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Informal Recyclers are Essential to a Just and Green NYC; Here's 7 Things We Must Do To Help Them Survive


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Canners redeeming their work (photo: Carlos Rivea for Sure We Can)


In New York City, there are an estimated 8,000 informal canners, or people who collect, sort, and redeem deposit-based containers for a living. Earning a nickel per can or bottle, canners straddle a liminal space in society: though often visible pushing carts with bulging bags through the city, they work in the shadows because of fear of harassment, shame, and a lack of public support. 

Canners are indispensable to New York State’s environmental sustainability efforts and to the local economy. Each year, more than 5 billion containers are redeemed in New York, generating over $400 million for the economy and funding environmental campaigns.

Canners play an important role in achieving these results. For example, the 800-plus canners who frequent Sure We Can, the only not-for-profit redemption center in the five boroughs, redeemed 12 million deposit-based containers and returned over $700,000 to the local community last year alone. Further, Sure We Can supports eight green jobs and educates hundreds of K-12 and college students about urban environmental and social issues.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for informal workers like canners. The current crisis exacerbates long-standing systemic economic, social, and environmental inequities and poses numerous public health risks to canners. Bottle redemption is considered an “essential service,” but economic support and social protections are not extended to canners. Many Asian-American canners have reported increased harassment and stigmatization. And in economic downturns, when unemployment swells, the number of people who turn to canning to survive increases

Today, supporting canners is more important than ever. Here are several short- and long-term actions you can take to help canners and grow a green and just economy as we rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis:

Acknowledge and thank canners in your neighborhood for the services they provide. Canners are our neighbors: they often collect containers near their homes, cleaning up the neighborhood in the process. 

Separate redeemable containers from other plastic, glass, and aluminum containers, and set them aside in a clear or marked bag for canners. If you live in a large apartment building, ask the maintenance staff to aggregate redeemable containers for canners.

Offer clean, unused, and sealed personal protective equipment (PPE), including gloves, face masks, and alcohol gel, to canners. Canners work independently and may not have access to PPE.

Advocate for economic relief measures for all informal workers, regardless of their tax-filing status. Support local organizations that are dispensing relief funds to those most impacted by the crisis.

Support the “Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment (CORE) Act” introduced by City Council Members Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso. The CORE Act proposes the creation of community drop-off sites for the collection of organic waste and electronic waste, which currently contaminates the recycling stream and is hazardous to canners. Further, the CORE Act will create hundreds of green jobs.

Advocate for canners and informal workers to be included in decision-making processes across all levels of government. In cities around the world, the integration of canners into municipal solid waste management systems yields abundant social, economic, and environmental benefits.  

Support legislation to increase the redemption value from 5-cents to 10-cents per container and to expand the type of containers eligible for redemption. Similar changes in Oregon have pushed recycling rates to over 90%. Further, updating the New York State “Bottle Bill,” which has remained largely unchanged since 1982, will provide canners a fair wage reflective of the value of their services.

As New York City enters phase 2 of “reopening,” canners should no longer be relegated to the shadows. We must recognize, advocate for, and advance the positive economic and environmental contributions of canners so as to realize the just and green New York City we all want.

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Chris Hartmann, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at SUNY Old Westbury and a board member of Sure We Can. Christine Hegel, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Connecticut State University and a board member of Sure We Can. Chicago Crosby is a canner and board member of Sure We Can. Josefa Marin is a canner and board member of Sure We Can. On Twitter @SureWeCanNYC.

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Who Traffic Enforcement Agents Really Are, and Why They Must Remain Part of the NYPD


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Traffic Enforcement Agents take a knee


On Thursday, June 11, hundreds of New York City Traffic Enforcement Agents and Supervisors stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds to commemorate the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Employed by the NYPD, these members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) were participating in a nationwide CWA job action to support the massive protests sweeping the country on behalf of racial justice and an end to police violence.

