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Opinion

New York Must Address Racist State Violence from Policing to Jails and Prisons


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A rally to end solitary confinement (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


On April 14, 60-year-old Leonard Carter died of COVID-19 while incarcerated at Queensboro Correctional Facility. He had already been granted parole and, after a quarter century behind bars, was just weeks from his release date. He was the brother of one of us writing to demand change here today.

While public attention has focused on the brutality of police in Black communities, that is just the front end of a system designed to control, dehumanize, and brutalize Black people. Calls to defund the police and dismantle systems of white supremacy must be expanded to include the institutions whose role is to criminalize, cage, and brutalize Black bodies, from prosecutors to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

As a formerly incarcerated Black activist, a Black New York State Assemblymember representing Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the sister of a Black man who died of COVID-19 behind bars, we know that racist state violence pervades not just policing, but courthouses, jails, and prisons, too.

The anti-Black violence of our criminal legal system is not located in some far away city or state. Here in New York, Black people are more likely to have money bail set and be jailed before trial. We are more likely to be coerced into plea deals that include jail time. We are more likely to be incarcerated on a technical violation of parole or probation. We are more likely to be subject to the torture of solitary confinement. While only 18% of New Yorkers are Black, we represent 48% of people in state prison and 57% of people in solitary. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 80% of people who died of coronavirus behind bars were people of color. 

Earlier this month, New York’s Legislature repealed 50-a, a state law that had been used to shield police misconduct records from public view. This was a culmination of a years-long campaign led by families of people killed by the NYPD and a critical step towards greater police accountability and transparency.  

But it was simply a first step. To achieve justice for Black people, we must fundamentally shift resources away from policing and systems of criminalization and towards the community investments that truly keep us safe: education, affordable housing, quality health-care, youth programs. At the same time, we must center the voices of marginalized Black people: Black undocumented people, Black incarcerated people, Black trans people.

The Legislature must not lose sight of the devastation wrought on Black New Yorkers by the full system of mass criminalization and state violence. In our fight to defend Black lives, we must repeal the “walking while trans ban” to protect Black and brown trans women from harassment by the police. We must pass the Protect Our Courts Act -- passed by the Assembly on Monday and awaiting Senate action -- to codify a recent court ruling protecting Black and brown immigrants from the terror of ICE arrests in and around courthouses. We must pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to end this torture behind bars. And we must pass Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole to end death-by-incarceration of Black elders. 

While we mourn with those who knew and loved George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, we also mourn the death of Cynthia’s brother Leonard Carter. We mourn the deaths of Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco, Lulu Benson-Seay, Benjamin Smalls, Dante Taylor, Valerie Gaiter, Samuel Harrell, and all those who have died at the hands of racist state violence, often behind jail or prison walls. In their names, we commit to the struggle to dismantle the carceral state and build the power of our communities. We call on the New York Legislature to do the same.

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Assemblymember Latrice Walker represents Brooklyn’s 55th District. Marvin Mayfield is a New York State Organizer at Center for Community Alternatives. Cynthia Carter-Young is a lifelong Brooklynite and the sister of Leonard Carter.

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Returning Power to the People by Rebalancing the State Budget Process


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Gov. Cuomo presents a budget plan (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


The job of state legislators is to craft laws that protect New Yorkers and advance equal opportunity and justice. A significant part of that job is shaping our state budget, which funds our schools, our health care, our transportation systems, and a long list of vital other public services. During a global pandemic, this already crucial responsibility has reached a new level of importance. But, over the years, in the strange world of Albany, the role and power of the New York Legislature during the budget process has been stripped away.

It’s time to re-balance the power between the Legislative and Executive branches of state government, and take back the people’s seat at the table, by amending the State Constitution and passing the Budget Equity Act.

Government works best when the checks and balances inherent to our democratic process remain unobstructed, we honor the bulwarks of our democracy, and empower co-equal branches of government. This is true at the federal level, and also at the state and local levels.

Our democracy was built on the idea that no person or branch of government should accrue too much power. But this democratic principle is not upheld in New York State. This is because a long line of governors have increasingly used a state constitutional provision from 1927 to minimize the role of legislators and grow their own centralized power in the budget process. In addition to seizing dominant control over how to fund or cut critical services, they have used their power to further their own policy agendas by putting consequential legislation directly into the state budget.

When the executive branch puts policy directly into the budget, the language cannot be amended by the Legislature. Unless the governor chooses to change their own budget bill, the Legislature’s only option is to go along with what the governor demands or reject the budget entirely. There is no debate, no room for change, no room for anyone else’s opinions – most importantly the public’s. And for years now, governors have been pushing the bounds of their executive power far beyond the purely budgetary matters for which it was intended.

This end-run around the legislative process has been used to create laws without allowing for the open and public process that new policies deserve. For example, just this year, policies like whether nursing homes should be shielded from liability if they are negligent in their treatment of COVID-19 patients (which we both opposed) and expanding New York’s prevailing wage laws to include publicly-subsidized construction (which we both supported), have become law via this undemocratic process. There was no opportunity for debate or modification without rejecting the entire state budget. A difficult vote we were forced to take.

Surely our system can’t be so far from what our founders spelled out. But unfortunately, this is what our state constitution says, as interpreted by the courts.

As legislators, we are elected to represent our constituents, but their voices are silenced when we are not allowed to fully exercise our rightful role in making laws. Our founders recognized that the process of vigorous debate and discussion, with the full engagement of legislators from very disparate communities to be able to perfect the budget into the best possible piece of legislation, was the best way to ensure that all voices and viewpoints are considered before an idea becomes law.

