalators

Looking back, it’s not the relationship between Clinton and Trump that interests me, but the relationship between the Dakota and Trump Tower. The Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, sits diagonally across the park from Trump Tower, and is its antithesis. Built a full century earlier, it bespeaks class, elegance, exclusivity. It’s a National Historic Landmark whose architects also designed the Plaza Hotel, which Trump so coveted. The Dakota to Trump Tower is East Egg to West Egg, old money to new. Trump Tower is Gatsby’s mansion: “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of ivy, and a marble swimming pool….”

The Manhattan represented by the Dakota would never have been open to him, just as East Egg was closed to Gatsby. The Dakota is a co-op, where someone like Trump would run a high risk of rejection, if he would even agree to open his finances to what he once called “the scrutiny of a bunch of prying strangers.” (We taxpayers, asking for his tax returns: We also are a bunch of prying strangers.)

Trump had to create his own world — a building tall enough to look across the park and down on the Dakota, one whose lavishness would make up for its lack of history. Amid the financial euphoria of the 1980s instead of the 1920s, this is what he did. Most residents of the Dakota would likely never want to live amongst his marble and gold in the “Louis XIV style,” but bigger and more expensive was all he had.

The only thing that separated Gatsby from his mansion was death. Only the presidency extracted Trump from his Tower. In the weeks after his victory, it was almost as if he didn’t want to leave.

Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
Pedestrians walk past a beggar on Fifth Avenue.
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun
A Trump supporter in front of Trump Tower wears a ring shaped like a gun
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Creating Safe Spaces for New York’s Undocumented Students

Angela, a senior at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, came to the United States from Mexico when she was three years old, but says she didn’t really feel “undocumented” until she got to high school.

“You want to apply to all these programs in your school, apply for a part-time job,” the eighteen-year-old tells the Voice. (Because of her immigration status, she asked that her real name be withheld.) “But you don’t have a Social Security number, so you don’t know what to do, or how to get around it.”

For the past two years, Angela has been part of a “Dream Team,” a collection of undocumented students and their allies organizing to create safer spaces for immigrants in public schools, and to try to get more investment from the Department of Education in providing support for its undocumented students. Over the past several years, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit that has pushed for financial aid and other support for undocumented students, has helped set up at least five Dream Teams in city public schools. At a time when undocumented students don’t quite know who to trust or whether the city is actually as much of a sanctuary as it says it is, Dream Teams provide vital spaces for students to talk openly about their status, their fears, and their needs.

“Many of our members are told by teachers or counselors that because they’re undocumented they shouldn’t push for higher education, they should just go to work,” explains NYSYLC co-director Angy Rivera. “Students are looking for resources, and instead they don’t have a place to go.”

“We needed to figure out how our schools could be a real sanctuary space, not only as a place for safety, but where you could learn about how to protect yourself and your family,” Angela adds.

Shortly after entering high school, Angela was directed by a teacher to Jennifer Queenan, an English as a Second Language teacher who serves as advisor to Sunset Park High School’s Dream Team. Through Queenan’s group, Angela connected with city and nonprofit programs that accepted students without social security numbers, enabling her to get stipends for internships. She also helped other immigrant and undocumented students organize around legislation like the NY DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid.

“Once I met with other immigrants as a group, we began to feel safer — you become a community,” says Angela. “I learned about how other students had to cross the border on foot — things I thought only our parents had to do.”

Queenan is a member of Teach Dream, a group of educators and counselors working to make city schools safer for undocumented students. Since she began teaching in Sunset Park several years ago, Queenan has become the school’s unofficial “immigrant liaison,” someone to whom other teachers refer students when they have questions about immigration. Queenan leads the weekly “Dream Team” meeting, which includes not only undocumented students, but also students from mixed-status families, and allies. She compares it to a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance, where students can talk about actions they can take, share information, and discuss issues to organize around. Dream Teams citywide have worked to help organize “Coming Out of the Shadows” rallies (where undocumented students talk openly about their status), end overpolicing of public school students — especially in instances where misdemeanors can lead to deportation — and organize a campaign to get more social workers in schools.

