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Max & Murphy Podcast: A Devastating Economic Picture in New York & What To Do About It


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New York City (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


July 22, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A Devastating Economic Picture in New York & What To Do About It

Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, joined the show to discuss the Partnership's new report on the New York City economy, what government and the private sector should both do -- at times together -- to rebuild the city economy, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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The NYPD's Facial Recognition Policy Leaves A Lot of Leeway the Department Says It's Not Using


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An NYPD command center (photo: Edward Reed/Mayor's Office)


In the four months since the NYPD first published protocols limiting its use of facial recognition software, the coronavirus-caused state of emergency and recent civil unrest over police brutality made the considerable leeway in the policy all but total. Absent any formal legal framework at the city, state or federal level, the internal, non-binding departmental protocols are the only public policy governing New York's lawless frontier of biometric surveillance.

The police department has insisted it has not taken advantage of the expanded leeway, while privacy advocates are concerned about the potential for abuse. State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would curtail the use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance, but its fate is unclear. There is no city legislation despite the City Council's recent effort to pass police reforms, including a new law that will mandate the NYPD disclose the surveillance tools it employs.

Facial recognition programs use artificial intelligence to match photographs with faces from digital databases, helping authorities identify anyone, from a figure in a crowd to the pedestrian who believes they are anonymous on the sidewalks of New York City.

The NYPD has 20,000 security cameras, a fleet of surveillance drones (equipped with powerful zoom and thermal imaging), and 24,000 officers roving the streets with body-worn cameras, all the images from which could be analyzed with facial recognition software.

Facial recognition is still a relatively nascient technology that has been shown to be less accurate on members of non-white minority groups, gender nonconforming people, and others. Privacy advocates believe once the technology is perfected the NYPD will, through its Domain Awareness System -- the department's bank of surveillance footage and data -- be capable of tracking a target's every move in public.

The new NYPD policy was published in the department's internal patrol guide on March 12, only after a BuzzFeed News investigative report revealed the NYPD was the single largest client of Clearview AI, the controversial company that developed one of the world's largest face databases by combing the internet for billions of images.

"This new policy clearly defines the permissible use of facial recognition technology and it strikes the right balance between public safety and privacy," said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea in a statement when the policy was adopted, two weeks after the BuzzFeed report.

Under the policy, officers may scan footage for faces if, among other reasons, they believe a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, or if there is "an imminent threat to health or public safety." Facial recognition can also be used in missing persons cases, to identify potential crime victims or witnesses, or people under arrest who refuse to identify themselves. There are no expressly prohibited uses.

Experts and privacy advocates warn that latitude makes just about anything subject to artificial intelligence surveillance without a warrant, from marching without a permit to simply looking suspicious.

"The protocols described by the facial identification policy are quite broad and are still open to rampant abuse," said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) at the Urban Justice Center.

Under the state of emergency, where social distancing orders make simply being in public a potential crime, the number of activities that can constitute a violation are far greater. Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive orders restricting public activity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which happened to go into effect within days of the NYPD's facial recognition policy, give local governments the authority to issue civil and criminal penalties for violations, such as being within six feet of others without a face covering.

The NYPD has been enforcing social distancing throughout the state of emergency, at times using helicopters and drones to identify potential violators. Between March 16 and May 5, police arrested 120 people in connection with social distancing violations, more than two-thirds of whom were Black, and a quarter of whom were Hispanic.

"I think there is always risk that the NYPD is going to use 'imminent' risk and 'threat to health or safety' as a catchall authorizing any number of uses," said Michael Sisitzky, a New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer who specializes in police transparency. "So the policy is not anywhere near as limited as it would seem on its face."

"These policies are crafted to give the NYPD carte blanche to use tools and technologies as they see fit," he added.

Advocates want to see legal limits set on the use of surveillance technology and protections against its abuse by law enforcement.

Since March, much public activity has been illegal, and simply being outside at a certain time could be the basis of criminal suspicion. Since the end of May, when massive protests for police reform, as well as some riots and looting, erupted, being any one of the countless New Yorkers found outside could mark a person for enhanced surveillance. That risk only expanded when the early-June curfew meant being on the street at night was explicitly outlawed.

Officials, including Mayors Bill de Blasio and Michael Bloomberg, have said facial recognition is an important tool to combat terrorism and part of a necessary trade-off among safety, privacy, and the First Amendment.