Is it surprising that these NYPD employees staged a job action for racial justice? If you knew who they were, it wouldn’t be. CWA represents approximately 2,800 agents and 400 supervisors who work in New York City Traffic Enforcement. Over 95% of them are people of color—primarily immigrants from Bangladesh and Africa, and Latinos and African-Americans.  Traffic agents are extremely low-paid: their salaries start at just over $41,000 and top out at $50,000 after 10 years on the job. What’s worse, on average, 100 agents each year are physically assaulted by members of the public angered by a parking ticket or a disagreement at an intersection. The verbal insults—many of them racial slurs—are too numerous to count.

That is why it is especially disappointing to see these workers targeted, even inadvertently, by the leaders of two organizations we normally consider allies, in a recent column in this publication advocating the removal of traffic enforcement from the NYPD.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests have sparked an enormous grassroots demand for fundamental reform of the police department, a stance supported by the CWA. But moving Traffic Enforcement out of the NYPD is not meaningful reform—it is merely cosmetic budget-shifting in the name of reform. And such a move would utterly ignore the deeply felt concerns of the 3,200, overwhelmingly of-color workers who would be directly affected.

The authors raise serious concerns about the discriminatory impact of policing practices on Black and brown pedestrians and drivers—practices that CWA and the Traffic Enforcement Agents vehemently oppose. But these issues literally have nothing to do with the TEAs and Supervisors. To list just a few of the misleading arguments: 

The authors decry racially discriminatory policing of social distancing during the pandemic, but traffic agents have had no authority to police social distancing.

The authors state that Black and brown New Yorkers receive 89% of the tickets issued for jaywalking or mid-street illegal crossing, but traffic agents have no authority to police jaywalking and never issue tickets for that offense.

The authors cite figures showing that Black and brown drivers are far more frequently pulled over by police and even more frequently searched for drugs and alcohol, but TEAs have no authority to pull cars over.

The bottom line is that CWA-represented Agents and Supervisors are only authorized to issue parking tickets and direct traffic in busy intersections. The only moving violations they ever issue occur when drivers “block the box.” Somewhat ironically, they do issue tickets to drivers who park illegally in dedicated bike lanes, something that Transportation Alternatives supporters surely appreciate.

Why, then, do our members care so deeply about remaining in the NYPD? The answer is simple: they believe the uniform provides a measure of safety. Directing traffic and writing tickets earns these agents no love or affection from most New Yorkers. When the traffic bureau was part of the Department of Transportation, agents were routinely derided as “Brownies.” Assaults—literally physical attacks in which faces were punched and limbs were broken —peaked in the early ‘90s at around 600 per year, a trend exacerbated by the late-1980s scandal in the Parking Violations Bureau. The agents fought for years to achieve "uniform status" in order to gain a measure of respect and security. They deeply believe that if they return to the Department of Transportation, disrespect from the public will increase and the assaults and racial slurs will escalate dramatically.

CWA and the Traffic Enforcement Agents and Supervisors support genuine reform of the NYPD. We want to see an end to the now-endless litany of young Black men who have suffered at the hands of police across the country. But moving traffic out of the NYPD satisfies only one need—the claim of a big reduction in the NYPD budget—and actually changes nothing. And there are 3,200 women and men, mostly of-color, who will be deeply hurt if such a change goes through. We urge the City Council and the Mayor to reject this idea.

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Bob Master is Assistant to the Vice President of CWA District One and Rebecca Greene is a Traffic Enforcement Supervisor and Member of CWA Local 1181. On Twitter @cwabobmaster.

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Learning the Right Health-Care Lessons from the Covid Crisis


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Health care lessons from the coronavirus crisis (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)


The saying “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” is cliché, but true. Out of the coronavirus pandemic can come positive change, but we must learn the right lessons. At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in New York some hospitals were overwhelmed – short of personnel, ICU beds, ventilators and PPE. But that does not mean, as some have argued, that more permanent hospital beds are needed.