No matter how you feel about nursing home liability or prevailing wage policies, we can all agree that they deserve as full a public airing, consideration, and opportunity for amendment as other laws. Indeed, preserving each legislator’s role in addressing bills like those is not only critical for ensuring the best process for public involvement, it is also vital for the electoral accountability on which our democracy is founded.

Our proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution would correct this imbalance of power. It simply requires that the Governor clearly indicate any non-budgetary policy changes contained within their proposed budget, and ensure that the Legislature has the authority to amend those policy changes through the normal amendment process.

We live in a time when more and more of the residents we serve feel disenfranchised by their government and worry about the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. By passing the Budget Equity Act – which then would be voted on in a statewide referendum – we can give the people the more representative government they are rightfully owed.

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State Senator Alessandra Biaggi represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @SenatorBiaggi & @DickGottfried.

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The Pandemic Further Exposed Nursing Homes; New York Needs to Invest in Better Options for Senior and Disabled Populations


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The coronavirus crisis put a spotlight on nursing homes (photo: Ed Reed/mayor's office)


COVID-19 has forced us to face a long-known, but ignored, truth: nursing homes are not desirable places to age. And the racial disparities in quality of health care at these facilities was only exacerbated by the pandemic, as we saw higher COVID-19 death rates in facilities with more people of color

Just within the past month, 743 people have died in New York State of COVID, and 225 of those people were in nursing homes – a staggering 30% of total deaths. The total doesn’t even count people who were shifted from a nursing home to a hospital then died.

Governor Cuomo recently doubled down on his position that being at a nursing home was safer than having a personal aide caring for you at home. But senior and disabled residents who rely on consumer directed personal assistance (CDPA), a program that lets them hire their own caregivers so they can continue to live independently, would disagree.

A survey of consumers using CDPA, conducted by Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State (CDPAANYS) during the COVID-19 pandemic, showed that chief among the concerns expressed by consumers statewide was a fear of being institutionalized. 

Without CDPA contributing to shrinking nursing home populations, the tragedy that has played out over the last several months and continues today would have been even worse. Despite this, over $200 million in state budget cuts to CDPA over two years, including a $45 million cut at the height of the outbreak in April to the wages of these personal assistants providing at-home care, have threatened the ability of the program to be effective at a time when it’s needed most.

This $45 million represents a 25% cut to wages and benefits for frontline workers, decided on by the governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team earlier this year, despite a study showing low wages were one of the chief obstacles to both recruitment and retention of homecare workers.

As our population has aged, CDPA has played an increased role in the long-term care system for a host of reasons. Nursing homes have never been desirable, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has forced states to utilize more community-based options. Accessibility to CDPA has been a key factor in individuals who need home care being able to remain independent and stay within their communities and homes, and during the COVID crisis it may very well have saved some of their lives.

CDPA has grown rapidly as a more popular alternative to traditional forms of home care in which an agency sends workers to your home based on availability. CDPA is more flexible, letting people set their own care schedules, and because the program allows people to recruit and hire their own workers, it’s also proven exceptional at narrowing the language and cultural gaps that plague our health-care system.

Because those caregivers hired can also be friends or family, it has created options for those who do not have the luxury of being an “informal,” or unpaid, support for their family due to their economic reality. In the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 and broader health disparities, informal care often means sacrificing a paycheck.

Over the past five years the number of people using CDPA has more than doubled to about 80,000. Over the same five-year period, New York closed over 1,800 nursing home beds.

Additionally, as the epicenter of the national shortage in home care workers, New York does not have enough home care workers to handle the increased demands of our rapidly aging population, increasingly composed of immigrants and people of color living in poverty.

Regardless, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature cut funding for CDPA by that $200-plus million in just the past two years alone.

With so many nursing home deaths within our state, New Yorkers will be further spurred to look for alternatives to care for their senior family members who need it. Unfortunately, our state's response, the past few years, has been to cut long-term care services for those most in need. This position was wrong before the crisis and is still wrong for our seniors and disabled populations who wish to stay in their communities. We should instead be investing more into effective, community-based health services like CDPA to address health disparities and improve outcomes. 

Our leaders must resist harmful cuts and instead enact popular proposals like raising taxes on the wealthy to bring in revenue that can be used for essential services.

CDPA’s growth has allowed the state to reduce the already devastating impact that health disparities and confinement to nursing homes are producing. That growth, while it may not have been planned, is not unreasonable given the relative increase of the aging population, the closure of almost 2,000 nursing home beds, and the shortages of traditional home care staff. For all its horrors, COVID-19 presents us an opportunity to right historical wrongs. Shame on us if we choose not to take it.

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Bryan O’Malley is Executive Director of the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State.

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How New York Must Respond to New Covid-Related Challenges as Communities of Color Face Deadly Summer Heat


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A heat wave is here (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Heat kills. It is the deadliest form of weather. And it kills Black and brown people at a higher rate than whites.

This should no longer be news. The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exposed the many brutal inequities in our society, which have been overlooked and outright ignored by decision-makers for far too long. In the United States, generations of Black and brown people have had to endure systematic and institutional racism that has resulted in disproportionately high incidences of COVID-19 cases and mortality rates.

And with the intense summer heat having arrived, we are even more concerned because the hardships that increase COVID-19 susceptibility are the same hardships that increase heat-illness susceptibility — and in the same communities. More people are staying home, have compromised immune systems, and need safe spaces to get cool.

Annually, there are around 100 heat-related deaths, and over 400 hospitalizations and emergency room visits from extreme heat exposure in New York City. This rate will increase as summers become hotter due to the climate crisis. And, the impact is not equal. The New York City Department of Health found that neighborhoods such as East and Central Harlem, which are predominantly Black and Latino, have higher vulnerability to heat-related illness or death.