Now, the Sunset Park Dream Team is pushing the Department of Education to create a designated liaison in every school. “If our schools are going to be spaces for the community, which I think they should be, people need someone that they know and trust to go to with their questions,” Queenan says. “Obviously we can’t give legal advice, but something we do to the best of our abilities in Teach Dream is know what the trustworthy organizations are, so when students and families do have questions, we can create those connections.” Over 300 people subscribe to the Teach Dream listserv, which supplies educators and counselors with information they can help spread to students, she notes. “But we do that all on our own time, and teachers don’t have a lot of free time, contrary to popular belief.”

The campaign has taken on added urgency since Donald Trump’s election. On January 30, parents of students at city schools received a letter from the New York City Department of Education assuring them that despite Trump’s executive order on deportations, the city was still “committed to protecting the right of every student in New York City to attend public school, regardless of immigration status.” But the letter also included less reassuring words: “If ICE officers go to a school for immigration enforcement purposes,” wrote Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, “they will be referred to the principal, who will take appropriate action.”

The next month, Dream Teams rallied in Brooklyn to demand that Fariña clarify exactly what form that “appropriate action” would take. Was there a citywide policy on ICE inquiries into students’ residency statuses? Or could principals act on their own, endangering immigrant students based on their own prejudices? By the end of March, the DOE had issued a more detailed set of guidelines for when ICE agents come to city schools (they will be made to wait outside of school property while school officials confer with DOE attorneys), and announced a series of know-your-rights trainings for students across the city; a DOE spokesperson tells the Voice that student organizing had no impact on this decision, but given the amount of pressure that students exerted, that’s hard to believe.

Still, the DOE has resisted proposals for citywide immigrant liaisons. (The department declined to respond to the Voice‘s queries about the proposals.) Queenan is working with informal liaisons at other schools to keep pressing the DOE on the need for support for the position.

After her graduation this summer, Angela plans to attend community college in Manhattan, so she can stay close to her family. Both her younger siblings were born here and are citizens, and she feels better at a CUNY school, where she can connect with other undocumented students. A Dream Team already exists at the college she’ll be attending.

“You spend all day in school,” Angela tells me. “The least they can do is make sure that you can feel safe.”

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Fearless Girl Is Not Your Friend

When the “Fearless Girl” statue first appeared in Bowling Green the day before International Women’s Day on March 8, staring down the “Charging Bull” statue on Wall Street, it did so through a city licensing program that issues temporary permits for commercial activity in public space. It’s the same program that regulates the blight of cookie-cutter “street fairs” and under which, last August, a giant walk-in Prego Pasta Sauce jar was erected in Chelsea to raise public awareness about the company’s new line of “Farmer’s Market Sauces.”

This makes lots of sense: “Fearless Girl” is its own exercise in corporate brand-burnishing, the product of a campaign conceived in the New York offices of an enormous multinational advertising conglomerate, McCann, working on behalf of a worldwide financial colossus, State Street Global Advisors, an arm of the 225-year-old State Street Corporation, which currently manages an estimated $2.5 trillion in assets.

As the investment management division of State Street Corporation, which also includes a custodial bank administering $28 trillion in assets, State Street Global Advisors devises customized investment strategies for institutions with a lot of money to deploy — pension funds, universities, major charitable foundations — and builds mutual funds and exchange-traded funds for ordinary investors.

State Street’s last appearance in the headlines, in January, was occasioned by the company’s settlement of a suit brought by the United States Department of Justice, which alleged that it had defrauded its own customers by charging them secret commissions. In exchange for a deferred-prosecution agreement, State Street agreed to pay a $32.3 million fine to resolve the charges and offered to pay the same amount as a civil penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Fearless Girl’s carefully choreographed debut coincided with SSGA’s announcement that it would begin pressuring the 3,500-odd companies in which it invests to install more women on their boards of directors. State Street’s public statement couched its argument in narrowly economic terms, noting that “companies with strong female leadership generated a return on equity of 10.1 percent per year versus 7.4 percent for those without a critical mass of women at the top, which is a 36.4 percent increase of average return on equity.”

TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.
TV cameras and photojournalists surrounded the Fearless Girl statue last month, awaiting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that she would stay opposite the bull into 2018.

In the weeks since Fearless Girl was rolled out, a growing parade of ordinary citizens and politicians have celebrated the installation as a powerful work of public art and a symbol of a critical issue of our day. Pilgrims come to Bowling Green to take selfies with the statue, among them Senator Elizabeth Warren, who paused in her crusade against the unregulated excesses of the financial industry to caption her own tweeted statue-selfie with the slogan “Fight like a girl.”