To draw that conclusion and act upon it would be an extremely costly mistake that doesn’t address the real challenges facing New York’s health-care system. What is needed is an acceleration of the transition from a system of hospital-based ‘sick care’ to one of community-based health promotion and care. 

While this state has the most expensive Medicaid costs in the country, we have mediocre results in prevention and treatment, according to the Commonwealth Fund Scorecard. We focus on costly hospital beds and services that are accessible and satisfactory (except for their high cost) to those with higher incomes, but underinvest in the primary care networks and population health initiatives that could give us a truly coordinated health-care system that prevents and manages illness and reduces the need for hospital care. 

New York State has a total of about 21,200 hospital beds, or 2.5 per 1,000 people, down substantially (approximately 23%) over the past 15 years. The number of patient discharges (a measure of the number of people hospitalized) and length of hospital stays has also declined. Meanwhile, the number of ambulatory care facilities such as school- and hospital-based clinics has tripled. These would all seem to be good trends that indicate people are getting more outpatient care and needing hospitalization less.

But the number of pregnant women who receive no prenatal care and the number of New Yorkers without a primary care doctor have remained relatively unchanged, hovering at about 10 percent and just below 20 percent, respectively. And the number of emergency room visits per year had increased to almost 400 per 1,000 residents, 120% of the number in 2005, before the pandemic hit

The COVID-19 crisis has been particularly acute in primarily poor neighborhoods and communities of color, where hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses are most prevalent. Investing in more and better health care in these neighborhoods will contribute to longer and safer lives. Much more attention is needed to treating people near where they live and creating trust in and reliance upon local clinics, nutritious food options, and behavioral health services so that visits to emergency rooms are not the first contact with the health-care system. This is where we should put our focus and funding, not on keeping thousands of costly beds open in case of severe emergency. 

But that doesn’t mean we don’t also need to make changes in order to better respond to the next viral or other health crisis. In New York we operate our health-care system through separate silos of services: a hospital bed silo, a behavioral care silo, a nursing home silo, and multiple ambulance services. Moreover, many entities within each silo compete with each other for patients. In an emergency, all of these distinct organizational structures should be prepared to operate as if they were one, managing capacity intelligently. This means the state Department of Health must be placed clearly in command of all health-care facilities and providers, notwithstanding resistance that can be expected from some in the industry.

At the first recognition of the pandemic the state should have been able to put into operation a plan designed well in advance and tested once a year to ensure all aspects of the health-care system know their roles and could immediately function in a coordinated fashion. The system should have been organized by region, each with an agreed upon lead with hospitals, clinics, doctors, offices, EMTs, and ambulances working together. Two or three hospitals per region should be established as first receivers so ambulances, doctors, and clinics know where to send patients.

PPE would be distributed across the system and if and when a virus spreads hospitals could be added as receivers, staggered to account for discharges. Additional bed capacity can be added in existing and temporary facilities if needed, as occurred at the height of the covid crisis. Long-term care facilities would be incorporated into the emergency system. Outpatient clinics would be required to extend hours. Such a plan requires leadership and execution at the state level, so that when the red light goes on all the players understand they belong to the community effort.

More beds in an uncoordinated system will cost money on an ongoing basis without providing the ability and agility to control a pandemic if and when it happens. We need coordination, speed, clear decision-making and lines of authority, and surge capacity, not more permanent hospital beds. We have a dysfunctional and expensive ‘sick care’ system that doesn’t deliver health improvement to a large portion of the population. It needs to be reconfigured; we have learned enough from the covid crisis to make it happen.

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Carol Kellermann was president of the Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018. Stephen Berger was Chairman of the New York State Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century.