The disproportionate impacts of extreme heat are not new, nor are the solutions – such as decreasing fossil fuel emissions, designing our cities to adapt to extreme heat, and providing people with adequate cooling. However, due to the pandemic, the health threats of extreme heat are raising additional challenges that must be addressed to avoid an even deadlier summer.

Action must be taken immediately.

First, we must consider the increased importance of having adequate cooling in our homes. This summer, more people will be spending more time at home. Low-income families and families of color are more likely to be unable to access and/or afford adequate cooling in their homes, and are more likely to experience health impacts such as heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and exacerbated existing chronic conditions.

Over 85 percent of heat-stroke deaths occurred in homes without a working air conditioner, or with an air conditioner that was not used. Considering that New Yorkers typically pay 20 to 30 percent more for utilities during the summer, and within that black renters typically pay more for energy than white renters, it is especially important that low-income households have access to free air conditioners and receive significant utility bill subsidies. Mayor de Blasio’s new and ongoing program to install thousands of free air conditioners in the homes of low-income seniors is welcome, and should be quickly expanded to other households.

Second, New York City and New York State policymakers and public health workers must consider how health-care utilization will be impacted due to heat. People that may normally seek care for heat exposure may avoid health-care spaces this year for fear of contracting COVID-19. Clear, multilingual health communications in the most at-risk neighborhoods is vital for ensuring people access emergency care for heat illnesses.

Third, New York City and New York State must consider the sociocultural and psychological impacts of extreme heat in a COVID-19 summer. Culturally, many communities of color rely on one another for support. On a hot day if you don’t have air conditioning in your home, you may go to your aunt’s or your brother’s house to find a cool room. This summer, households that would have relied on one another are left with either risking their health to find social, emotional, and material support, or not have that support at all.

It isn’t enough to offer spaces to cool down that happen to be in hardest hit neighborhoods, we must partner with communities to find safe and healthy spaces for gathering that are culturally significant and will therefore be more utilized. 

Finally, decision-makers must consider how anti-Blackness and white supremacy compounds extreme heat issues. As the city began to re-open, there were reports of increased policing in Black communities, disguised as COVID-19 safety measures. For example, the disproportionate levels of policing at green spaces in Black and brown communities has left many of these community members fearful of visiting parks, or simply going outside while wearing masks. Utilizing outdoor space is a key piece of keeping safe from extreme heat. If their home lacks adequate cooling, and going outdoors is unsafe, where do our community members go for respite from the heat? When needing to increase COVID-19 safety enforcement, it is important to keep the NYPD far from the job and instead increase the number of Social Distancing Ambassadors trained by the city, who can feel more like peers than violent enforcers. 

We have had some wins to protect people this summer, but much more needs to be done. Due to advocacy work, the New York State Public Service Commission voted this month to approve electricity bill rebates for low-income households. And the New York City Mayor’s Office implemented the aforementioned GetCool NYC, with free air conditioners to thousands of qualified vulnerable seniors across the city (though not all who need them are getting them in time for this summer’s heat). We have worked tirelessly for this progress, but there is much more to be done to protect overburdened communities now and in the long-term.

The solution to extreme heat impacts lies in a comprehensive response informed by the communities most impacted by COVID-19 and historical racism. Extreme heat must be treated as a public health problem, not just a climate change problem.

As a precursor to what we are calling the “Heat, Health, and Equity Initiative” to be launched in 2021, WE ACT for Environmental Justice has put forth a set of tangible policy solutions on the state and city levels that will address some of the issues that have contributed to the disparate impact of extreme heat exposure and heat illness on communities of color.

Expanding LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, to fund retrofitting buildings, supporting bills to ensure data collection and publication related to heat is timely, setting minimum temperature for office buildings, installing shade covering on pedestrian streets, upgrading cooling center HVAC systems, and expanding community solar are among some of the many policy recommendations WE ACT has set forth to achieve both short- and long-term solutions for extreme heat.

As we take the time to safely reopen our city, this is an opportunity to find solutions that will not only protect our most impacted communities now, but that can also address environmental racism and help us prepare for future pandemics and disasters.

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Sonal Jessel, MPH, is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, where she specializes in addressing the health impacts of extreme heat in low-income communities and communities of color. On Twitter @weact4ej.

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An Inclusive Recovery Starts With An Inclusive Process


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Gather stakeholders around the table (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Major financial decisions in New York, such as city and state budgets and economic development deals, are typically made behind closed doors in processes that are opaque to the public and rushed through our legislatures. The recent budget deal between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council was no different — addressing a $9 billion shortfall with contingencies and fuzzy math. It included an insufficient plan to restart our economy and will ultimately prove to be shortsighted, as we approach a fiscal crisis that will affect us for years.

We cannot meet this generational economic challenge by using the same old standard operating procedures and backroom deals. In order to create an inclusive recovery that works for all New Yorkers, we must include input from all New Yorkers.

New York was able to recover from the 1975 fiscal crisis in part because of the empowerment of a commission that led to the creation of the New York State Emergency Financial Control Board and other safeguards that were subsequently implemented.

While both the Governor and Mayor are correctly advocating for significant help in the form of financial aid from Washington, an inclusive commission of experts should be in place to implement a strategy for using that aid and back-up plans if it doesn't arrive.

The commission should include labor leaders of both public and private sector unions, whose organizations represent approximately 22% of New York City’s total workforce and provide a foundation for a prosperous middle class. Our small business community should be represented, in particular the hospitality industry that was hit so hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Voices that are too often left out of the process, such as leaders from immigrant and Black communities, tenant leaders, and others must play a central role in identifying areas of need, and the most direct means to assist New York families in crisis.

