Racial Justice Requires Public Representation, Not Private Negotiation

jumannie williams right to know

[Photo cred: Jon Campbell / Village Voice]

by Cameron Orr

“There are so many people fighting against gun violence every single day. The violence that we get from the police and the violence that occurs within our communities is rooted in the same thing. There have been inept structural deficits in our community for far too long. If we set more jobs, if we set better schools, if we set housing in those communities that have been ignored based on race for decades, all of the violence would cease. The shootings would cease and there would be no reason to send police to do the job the whole government should be doing.”

This statement was made by Jumaane Williams at a recent march and rally held in commemoration of Eric Garner. The movements receiving mass public support for a tax equaling a fraction of a percent on the 1% for the billions in profits reaped from stock transfers on Wall Street have struggled to find political oxygen. At the same time, Garner was strangled to death by police in the city of Wall Street for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. Garner, facing joblessness, was trying to provide for his family in a city where the most powerful refuse to provide for the public good. All the profits of the world flow through New York City, yet the State of New York has still not made good on its promises to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in providing fair and adequate funds to all public schools. Inequitable school funding has hit communities of color particularly hard. Charter schools have been the 1%’s answer to this problem: they are taking public schools over, and they are using public money to do it.

The people of New York City understand that without having direct control over their laws and governing structures, their interests will be sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. Jumaane D. Williams, winning a seat in the New York City Council on the wave of mounting progressive struggle, also said the following to all those assembled at the rally:

“This City Council was elected to do police reform. That is the only reason people walked into the voting booth. I’m hoping that this city government will step up and vote for the Right to Know Act, the Right to Record Act, and all of the bills that will help move us forward.”

As the founding Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus and as a member of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is among those Council members expected to bring the power of the coalitions fighting for police reform into the city government. Mayor de Blasio was also elected to represent these concerns.

However, a piece in the NYTimes states, “the Right to Know Act will not be considered for passage by the City Council, even though the bills have broad support. During a closed-door meeting last week, the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, informed her colleagues that the proposed changes would instead be handled internally by the New York Police Department.”

Mayor de Blasio said of the closed-door agreements that they “will help bridge the essential relationship between police and community that is at the center of keeping our neighborhoods safe.”

Despite these assurances, the Garner case sheds light on how ineffective police departments’ internal policies are in holding officers accountable. The chokehold used on Eric Garner that ended his life was a violation of NYPD policy, but it did not infringe on any law. The police department in New York City did not discipline the officers involved in the Garner case for violating their own policy.

Although Bill de Blasio had championed his multi-racial family during his mayoral run and ran on a platform to “end the era of Stop and Frisk,” he hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner immediately after winning the election. Bill Bratton then resurrected “the era of Broken Windows” that he first put into place while working for the former right-wing mayor, Rudy Giuliani. Both Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows are policies that have violently targeted communities of color. Bill Bratton has recently stepped down after an incident in which NY State Assemblyman Michael Blake was violently accosted by police, while refusing to give an apology and denying any wrongdoing or connection between the events. De Blasio has appointed James O’Neill to replace Bratton, but O’Neill has indicated his commitment to block Right to Know.

The election of de Blasio as Mayor of New York came directly out of the movement to defeat the ultra-right and developing trends within the people’s movements to confront corporate power and growing inequality. Running on a platform that in some areas supported progressive values, de Blasio was elected to end Republican rule over the city government. During the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, public services, and the union members who provide the public with their basic needs, were demonized – every public sector worker except employees of the New York Police Department. Police who do step forward to acknowledge discriminatory quota systems are stripped of the hero status given to every other officer even as people of color are losing their lives as a result of their encounters with members of the police force.

Shortly after the financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailout, elected officials began to pat themselves on the back for the economic recovery that was registering at the top-most tiers of society. Most of the jobs that came on the heels of this alleged recovery were low-wage jobs. This became the impetus for the #Fightfor15 movement. In addition to its demands for living wages and union rights, this campaign has united with core democratic forces fighting for equitable law enforcement and quality housing.

Police violence cannot be understood separately from the segregation and displacement that go hand-in-hand with gentrification. Real-estate developers see the maintenance of “law and order” as fundamental to the value of their property. As a case in point, when the Central Park Five were unjustly targeted as culprits in the raping of a woman in 1989, real-estate mogul Donald Trump spent $86,000 to run full-page ads in major newspapers, including the New York Times. In bold lettering taking up half the page, the ads said, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK OUR POLICE!”

New residents riding along the waves of fresh development often bring with them their own take on “law and order.” They are more likely to report their neighbors for what they see as “quality of life” violations when in reality, they are merely unaccustomed to the cultural norms they have relocated themselves into. More often than not, those calling the police are white, and those being accosted by the police are people of color. The rule “if you see something, say something” rarely, if ever, applies to injustices in our housing, schooling, or policing systems. Instead, it targets vulnerable communities who have already been established in the social imagination as a criminal element. It is more profit-friendly than people-friendly.