Misty Allen, a 47-year-old from Portland who works in tech, was so moved by the Fearless Girl that she had it and the bull tattooed on her arm. The sculpture feels like a testament to the sexism Allen has encountered in her own career: “It’s a reminder to myself to put my hands on my hips and open my mouth and stand up for myself,” she told the Voice.

For some, Fearless Girl carries extra significance in the age of Trump, the perfect embodiment of the overlap of financial avarice and violent sexism. “Right after [the election], this miraculous girl appears and created such a powerful sensation because she spoke to the moment,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio last month, announcing that he had interceded to allow the statue to remain in place beyond the limits of its commercial permit. “Sometimes, a symbol helps us become whole, and I think the Fearless Girl is having that same effect.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.
Mayor Bill de Blasio posed with the statue for the cameras March 27.

The statue’s fans thrill to her apparent gesture of challenge and resistance to the Charging Bull, Arturo Di Modica’s 1989 love letter to the wild, surging energy of Wall Street and finance capitalism, installed as the market worked to recover in the wake of the “Black Monday” financial collapse of October 1987. In its conception of the newer statue, McCann brilliantly appropriates the iconic image of the ballerina dancing atop the bull, created by the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters, that became a foundational symbol of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The notion that Fearless Girl is positioned in opposition to the bull has been reinforced by Di Modica himself, who is driven to distraction by this recontextualization of his statue, spitting out a steady fusillade of angry press releases and threatening to sue State Street for what he considers a profound alteration of his work. “I put it there for art,” Di Modica told the New York Post and MarketWatch last month. “My bull is a symbol for America. My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.” The spectacle of an old man raging against an upstart girl for adulterating his celebration of capitalism has only helped cement the perception that the girl and the bull are in conflict. “The sculptor is annoying & the combined image is refreshing & complex,” Emily Nussbaum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, tweeted recently.

A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.
A poster that ran in Adbusters magazine in 2011 helped set off Occupy Wall Street.

But if the dyad of girl and bull has been cleverly staged to evoke a thrilling frisson of opposition and dissent, that is emphatically not what the company that commissioned it is actually selling. Fearless Girl is intended “as a complement to the charging bull, which represents economic strength,” said Lynn Blake, an executive vice president at State Street Global Advisors, at a press conference at City Hall last month. “She’s not even defiant. She’s not raising her fist against the bull. She’s there to represent her role as a leader, to stand on equal footing and to play a powerful role in expanding economic prosperity for the world.”

Kristen Visbal, the sculptor who created Fearless Girl, also emphasized the statue’s conciliatory ambitions. “She is strong, but not belligerent,” Visbal said at the press conference. “She is proud, but not confrontational.” Visbal echoed an argument at the center of State Street’s campaign: that companies with more women on their boards of directors make more money for shareholders. “Together we make this wonderful contribution,” Visbal said, “these better decisions that result in increased profits.”

The genius of Fearless Girl, then, is that it siphons the growing groundswell of resistance to worship of the golden bull and all it signifies, and redirects that enthusiasm back into a channel of assent. The bull and the girl are not in opposition. They are, in fact, on the same side, two faces of the same thing: capitalism, presented both in its raging, china-shop-obliterating aspect and in its approachable guise, the one that promises that anyone — even a girl! — can aspire to preside over this energy from the Olympian heights of a boardroom.

Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted a picture of herself with the statue, along with the words “Fight like a girl.”

Let’s leave aside State Street’s own recurring trouble with the law, which includes not only this year’s episode but the great Magnetar pit-trap of the pre-crash bubble, a famous scam in which State Street sold more than $1.5 billion in mortgage derivatives without telling its customers that the product had been designed by a hedge fund poised to profit if the product failed. When the dodgy mortgages underlying the product inevitably went belly-up, State Street’s customers took a bath, and the hedge fund, Magnetar Capital, cashed in its short bets.

Let’s leave aside as well the question, itself the subject of much debate, of whether or not the best application of feminist energy is the Lean-In project of helping already wealthy women ascend the final rung of the ladder to sit on the boards of multinationals, or whether that effort is better spent pursuing economic and labor reforms, like equal pay or maternity leave, that would benefit a wider circle of more vulnerable women, but which might not mesh as seamlessly with corporate profit-seeking.

