Much has been made about President Donald Trump’s recent comments condemning immigrant alleged gang members as “animals.” As many rebuked the President’s comments as dangerous when thought to be directed at the immigrant community more broadly, there’s been debate as to whether it was an appropriate way to describe gang members, MS-13 in particular.
As community advocates who work with youth that authorities declare to be gang members, we know Trump isn’t alone in dehumanizing poor people of color. Police and prosecutors have long carried out that mission. Strategies such as the NYPD’s so-called “precision policing” purport to tackle crime under the banner of fighting gangs. These tactics will not make us safer and have done more damage to poor communities of color in the city than anything Trump has done.
After Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy was killed by two young men in the fourth floor hallway of her building in West Harlem’s Grant Houses in 2011, law enforcement officials pointed to her death as a watershed moment for the public housing development’s decades-long feud with nearby Manhattanville Houses. Following a military-like gang raid on the morning of June 4th in 2014 – the biggest in the city’s history at that time – city officials, including Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, used her death to justify the operation. Vance and police produced 103 indictments, mostly of young Black and Hispanic public-housing residents.
What was hardly mentioned was that the community had been asking for help for years or that activists had been trying to diffuse the conflict between young people. While activists worked with few resources to bring together both sides onto neutral ground to make peace on multiple occasions, law-enforcement officials surveilled them and built complex conspiracy indictments.
They chose to largely watch the conflict play out. During the trial of Tayshana’s killers, one officer assigned to the NYPD’s Viper camera room even admitted that he watched as her killers flaunted a weapon to a group of residents before killing her – but did nothing to stop them.
Tayshana’s brother, Taylonn Jr., was one of those indicted as a result of the 2014 raids. Already on Rikers Island for unrelated charges, he was re-indicted by Vance’s office. Taylonn Jr. spent more than half of nearly three years in jail in solitary confinement and was one of few who risked going to trial, during which his father was helping to implement the 696 Build Queensbridge anti-violence program.
In 2016 he was convicted on murder and conspiracy charges despite lack of a murder weapon or any physical evidence. He’s currently serving a sentence of 50 years to life.
Our line of work takes place in neighborhoods that are affected by inter-generational neighborhood feuds and deeply-rooted police harassment alike. As part of the public health anti-violence work crucial to changing hearts and minds, we engage people who have an understanding of the community and are involved in conflicts. This work was celebrated by the city itself when the Queensbridge Houses went over a year without a shooting under the 696 Build Queensbridge program and by the mayor in reference to the historic drop in violent crimes in New York City.
These efforts represent a credible community-based alternative to gang sweeps and criminalization. However, the city’s schizophrenic approach of rhetorically treating violence as a public-health issue but reverting to smashed-door raids and long prison sentences undermine that work. In fact, we know that raids and large-scale indictments are not only likely to unfairly net people minimally or not involved in serious violence, but also work against outreach efforts by creating a climate of fear and mistrust.
It’s also important to note that public-housing residents are not the only ones under attack by the current regime of gang policing. Legal Aid represents immigrant youth who are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers facing deportation as a result of being labeled gang-involved not because of a criminal act or a previous arrest or conviction, but as a result of how they dressed, where they lived and whom they associated with.
Gang policing through database-building creates an overly-inclusive net over immigrant youth and their communities that ICE and the NYPD abuse without any current constitutional protections and with no oversight. Essentially, whoever the police and ICE deem as a gang member will be labeled as such and the fact that the vast majority of those facing that designation are Black and Latinx, including immigrant youth, is a crisis happening right in front of us.
When neither ICE nor the NYPD provides notice of this devastating gang label being affixed on the person, then one can be labelled gang-involved and be exposed to severe life-altering consequences without ever even knowing about it.
As with most matters, the NYPD is secretive about its gang policing database. Through the FOIL Yourself Campaign of the Legal Aid Society’s Community Justice Unit we see how the NYPD stonewalls efforts towards transparency in order to maintain a veil of secrecy over its gang database. The campaign has facilitated hundreds of FOIL requests in which individual New Yorkers demand to know if they have been labeled as gang members. The police have denied 99.9 percent of those requests. Instead, the NYPD chooses to operate in the dark and doesn’t even provide mechanisms to challenge inclusion into the gang database.
Trump talks the dehumanizing talk, but in their anti-gang crusade, police walk the walk. History repeats itself. Gang hysteria is no different than when the Central Park Five, youth, who spent years in prison for something they never did, were labeled savage youth who were “wilding” out of control. Trump stoked the fires back then but it was local police and prosecutors that carried out that injustice.
Communities are built on trust and lasting relationships among residents who care and look out for one another. Gang policing through secret gang databases is the exact opposite. There are proven, community-based alternatives to gang-policing that don’t rely on labeling and incarceration. Unlike police officers, credible messengers are from the communities they work in so they have the trust and understanding of community dynamics capable of bringing two feuding sides to a truce.
Instead, in treating youth as guilty by association and lumping in them with terms like “savages” and “goons,” the NYPD is treating them like animals, fodder for mass incarceration without real opportunities to transform.