Gotham Gazette

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New Yorkers Must Break Free From Our Stockholm Syndrome

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(photo: Don Pollard- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

When it became clear to Jan-Erik Olsson that he wouldn’t be able to flee the bank he was attempting to rob, he decided to take hostages. For six days in August of 1973, the four hostages and their captor got to know each other, and once rescued, the hostages not only refused to testify against Jan-Erik, they actually raised money for his defense. This bizarre phenomenon, where “hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors” is now known as Stockholm Syndrome.

As coronavirus lockdown begins to lift in New York City and residents begin to resume their lives in the “new normal,” the signs of Stockholm Syndrome are all around us.

Despite overseeing what is objectively the world’s least effective response to coronavirus in the entire world, resulting in the deaths of a staggering 0.2% of the city’s population, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio had, as of May 6, unfathomably high approval ratings of 81% and 63%, respectively.

It’s natural, of course, for people to support their political leaders in a time of chaos and crisis. The media took it to a new level, though. During the peak of the crisis in early April, Rolling Stone published Andrew Cuomo Takes Charge, a glowing piece of journalistic pomp; a prominent local politics magazine showcased Cuomo as “the most popular man in America” and ”the nation’s most eligible bachelor”; and another publication called him “America’s Governor” while he made friendly interview appearances all over cable news and those stations also carried his daily briefings live for weeks, growing his allure. Trevor Noah and Ellen DeGeneres came out as #CuomoSexual at the same time over 500 New York City residents were dying a day -- the most of any city in the world.

And what’s responsible for New York City’s death count, now at over 17,000 confirmed and probable COVID-19 fatalities? Not leadership failure of course, but “density!” -- Cuomo, de Blasio, and even media outlets pointed to density, completely ignoring that Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore, each as dense as New York City and with a combined population of over 40 million, lost fewer people over the entire crisis than New York City was losing every day during the first half of April.

During a crisis of this magnitude, it’s normal for the public to rally behind its leaders and for the media to act “responsibly” and amplify the public health messages coming from elected officials. But as a new phase of this crisis came into focus -- a “new normal” -- thoughtful media sources have begun to look beyond Cuomo’s charming press conferences and softball CNN interviews -- often with his own brother -- and at the cold, hard facts. The conclusions they’re coming to are not pretty: New York’s political leaders are to blame for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not,” writes The New Yorker. “Two Coasts. One Virus. How New York Suffered Nearly 10 Times the Number of Deaths as California,” writes ProPublica, explaining how an efficient partnership between San Francisco and California leaders enabled them to effectively manage the crisis while the dysfunctional relationship between de Blasio and Cuomo doomed our city and state to become the epicenter of this preventable crisis.

Lockdown Delays Cost at Least 36,000 Lives, Data Show,” writes The New York Times, indicating some 14,000 New Yorkers who died could be alive if New York City was locked down a week earlier than it was, when many parts of California closed up.

As this new reality began to sink into the public’s consciousness, Cuomo’s approval ratings began to “come back down to Earth.” Then: George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minnesota police rocketed our city out of its obsessive focus on COVID-19 and into mass protest and the spectre of genuine civil unrest. Despite the very different circumstance of this new crisis, the response was remarkably similar to COVID-19: our government’s lack of preparedness led to high-profile failures, Cuomo called de Blasio’s leadership into question, and then they implemented unwise policies (a curfew that west coast cities quickly abandoned after seeing evidence other strategies would be more effective).

Before we can even take stock of the government’s response to the latest round of Black Lives Matter protests, the next crisis is already teed up: city residents refusing to comply with ongoing shutdown, social distancing, and mask-wearing orders.

This weekend, thousands of people all over the city took their “to go” drinks from the bar and, predictably, into the streets. A viral video of the festivities in the East Village resulted in Cuomo once again threatening an invasion of New York City.

Then on Monday, angry parents and elected officials in one of New York’s most conservative neighborhoods broke open a gate to a closed playground -- publicly defying the mayor in what is likely the opening salvo in a summer-long battle between New Yorkers who want the city to reopen and authorities who do not.

Between progressives mobilizing massive protests for police reform, apolitical crowds blatantly defying social distancing orders and open container laws, and conservatives engaging in direct action to open up public facilities and normalize city life -- is it fair to say we’re on the verge of a general uprising against our political leadership?

Maybe. But what can we do? The Democratic Party is in firm control of the city. Attempts to reform the party from the inside or challenge it from the outside have borne little fruit. At the state level, the Democrats and Republicans do everything they can -- state constitution be damned -- to ensure minor political parties can’t challenge a carefully negotiated balance of power in which downstate residents subsidize the free-wheeling, minimally-effective spending of our upstate-based government. And our status as a solidly blue state within an electoral college system focused almost entirely on “battlegrounds” gives us diminished national power.

It’s been easier for us, as a city, to pretend we’re living in a relatively functional democracy with relatively functional leaders, but this summer is changing that. The pandemic has made our collective delusions obvious to anyone who can count the dead. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that street mobilizations can turn up the pressure on pandering politicians. WIdespread noncompliance with government orders is evidence that people’s faith in government is breaking down.

I don’t know where we go from here, but I believe Plato when he said that “one of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

So let's not waste this year’s lessons. Let’s commit to reforming our political system and electing anti-establishment leadership who can credibly claim that they can build a world-class government for our world-class city.