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Peaker Plants Harm Communities of Color; It’s Time for New York City to Replace Them


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A peaker plant


As the weather warms and we head into the summer, we again expect record-breaking temperatures. Thousands of New Yorkers worry about accessing air conditioning units and surviving a hot summer in cramped apartments, and many will struggle to balance higher electricity bills from air conditioning against costs of health care, food, and rent. But most people don’t worry about the increased electricity demand from widespread air conditioning use during hot days and heat waves.

Most New Yorkers are unlikely to know about the polluting power plants located primarily in communities of color and low-income communities like the South Bronx and Sunset Park that fire up to meet peak electricity demand in New York City when millions of air conditioning units are running. 

These half-century-old fossil fuel power plants, known as “peaker plants,” spew high levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides into the air in communities already burdened with other polluting facilities such as solid waste transfer stations and crowded truck routes. On the hottest days of the year, when air quality is already poor, turning up the air conditioner in Manhattan can mean even more air pollution in environmental justice communities like Sunset Park, Mott Haven, and Hunts Point, where childhood asthma rates are more than double other areas in the Bronx.

New research closely links chronic exposure to higher levels of air pollution such as fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides to higher mortality rates from COVID-19. Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution, along with extreme heat, subject already vulnerable communities to greater rates of hospitalization and death from climate events. Health disparities are exceptionally prevalent in neighborhoods like Sunset Park where 22% of the community does not have access to health coverage.  

New York City must update the current polluting, inefficient, and inequitable energy system for meeting peak electricity demand in order to reduce pollution and protect health in vulnerable communities, enhance community resiliency, and create green jobs.  

New York City’s peaker plants are a prime example of environmental discrimination: the disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental health hazards inflicted on communities of color. Studies have shown that Black and Latino communities across the United States suffer disproportionate levels of air pollution, even as the most privileged are disproportionately responsible for the consumption of goods and services that generate this pollution. Neighborhoods like Hunts Point and Mott Haven in the South Bronx rank highest on the city’s heat vulnerability index, but have one of the lowest shares of air conditioner ownership in the city. These neighborhoods are home to four peaker plant turbines that run among the most frequently of all the city’s 16 peaker plants – often on hot, poor air quality days. 

Pollution isn’t the only problem with peaker plants. As revealed in a report released this month by the newly formed PEAK Coalition, peaker plants are a huge expense for electricity customers. Over the past decade, the city’s peaker plants have cost city residents approximately $4.5 billion in electricity bill payments. And this price tag isn’t even for use of the peaker plants – it’s simply the cost of having the peaker plants sit around, available for use in case they’re needed on those peak-demand days. Most of the money has gone to private, out-of-state companies that own the oldest and most polluting plants in the city’s peaker fleet. Spending billions of dollars going forward to prop up the use of antiquated fossil fuel power plants with few to no pollution controls makes no sense.

The solution isn’t for New Yorkers to stop using air conditioning or to feel guilty about it – access to adequate cooling during dangerously high heat days should be a human right, not a privilege. The city must update the current polluting, archaic, and inefficient system for meeting peak electricity demand and replace fossil fuel peaker plants by investing in energy efficiency upgrades, large-scale renewable energy generation and battery storage, and distributed smaller-scale renewable energy generation and storage. Renewable energy and storage will not only reduce air pollution but can also enhance community resiliency in the face of storms or blackouts and create green, local jobs and workforce training opportunities. 

Under New York’s groundbreaking climate law passed last year, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state must reform this system to achieve a carbon-free electricity generation system by 2040. But there is no need to wait that long – the technology exists to transform the system. We just need a commitment to prioritize the health and resilience of our neighborhoods. Communities like the South Bronx and Sunset Park, among the hardest-hit in the current pandemic, can’t afford to wait another 20 years to reduce air pollution.

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Rachel Spector is Director of Environmental Justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest; Elizabeth Yeampierre is Executive Director at UPROSE; and Dariella Rodriguez is Director of Community Development at The Point CDC. All three are members of the PEAK Coalition. On Twitter @NYLPI & @UPROSE & @THEPOINTCDC.