Let’s table, too, the fact that State Street’s commitment to its stated corporate-feminist goal is transparently thin, considering its own corporate leadership is a catastrophically unreconstructed sausage-fest in which 82 percent of its senior executives and all but three of its eleven directors are men.

With its Fearless Girl, State Street seeks credit for intervening in the amoral logic of the market to pressure companies it invests in to install more women in corporate leadership. But seeking plaudits for pursuing a moral agenda invites ethical scrutiny of the rest of State Street’s behavior, which will lead to some dark and destructive places.

Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.
Misty Allen, of Portland, Oregon, was so inspired by the Fearless Girl she had it tattooed on her arm.

State Street invests its clients’ trillions across virtually every sector of the investment universe and offers them innumerable investment products, most of which are passive funds constructed to meet some investment goal — regional diversification, say, or tracking the overall performance of given market sectors. In this respect, it’s no different from other investment giants like BlackRock or Vanguard. The grand Wall Street tradition is chasing profits wherever they may be found, a pursuit outside of moral distinctions. (Exchange-traded funds, by definition, mirror the activity of the stock exchange itself.) What these companies also have in common is that, with the exception of a handful of small funds designed to eschew particularly ethically unsavory industries, their financial products are all generally designed to fulfill a single purpose: make money.

Through its funds, State Street is deeply committed to an industry whose entire business model is taking as much carbon as possible out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. As of the end of last year, State Street owned $18 billion worth of ExxonMobil, $14 billion worth of Chevron, $1.8 billion of Valero, $2 billion of Kinder Morgan, $2 billion of Anadarko, $2.8 billion of Occidental Petroleum, and $3.2 billion of ConocoPhillips.

And if there is money to be made from tools of war, State Street will make it that way as well. The company owns $12 billion of Lockheed Martin and $5 billion of Northrop Grumman, $4 billion of Boeing and $2 billion of General Dynamics, so it makes money from Tomahawk missiles, Paveway bombs, ICBMs and submarine-launched nuclear missiles, and all sorts of attack helicopters and warplanes, including the one that dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan this month. Through Northrop Grumman, State Street makes money keeping America’s nuclear missiles ready to rain hellfire anywhere our president may direct them. It owns $1.7 billion of Raytheon, which makes missiles, depleted-uranium weapons, and a microwave gun — for use against crowds — that makes its targets’ skin feel like it’s boiling. A recent Intercept report spotlighted three major defense contractors poised to profit from Trump’s push to fortify the border with Mexico. State Street has a stake in all of them, to the tune of more than a third of a billion dollars.

State Street owns $5 billion each of Philip Morris and Altria, and $1.8 billion of Reynolds American, which means it makes money from an addictive drug that kills nearly half a million people a year in this country alone. State Street looks at an industry with a six-figure body count and sees a revenue stream, a valuable component of a diversified fund.

Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.
Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner after controversy erupted over its co-option and commercialization of protest imagery.

This is not to say that State Street’s executives take actual pleasure in the cancer wards full of smokers, in the slow-rolling annihilation of climate disaster. More likely they view those things as incidental, dissociated through the gray calculus of exchange-traded funds and well-balanced portfolios. It’s a safe bet they view the Fearless Girl in the same way: not as a virtuous cause, but as just another means to the one and only end.

It’s possible that popular resonance of the Fearless Girl can somehow wrest the master’s tools from his hand and re-inscribe the statue with a more hopeful and promising meaning than its creators intended, one that stands outside the closed loop of passive complicity in the status quo. For that matter, it’s conceivably possible that the recently controversial Pepsi commercial — which enlisted a denatured simulacrum of street protest as the backdrop against which Kendall Jenner demonstrated the power of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup to soothe a glowering riot cop — could yet be repurposed in the service of a global movement for social justice. But that sort of jiujitsu is no easy thing. Works born of cynicism have a way of staying stickily cynical. We are better off making our own art, seeking out symbols unburdened by the entanglements that perpetuate the suffering we wish to overcome.

 

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How to Avoid the Tuition Trap: A Student Buyer’s Guide

One of the quandaries of figuring out how to pay for college is that by the time you’ve figured out how heavy a debt load you’re likely to find yourself crushed underneath, it’s too late to do anything about it. (Colleges don’t offer advanced degrees in financing your education — and if they did, you’d only end up having to figure out how to pay for those, too.) There are some things that college-bound high school seniors and already matriculated college students can do to help avoid the worst pitfalls, though; we asked a pair of college-finance experts for their tips.