Devin Balkind is a software executive who ran for New York City Public Advocate in 2017 and 2019.

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What It's Like to Have a Child Arrested for Peacefully Protesting the NYPD

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A father's account of his daughter's arrest (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)

What NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea described as “nearly flawlessly executed” police action recently in the Bronx was nothing less than a nightmare for my daughter and the other protestors who gathered there, as well as many of their loved ones like me. Those sworn to serve and protect in our city instead did the exact opposite and attacked and arrested New Yorkers expressing their constitutional rights.

On Thursday, June 4 at the protest in Mott Haven for George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a police officer, my daughter, a 20-year-old Latina, and her three friends were about to leave as the time was approaching the 8 p.m. curfew. At 7:53 they found themselves completely surrounded by the NYPD, unaware of the “kettling” technique encircling them. They edged to the side but the police said “it’s too late.”

When the clock struck 8, the police struck. My daughter heard a white police officer announce to a young black woman, “Welcome to the Bronx,” and saw him proceed to pelt her with his nightstick.

The four women were separated into pairs, all getting arrested for protesting peacefully, and hemmed in before the curfew. What unfolded was harrowing and additionally upsetting, further evidence of how the police wreak havoc on the people, in part through using arrests as punishment, and purposefully sowing confusion and anxiety.

They were handcuffed and taken into custody, to different detention centers. Two of these young women were taken to Queens and two to the Bronx. One, who is white, was released at midnight. She called me to let me know they had been arrested but she had no idea where my daughter had been taken.

She told me my daughter’s mother was already on her way to meet her at the Queens site, so I decided I would go to one of the detention sites in the Bronx. Thirty minutes later it was confirmed my daughter was taken to the Queens site when another of her friends, who also had been released, had spotted my daughter waiting outside to be processed.

After 30 minutes at the Queens location, I approached three officers standing outside and asked if I could get my daughter out. They replied “that’s impossible,” and asked me if I was sure she was there. “Find out where in the line she was, because two vans just left for the Brooklyn detention site.”

I returned to the two friends who had been released and asked where in the line my daughter was and one confirmed she was in the back of the line. We approached my daughter’s mother and we decided she would remain at the Queens site, just in case, and we headed to the Brooklyn detention site.

The three of us arrived at the Brooklyn detention at 3:30 a.m. My daughter’s mother met up with us about 6 a.m. and we all waited for her release at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 5.  She was arrested for peacefully protesting just after 8 p.m. and released 1 p.m. the next day -- 17 hours later.

She was then able to tell us more about what she was subjected to.

She and others were handcuffed for eight hours straight with their hands behind their backs, made to stand in the rain for two hours, sit in a hot van crowded together with no ventilation, all the cops not wearing masks, and offered no water. One person reported that an officer at the Brooklyn site remarked, “if you want some water, grab a cup and go to the toilet.” But they were not allowed to use the restroom, several later reported they had to urinate in their pants. No food for hours, and when they were given something they received sandwiches in plastic that were moldy and laced with ants. Some were physically hit and thrown to the ground and verbally abused all night long. A young black woman cried how she was called the n-word repeatedly by a black male police officer.

This is a police state. This is political repression. This is systemic use of military-style torture and terror tactics to beat the compassion and activism out of these young people. This has been reported to be taking place at detention centers across the city as the police hold a select number of detainees to make examples of them and give these groups “DATs” (desk appearance tickets) in place of summonses. All for protesting peacefully, no looting involved, and they were encircled and unable to leave before the curfew event hit.

These state crimes of brutality must be reported and legally prosecuted. The city needs to pay everyone who received a DAT damages for how they were treated. This is unlawful, illegal, and the world needs to know what happened to many people who were held for hours beyond necessity, not that they should have been taken in the first place. There is a virus of police violence that runs rampant in the streets of our city run by a “progressive” mayor. Mr. Mayor, as we are both parents of young women peacefully protesting police brutality -- and being arrested doing so -- do not use the bodies of our children to redeem your relationship with the NYPD.

While we must not be made to endure such trauma, it furthers our resolve: the people united will never be defeated.

George Emilio Sanchez is a writer, performer, director, and professor.

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Surveillance and the City: Contact Tracing, the NYPD’s Newest Spy Tool?

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Mayor and NYPD officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In recent days, city and state officials have rushed to stand up an army of contact tracers, public health officials who will reach out to every COVID-19 patient in the state, asking intimate details about every person they’ve come into contact with for the past two weeks. In the hands of public health officials, this data will save lives. But if we let this same information fall into the hands of the police, it won’t just undermine our most important rights, it will set back the efforts to combat COVID-19.

In New York City, if contact tracing databases are added to the NYPD’s growing armory of tracking tools the consequences will be disastrous. Our over-policed communities of color—those same communities that bear the brunt of this nightmarish pandemic—will face an impossible choice: provide information or help public health, or hide information to protect loved ones from police. And for undocumented New Yorkers, or those from mixed status households or families, even social networks, the threat is even more extreme, fearing that this same information might fall into the hands of ICE.

Today, officials can get contact tracing data with a simple subpoena, a standard lower than for looking at the contents of your phone or the documents in your house. But contact tracing is some of the most sensitive medical information in existence, and it should have more protections, not fewer.