“As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before,” Bloomberg said of the emerging technology in an interview with the Associated Press in 2011.

"We’re the number one terror target in America, and we need exceptional tools to fight terrorism, de Blasio echoed eight years later, in June 2019, on NY1 when asked about the civil rights concerns associated with facial recognition. "My mission is to keep everyone safe while respecting civil liberties, so it’s something we’ll have more to say on, but it’s not an either-or in my book."

In the NYPD’s Public Security Privacy Guidelines, last updated in 2009, it says the Domain Awareness System will monitor only public places "where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists."

The police department has used facial recognition for years in relation to criminal activity other than terrorism, at least as far back as 2012, when the tech helped identify a suspect in a barbershop shooting.

In 2019, before the patrol guide was updated, the Facial Identification Section -- the NYPD's designated unit of investigators who run and assess requests for AI matches -- received 9,850 inquiries and identified 2,510 possible matches, according to the department's website. Roughly half of the matches were related to murder, rape, felony assault, robbery, or grand larceny, according to the site, but it’s not clear how many are crime suspects.

The mayor's office and police department did not respond directly to Gotham Gazette inquiries about whether participating in recent demonstrations, violating the curfew, or breaking emergency executive orders were considered imminent threats.

"The NYPD uses facial recognition as a limited investigative tool, comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos," wrote NYPD spokesperson Al Baker in an email. "This technology helps bring justice to victims of crimes. Any facial recognition match is solely an investigative lead and not probable cause for arrest – no enforcement action is ever taken solely on the basis of a facial recognition match."

The mayor's office did not respond to requests for information or comment for this story.

A police department spokesperson told Gotham Gazette its Facial Identification Section, which is primarily responsible for assessing computer matches, has not been involved in enforcing emergency executive orders, like social distancing, and has no current requests related to recent demonstrations or the curfew, which lasted from June 1 to 7. (The NYPD did not say whether FIS had received requests related to the demonstrations at the height of activity over a month ago.)

"I guess NYPD is asking us to take their word for it," said State Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsors a bill that would ban biometric surveillance by law enforcement statewide. "As it stands now we have no substantive oversight of their use of facial recognition."

The NYPD did not respond when asked whether members of the department outside FIS are authorized to use facial recognition technology.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Patrol Guide is kinda garbage on this point," said Cahn, of STOP. The policy seems to be limited to the activities of FIS, he said, "but that doesn't mean it's a comprehensive set of regulations for all forms of facial recognition."

BuzzFeed's Clearview AI report notes over 11,000 searches were made by more than 30 officers, all before the patrol guide policies were put in place. The NYPD website now says facial comparisons are limited to the department's mugshot database, but certain top brass still have the discretion to scan photos against outside databases.

There is no guarantee that images captured at the protests or any other public activity will not be analyzed later using artificial intelligence like facial recognition software. The NYPD did not answer questions about how long it stores footage.

Most other elements of how the department uses surveillance technology are also under wraps. Advocates believe a new law called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, or POST Act, recently passed by the City Council and signed by de Blasio, will shed unprecedented light on what equipment the department has by requiring the NYPD to report on the tools it deploys and rules for their use.

The jury is still out on whether a facial recognition match can be the basis of a criminal prosecution, but official responses from the police department and district attorney offices indicate that a computer match alone is not sufficient.

"Facial recognition is mostly used in the investigation stage," wrote Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, adding that it is not used as evidence at trials.

"Our office does not disclose law enforcement operations or investigative techniques," wrote Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, in response to questions about the office's facial recognition policy.

Civil rights observers warn that facial recognition can discourage or even be used to intimidate people from engaging in constitutionally protected activities like free speech.

First Amendment activities, like public demonstrations and participating in a political group, are supposed to be protected from warrantless police surveillance under a 1985 NYPD consent decree, known as the Handschu Agreement, adopted following a class action suit charging the police department with years of systematic spying on political organizations like the Black Panther Party.

"All the different ways that the police can monitor protests, both ways that are visible and invisible, can have a chilling effect," said Angel Diaz, a national security lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"There are people for whom the fact that there might be an ongoing police presence or that you might attract police attention may dissuade them from participating in a protest," he said.

This is especially true of people who are undocumented, or who have had past criminal justice involvement, in some cases the same communittees effected by the policing policies at the center of recent demonstrations.