Check the Scorecard

In 2015, President Obama introduced College Scorecards on the federal Department of Education website, which provide a wealth of data on graduation rates, average earnings after graduation — and student debt load. “At some schools in the country, students are virtually guaranteed to leave school with debt, and a lot of it,” says Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success in California. “Whereas at others, they may be able to graduate debt-free, or with an amount of debt that’s manageable. So look carefully into the schools you’re choosing, to make sure yours is not one that’s likely to leave you with debt you can’t repay.”

Read the Loan Fine Print

Once you choose a college, scrutinize loan offers carefully, says Cochrane, not just for their interest rates, but for what protections they have in case you have trouble repaying them. “Not all debt is the same,” she says, noting that private loans are particularly suspect but that even some public loans can come with snags: “New Jersey has a state loan program where students are encouraged to take out a form of life insurance, because their debts will not be discharged if they die. It’s horrendous. Students need to understand those differences, and proceed incredibly cautiously if the school is encouraging them to take out private loans.”

Use Income-Driven Repayment

If you hit hard times after graduation, head immediately to the DOE to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which caps your monthly loan payments at between 10 and 20 percent of your discretionary income, after necessities. (Note: Only federal student loans are eligible for this repayment form, another reason to think carefully before deciding what loans to take out.) “The number of borrowers in these plans has grown in recent years, which is a good thing,” says Cochrane. “No student should be forced into the poorhouse, or to go hungry or homeless, because of their student loans.”

Pricier Isn’t Always Better

There are nearly five thousand degree-granting institutions in the United States, some of which come with price tags upwards or $60,000 per year. But an expensive school does not always a better school make, something you should consider carefully when choosing a college. “The quality of most colleges is great, so in going to a less expensive school you’re not really going to sacrifice quality,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college admissions and financial aid website Cappex. He notes that you can find professors educated at the top schools at all kinds of campuses: “The Ivy League graduates more Ph.D.’s than they hire as faculty. They have to go somewhere to teach.”

Seek Out Scholarships

Pursue college aid via every avenue you can find, beginning with what Kantrowitz calls “gift aid” — money you won’t have to pay back. In addition to government free-tuition programs such as those offered for community colleges in Tennessee and Kalamazoo, Michigan, look for scholarships offered not just from your university, but also from community organizations or special-interest groups in your hometown that cater to your personal identity or talents.

Consider Transferring Credits

While community college tuition can be much cheaper, Kantrowitz warns that students who detour through community college may never reach their final destination. “Only one-fifth of students who start at community college get a bachelor’s degree in six years,” says Kantrowitz, versus two-thirds of students who start at four-year colleges. He recommends taking core or prerequisite classes at a community college during summer session, then transferring them to a four-year school — just check in advance that the new college will accept them.

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The Free Tuition Trap: Cuomo’s Scholarship Plan Is Full of Risky Loopholes

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to waive tuition fees for lower- and middle-income New Yorkers at any two- or four-year public college in the state, touted as the first of its kind in a nation drowning in student debt, has emerged from the state budget brawl and is set to go into effect beginning this fall. “Today, my friends, college is what high school was seventy years ago — it is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” the governor said last week at a signing ceremony at LaGuardia Community College. But the final version of the Excelsior Scholarship program, which will cost the state $163 million a year once it’s fully phased in by 2019, comes with some unexpected and alarming caveats.

For starters, it now includes a requirement that students live and work full-time in New York State for as many years after graduation as they received aid; otherwise, the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation will convert the scholarship money into a no-interest loan that students will have to repay. The state senate and private-college officials across the state also pushed for and received a provision for private-college students to receive up to $3,000 per year in Tuition Assistance Program grants — which must also be repaid if they don’t live and work in the state after graduation.

That’s a mistake, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University who has advocated for free-college initiatives. The requirement could leave Excelsior recipients unable to pursue job opportunities elsewhere, forcing them to remain in New York to avoid debt even if it means unemployment.

The allure of a free education, Goldrick-Rab warns, could ultimately spell disaster two or four years down the road. “People will believe that they’ll be able to fulfill the terms,” she says. “It will only be after graduation [when] something happens — it might be the best job offer is out of state, or that they can’t find one in the state and have to look somewhere else, or their grandmother gets sick — at the last moment they’re going to find out that New York expects to be paid back.”