Contact tracing only works when a patient can help contact tracers notify every person that they’ve been near. Sometimes those answers can be embarrassing, such as revealing an affair or illicit drug use, but a full accounting is the only way to quickly test and quarantine every New Yorker exposed to the virus. But as the law stands today, there is simply nothing to prevent the NYPD from weaponizing people’s intimate information.

New York’s laws simply don’t protect against this nightmare scenario, and lawmakers need to act. Legislation can make clear that contact tracing data should never be provided to police. This isn’t a question of getting a warrant or probable cause, this means a flat out ban that says our sensitive health information should never be used to put New Yorkers behind bars.

Of course, we already have a model for this, a type of sensitive information that New Yorkers provide the government because we are told it is protected: the U.S. Census. Every 10 years, when the Census asks New Yorkers to say how many people live in each home, it is stated that revealing census data is a federal crime.

If you work for the Census and you provide information to the NYPD or ICE, you won’t be demoted, you won’t just be fired, you’ll be sent to prison. And we need an equally strong protection for the information we’re being asked to provide public health officials through contact tracing.

It’s no accident that the Census created these strong protections. It was a response to one of our nation’s darkest chapters, when we imprisoned more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent for no reason other than their ancestry. During the World War II era Japanese Internment, law enforcement and military officials relied on Census records to find where Japanese families lived, forcing them off their land and into brutal, at times fatal, internment camps.

After the war, Census officials knew that they could never get an accurate count of where Americans lived if the public feared that Census information might be used against them. And so we gained the privacy protections that are in place to this day.

We can’t wait to see the NYPD abuse its access to contact tracing data to act, we need protections now. Luckily, there are a slate of ready solutions. Bronx State Senator Gustavo Rivera and Manhattan Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, the chairs of their respective chambers’ health committees, have legislation that will keep contact tracing data out of the hands of police. Meanwhile, Long Island State Senator Kevin Thomas and Manhattan Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal have legislation addressing the unique privacy threats of emerging contact tracing technologies, like the array of new smartphone-based systems now entering the market.

Because of the pandemic, Albany only has a brief window to act, but if they let it pass by, they will not just undermine public health, they will give the NYPD terrifying new power at a moment when millions of New Yorkers say the department already has too much.

Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy organization. He writes the monthly "Surveillance and the City" column for Gotham Gazette. On Twitter @FoxCahn

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At NYCHA, Home is No Safe Harbor - But It Must Be

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NYCHA in Manhattan (photo: NYCHA)

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a stark and unflattering light on the inadequacy of the social safety net in our city and across this country. And nowhere is this failure more glaring than at the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.

Due to COVID-19, we all must “shelter in place” in the safety of our homes, but for over half a million NYCHA residents, home is no safe harbor. Years of state and federal underfunding have left buildings with no hot water, toxic mold, lead paint, unhygienic conditions, and countless outstanding repairs.

NYCHA, which is essentially run by the Mayor under the watch of a federal monitor, has a crumbling infrastructure and legacy of mismanagement that virtually guaranteed a slow and ineffective response to the pandemic. Yet the Authority made promises it knew it could never deliver on, claiming in March that it would start disinfecting all buildings at least three times per week — five times for senior buildings. But tenants confirm that this is not happening and their buildings continue to be hotbeds for the spread of the virus. One tenant advocate clearly stated the grave stakes of NYCHA’s failure: “People are going to die in their apartments.”

Let’s be clear: the high levels of infection and fatalities - the full scope of which we may never know - did not have to happen. The severity of this pandemic’s impact on NYCHA residents could have been prevented if New York did not persistently underfund and neglect NYCHA’s infrastructure. For years, community advocates and many of us in the state Legislature have been urgently pleading for the state and federal governments to take action on cleaning, funding, and fixing NYCHA. Our pleas have been ignored again and again.

This chronic disinvestment in NYCHA was completely unacceptable long before this crisis began. It was unacceptable when NYCHA residents were left without heat or hot water due to failing boilers during the coldest winter months. It was unacceptable when botched lead-based paint inspections left tenants exposed to deadly toxins. And it is unacceptable now. It is clearer than ever that the government’s failure to support NYCHA has always cost lives, and now it’s costing lives more than ever.

For NYCHA residents, this is a story of compounding inequalities. Many of the folks who live in one of NYCHA’s roughly 174,000 apartments are also the essential workers at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are taking care of us in our hospitals, making sure we can still get our weekly groceries, keeping our water and electricity running, and operating our buses and subway system — all while putting themselves at further risk of infection. It is beyond shameful that when they get home from high-risk work, they are still in danger, perhaps more so, because of unclean and unsafe apartments. And for NYCHA’s senior population, the risk of infection and death is even higher.

This is outrageous, bordering on criminal, and demands further action at every level of government; city, state and federal. Decades of underfunding by the federal and state governments are only part of the problem. NYCHA’s history of dishonesty, corruption, and managerial incompetence have made it far worse. And just days ago, NYCHA’s federal monitor admitted that they will be unable to meet their goals for identifying and repairing unsafe conditions on time.

More than anything, I am deeply saddened by the way our NYCHA residents are being willfully ignored and mistreated — they deserve a government that will fight for them, not turn a blind eye to their suffering. Like so many institutions of government, NYCHA needs to rebuild trust with its residents, and that starts with honestly and competently addressing the problems they are facing today, not making false promises or missing more deadlines.