"They might feel less comfortable participating because of the downstream consequences that can go on," Diaz said. "Especially when we don't know how long the data is being kept."

Nevertheless, surveillance equipment was out in force at the recent demonstrations against police misconduct. On Friday, May 29, the first evening with serious clashes between police and protesters, traffic light cameras -- installed to catch motorists running red lights -- flashed repeatedly above peaceful marchers gathered near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. On June 1, the first night of curfew, drones flew over marchers throughout the night. Through the weeks of protest, thousands of officers wearing body cameras have been deployed and police helicopters have been a fixture above marches.

It's not clear that all or any of the drones were the NYPD's and the department wouldn't say what types of surveillance tools were used on protesters. In 2018, then Police Commissioner James O'Neill announced the department had acquired 14 military-grade surveillance drones for special operations. Police reporting from the first quarter of the year, which doesn't include the recent demonstrations, looting, or curfew, show 20 drone flights took place between January and March, mostly for training and testing purposes.

The patrol guide says NYPD drones are not themselves equipped with facial recognition software and that their footage will not be subject to digital analysis, "absent a public safety concern."

Cahn says the disclaimer is vaguely worded and, thus, toothless because footage can later be processed with facial recognition. "Any video of a photo source can effectively become a facial recognition camera simply with that extra step," he said.

"In some ways, the Handschu agreement feels increasingly out of date given the modern way that police are doing surveillance," Diaz said. It comes from an era when policecraft was more physical, he said, focusing more on undercover officers infiltrating political movements than ubiquitous digital information gathering. "It doesn't specifically address issues raised by things like facial recognition or even the way in which modern social media monitoring works."

Lawmakers in Albany are carrying two bills that could change how surveillance technology is used by law enforcement. One, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Ron Kim, two Queens Democrats, would prohibit the use of drones during activities protected by the First Amendment, and would require a warrant to use drones in criminal investigations. The law would also prohibit facial recognition from being used on drone footage, and sets up provisions for destroying the footage after a period of time.

Another bill, carried by Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Deborah Glick, both Manhattan Democrats, would entirely prohibit the use of biometric surveillance by law enforcement and would create a task force to propose standards for its use in the future. The bill would ban biometric tools beyond facial recognition, like voice and gait analysis, but leaves carve-outs for more traditional police tools like fingerprints and DNA analysis.

"It's time to hit the pause button on this technology, gather experts, and develop some standards that require the NYPD and all law enforcement to follow," Hoylman said in an interview.

The police department has been resistant to any proposed limits on its use of facial recognition, and of surveillance equipment more broadly.

"I’d absolutely be opposed to a ban," said then-Police Commissioner James O'Neill at a press conference last October. "There is so much video in New York City today that to not use facial recognition would be irresponsible."

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Especially Hard-Hit by Coronavirus, City’s Bangladeshi Community Sees Failure of Government to Help Vulnerable New Yorkers


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Bangladeshis at a past gathering (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


When Shippon Hoque, a Bangladeshi green cab driver from Astoria, Queens, started to feel unwell in early March, it quickly dawned on him that he might have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

When he developed a high fever and dry cough, the 65-year-old made his way to Elmhurst Hospital. There he was tested for the coronavirus and told to self-quarantine. Given his struggles with diabetes and high blood pressure, his nephew Naiful Bahri thinks that the hospital should’ve admitted him immediately. “He’s older, yet for three days he was home while his condition got worse,” said Bahri. He thinks his uncle’s limited English made it hard for him to advocate for himself. 

Finally on March 18, Hoque was hospitalized. During his first four days at the hospital, Hoque FaceTimed with his family and told them about the scene at an emergency room that would soon be drawing national attention. ‘It’s overcrowded, I feel like I’m in a warzone, people are dying,” Bahri recalled his uncle saying. “He was just really worried for his life.” Soon, the brother Hoque had visited days before he was hospitalized also tested positive for the virus.

Shippon Hoque and his 60-year-old brother, Iqbal Hoque Bhuyian, were close. Both migrated to Queens in the 1980s. Bahri said during his uncle’s last days, Shippon Hoque seemed more concerned about whether his younger brother, who had the same pre-existing conditions, would make it. As Shippon’s organs failed, doctors placed him on a ventilator, but on March 29, he passed away. His brother died six days later. 