Rising rents, which could be more accurately described as the purpose of gentrification than its side affect, are fueling racial tensions. Private developers’ plans are also negatively impacting urban dwellers across the board. During his mayoral campaign, de Blasio responded to public anger regarding perpetually rising rents by promising to simply building more housing. The reasoning behind this proposal was that increasing the supply of housing would lower the prices of housing. It is hard to square this notion with the reality that more empty houses already exist than homeless people. Additionally, this logic does not apply to situations where corporate rule over the state has eliminated normal market competition. The re-zoning laws put forward by de Blasio have failed to address the power that real-estate agencies and their financial suppliers hold over the city [they changed to “over the city’s housing market”].

Agencies building luxury apartment buildings are required to make 20% of all new apartments “affordable housing” units. However, what is legally defined as affordable is well above the mean incomes of the neighborhoods in which these buildings are being built. These rezoning plans are providing luxury housing for people from outside while continuing to drive up rents for long-time residents.

Moreover, in order to give developers the incentive to build affordable housing at all, a program called 421-a exempts building developers from paying taxes for decades on each new development project. Over a billion dollars in public money is lost every year as a result, but it has not contributed to significantly more affordable units. Developers have argued that without this tax credit they will not bother trying to establish rezoning laws because it would no longer be profitable to build affordable units. By their own admission, unless public money is lost to subsidize their profits, there is no reason not to use those funds for public housing. One developer said, “Without [the tax break], the subsidies necessary to get any of the rezoned projects built would basically make them public housing.”

De Blasio has pointed to federal laws restricting funding for New York City public housing as a major limitation. Since the underlying argument against public housing is that it would fail to bolster corporate profits, this should form the basis for a new wave of demands for New York City residents to bring to their democratically elected mayor.

Despite receiving generous gifts in the form of state money to perform state functions, private developers have consistently not performed this role in an equitable way. Just as charter schools have a proven record of discriminating against struggling students, private developers have made use of their own discriminatory practices, such as the construction of separate entrances and segregated facilities for tenants living in affordable units. They have also made use of “off-site” construction, where the affordable units are built as a separate structure miles away from those luxury units being built in areas marked for gentrification. The use of “poor-doors” has been outlawed by the de Blasio administration, but off-site construction remains a tool in the hands of developers to restrict community members’ access to their own neighborhoods.

While housing plans have been pushed to benefit private developers, Wall Street has fought to defund investment into communities. Our elected officials have not ensured access to living wage jobs in underserved communities. The 1% has removed arts and recreational programs from our schools, and elected officials have assisted in replacing them with corporate-run charter schools that are failing to provide assistance to struggling students and tearing apart the long established neighborhood bonds that public schools provide. Working people suffer from ever increasing MTA fares, yet insufficient funding has caused the trains and buses they depend on to operate poorly, extending commuting times for those in far-flung areas and creating frictions between riders and operators. Basic promises, like emptying the trashcans on the sidewalks of low-income neighborhoods, have been broken. As people work increasing numbers of hours to pay the rent, they are blamed for their own impoverished circumstances.

Through an upsurge in collective struggle and through progressive values being fought for at the ballot box, the public has made clear its demands for oversight over the police, for protection from the police, and for transparency in the police department. These demands reject the notion that police can be trusted to manage themselves. The public has expressed its desire to have direct control over their policing structures, not to have police power negotiated behind closed doors.

The logical next step for measures such as the Right to Know Act would be direct democratic control over policing systems. The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) is leading a coalition to establish a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC). The CPAC would be a democratically elected body with the power to elect a Superintendent of police; to rewrite the police rule book; to provide transparency of all investigations and statistics and data describing the demographics of those making complaints; to investigate all police shootings, allegations of police misconduct, and violations of U.S. Constitution and Human Rights Law; to be the final authority regarding discipline of the police force; to refer cases to the U.S. Federal Grand Jury and the U.S. Attorney in seeking indictment of police for crimes they commit; and to establish its own budget. The CPAC has been endorsed by Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions. Trumka is calling on all local unions to support these kinds of measures to replace structural racism with structural anti-racism.

Politicians elected to represent working families must act as coalition partners with the 99% inside the centers of government power. They are not mediators to act between the 99% and a powerful minority. The people’s coalitions are not waiting outside the halls of government to see what will be handed down to them. They expect their elected officials to be in partnership with them to realize their demands every step of the way.

Our City Council needs to pass Right to Know as a legally enforceable bill. This would require officers to identify themselves to civilians, to provide a business card in encounters that do not result in an arrest or summons, and to notify people of their right to refuse a search. Council members Antonio Reynoso and Richie Torres are leading an effort to resist the compromise of the bill by Mark-Viverito and de Blasio. Michael Blake has also supported this bill and many other elected officials besides.
As representatives of the people receiving public money to fight for public concerns, all elected officials in our municipal, state, and federal governments have a duty to fight for the needs of the 99%. The bills which the people’s coalitions are advocating for, including Right to Know, Right to Record, and Raise the Age, are not a mere bargaining chip on the table for private meetings. They are the voice and power of the people. Elections exist to make this power real.

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