We need NYCHA’s leadership to come forward with real, workable plans, with real timelines, not only to address the pandemic as it recedes and potentially rises again into a new wave of sickness and death, but also on the many long-standing repairs and other health and safety issues that continue to threaten NYCHA residents. And we need all levels of government at the table to finally fund our public housing so it can provide safe shelter to public housing tenants. We needed to do this yesterday.

State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou represents parts of Lower Manhattan. On Twitter @yuhline.

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The Necessity of New York City Budget Justice

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Mayor de Blasio at an NYPD lot (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Like other major cities reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, New York is facing a serious budget deficit and we have to make difficult choices about where to cut funding and where to redirect resources. This crisis has exposed the agonizing holes in our city’s social safety net like a raw nerve. We’ve been bombarded with news of the massive inequities faced by essential workers and low-income New Yorkers most at risk from the virus, the horrifying racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths, and our anemic personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpiles for frontline workers. 

In recent weeks, we saw black New Yorkers’ rage over these inequities combust with cumulative trauma about the racist, violent over-policing we have endured for decades. Our over-investment in policing is directly related to our under-investment in our most vulnerable communities. The question is not whether we have to make difficult choices, it’s "are we going to make the same bad choices that got us into this situation, again?" 

Elected officials have long used NYPD initiatives as a cosmetic fix to gloss over much deeper problems, not acknowledging that racist and abusive policing is one of those deeper problems. Instead of housing the homelessness or triaging and mending our broken mental health treatment system, our leaders used Rikers Island and other city jails as a depository for  mentally ill or homeless New Yorkers. Instead of dealing with the profound damage done to communities by segregation, displacement, hyper-gentrification, and widening inequality, they stopped-and-frisked an entire generation of black and Latino New Yorkers into submission.

Mayor de Blasio avoided grappling with these gaps in the city’s social service infrastructure, instead taking the easier route of placating right-wing police unions and letting our police force grow and operate virtually unchecked. And then the coronavirus hit, and the gaps in our underfunded social services widened into an abyss.

We scrambled to house people who should have been housed already. We watched COVID-19 spread through our jails, killing people who should have been freed already. We watched it decimate nursing homes, which were undermined by bad policies and left unprepared for the looming disaster. We mourned the preventable deaths of thousands of low-income, mostly black and Latino New Yorkers with inadequate access to healthcare, housing, and other resources. And all of the billions we have invested in the NYPD — their bulletproof SUVs, bulked-up “Hercules teams,” underwater drones, and bizarre surveillance gear — haven’t saved a single life because you can't arrest your way out of a pandemic. 

This crisis and this next city budget due by July 1 present the obligation and the opportunity to put our moral house in order. While more than 10 extraordinary days of protest have forced Mayor de Blasio to publicly accept cuts to the NYPD, he has named no dollar amount, suggesting a hollow commitment to meaningful change, and a continued unwillingness to face either the rot in his own police department, or the exigencies of New York’s COVID crisis. 

If de Blasio won’t act decisively, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson should instead listen to the voices of millions of New Yorkers, thousands of community advocates, and a ballooning list of his own Council members, and commit to reducing the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion this year. The Council should invest those funds in the communities that have been devastated by the pandemic, and so poorly served by this city for years, by restoring the programs Mayor de Blasio proposed to cut. 

Why $1 billion? For a start, the NYPD should impose the same hiring freeze other city agencies are facing. The daily videos of police swarms descending on protesters proved we don’t need more cops. An NYPD hiring freeze puts over $200 million back into our communities. 

The city paid out a disgraceful $230 million to settle lawsuits against the NYPD in 2019. Since claims against the NYPD come out of another pot of money, the department has little financial incentive to reduce misconduct. Moving money from one ledger to another cannot truly address the harm and trauma caused by police officers’ transgressions, but we can at least force the NYPD to pay for misconduct out of its own pocket. 

Next the NYPD’s inappropriate incursion into social services must be reversed. Instead of paying the NYPD to engage in coercive homeless “outreach” and mental health responses, the city should use that money to fund social workers and agencies with the skills and resources to care for those populations. The presence of cops instead of counselors creates the same racist outcomes that always follow the arrival of the NYPD, with black and Latino children disproportionately dumped into the school-to-prison pipeline. One of the heftiest NYPD social services price tags is the $332 million that pays for the NYPD to be in Department of Education schools. 

The City Council should scour the NYPD’s hyper-militarized budget for extravagances such as the department’s brand-new fleet of 14 drones, its six bomb-seeking underwater robots (have they ever actually found a bomb?), and its bizarre X-ray vans, With bad policy and bloated excess, it doesn’t take long to find $1 billion for the coming 2021 Fiscal Year that the people of New York need to survive this crisis, and the NYPD can live without.

The COVID-19 crisis and our current budget crunch forces us to ask the questions we should have been asking all along: Are police and their gadgets truly more essential than the lives and safety of doctors and nurses? More essential than the thousands of low-wage workers — many undocumented — that are keeping food and critical goods flowing throughout our city at great risk to themselves and their families? Is “order” more essential than justice? And of course the question we have been asking all along: do black lives matter? Will the city we call home finally learn to cherish us, or leave us to the mercy of cops, COVID, and the next cycle of racist neglect? 