Another provision demands that students maintain the minimum GPA required by their schools to remain in good academic standing, and that they graduate on time. Asked whether students will be responsible for repaying tuition from prior years if their GPA drops below the minimum, the governor’s office said it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

The graduation requirement alone would make most students ineligible for Excelsior scholarships. On-time graduation rates at CUNY community colleges have remained consistently below 10 percent since at least 2005. The four-year graduation rate at SUNY schools is 48.9 percent according to the most recent data available, higher than the national average. The governor’s office says the requirement is intended to incentivize on-time graduation: If finishing your degree on time means free college, the thinking goes, those rates will improve.

Excelsior recipients will also be required to earn thirty credits per year, meaning part-time students — a group that includes those who work full-time, have children, care for elderly family members, or are not recent high school graduates — are excluded entirely. Undocumented students are also ineligible for the scholarship, despite early attempts by Governor Cuomo to have them included.

While the governor has touted Excelsior as the first state program to fully subsidize tuition at four-year colleges, other states’ and cities’ free tuition programs at two-year community or technical colleges come with no income restriction, no requirement to stay in the state post-graduation, and in some cases considerable academic support that begins at the high school level and continues through college graduation. In Tennessee, for example, community college is free for any high school graduate in the state regardless of income, provided they remain a full-time student. Oregon and the city of San Francisco have similar programs, and Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced a federal bill that would make tuition at public four-year universities free for families making up to $125,000, establish free tuition for all at community colleges, cut student loan interest rates in half, and triple the federal work-study program budget.

Cuomo has insisted that the residency requirement is justified. “Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and move to California?” he said on a call with editorial writers from around the state last week, as reported in the New York Post. A spokeswoman from the governor’s office notes that several other financial aid programs in the state have similar residency requirements, including a master’s in education teaching scholarship and a STEM scholarship for high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class, each of which requires graduates to remain in the state for five years at the risk of loan conversion. She says there are plans to prevent loan conversion for students who pursue advanced degrees out of state, provided they return to New York afterward, and for students who join the military, as well as hardship deferments on a case-by-case basis.

Still, the rule will mean some students will have to turn down job opportunities — the very thing a college education is supposed to give them — to avoid student debt, the burden the program is meant to alleviate in the first place. 

The residency clause pushes the initiative “in the wrong direction,” says Cody Hounanian, digital director at Student Debt Crisis, which represents graduates with student debt burdens across the country. He rejected the notion that a potential loss of talent was reason enough for New York to threaten students with incurring debt: “Education is a public good. Educating people is reward enough.”

According to SUNY, about 73 percent of graduates are still employed in New York State four years after graduation. But many people work in New York state but live on the other side of bridges and tunnels, sometimes in search of more affordable housing — something Excelsior graduates would be prevented from doing.

Though marketed as free college, the program is more accurately described as a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will award eligible students (by 2019, any student from a family that earns up to $125,000 in adjusted gross income) a scholarship to fill in gaps left over after they receive state and federal financial aid, including via the state Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grants. While this would be a huge savings for students from middle-income families who are ineligible for TAP and Pell Grants, it won’t help with room and board, food, transportation, textbooks, personal expenses, or student fees — costs that can add up to as much as $18,210 a year at four-year colleges and $14,810 at two-year schools by SUNY’s own estimates, dramatically eclipsing tuition at the schools, which is among the cheapest in the nation. (The new state budget does include $8 million for CUNY and SUNY to spend on electronic and open-resource textbooks to help offset costs.)

Many CUNY students, in fact, already have their tuition covered by financial aid, and so will see no benefit from the plan, says John Aderounmu, a junior at Hunter College and member of the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again. Because those students are often forced to take jobs while in school to pay for rent, food, and books, he says, many end up pursuing fewer than the required thirty credits per year, which would leave them ineligible for Excelsior. And all this does nothing for the thousands of people across the state who have already graduated and are saddled with exorbitant student debt burdens.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, a coalition of CUNY students and faculty, slammed Cuomo’s program as one that “aids middle-income students while turning poor and working-class students into a profit center, continuing the forty-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students” — especially coming in tandem with a planned tuition hike for CUNY schools over the next five years. For students unable to meet the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship, or ineligible for it, college only promises to get less affordable.