As the former Finance Chair of the New York City Council, I know that there is no substitute for expertise. Elected officials and government experts on budget and finance, including our current and former city Comptrollers, should also be important and necessary parts of this commission.

An inclusive recovery must include new sources of revenue so that we don’t have to balance our budget on cuts alone. I strongly support the full legalization of marijuana, with the revenue generated from new taxes split between New York State and the local municipalities where the sales originate. I also believe it is time to legalize the multibillion-dollar industry of sports wagering in New York in a manner that is competitive with our neighboring states. These simple policy changes will create important sustainable jobs for the 21st century.
An inclusive commission would be instrumental in ensuring that these are union jobs wherever possible, and that jobs and new tax revenue directly benefit individuals from our most vulnerable communities.

While the specific structure and role of a commission could be up for debate, there is no denying that our city will come back stronger if we include more voices in an open, honest decision-making process.

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David Weprin is a member of the New York State Assembly and candidate for New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @DavidWeprin.

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We Should Never Have to Choose Between Life and Democracy


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In-person voting during a pandemic (photo: Gotham Gazette)


We should never have to decide between public health and democracy. We must have both.

We hoped that voter suppression was a thing of the past, and yet it is still present not just in the South but in the South Bronx and across the country.

We are witnessing a public health and democratic crisis that must be addressed immediately—otherwise, lives will be taken as electoral gains are also stolen.  

In short, the coronavirus crisis has cast a light on the deteriorating health of American democracy, and it’s time we act urgently.

In the midst of a global pandemic, state and local governments have had to adjust the way voters participate in elections to minimize transmission of COVID-19 and keep people safe, including using early voting and mail-in ballots so that people have options to cast their vote.

However, the past few months have shown that our electoral system is still in dire need of repair. The fact that it is taking weeks to count ballots in the South Bronx, for example, does not bode well for upcoming elections—the most important of which is defeating Donald Trump in November. 

In Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of voters received their ballots in the mail after the election had passed. Baltimore residents had to wait more than a week longer to receive their ballots than residents of the other parts of Maryland. More than 1,000 voters in New Mexico were disenfranchised because their mail-in ballots arrived too late to be counted on Election Day.  

In Georgia, tens of thousands of voters had yet to receive their ballots by mail on the day before the primary election, and more than 10% of in-person polling places in the state had been closed, forcing many voters to wait for hours in line at those sites that remained open. 

Unfortunately, in New York’s June primary elections, we saw more of the same—delayed or missing ballots causing the disenfranchisement of people unable to leave their homes due to health concerns; polling places closed or moved without explanation; lifelong Democrats told to submit an affidavit ballot because their party status was somehow in question; voters forced to wait hours in line in the midst of a pandemic.

There were just under 800,000 absentee ballots sent out by the New York City Board of Elections and more than 400,000 absentee ballots returned by voters. However, we still have no clarity on the actual number of people who never received their ballots or received them late, nor the actual timetable of when the ballots were mailed out in the first place.

We also still don't know why the top voting Black polling place in my Assembly District (the 79th) was moved nor why several of our polling places were opened late nor why so many persons were only given presidential primary ballots nor why so many largely Black polling places have two-hour-plus lines due to insufficient equipment and scanners going down. Some may call these all innocent errors, but there's simply too much consistency to ignore, too much likely intentionality to overlook.

When the government needs to contact us to collect money, the mail system works seamlessly. However, from delayed stimulus checks earlier this year to now delayed ballots, we are not helping our fellow Americans to recover and exercise their right to participate in our democracy.

Simply put, it is unacceptable that untold numbers of Americans are being asked to literally risk their lives to participate in the electoral process because of the inadequacies of the vote-by-mail system and boards of elections. 

I am proposing the following set of remedies.

First, all poll workers must receive non-partisan training, be treated as skilled employees with approved certification, and have no connection to any candidate or campaign. Moreover, the leadership and staff at boards of elections should always be independently appointed.

Second, there must be a public schedule that explicitly sets forth when ballots should be received by voters in the mail, ensuring some degree of government accountability. In addition, there must be a tracking system to notify voters of ballot distribution and arrival, just as there would be for any package purchased online. 

Third, if someone is found to have participated in voter suppression, he or she must be immediately referred to the New York State Attorney General for investigation.

Fourth, we must ensure that devices at polling places are able to identify a voter who lives within that site's jurisdiction so that people are not unjustly turned away from their polling site or forced to submit an affidavit ballot.

Fifth, the public must be given transparency as to why a person is asked to vote by affidavit ballot or has had their ballot invalidated. My team has identified several hundred affidavit ballots that were initially deemed invalid, many for simply undemocratic reasons such as a person who is confirmed by the Board of Elections to be a Democrat had their ballot invalidated because they didn’t check a box  for why they were voting by affidavit. What if the person didn’t know why they were being forced to vote affidavit or the poll worker didn’t actually have a reason?

Sixth, there must be emergency allocations for local boards of elections and postal services to have sufficient capacity prior to the election. In the event that legal action is required in the 15th Congressional District -- or elsewhere -- to review the election results, that election should not be certified until the legal action is resolved. This should be the standard across the board.

Seventh, wherever possible, a public hearing and approval process must be established prior to moving a polling site.

It pains me to think that this undemocratic process has occurred over the course of many decades. Anyone who has contributed to the intentional disenfranchisement and suppression of voters should be ashamed, as your silence has led to the voices of New Yorkers not being heard.