Leo Ferguson is on staff at Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, a leader in the Black Jewish racial justice movement, and works with Communities United for Police Reform. Anthonine Pierre is the Deputy Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Black-led community organizing group in Central Brooklyn and a member of Communities United for Police Reform. On Twitter @LeoFergusonnyc & @JFREJNYC; @AnthoninePierre & @bkmovement.

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Remove the NYPD from the Enforcement of Streets and Sidewalks

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Mayor de Blasio with NYPD transportation (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

Streets and sidewalks make up a majority of New York City’s public space. Like the parks and open spaces that make up the rest of it, these spaces should serve a common good, accessible for all to travel, to play, and to protest without harm. But there is ample evidence that this is not a reality. 

Consider what happened when Mayor de Blasio cracked down on social distancing last month. Nine out of ten arrested for walking, standing, or sitting too close in public space were black and Latino; so were 82 percent of those summonsed. The crackdown was an echo of stop-and-frisk, a decades-long policy of police harassing people on city sidewalks. From 2002 to 2013, black and Latino people were nine times more likely to be stopped by police even though white people were twice as likely to be found with a gun.

Or consider how the streets are policed. For example, in New York City, more than 89 percent of tickets issued last year for crossing the street midblock or against the light went to blacks and Latinos. Nationwide, black drivers are almost twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers, and four times as likely to be searched, despite being less likely to be found with drugs, guns, or alcohol. 

These statistics are echoed in stories of where harassment in public space often leads: Sean Bell, a 23-year-old black man, unarmed and killed by police who shot 50 rounds into his car on a Queens street in 2006; Eric Garner, a 44-year black man, unarmed and strangled to death by police on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014; Maurice Gordon, a 28-year-old black man, unarmed and killed by police in a traffic stop on a New Jersey highway just a few weeks ago. 

These killings all occurred on streets and sidewalks. Making these spaces work for the common good of all begins with ending police enforcement of streets and sidewalks.

This shift in the dominant paradigm is more than possible. Consider one small example, found in the “Open Streets” program launched in New York City two months ago. 

When Mayor de Blasio first launched this pilot program, the bike and pedestrian thoroughfares were maintained by the NYPD and heavily policed. Advocates predicted the police would intimidate New Yorkers, especially in neighborhoods of color, and diminish attendance. Mayor de Blasio insisted police presence was necessary. Advocates proved right, and Mayor de Blasio canceled the program, claiming police resources were stretched too thin for such low attendance.

Weeks later, under pressure from the City Council and thousands of New Yorkers, Mayor de Blasio restarted the Open Streets program without police. In this police-free iteration, the program was wildly popular. Still, the program largely excludes neighborhoods of color, evidence of how fixing systemic racism will be more complicated than ending police enforcement.

These two versions of an Open Streets program show how antiquated and wrongheaded ideas about the necessity of police enforcement are. As advocates for communities of color and safe, equitable transportation alternatives, we believe that it is time to end NYPD enforcement of streets and sidewalks. This could do more than make public spaces fair, it could save lives. 

What if the money that once went to traffic enforcement, for example, funded traffic engineering instead? Policing streets is not only a physical threat to New Yorkers of color but an ineffective way to control unsafe driving behavior. More effective is when streets, by design, “police” themselves, as the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) has proven many times over in redesigning public spaces to reduce speeding, cycling on the sidewalk, even the behaviors that cause crashes. Unlike intermittent, selective, and biased traffic enforcement, these changes are permanent and systemic, affecting all who use the streets or sidewalk equally. 

The NYPD budget is more than five times that of the DOT. That money could be redistributed to repair the harm caused by racist policing -- funding schools, social services, and redesigned streets. It is time to stop spending so much on practices that harm people of color and use that money to fund permanent systemic improvements for the common good.


Mark Winston Griffith is executive director at Brooklyn Movement Center. Danny Harris is executive director at Transportation Alternatives. On Twitter @GriffithMW & @BKMovement; @DannyHarris_TA & @TransAlt.

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Coronavirus Ravaged New York's Budget and Made Your Census Participation More Important Than Ever

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New York City Census efforts (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the cost to confront COVID-19 grows each day, a severe fiscal fallout for New York’s state and city budgets becomes more of a certainty. And with steep cuts to government programs all but assured, we New Yorkers cannot overlook the significance of participating in this year’s Census. Consider this: New York’s recovery will depend on federal funding, and each person not counted can cost New York $3,054 critical to providing education, housing, transportation, and medical services in areas hit hard by COVID-19.

If New York City has the same low response rate that it did in 2010, it is likely that nearly 2.5 million people in New York City will not be counted in the self-response phase. This would equate to nearly $8 billion in lost federal funding, which happens to be about the projected shortfall in the city budget for this and next fiscal years. Representation in Congress is on the line, too. Because of a low count last Census, New York lost two seats in the House of Representatives.

With federal funding and equitable political representation critical to our recovery, the stakes of the Census couldn’t be higher. It is imperative that New Yorkers, especially those from historically undercounted immigrant and underserved communities, respond to the decennial count in droves. At the same time, the pandemic will make it even harder for some in these communities to participate.

As CEO of RiseBoro Community Partnership, a nonprofit that offers holistic services to meet community needs in Brooklyn, I know how structural racism and poverty often lead to marginalization. Brooklyn is notoriously the hardest-to-count county in all of New York. In the 2010 Census, Brooklyn had the lowest mail return rate in the country among counties with populations over 500,000. Approximately 80% of Brooklynites live in hard-to-count neighborhoods. 2020 is the year to buck that trend and ensure that low-income communities and people of color get fully counted.