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The Mayor’s Short-Sighted Professional Development Design


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Mayor de Blasio goes to school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


It was 2014 when Mayor de Blasio declared that “under Carmen Fariña’s leadership, principals and teachers alike have been training and training and training – it’s like they’re all going to the Olympics – they’ve been training all summer to be the best they could be.”

But six years later, the mayor has changed his tune. He’s proposing to slash funding for professional development for the city’s 75,000 educators at a time when children need us most and teachers most need it to serve students in an unprecedented, quickly-changing environment.

Our city is weathering a devastating global pandemic, a transition to remote learning for 1.1 million kids, Great Depression-level unemployment, and corresponding city budget challenges – all as the nation has been shaken to its core by the death of George Floyd.

Amidst these simultaneous crises, kids are looking to teachers to understand this unique moment in history. And yet, despite the Department of Education touting professional development as central to child development over the last six years, educators everywhere are now on the cusp of a massive cut to the training they need.

It’s exactly the wrong thing to do at exactly the wrong time.

Today, of the Department of Education’s $25 billion budget, roughly $500 million goes towards teacher professional development. Now, as it faces a budget shortfall, City Hall plans to cut $67 million of PD – a significant scale-back. Investments in educators are one of the first things on the chopping block.

But the fact is learning should never stop, neither for our kids nor the adults who teach them. Pedagogical mastery is a long-term progression, and halting that mastery during a time of crisis will be felt in classrooms everywhere, especially in the virtual learning age.

Why? Because, at this moment, teachers are being asked to reinvent decades of practice practically overnight, all behind a computer. They’re doing things they’ve never had to do before. With schools expected to adopt a hybrid model of in-person and remote instruction in the fall, virtual classrooms will be with us for months to come.

That means our students will be even more vulnerable if their teachers don’t have the resources to effectively instruct remotely. Learning loss could be catastrophic, and our health crisis could indeed morph into a long-term learning emergency for our city.

We know the antidote, though. It’s investing in teachers. Doubling down on training for educators, especially if officials tailor it for the moment in which we’re living, is not some isolated line item. It’s a deliberate strategy for success.

At my school – Bronx Charter School for the Arts – roughly 82% percent of our elementary students are attending virtual class each day, and professional development has been a key ingredient to our success. Once we overcame the initial challenge of providing devices to students, adapting our lessons to a remote environment was the next hurdle, especially for reading and literacy.

Our curriculum, Units of Study, cultivates collaboration and socialization, while fostering independence. Children analyze characters, develop critical thinking skills, and grasp the big picture of story elements. Those objectives are hard to achieve virtually, but we’ve been reflective practitioners, balancing the needs of the students and our programmatic goals. Working closely with our curricular experts at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, we have often revised the work to be responsive. Constant teacher training, and having quality curricular partners, has made distance learning merely a new skill that we’ve mastered – not a permanent roadblock to learning.

Our professional development partners themselves have also pivoted their own programs to meet this moment. The Reading and Writing Project recently ran a virtual Pandemic Institute, which provides lesson plans for teachers that allow their students to become historians of this crisis. Enabling children to make connections between their current day-to-day experiences and their learning is one of the main reasons our attendance numbers are so high.

And at this moment, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, connecting learning to real-time events is critical.

That’s also why cutting professional development citywide is so short-sighted. As a school leader, I recognize the difficult decisions our city leaders have to make right now. But I also know that we don’t want to create long-term pain for a short-term gain. We’ve instructed all of our children to focus on their education. But if teachers do not continue to grow their craft through professional development – especially during these trying times – then policymakers are acting in the opposite manner for which we have advised students all of their young lives.

Teachers are doing heroic work right now, and we need to set them up for continued success.

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Jonea Thomas is the elementary school principal at Bronx Charter School for the Arts.