If you voted by affidavit or absentee ballot, you should demand an immediate answer as to whether your ballot has been deemed valid and counted in this electoral contest. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are thinking right now that their vote was counted, but unbeknownst to them, and for some undisclosed reason, their ballot was in fact voided. We should not have to sift through countless reams of paper to discover that New Yorkers—especially those in low-income, Black and brown neighborhoods—are being unfairly disenfranchised and suppressed.

The reforms outlined above are necessary because these issues are not theoretical. A recent study found that Wisconsin’s decision to hold an in-person election in April led to a substantial spike in coronavirus infections. In other words, these election-related issues are a matter of life and death. If we’re going to offer the early and mail-in voting that we should, it must work, and work well, to ensure that New Yorkers and all American voters have their right to vote protected and ensured.

As I continue to cry and mourn the loss of Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whom I had the honor to meet several times and bestowed upon me one of his final endorsements, my spirit reflects heavily on one of his many profound sayings: "If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it." As we enter the fourth week after our election with so many unresolved problems, I'm writing this because we have a moral obligation to end the voter disenfranchisement and suppression that occurs across New York State and this country.

Countless numbers of our ancestors marched, bled, and died for the inalienable right to vote.  We shouldn’t have to risk death to vote again.

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Michael Blake is a member of the state Assembly and candidate for Congress in the Bronx. On Twitter @MrMikeBlake.

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Federal Funding Up for NYPD, Down for Human Services


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NYPD officers (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Budgets, as the saying goes, reflect our values. Take a closer look at where the money goes – or doesn’t – and you can readily see our nation’s priorities.

This is perhaps never truer than during an economic downturn. At FPWA, we’ve examined the trends in federal spending for human services using our online Federal Funds Tracker. We know that since the Great Recession ten years ago, the federal government’s austere budgets have left human service programs in New York City deeply underfunded. Such policy choices have disproportionately harmed Black New Yorkers and other communities of color. Now, a decade later, the coronavirus pandemic is dealing another uneven blow to the same communities

Our Tracker tells us where the federal money didn’t go. But what do we learn when we look at where it did go? What does the data reveal about our priorities and something more – our systemic biases?

As recent anti-police brutality protests offered hope of “arousing the nation’s consciousness” about systemic racism, police reform, and social injustices, we used the Tracker’s open data infrastructure to explore trends in federal funding for policing compared to human services.

We found that between fiscal years (FY) 2010 and 2019, federal funding for New York City’s human services fell by $344 million (8 percent) while funding for the New York City Police Department (NYPD) increased by $144 million (129 percent).

Driving this growth in federal funding for the NYPD is the ‘Urban Area Security Initiatives’ (UASI) – a formula grant that is intended to “protect against terrorism in high-threat, high-density urban areas,” but that some civil liberty, humanitarian, and religious organizations have identified as being central to the “acceleration of police militarization and lack of accountability.”

Nationally, $605 million was appropriated for UASI in federal fiscal year (FFY) 2020 – an increase of $25 million since FFY 2019, and $9.4 billion since the program was signed into law in the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act.

New York City has received a quarter ($2.3 billion) of all UASI funding. In FY 2019, the NYPD received more than $117 million for UASI, representing approximately half of the department’s federal funding. The vast majority of this funding supports NYPD’s ‘security/counter-terrorism’ program, while Housing and Preservation Development (HPD) and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) receive a small slice each.

Subject matter experts in policing and counterterrorism and those with a better grasp of NYPD’s opaque budget will better understand how NYPD’s UASI funding is spent, the efficacy of the nearly two-decade-old program, and the extent to which other programs such as the Department of Defense’s 1033 program have militarized the NYPD. We do know, however, that the “nexus to terrorism” funding requirement in the UASI program has enabled police departments across the nation to acquire highly militarized weapons such as body armor, bayonets, automatic rifles, grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and surveillance drones.

These cast-off weapons from the Pentagon are intended to support counterterrorism efforts, but the resulting militarization of police forces is also used in the everyday policing of Black, Latino, and poor communities, the illegal surveillance of Muslim communities, and the escalation of police violence against protestors. In fact, the UASI program came under scrutiny following the weeks-long standoff between anti-police brutality protestors and heavily armed police forces in Ferguson, MO.

FPWA’s online Federal Funds Tracker tool visualizes trends in federal dollars for human services in New York City, but it also allows users to download trend data on federal grants that support all categories of spending. As policing in America is more closely examined, especially as experienced by Black Americans, these findings gives credence to concerns expressed by protesters, advocates, and policymakers who wish to see the budgets of police departments more closely scrutinized, and more dollars reallocated towards human services such as education, housing, mental health, and other social services.

Black Americans have been disproportionately harmed by each of the last decade’s crises and disinvestments from programs that improve people’s lives, while simultaneously confronting systemic racism that is present – and well-funded – today, such as militarized and discriminatory policing. As Congress begins preparing next fiscal year’s budget, it is encouraging to see bipartisan legislation that acknowledges the federal government’s role in the militarization of local police departments, but closer scrutiny will be required to truly address the full scope of budget tradeoffs that exacerbate racial injustices.

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Derek Thomas is Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst; Matan Diner Fiscal Policy Fellow; and Gaurav Gupta-Casale is Fiscal Policy Analyst at FPWA. On Twitter @FPWA.

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Exposing - and Ending - Police Lies


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New NYPD officers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)


America is being confronted with a truth that Black communities have always known—cops lie. They tell big lies that send people to jail for life. They tell small, yet still extremely dangerous lies like the completely fabricated Shake Shack poisoning. Cops especially tell insidious lies to cover up acts of racial terror, as we witnessed with recent lynchings that were officially labeled suicide by the police. These lies are part of a broader system, culture, and practice of police violence, and just one more reason why we must defund the police. 