States with the greatest number of people and highest concentrations of poverty receive proportionally greater amounts of federal aid than other states. Over 14% of the 19.5 million people living in New York State are below the poverty line. If underserved groups are not accurately represented in the Census, organizations like RiseBoro have a difficult time meeting the needs that exist in the communities they serve because of a lack of funding.

My organization is working in partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY), the mayor’s Census office, and the New York City Council to mobilize New Yorkers to self-respond to the 2020 Census. We received $250,000 to support a fair and complete count of Bushwick, Brownsville, and Crown Heights—three communities with poverty levels up to 40%.

The barriers to responding to the Census that these underserved communities faced in 2010 still exist today. There is limited English literacy; there are motives for concealment, such as undocumented status; and children under five and seniors are often undercounted. Brooklyn has the largest population of seniors and children under five in New York City.

Like most of the five boroughs, Brooklyn is a melting pot of cultures, and that is particularly true in Bushwick, Brownsville, and Crown Heights. In these communities the most common languages other than English are Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Residents typically rely on places like libraries and community centers to fill out the Census. With COVID-19 making that impossible, it’s up to community organizations to take the lead.

At RiseBoro, staff fluent in these languages are making calls to help people fill out their forms. With many in these communities concerned about their immigration status, being able to speak with someone in their own language is a way to put them at ease.

About 400,000 Brooklynites—15% of our borough’s total population—are not U.S. citizens. To every immigrant and person from an underserved community reading this, know that you are in no way in jeopardy of being deported because of your Census answers. Despite previous efforts by the Trump Administration, the 2020 Census contains no question about citizenship status.

Your response is vital to providing resources to you, your family, and your community. The Census results will inform how federal funding is allocated to programs you and other New Yorkers depend on, including Medicaid, community mental health services, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

As a city, we need to put extra effort into responding to the Census. We are fighting for our share of over $650 billion a year that the federal government allocates, and with the coronavirus decimating New York’s budget, every person counts.

Scott Short is the CEO of RiseBoro Community Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to holistic community revitalization in New York City. On Twitter @RiseboroNYC.

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Ensuring Domestic Violence Survivors Have the Resources They Need

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Purple lights for domestic violence awareness (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

Over the past three months, our lives have come to depend almost entirely on technology. Canceled your wedding? Get married on Zoom! Want to introduce a new baby to the family? FaceTime them. Technology has allowed us to stay virtually connected when we are more physically disconnected than ever due to COVID-19.

But for domestic violence survivors, technology can be a double-edged sword. It can connect them to help, but it can also become a dangerous tool in the hands of their abuser. 

As with everything else, the New York City Family Courts have gone almost entirely virtual. Emergency filings, like for an Order of Protection, are now done by email and cases are heard over the phone. But instructions on where and how to file change frequently, are not publicly available, and are confusing even for attorneys like myself. If you can figure out how to file, emergency petitions require consistent telephone and often internet access: Survivors spend potentially hours on the computer writing their petition, on the phone with an attorney, waiting for the court to call their case, and being heard by the judge. 

Accessing those resources—time, space, internet, phone—is exceedingly complex for survivors who are still living with their abusers. Understanding this dilemma, the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence unveiled a new chat service, which allows survivors to text 24/7 with domestic violence specialists. This might help connect people with other services and inform them about their rights, but it still assumes access to reliable internet or phone service and that the survivor’s phone is not being monitored by their abuser. 

The circumstances can be even worse for survivors with limited means, and according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, economic abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases. The number of people experiencing poverty is also likely to grow as we face what the International Monetary Fund is predicting will be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Indeed, despite indications that domestic violence is on the rise, many organizations, including the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I am a Staff Attorney, have experienced a paradoxical decrease in hotline calls and cases. In Queens, the New York Times reported that domestic violence arrests have fallen nearly 40 percent. Why? While data is scarce, our experience suggests that this is because the few resources that are still available for abuse survivors are difficult if not impossible for those living with their abusers and/or in poverty to access.

Instead of accepting this as the status quo, we need to build a system that actually works for survivors—both for the duration of this crisis and for the next one. 

I suggest a two-pronged approach. First, to truly keep survivors safe, everyone needs access to free basic internet, free basic cell phone services, and free mental health services. These are lifelines. The tragic truth is that domestic violence too often leads to death. Survivors need to be able to call not only 911 and 311, but the courts, the Family Justice Centers, and legal service providers like NYLAG. They need to be able to make these phone calls even when their abuser cuts them off financially. Even when they are experiencing poverty and can’t pay their phone or internet bill.

Research indicates that financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic violence cases. Abusers often cut off their partner’s access to essential resources--like money, phone, and internet--in moments when they feel their partner is most likely to seek help. If everyone has access to free phone and internet, no one is dependent on an abusive partner to contact the courts, attorneys, or social workers. 

But providing these basic services does not solve the entire problem because it still excludes those who are living with their abusers and those whose abusers are monitoring their devices. We also need to engage with people in the spaces we all still inhabit.

Most of us still go to grocery stores, bodegas, pharmacies, hardware stores, banks, and hospitals. Signs in the predominant languages of each neighborhood could be posted with instructions on how to access these resources. Staff in these places could be trained to provide information to those who need it. Police precincts could provide safe, clean spaces for survivors to take phone calls with their attorneys or the courts.