Hoque and Bhuyian are part of a long list of Bangladeshi New Yorkers who have died due to the coronavirus. The virus is hitting low-income communities of color especially hard and while much attention has been on the toll on Black and Latino communities, the Bangladeshi community is similarly largely confined to less-affluent corners of the city, in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and crowded living spaces. 

Near the end of May, JamunaTV, a Bengali language newscast, estimated that 239 Bangladeshis had died of COVID-19 in New York City. That number is an estimate based on word of mouth accounts since the New York City Health Department has not released specific data for the Bangladeshi population.

On June 8, the city Health Department reported that 7.6 percent of the city’s coronavirus victims were of Asian descent. If the word of mouth counts are correct, the Bagladeshi community, which makes up less than 8 percent of the city’s Asian population, accounted for about a fifth of those deaths. 

“Often our community isn’t seen because it falls into the South Asian category,” said Thahitun Mariam, a Bangladeshi activist and community organizer from the Bronx. 

While other South Asian groups like Indian-Americans rank near the top of many socioeconomic measures, Bangladeshis are among the poorest ethnic groups in the city, constituting an outsized share of New York’s working class—they drive cabs, cook in restaurants, serve fast food, sell clothes, and run grocery stores. And many have risked their health by continuing to report to work for the much-needed income and to keep the city running to the extent it has.

Accurate data is crucial to identifying and helping vulnerable populations, advocates say. 

“We see the South Asian data and we know it’s mostly us, and the city needs to acknowledge that,” said Moumita Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American activist from Jamaica, Queens, who ran for a local District Leader position this past election, referring to the positive cases amongst Asians. “Bangladeshis need to understand the data so the people in the community can take measures and precautions they need to take as a collective. We didn’t get a chance to do that.” 

Bangladesh is among the top 10 countries of origin for the city’s 3.1 million foreign-born residents. The Bangladeshi population of the city stands at around 100,000 according to a 2018 report by the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs. Yet many in the Bangladeshi community feel ignored by those in power.

An outbreak in the Bangladeshi community should have been anticipated and addressed, critics said. The Bangladeshi diaspora live in many of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods and many are undocumented and lack health insurance. Plus the community as a whole has high rates of diabetes and other underlying health conditions that are known to cause complications with the virus and lead to higher fatality rates. 

Among the most glaring failures, critics say, is that information about the virus wasn’t translated into Bengali and there was no outreach to the community despite the fact that it is the fourth most common language among foreign-born New Yorkers. Critics also said the city's limited halal food distribution system left many Bangladeshis, who are predominantly Muslims, hungry during Ramadan. Additionally, many Bangladeshis are self-employed and service workers who are encountering complications and delays in receiving unemployment benefits with little guidance and clarity from the state. 

“What ends up happening when there isn’t any government attention to reach vulnerable populations, we get left out,” said Shahana Hanif, Bangladeshi-American who currently works as an aide to Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander and is running to replace her term-limited boss in next year’s election. “We don't receive any real-time information and it creates a gap.”

The de Blasio administration has pointed to its launch of a multi-million-dollar media campaign in multiple languages including Bengali to reach vulnerable communities. City officials also stress they have worked closely with Muslim New Yorkers to establish their halal food distribution, with served hundred thousands of halal meals provided during Ramadan. 

While the community feels too-often ignored by city and state officials, Bangladeshi community leaders and activists are stepping up during the pandemic. “It's their job to serve us and I don't think they have and so the gap was created and we organizers have to fill that gap, find the resources, and disseminate to our community,” said Mariam.

Why Bangladeshis? 
Bangladeshis are among the poorest Asian ethnic groups in the city according to the AAFNY. The organization found that one in three Bangladeshis live in poverty, which is much higher than the citywide poverty rate of about 21 percent. They’re also more likely to live in overcrowded households with 42 percent of households having more than one occupant per room compared to 9 percent citywide.

“Usually in Bangladeshi households, women will take care of the children and won’t work. The single-income household makes it hard for those families to mobilize and save,” said Mariam. 

Pre-existing conditions also made the community especially vulnerable. Diseases like diabetes are common in Bangladeshi adults making them more susceptible to the coronavirus, according to the American Diabetes Association. “From a holistic medical perspective, the combination of chronic conditions such as diabetes compounded with socioeconomic factors such as being undocumented, uninsured, and coming from a low-income neighborhood is leading to a very high true mortality rate of Bangladeshi COVID deaths in NYC,” said Bangladeshi internal medicine physcian Raihan Faroqui, who is also a community organizer. 

