The Police State & 911 – by Lou Cespedes

The history of crime and policing in the transformation of New York City, and todays enforcement policies are intimately related to 911. On September 14th, 2001, President George W. Bush stood atop a pile of rubble on ground zero, bullhorn in one hand, and his other arm around firefighter Bob Beckwith and declared “I can hear you!” “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Chants of “USA! USA!” echoed. That was the day New York City became part of America.

Let me explain. Just a quarter century before, on October 29th, 1975, as New York was in the grips of a fiscal crisis, President Gerald Ford delivered a speech in which he denied a financial bail-out package to New York City. The Daily News famously ran the headline, “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD!” The span of those 25 years is critically important to understand our current condition on criminal justice. While those two historical moments are not comparable, it should be clear that until September 11th, a Texan president really had no interest in our city. Bush’s bullhorn speech helped fundamentally alter this city’s relationship to the rest of America. In the weeks that followed, it seemed “We are all New Yorkers now” was an anthem echoed from sea to shining sea. Before then, our city was considered another place, “The Capital of the World”, and other worldly as Giuliani embarked on the “Disneyfication” of New York City.

To put this 25-year history in a socio-political context, lets recall the Central Park 5 case took place between 1989 and 1990, exactly at the beginning of David Dinkins’ term, after winning the election over then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudy Giuliani. In his December 15th, 2019 article for the Daily News: “Her death, our fears and our city” Harry Siegel masterfully illustrates the times by sampling italic quotations from Donald Trump’s 1989 Daily News op-ed in a dizzying dérive between today’s enforcement narrative versus those of “the bad old days”. Dinkins first began the expansion of the NYPD by 25% and reversed upward trends in violent crimes. Dinkins’ campaign was based on racial healing in the city which he termed the “gorgeous mosaic”. By contrast Giuliani’s 1993 campaign was a narrative of “law and order”, best summarized by his infamous 1992 speech protesting Mayor Dinkins’ proposal for a civilian review board for police misconduct. Giuliani’s profanity laced speech before off-duty police officers carrying placards that read “have you hugged your dealer today”, capitalized on a racist crime narrative directed at a black mayor. Giuliani was elected the following year. During his tenure Giuliani tripled the size of the NYPD Street Crime Unit and implemented Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk policies.

America’s acceptance of our city was sealed in the image of “America’s Mayor” – a pro-active Rudy Giuliani responding to the 911 terrorist attack – and what ensued was our city’s metamorphosis into “ground zero” as a de-facto police state. The crime narrative of years before was hijacked by the new terrorism discourse, and New York City became the geographic representation of America’s “War on Terror” as America’s most important target. By September 26th, 2011, ten years after the 911 attacks, police Commissioner Ray Kelly said on 60 Minutes that the NYPD had the equipment and training to shoot down aircraft. What this interview revealed was that the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau has the capability to detect threats, gather intelligence, strike, and take preventative action. Indeed, we have seen this occur on multiple occasions with threats on soft targets in New York City, but have you ever wondered if this technology and intelligence has been deployed to prevent drug or gun trafficking, or the growth of gang activities in our community?

We seldom speak or make the association of how the 911 terrorist attacks played into a racial breach already present in NYPD culture. While Giuliani’s initial position as mayor was that New York City welcomed and needed immigrants – “a sanctuary city” – his policies facilitated the targeting of black and brown peoples by over-policing, surveillance, and enforcement post 911. The police state was permanently fused with a culture of un-checked power, where police authority should go un-questioned and un-challenged in the name of “security and safety”. These policies carried through five subsequent mayoral terms. We are known today as the “safest city in the world”; but for whom? Who pays the price for that image of safety? What are the resulting statistics in our community? Are there better jobs and opportunities in our community as a result? How has this “improvement” in our city benefitted us?

Although we know how the policing/terrorism paradigm has positively impacted white and Jewish communities, businesses, development, and tourism, we also know how it has disproportionately resulted in greater incarceration of black men, criminalization of minor misdemeanors, and increased the brazenness of police brutality and violence against our community.

Today we see a thaw. In striking down Stop and Frisk, in Bail Reform, and Raise the Age, we are turning the corner, but the culture of those policies persists. There is an ever-present danger that hard fought reforms may slip away. In recent media narratives related to anti-Semitic attacks and second guessing by pols on Bail Reform, it appears African Americans are again being scapegoated. We need greater dialogue between our communities certainly, but also ever greater vigilance by our leaders to undue the culture of disproportional enforcement against us.

(Isaiah 54 v.16-17) Twitter: @loufor45 Instagram: loucespedes

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