Now is the time to enact these changes to ensure that every resident of our city has a basic safety net under both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. 

Micah Horwitz, Esq. is a staff attorney in the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Domestic Violence Law Unit.

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Democratic Voters are Electing Presidential Delegates; Here’s How It Works and What It Means

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Electors voting in Albany in 2016 (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

The Presidential Primary is complicated. As New York State’s failed attempt to cancel it shows, there’s more at stake than just the Democratic nominee. Instead, hundreds of delegates are running around the country in their own right to give their communities a seat at the table.

So, what do delegates do? And why, in New York, can you vote for presidential candidates and delegates separately?

Selecting the Party nominee for President
When you vote for the Democratic nominee in the Presidential Primary, you are not actually voting for a candidate. You are voting for what proportion of delegates they should get from your district.

In New York, your Delegate District is your Congressional District (CD). Every district gets a certain number of delegates based on a formula (that I won’t go into now). When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are voting for what percentage of the delegates they get. If they get 35% percent of the vote in the district, they get 35% of the delegates. Those delegates go to the national convention.

Since, in theory, a candidate could win 100% of the vote, most run more delegates -- a slate -- than will be able to attend the convention.

That’s where voting for delegates comes in...
Regardless of your presidential candidate vote, you can separately vote for any delegate you want — even if they support a different candidate. Regardless of how many votes a presidential candidate gets, the order of delegates who will get to attend the national convention with them is based on how many votes the individual delegates receive.

So, if your Congressional District gets 100 delegates to the national convention, and Candidate A gets 50% of the primary vote, that candidate gets 50 delegates from your district to the convention. But how does the candidate choose which 50 from their slate have the honor? Whichever delegates get the most votes.

As a result, if you support Joe Biden, but your friend supports Bernie Sanders and is running to be a delegate to the convention, you can vote for Biden, to give him more New York delegates, but you can also vote for your friend, to make her more likely to BE a delegate among Sanders’ number.

There is one caveat, though. The delegate rolls alternate female-male. So the delegate list is the highest vote-getters, but it flips between the highest female vote-getter and the highest male-vote getter for each slot.

Delegates do More than Select the Nominee
If all delegates did was select the presidential nominee, cancelling the primary wouldn’t matter after everyone had dropped out and conceded to Biden. But that’s not the case.

Delegates are the actual representatives of registered party members to the national organization. They are responsible for ratifying or changing the Party Rules and the Party Platform. If you want to push an issue to the Party Platform, or change the Party Rules, you need a delegate who’s on board.

I wrote more explaining just how important the delegates are to the political process here, but suffice it to say, their independent role in Democratic Party and political governance is why New York State was court-ordered to proceed with the Presidential Primary.

In the end, these delegates are not merely presidential delegates, they are Democratic National Convention delegates — one of Democratic voters’ many representatives to your political party.

Remember, only registered Democrats can vote in the various Democratic primaries this month and for Presidential Delegates. To see who is running for Presidential Delegate in your Congressional District, enter your address here and follow the steps to find your sample ballot for the presidential primary (there are two spots for sample ballots on the page, as well as poll-site info for early voting and primary day).

Ben Yee is the Democratic State Committeeman for New York's 66th Assembly District and former Secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party. On Twitter at @yben.

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Encouraging Trends to Embrace for Path Forward at City’s Specialized High Schools

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Mayor and Chancellor have major decisions to make (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

While our schools are shut down because of the coronavirus, recent good news points to successful efforts to improve the ethnic diversity of the city’s specialized high schools -- Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and five others.

At the end of May, the New York City Department of Education issued its report on the Discovery Program. Created over 50 years ago to improve admissions for black and Latino students, it had fallen into complete disuse, except at Brooklyn Tech. To be eligible, students must score a bit below the cutoff on the specialized high school exam (SHSAT) and qualify under federal anti-poverty guidelines. Those who enter the Discovery Program take enhanced educational courses over the summer to better prepare them for the rigors of the specialized high school curriculum.

Several years ago, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, which I head, advocated for the reintroduction of Discovery but with a tweak to admit more black and Latino students by focusing eligibility on underrepresented middle schools. Because Asian-American families in New York City have the highest poverty rate, only basing eligibility on economic status did not appreciably enter black and Latino students.

The number of Discovery seats this year is 800 compared to 250 in 2018. This year, 470 Discovery invitations went to black and Latino students, compared to only 278 last year. This is a significant increase over what existed before the Department of Education accepted our suggestion. Even more exciting, now there are first-time admissions from middle schools previously not represented among the student bodies of the specialized high schools.

While black and Latino Discovery admissions greatly increased, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza poo-poos the achievement: He says revamped Discovery “does not move the needle enough,” which is classic Carranza. He refuses to say that anything short of eliminating the SHSAT is good enough, no matter how good.

For another example, he testified at the City Council that he disfavored expanding the city’s Dream test prep program, which also improves the specialized high school admission rates of black and Latino students. He said it “would not be a good use of resources,” although he blames private test prep for the demographic disparity in admissions.

Here again, Carranza is wrong. For the past six years, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation has run a pilot program combining focused outreach to underrepresented Brooklyn middle schools with two years of educational enrichment and free test prep. Sixty percent of participants were accepted at a specialized high school. Most were black, Latino, or female, another underrepresented group in our specialized schools.