Many Bangladeshi immigrants work at McDonalds and other restaurants around the city, Mariam says, which have remained open for pick-up and delivery throughout the pandemic. “Our community members are the essential workers at Dunkin Donuts and fast-food places," she said. "That consideration should’ve been made.” 

Among these workers are many undocumented Bangladeshis who are ineligible for unemployment and other government assistance programs. Hanif, along with her sister, Sabia Hanif, started a fundraiser for vulnerable undocumented Bangladeshis.

“With no clear timeline of when they can return to work, guarantee that they'll have a job, and savings to survive the upcoming waves of the pandemic, they are disproportionately overburdened by the impacts of COVID-19,” the sisters wrote on their Launch Good Campaign. So far, they have raised over $40,000 as of July 9. 

“We need representation and policy changes to shift the way we care about our family members who work in Dunkin Donuts,” said Shahana Hanif. 

The city could’ve also better prepared the low-income communities where many Bangladeshis live, Mariam said. “It’s unfortunate, instead of doing work to prevent more deaths, they did flashy shows in Manhattan like setting up the Javits Center and having the [USS Comfort] ship come dock. But the deaths are happening in the Bronx, where are the makeshift hospitals here?” In the Bronx, there have been twice the amount of positive cases compared to Manhattan.

Language Gap
When news first broke about the importance of social distancing, the Trump administration had only released the guidelines to address coronavirus in English. After outrage from Congress and Latino groups, they released it in Spanish but the guidance was never released in other languages.

State and city officials failed to quickly communicate the severity of the virus and importance of staying home to low-income neighborhoods where languages other than English are prevalent.

During the early critical days of the pandemic, Bangladeshis, unaware of new social distancing rules, were living their daily lives like they always had. “Part of the issue is people weren’t understanding the severity of the virus and were still going out,” said Mariam. “Our community is full of essential workers, people continued to work and were pressured to show up to work in lockdown.”

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene published coronavirus fact sheets in nine languages including Bengali on March 15, but the site was only interacted with 92 times from March to June. The city also created other content in several languages about social distancing, COVID-19 testing, and available city resources, distributed through businesses and community partners. 

Although virus information was available online, Bangladeshi activists say community members are often connected by phone. Navigating the internet is a challenge for many elders, says Hanif, who regularly finds herself on the phone walking Bangladeshis through applications, like for unemployment. 

In April, when the city released data on the hardest hit zip codes and ethnicity groups, showing stark disparities wherein New Yorkers of color were the most devastated by the virus, the mayor launched an additional $10 million media campaign in more than 15 languages to inform people and attempt to slow the spread in those communities. Efforts included TV, radio, and digital ads in those areas as well as individual phone calls and texts, according to the city. 

The health department also created an Emergency Partner Council, an advisory group including 80 community partners, to better inform New Yorkers through neighborhood-based sessions, according to a spokesperson. And officials participated in dozens of press and community events to ensure residents received up-to-date information in the languages they speak. 

The mayor’s office mass texted and shared messages in Bangla with hundreds of community members and organizations serving Bangladeshi communities. But their outreach wasn’t as effective and didn’t equip the community with accessible information from the start, community members said. “The city officials did not work with community members or leaders to make information language-accessible. There was no outreach to mosque leaders, there were still prayers going on,” Ahmed said of the early going as the virus spread. 

Hanif said the community should be able to rely on local City Council offices for adequate information and help with any concerns. But when people call, those offices likely don't have someone who speaks the language on staff.

Thousands of Bangladeshi New Yorkers tune into Bangla networks like TBN24 for coronavirus news. The television network is based out of Queens and translates news that runs on the mainstream media networks to Bangla. Habib Rahman, an anchor at TBN24, said he quickly realized the level of misinformation and confusion surrounding the virus in the Bangaldeshi community.

“We took the burden on our shoulders to translate the news. The people who live here should know what’s happening here,” said Rahman. The 24-hour network has 2.7 million followers on Facebook, averages roughly 20,000 views per show over multiple outlets, and has been a main news source for Bangladeshi New Yorkers.

But still the gap in language access left thousands of Bangladeshis at a disadvantage, Mariam said. “Lots of working class Bangladeshis don’t speak English very well and a lot gets lost in translation,” she said. Bengali is the fourth most common language spoken by foreign-born New Yorkers with limited language proficiencies according to the 2019 Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs report. “There should’ve been a concentrated effort to get them the information they need because so many are immunocompromised” said Mariam.