Perhaps most disturbing of all is when these lies are used to absolve the police of murder. Elijah McClain, who died in Colorado police custody last year, had done nothing illegal prior to his arrest. Cops claim McClain was resisting arrest and reached for one of their guns, even though recorded evidence directly disputes that lie. The Louisville cops who killed Breonna Taylor told many inconsistent stories about the night they barged into her home and shot her eight times. 

The ever-increasing count of murders by lying police still only constitute a fraction of the lies cops tell. Cops lie to justify violating constitutional protections and due process rights of Black and brown communities, and they do this with impunity. Ask any public defender and they will corroborate that cops lie. In fact, ask any police officer and they will also corroborate that cops lie, as they did with the New York Times—what cops have admittedly called testilying

Similarly, New York City prosecutors often enable the practice of cops lying in order to convict people, regardless of innocence. In all five boroughs, prosecutors are maintaining internal databases of cops with credibility problems in court. These secret databases must be made public for transparency and accountability. At the same time, these secret databases only scratch the surface of the problem. A Gothamist/WNYC investigation in partnership with The Appeal found that New York City prosecutors consistently fail to document and disclose police dishonesty. 

Most notably in popular culture, Ava DuVernay’s masterful television miniseries “When They See Us” illuminates the lies, corruption, and self-delusion of police and prosecutors alike. Yet, cops have occupied the moral and credibility highground for far too long, meanwhile Black and brown communities have been pathologized and vilified.

As public defenders, we bear witness to the lies cops tell to justify racist policing. Public defenders all across the United States have taken to social media in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and calls to defund the police. Using the hashtag #CopsLie, The Black Attorneys of Legal Aid organized this digital campaign to show that the systemic racism and abuse within policing in America are not individual incidents and cannot be excused as aberration. 

Nonchalant lying with impunity is ingrained in American police culture. We've seen police plant evidence, falsify documents, and lie while testifying under oath. They even blatantly lie in the face of contradictory video evidence. These lies are so prevalent that even journalists are reexamining their reliance on the police as sources.

Public defenders have inundated social media with firsthand accounts of police lying. Finda Yawah, a public defender in New York City, recounts when a “cop claimed my client tried to hit him on top of the head with a 40 ounce bottle. It was physically impossible due to my client’s severe medical issues and injuries to his spine before the incident.” Fortunately, the jury saw through the cop’s lies and found her client not guilty. 

Public defenders routinely see the false reasons police give to arrest and detain by asserting, "He fit the description." Destiny Singh, a Black attorney and former public defender in Palm Beach, describes her personal experience with these racist lies in court. A cop, who claimed to witness her client committing a crime, is asked to identify her client. The cop “points to me. Then continues to describe what I’m wearing,” writes Singh. Singh’s client was later acquitted.

Police lies are entangled in police violence. Cops commonly lie to excuse their use of excessive force. Olayemi Olurin, a public defender from The Legal Aid Society’s Queens office, shared multiple stories. One of these stories involved a “teenage boy who officers lied + said threw a Capri sun on the ground,” so “they tased and beat him so many times he peed himself, was bleeding, had cuts running down his legs and couldn’t walk.” What would have kept this Black boy safe is to reduce contact between police and communities. Prison abolitionists like Mariame Kaba have explained: “The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.”

Racist and aggressive policing, coupled with after the fact lies, have serious collateral consequences on Black and brown communities, from unemployment to immigration detention. Olurin represented another “young man who police arrested and charged with criminal trespass as he was entering his own home. The address he was accused of trespassing at was his home address listed on his ID and the paperwork provided by the officers themselves.” Yet, “the prosecution still refused to dismiss the charges for a couple of months and my client could not get employed because of the open criminal case.” 

Law enforcement lies even shape public policy, like when New York rolled back bail reform earlier this year under the guise of public safety. Cops are using fear to fight reform. “The reality is the NYPD goes to great lengths crafting causation where there is none, misleading the public, and, yes, even lying to maintain the unmitigated, militaristic power they enjoy in the city,” said Marie Ndiaye, a supervising attorney in the Decarceration Project at The Legal Aid Society. 

According to journalist Ross Barkan, the spectre of murders in NYC needs context. “There have been 176 people killed. At this point last year, 143 were killed. This is a spike, not an apocalypse.” In fact, back when Michael Bloomberg was mayor in 2012, “419 people were killed. We are in the midst of a once in a century pandemic,” and “NYC is NOT on pace for that.” 

In an era of alternative facts, the amplification of #CopsLie stories reveal truth and give visceral meaning as to why we must defund the police. To defund the police is to reduce police contact with vulnerable communities, because policing is a part of the problem of violence in our society. As we begin to reframe what public safety means and the role of policing, we must also understand that defunding the police seeks to reallocate and redistribute resources from policing to institutions and services that promote healthy communities--like education, healthcare, and housing.

NYC is allegedly cutting $1 billion from its usual exorbitant police budget of nearly $6 billion, but activists have criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC City Council for shuffling funds to pay the NYPD through other agencies, like the Department of Education. However, problems with the criminal legal system is not a policing problem alone, other actors in the criminal justice system require significant changes as well. In addition to defunding the police, there are concrete steps that can be taken by prosecutors and judges in the meantime.

We need prosecutors to confront their own complicity in bolstering police lies, and proactively expose police abuse. Judges can also refuse to rubberstamp police testimony, throw out cases where police are caught in lies, and even sanction the cops who lie. If police knew that their lies would not only be called out by public defenders but also prevented by prosecutors and sanctioned by judges, we would see a drastic decrease in lying cops and the destruction their lies cause. 