The students from our first cohort are now attending Binghamton, Brown, CCNY, Cornell, Howard, Macaulay Honors, Middlebury, Northeastern, Rutgers, SUNY Buffalo, UCLA, and Michigan. This program should serve as a model for the city to roll out an effective affirmative action program based at each of the specialized schools.

Several years ago, the state allocated $1.75 million to the New York City DOE to launch similar programs at the specialized schools. At Tech, where we got a dedicated grant of $250,000, we doubled the size of our program. For the rest, the DOE did nothing.

Since arriving in New York, Carranza has repeatedly criticized the specialized high schools because the percentage of black and Latino students attending these schools is too low. He ignores that 20 years ago, the enrollment of black and Latino students at the specialized schools was much better. Back then, the Education Department had enhanced educational opportunities like gifted elementary programs and junior high SP classes in the schools serving heavily black and Latino communities.

Carranza should recognize that eliminating the test does nothing to improve the education in our schools for the children he wants to help. To restore equity in our specialized schools, he needs to improve the coursework offered in these communities while supporting innovative and successful efforts to promote diversity now. The models are here.

Our schools will eventually reopen, but it is now time for the Chancellor to recognize that he should lead, not criticize. He owes it to all the city’s children but especially to the students in the black and Latino communities.

Larry Cary is a Manhattan lawyer and the President of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation.

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Hurricane Season Could Delay COVID-19 Recovery: Here's How We Prepare

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It's time to better prepare (photo: governor's office)

New York has faced its share of disasters, and each one seemed impossible and unprecedented until it actually happened. 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and now COVID-19 each took a dramatic toll on our social and physical infrastructure,  the state’s economy, and our very way of life. 

We always recover, but we must break the cycle of rebuilding and plan for future risk instead. Any threats must be taken seriously as many communities are already overextended and strained. Hurricane season starts next month, and we need flood policy reforms at a federal level to ensure an already bad situation doesn't get worse.  

The ongoing battle to contain COVID-19 coupled with the upcoming threat of hurricane season is a dangerous combination. Early forecasts indicate this Atlantic hurricane season may be worse than usual, which would have a devastating impact on our already fragile infrastructure. Flooding has massive and damaging impacts: from roads and public infrastructure to our homes to our workplaces. We saw this during Superstorm Sandy where New York’s infrastructure and economy took a massive hit. Sadly, our infrastructure is no better prepared now than it was then. When you factor in the consequences COVID-19 has already had on our state and sources of revenue, New York cannot handle another blow so soon. 

Without comprehensive federal action to reduce flood risk, our current disaster relief and recovery policies will continue to allow and even incentivize risky development, leaving existing and future infrastructure and our communities in peril. As local businesses begin to reopen in a post-COVID world, we must ensure that they can remain open if a storm hits by investing in resilient infrastructure. Our small businesses rely on well-functioning infrastructure, and our community must advocate for an updated flood-ready requirement that is smart and forward-thinking. There are certain steps we and our policymakers must take that are critical to New York’s survival and recovery. 

Support the 2020 Environmental Bond Act
First, we encourage New Yorkers to vote to approve the environmental bond act on the ballot for the general election this fall, which would be hugely advantageous for New York’s economy and environment. Despite facing challenges from COVID-19, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature advanced the bond act, known as the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, which would provide $3 billion for a wide range of environmental protection programs and initiatives, including flood mitigation; habitat restoration; combating climate change; and clear water projects, while creating critical jobs. 

Invest in Resilient Infrastructure

Our state’s economy is also directly tied to environmental resilience and sustainability. Every $1 invested in disaster mitigation saves $6 in flood damage costs. Our infrastructure across the state has trouble handling heavy rains, let alone massive storms, and in the current climate we must keep in mind that it is in our best economic interest to invest in a resilient foundation. By building or rebuilding with resilience in mind we can protect communities and save money.  

Disclose a Property’s Flooding History
It is imperative to equip consumers with crucial information on properties they intend to buy or rent, like the property’s flooding history. If we make the disclosure of this information mandatory, people will be more prepared when making important and life-changing financial decisions, such as buying a house or renting an apartment, and therefore not be surprised by the massive financial upheaval that is caused if your living or working space is completely flooded. New Yorkers are having trouble making rent and mortgage payments now, and aren’t able to save up to fix property damage due to flooding.

Reform the NFIP
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is another key policy that helps protect our communities. However, it has not been updated to address locations that are flooding more frequently or are still handling damage from previous floods. The program remains $20 billion in debt. Congress must not only fund and reform the NFIP but invest in long-term resilience through FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program and the development of a revolving loan and grant program to fund risk reduction. 

Through updates to NFIP, we can also promote and protect our existing ecological systems. Investing in nature-based solutions is crucial to encouraging flourishing wildlife while protecting our local communities.

All of these changes are economically smart and environmentally crucial, even more so as we begin to feel the aftershocks and recover from the total upheaval of COVID-19. We urge New York voters to approve the environmental bond act this fall and Congress to reform NFIP, protect our infrastructure and wildlife in New York, and provide a more stable economic pathway for the future.

Julie Tighe is President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan, statewide environmental organization that fights for clean water, healthy air, renewable energy, and open space. On Twitter @JulieTighe17 & @NYLCV.

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