Likewise Faroqui, the Bangladeshi-American physician, understood how the complex health-care system would leave Bangladeshis, especially those who aren’t fluent in English, vulnerable during the crisis. As a response, Faroqui and a team of volunteers created C-BASH, a smart hotline for Bangladeshis living in New York City experiencing coronavirus symptoms. 

The hotline asks pre-recorded questions in Bangla that are put into a database that tracks symptoms. Later on, callers receive a call back from one of the 600 Bangladeshi health-care volunteers nationwide with advice on their situation. Volunteers also speak with families of COVID-19 patients to assist them with any concerns or anxiety. “We’re not trying to be 911, we’re trying to guide people to call 911,” said Faroqui. 

Food Insecurity
Throughout the lockdown, many vulnerable Bangladeshi families, who have members who are immunocompromised, have been unable to leave their house. The city’s programs “were not designed to support certain neighborhoods and demographics,” said Ahmed, founder of Queens Mutual Aid Network, referring to the city’s coronavirus food assistance resources, which include meals provided at city schools and through the city’s delivery program. 

The city set up over 400 grab and go locations to give out free meals every weekday. It offers a halal option including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hummus. “The city’s food distribution, it’s very lazy,” said Mariam referring to the lack of quality in the halal food. 

For those unable to leave home, the city started a delivery program providing three days of food at a time for up to a month for two people and a maximum of 18 meals per household. 

Many Bangladeshi Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan and accessing halal food was particularly difficult this year. The city announced that they would provide 500,000 halal meals distributed at 32 pickup locations, soup kitchens, pantries, and community organizations throughout the month. However, some say these halal meals have been unacceptable. “The relief was not a relief, it was terrible options given to people,” said Ahmed referring to the city’s halal food distribution. 

While filling out the delivery application, Rima Begum chose the halal preference and three days later, a box of nine halal meals showed up to her Queens home, she said. Inside were crackers, hummus, pretzels and a ready-made meal of chicken, beans, vegetables and potatoes. “It was mushy, had a bad smell and had ingredients we don’t use, like corn. The halal meal looked nothing like anything I’ve eaten at home,” Begum said. The readymade meal distributed by the city to Muslims was prepared by J&M Halal Foods, a U.S. military defense contractor. 

Begum says the city could have used this program to invest money back into the community. “The city chose to contract with a military ration company out in Illinois when they could have easily worked with the thousands of small businesses that have been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic,” said Begum.

Representation matters, Begum said. “If the Muslim community was asked if they would eat these halal meals, you would have immediately gotten a response that the meals are not adequate for our community,” Begum said. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio named Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia as “food czar” to coordinate emergency food distribution programs. Garcia told Civil Eats that the city has contracted with bigger firms to distribute food in a standardized way and avoid inconsistency. As of mid-July, New York City has served 83 million free meals since the covid outbreak led to a near-shutdown of the city. 

Joshua Goodman, a spokesperson for Garcia and the city’s emergency food program, told Gotham Gazette that their team has “been proud to work closely with groups representing halal-observant New Yorkers, serving hundreds of thousands of halal meals every month, including a major surge during Ramadan.”

Bangladeshis in need have been contacting their local Mutual Aid Network in Queens, a borough home to over 43,500 Bangladeshis, according to a 2019 analysis by the AAF. The group of local volunteers has been delivering food to several hundred families every week and has fed over 1,600 families from March to early July since the lockdown. During Ramadan, “the most requests have come from Bangladeshis, over 500,” said Ahmed. 

The network provides groceries and basic necessities while specifically catering to ethnicity and religion. With 150 active volunteers, they focus on the immunocompromised, undocumented, and elderly populations and ensure access to quality and fresh food. Their funding comes mainly from donations and some from their own volunteers. Ahmed, the founder, said “we’re neighbors who want to help our neighbors.” 

Mariam was inspired by her fellow Bangladeshi leader and created the Bronx Mutual Aid Network in early April, which has served over 600 families. “People have been waiting for a space like this in the Bronx,” Mariam said. 

About 16% of Bronx residents are food insecure according to the 2018 Food Metrics Report. “There's a high need in the Bangladeshi community,” in the Bronx where 10,000 Bangladeshis reside, said Mariam. “These families are unable to go out for food because they are immunocompromised, sick, or lost their loved ones.” The group has served over 150 Bangladeshi families multiple times as of late June. 