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Rigodis Appling is a public defender and a member of the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid caucus at the Legal Aid Society. Jason Wu is a legal services attorney in New York City, and a trustee for the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW 2325. On Twitter @rigodis & @CriticalRace.

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New York’s Working Men and Women are Ready To Go Back to Work


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Construction needs to boom again (photo: governor's office)


New York, and the nation, are recovering from an economic hit unlike any other in our history. It has been tough and now is the time to get back to work.

Let’s build our way out of the pain of the last several months with innovative, ambitious, and transformative projects that will put wages for working New Yorkers back into the economy and let our hard-hit state speed the healing by rebuilding our aging infrastructure.

Hard work is the backbone of our nation. Hard work is what gives us purpose. And, hard work is what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has always been, and always will be, about. We’re ready - and I know we’re not the only ones.

Fortunately, from both an infrastructure and economic development perspective, there are some large projects waiting in the wings that will make a real difference in the lives of all New Yorkers. Investment is needed in transmission lines, onshore wind, solar, hydro, offshore wind, and improvements at our ports – renewable energy projects will put the men and women of this state back to work.

The Champlain Hudson Power Express is one such project. The buried and resilient electric transmission line will create more than 2,000 construction-related jobs for New Yorkers, add millions in tax revenue annually to local governments that desperately need the funding and bring firm, green energy to New York City, satisfying the power needs of over 1 million residents for more than 50 years. The project will do this while reducing harmful emissions and helping the Governor and Mayor move towards a more renewable, sustainable future. 

With construction set to begin in 2021, the Champlain Hudson Power Express will be the first of many significant green building projects to break ground. These green innovative projects are poised to create thousands of new jobs for our union labor force. There is a reason this project and other clean energy job generators are supported by business leaders across the state.

Reviving and rebuilding New York’s economy is imperative, and it starts with organized labor.  We’re ready to build, whether it’s offshore or upstate wind and solar, electrification of New York City, or installing solar panels on the roofs of apartment buildings and schools. We’re ready to install car chargers and we’re ready to train the next generation workforce to build this new and exciting green economy. 

The IBEW and all of organized labor are ready to turn these initiatives into opportunity. That’s what New Yorkers do. We are grateful for the leadership our Governor and the Mayor showed us during these last months. We can thank them by turning their green visions into action and jobs. And in doing so, turn their clean energy goals into clean energy realities.  

We are ready to rebuild our great state. We are ready to build the Champlain Hudson Power Express and much more.

Let’s work together to move New York State forward.

***
Christopher Erikson is the Business Manager for IBEW-Local 3.

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Toppling Statues, and Prisons


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Sing Sing prison, 19th century (photo: New York Public Library)


Monuments of all kinds are facing renewed scrutiny as protesters, fueled by the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, have taken to the streets in more than 140 cities. Statues that glorify and venerate slavery and slaveholders are coming down, with or without governmental approval, across the country. The sight of these prominently displayed symbols of brutality, inhumanity, and state-sponsored racism tumbling down inspires hope that there may also be a long-overdue reckoning for the United States’ centuries of devotion to white supremacy. 

Now is clearly the moment for all to examine the monuments that clutter the landscape – not only those that honor the racist deeds of the powerful men enshrined in their statues, but those built of impenetrable walls that continue to enslave tens of thousands of people. And while few thought, up until a few months ago, that hundreds of statues could ever be questioned, protested, and pulled down, so, too, should prisons – repugnant monuments in stone – now be subject to the same critical scrutiny. 

Just as those who tear down statues understand the historical contexts in which they were built and persist, so too do prison abolitionists share a perspective – they teach that prisons are borne of a larger system with roots in slavery, and envision a path forward to a society where such institutions no longer exist.  The abolitionists dare to imagine a time when – as with other monuments to atrocity – they come down, stone by stone, brick by brick.

‘Progressive’ New York is home to several of the country’s oldest and most brutal prisons.

Auburn prison was built in 1818. It is the site of the first execution by electric chair and the namesake of the "Auburn system," a practice that placed people in solitary confinement and required physical labor performed under complete silence. Any objections were met with a whipping.  

Sing Sing prison was built in 1826 with cells measuring 7 feet deep by 3 feet-3 inches wide. The men inside were forced to mine the land and produced marble used in the construction of Grace Church in Manhattan, New York University, and the New York State Capitol and United States Treasury buildings. Six hundred and fourteen people have been executed in Sing Sing’s electric chair.  

Clinton Dannemora was built in 1844. In 1887, 60-foot-high stone walls were added to the prison. Those walls still stand. It is sometimes called Little Siberia owing to the cold winters and the isolation of the upstate area where the prison sits. Originally, prisoners were used to supply labor to local mines. Nowadays, people inside New York prisons work a variety of tasks for an average of 65 cents an hour and their labor generates about $50 million in annual sales that goes mostly to local governments. Clinton is the largest maximum-security prison in New York, with a staff that includes about a thousand correction officers and supervisors. 

New York, like many other states, built the majority of its prisons in rural regions far from the urban areas where so many of the incarcerated live. This reality exists up to the present: every prison in the state built since 1982 is in upstate New York. The proliferation of prisons in isolated, distressed rural areas that suffer from a lack of industry and jobs is due to their elected officials vigorously lobbying for prisons as economic saviors. The relationship between the decline of the upstate New York economy and the prison construction boom of the 1980s is unmistakable. 