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Life and Death at the Stroke of the Governor's Pen


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Governor Cuomo signs criminal justice reforms (photo: Governor's Office)


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been trying in his daily press briefings to position himself as the national voice of reason, truth, and compassion regarding the coronavirus. To that end, he has liberally signed an array of executive orders ranging from shutting down businesses and closing schools to limiting the size of social gatherings.

When the evidence revealed that COVID-19 was especially ravaging communities of color, the governor then tried to assume the mantle of race truth-teller by referring to the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in vital areas like housing, education, health, and employment. He even began to use visual aids to show that specific zip codes -- communities of color -- were hardest hit by the virus.

George Floyd’s murder by the police and the resulting uprisings across the country pushed COVID-19 out of the headlines. Not to be outdone, and to maintain his newfound national relevance, the governor started trying to use his bully pulpit to project himself as the voice of anti-racist criminal justice reformers. He quickly seized upon the calls to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a that shielded police disciplinary records from the public. He appeared to have heard the community activists and families of loved ones killed by police who had for many years labored relentlessly for the repeal of 50-a. Now, with the national spotlight on police violence, the governor gave full-throated support to their efforts as if he were a long-time ally of the movement. He proclaimed, “I would sign a bill today that reforms 50-a. I would sign it today. Pass the bill. I will sign it today.”

Soon thereafter, the Legislature did send him such a bill as part of a criminal justice reform package, and with great fanfare the governor signed it, calling it the “most aggressive” police reform legislation in the country. He also used the occasion to condemn “injustice against minorities in America by the criminal justice system" and emphatically added, “Today...enough is enough.”

The governor was not yet finished signing criminal law reforms. In his effort to be seen as a national progressive spokesperson regarding police violence against people of color, he announced that he had signed an executive order making state funding to police agencies contingent on their developing plans to “reinvent and modernize” their strategies. A few days later, he again put pen to paper and signed additional criminal law legislation asserting that the changes “take us one step closer to righting the many injustices minority communities have faced because of a broken and unfair system."

All well and good but if the governor truly believes that “enough is enough” then he must use his signature to redress the crisis of mass incarceration and the 40,000 people in his state prisons: the living embodiment of the “injustice against minorities in America by the criminal justice system."

The racism that defines the criminal legal system does not stop with racist policing. It runs through arrest, prosecution, adjudication, and sentencing. It results in more than 9,000 people, disproportionately people of color, serving life sentences in New York State. And many come from the very zip codes the governor highlights daily in his visual aid of the “hot spots” for coronavirus in New York.

There are thousands of clemency applications on the governor’s desk from people seeking sentence commutations. The majority are from people of color. In 2019, Cuomo did not sign a single one.

Many meritorious clemency applications pre-date COVID-19. Now, for those most at-risk from the virus, the specter of serious medical complications or death adds even more weight to their applications. The governor has repeatedly stressed the danger facing vulnerable people living in congregate spaces. While he specifically refers to nursing homes, even he has made the irrefutable connection to prisons: “It’s the same with the nursing home, it’s a prison, it’s any congregate facility. There’s no doubt, where you have a congregation of people, that is a place where the virus can transfer...So, the congregate facilities of people, that’s all it is. It’s just wherever you have a density, a gathering of people that is a problematic area...”

Yet to date, amid all his signing ceremonies, he has signed zero clemency applications from the many older and ill people pleading for relief.
Incarcerated people and their families live in fear that COVID-19 will ravage the prisons where already more than 1,800 prison staff and people inside have contracted the virus and 21 have died. For many, there is newfound hope that the governor’s talk about the racism and injustice in the criminal legal system will lead him to finally exercise his vast clemency power.

Countless number of clemency applicants have worked hard to improve and transform and have achieved dramatic success under the trying and unforgiving circumstances of prison. Most have already served decades behind bars. In the governor’s own words, “Enough is enough.” Now all that is needed to set them free is his signature.

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

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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.

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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.

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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? 

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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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