Due to the high need, the two mutual aid networks are specifically catering to Bangladeshis with a package that includes lentils, dates, and peppers, among other basics. “There’s a cultural and religious aspect to food,” Mariam said. The city has “the data on which communities are where and the diets they have. The food distribution model needs to change.” 

Pending Status
There has been a surge of unemployment filing in the Bangladeshi community due to layoffs, lack of work, and immunocompromised conditions. Filling out the lengthy application is a challenge for some. “Explaining these services is not easy. It shows how disconnected the Bangladeshi community is from our government,” said Hanif.

The New York State Department of Labor application isn’t built for self-employed workers without W2 forms and during the early days of the pandemic, “self-employed people had no clue they could even file and the state did not put out this information,” said Rahman, the anchor at TBN24. As a result many self-employed Bangladeshis like cab drivers and food vendors who had stopped working were in the dark with no guidance or outreach from the state. Some applied the week they stopped working without knowing if it was the right thing to do. Eventually, the city put out a guide for self-employed workers on April 4, weeks after many had stopped working. 

Since self-employed workers don’t usually qualify to receive unemployment benefits they were instructed to call the Department of Labor to verify their application. “I tried calling for days but was frustrated and gave up,” says Fakrul Islam, a 33-year-old yellow cab driver, who had an experience shared by many New Yorkers as the state’s system was completely overloaded by the unprecedented need. Islam stopped working night shifts in mid-March due to a lack of customers. For weeks, he was unsure if he would receive unemployment benefits and missed April rent. 

Since then, the state initiated a call-back system for applicants like Islam and instructed self-employed workers to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which covers those who are usually ineligble for benefits. After almost two months of waiting with no response or outreach from the department, Islam woke up to a large sum of backdated payments in his account in late May. 

Bangladeshis frequently call or write into TBN24 asking for guidance with the process and delays. Rahman’s show, The Views, turned into a pandemic hotline for the thousands of Bangladeshis watching at home tackling many concerns but mainly unemployment issues. 

The show features guests ranging from Bangladeshi organizers like Hanif to certified public accountants to Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, to help answer pressing questions and address concerns the city and state aren’t. Throughout April and May, Rahman focused on assisting Bangladeshis who were stuck in pending status with the Department of Labor. 

On air, Rahman helps thousands at once but off the clock, he assists community members in dire situations. “This has become my 24/7 job,” said Rahman. While guiding Bangladeshis through the process, Rahman said he realized the system is set up so it can deny you for any small reason. “It’s a system of denial,” he said. 

Bangladeshi activists are individually supporting their local Bangladeshi communities during the pandemic but many are also part of Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress, also known as BAPP. The grassroots group formed late 2019 to focus on creating a Bangladeshi-American voting bloc in the city to elect political candidates and advocate for legislation that supports working-class communities. 

Critics say that one of the reasons the community has been hit especially hard is because there are no Bangladeshis in elected office at city and state levels and very few on staffs, and thus no one to draw attention to the community’s unique challenges.

“Given the scope of how many Bangladeshis are in this city, there isn’t enough adequate representation,” said Hanif, who is running for City Council in the 2021 Democratic primary in Brooklyn’s 39th district. “It is not surprising to me that the community does not have what we need.” If elected, Hanif would be the first ever Bangladeshi in the City Council. 

City and state representatives don’t reflect the communities they represent, said Moumita Ahmed, who recently ran for District Leader in District 24. “If we had someone in office that understood the culture and understood that the virus can impact one group way more than others,” she said. 

Meanwhile Bangladeshi New Yorkers like Naiful Bahri, whose uncle died at Elmhurst Hospital, have been struggling to cope since the crisis has engulfed the city. 

By early April, Bahri organized two funeral services, known as a janazah for Muslims for his two late uncles. Bahri and his dad buried Shippon Hoque in Washington Memorial Park on March 31 and returned a week later to bury Iqbal Hoque Bhuyian.

“There was no one there by his side. No one from the family wanted to go to the burial site,” said Bahri. “I had the job of Facebook Live-ing it for our family who couldn’t make it. It’s the worst way to die.”

***
by Afia Eama for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been corrected to remove mention that an email address is needed for emergency food, it is not.



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