In many rural communities, the entire economy revolves around the local prison. Prisons offer jobs for relatively unskilled members of the community with no relevant training or experience. Rural towns in upstate New York employ hundreds of locals to oversee thousands of outsiders. Add to the mix the racial imbalance—predominantly, if not exclusively, white officers guarding predominantly Black and brown men—and the potential for abuse is as clear as the ugly images conjured up of plantations and slavery.

It is this upstate/city, white/black, guard/prisoner dynamic that leads to so many of the prison abuses that have been exposed over the years. Whether due to lack of familiarity, understanding, and trust, or racial animus, intolerance, indifference or neglect, the predictable results are systemic mistreatment. Discrimination in housing and job assignments and inadequate access to medical and mental health treatment are endemic. Fully revealed these days is the long-existing abuse of what are euphemistically called "special housing units" or "isolation cells"—in other words, rampant and prolonged solitary confinement for thousands of people.

While it may today seem impossible to literally bring down the prison walls, to attach a rope around the turrets and pull them down, much can be done. We can begin to dismantle from the inside out by freeing the innumerable people who remain incarcerated solely to satisfy the criminal legal system’s unquenchable thirst for punishment. Countless people of color in prison remain there solely because of racism and white supremacy, hastily dispatched by judges to serve life behind bars.

So much seems permanent in the American carceral system. The ancient upstate prisons stand with their imposing walls as unyielding fortresses. The people inside feel frozen in time, confined by a system that defines them solely and eternally by an act committed years before. It all feels impervious to change.  

Yet few believed just a few months ago that scores of people would now be in the streets toppling visible symbols of oppression and reclaiming public space. Few thought there would ever be a serious conversation about defunding the police. Structural change in funding and priorities is on the immediate horizon. The current uprising calls for overarching reckoning and rectification. There is no reason its reach cannot be extended to prisons.  

We can tear down a punitive system that values interminable punishment and holds no space for redemption. Newly constituted parole and clemency agencies must see people in prison for who they are and understand why they were incarcerated in the first place. Thousands of people can be immediately released as we begin to finally address the crisis of mass incarceration that has decimated families and communities of color. And eventually the walls of the prison just might come tumbling down.

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Steven Zeidman is a professor of law at CUNY School of Law. On Twitter @SteveZeidman.

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One Essential, Concrete Step to Redress Environmental Racism in the South Bronx


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Transforming the South Bronx (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


Our country’s history has been fraught with issues that have disadvantaged communities of color, including unequal housing, education, health, food access, economic opportunity, and the chronic stresses of living with racial bias. Intertwined with these are a myriad of severe environmental justice issues.

Communities of color suffer disproportionately from air pollution from nearby waste facilities, industrial plants, and high bus and truck traffic on their thoroughfares.“Diesel trucks and diesel buses play a significant role in impacting the health of our communities negatively,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “For us, this is one of the ways in which environmental racism manifests itself.”

In New York, one of the hardest-hit communities is the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.15,000 trucks a day transport products and service the Hunts Point food market, which sells food to the whole city. "Yet Hunts Point itself is a food desert,” New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi points out. “Residents often do not have access to the fresh produce being distributed right in their neighborhood.”

Diesel trucks spew exhaust containing particulates, nitrogen oxides, and ozone, which damage public health. Exposure to them correlates with increased emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and premature death. It also correlates with higher mortality from coronavirus. The asthma rate among youth in the South Bronx is 13% -- almost twice the national average.  Nationally, communities of color breathe 66% more air pollution from vehicles compared to predominantly white communities. To lower childhood asthma rates, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and lung cancer, pediatric health expert Dr. Philip J. Landrigan recommends  replacing diesel buses and trucks with safer, non-polluting alternatives. 

We know how to do that, and we should do it now. New high-performance natural gas-powered engines for medium- and heavy-duty trucks virtually eliminate the health-damaging pollutants in diesel exhaust and are widely available. They’re also much quieter than diesel engines, enabling residents to sleep better at night.

These engines can run on conventional compressed natural gas or, better yet, on renewable natural gas (RNG), made from the methane biogases emitted by decomposing food and other organic wastes. Instead of letting them escape into the air, where they trap heat and warm the climate, the biogases are captured and refined into RNG. According to the California Air Resources Board and Argonne National Labs, RNG is the lowest-carbon fuel available today.  When made from organic wastes diverted from landfills, RNG also reduces the negative impacts on communities near those landfills.

Trucks equipped with these engines cost about $40,000 more than their diesel counterparts.  But a new “Clean Trucks” program initiated by the New York City Department of Transportation is covering the incremental costs of gas/RNG-powered and electric trucks, so private and municipal truck fleets in New York can afford to switch from diesel to clean trucks. They will have no trouble procuring RNG to run them. Last year Clean Energy Fuels, the largest U.S. supplier of natural gas, opened a refueling station in Hunts Point that sells RNG exclusively. It also announced last year that by 2025 it will phase out fossil gas and supply customers with RNG only. Since RNG is ultra-low carbon, fleets that adopt it will meet or even exceed New York and Paris Accord emissions targets, not by 2050, but overnight.

Clean trucks won’t solve all environmental justice problems. But for the South Bronx and other communities disproportionately impacted by diesel haulers, they’re an important step toward justice. The trucks, fuel, and financing are all available and ready to go. What’s needed now is the political will to use them. That’s a matter of principle, a question of what kind of country we want to live in.

We have a lot of work to do to build a society where justice for all extends to communities of color. Part of that work is eliminating discriminatory exposure to pollutants, and making sure environmental justice communities are first in line to get the benefits of technologies like clean trucks and RNG.

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Joanna Underwood is founder and trustee of the NGO Energy Vision. On Twitter @energy_vision.

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