Tag Archive | police

Latest subway brouhaha misses the point

Citizens voiced criticism of the police when a woman selling churros was handcuffed by NYPD officers at the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn.

The police said the vendor had been issued several citations and had refused officers’ orders to move. Also, the vendor was not officially arrested, but briefly handcuffed and issued a citation. Whichever way you cut it, “the optics” as we say in the public relations world, were bad.

In the scale of subway scofflaws and annoyances, the Spanish-speaking women selling churros don’t register at all. The churro ladies usually stay out of the way of foot traffic and sell delicious homemade treats at a good price. They don’t loudly beg for money from strangers or drag their carts through crowded subway cars at rush hour.

Why aren’t the police clearing out the homeless who can render entire subway cars unusable? Why aren’t we seeing more photos of the brain-addled aggressive panhandlers being put in handcuffs, or the people bringing bicycles or in some cases, motorcycles onto the subways being given the heave-ho by New York’s finest?

I get why the MTA wants to crack down on subway fare beaters, but they are avoiding the bigger, harder issues that makes a bigger difference in the deteriorating level of subway service that arouses the ire of straphangers.

Subway riders are furious because the subways are terrible. There are frequent delays and overcrowding on the subways, trains and buses that never show up, and service that is sub-par even when going according to plan. Almost all of the lines have outdated signaling systems that frequently stall trains and the MTA is decades behind replacing them. People have missed job interviews, meetings with loved ones, and even their own college graduations because the MTA’s inexcusable performances.

The transit system has singled out the people who jump the turnstiles and don’t pay their fare as a major issue to be addressed. Indeed the agency reported that these freeloaders could cost the system more than $300 million this year. Its approach to fixing this problem has been typically ham-handed. It spent money on signs and stickers telling people not to use the exit-only emergency exits to leave the subway, as it enables people to run in through the open door to avoid paying. Such a campaign could only be designed by people who don’t actually ride the subway. The subways need more exit-only gates. Taking up turnstile space to leave only stalls people who are rushing to get on a train. People who leave by the exit only gates and the emergency exits while people are trying to get in are doing the right thing. All these stupid stickers and signs do is flush money down the toilet that could be used for upgrading the system.

While fare beaters certainly do account for a major shortfall in the MTA’s budget, but it is small potatoes compared to the larger underfunding issues that require a political solution. It will be a hard-fought battle between the city and state governments, and will take years to make right. It will include unpopular tax increases.

No doubt there should be cost cutting. Why does track construction cost many times more in New York than anywhere else? Why are there thousands of no-show jobs on the books every time we want to build some new track in New York? Solving these issues of construction corruption and graft will go a long way to improving our transit situation, but it still can’t entirely address the funding gap.

This central funding question is the one the MTA needs to tackle first. Without adequate funding from New York State, all the other ideas are impotent half-measures that will drive more outrage than revenue.

Punk rock in Tompkins Square Park

This coming weekend two free punk rock shows will be held in Tompkins Square Park in New York City’s East Village.

The shows commemorate the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, when police clashed with squatters, homeless and others that had been camping out in the park. Accounts of that night very but few dispute it involved widespread police brutality. Police lined up on the street for an extended period of time before moving into the park, and they were subject to sustained abuse by activists that did not want them there and saw them as agents of a landlord-controlled city that (to this day) lets property go abandoned rather than occupied while working people struggle to pay rent.

The riots were one of the first instances of widely-publicized videos of reported police misconduct thanks to the efforts of East Village video archivist and neighborhood stalwart Clayton Patterson. His videos showed police covering their badge numbers and chasing down protesters and beating them without arresting them. “Little brother is watching big brother,” he told Oprah Winfrey.

The 30-plus years have done a lot to change the East Village. Tompkins Square Park is no longer a homeless encampment or open-air drug market; it is now a safe place you can bring children. The abandoned buildings and art spaces that were abundant in the late 1980s have been replaced by high-end restaurants and expensive homes. The story is the same throughout the city.

It would be useless to pretend the East Village is the same, but it would be a disservice not to commemorate a scene that produced great art. Even if the crucible that created an esteemed body of art is long gone, the art does not get thrown away. I’m happy that feudal Italian city states no longer wage war on the Italian peninsula, but the art that survives from this period is among the finest in the civilized world.

The scene may be over, but the art endures. So let it be with punk rock. Though please don’t think that punk rock is over or that new generations don’t have the same legitimacy as the old-timers that were there when New York was a shithole. There are excellent bands playing in the city today, comprised of young people who were not born yet in 1988, and they are as punk rock as anyone else.

And the East Village is still a home for punk rock. The Bowery Electric, located a short distance away from where CBGB once stood on the Bowery, still hosts great punk rock shows. Niagara, which his located where punk rock club A7 once stood, has started booking hardcore punk concerts there regularly again.

And free punk rock still reigns in the park. Full disclosure: my band Blackout Shoppers is scheduled to play the free punk rock show in Tompkins Square Park this Sunday, Aug. 4, with The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Hammerbrain, Porno Dracula (one of the greatest band names ever, but please don’t Google them at work), Jennifer Blowdryer Soul Band, Ruckus Interruptus, and Young Headlight. Saturday the 3rd hosts the first of the two-part series with Disassociate, the Nihilistics, Rapid Deployment Force and more.

Blackout Shoppers have been rehearsing and sounding good, even judging by my overly critical, curmudgeonly ears. We don’t play as often as we used to and it’s a blast when we can get together and play a show. It was touching when people came out to see us last year when we bid farewell to Philthy Phill of World War IX. We don’t want to wear out our welcome, but we are playing more shows this year than we’ve played more recently and it feels good to be out there being loud.

See you in the park this weekend.

The joy of illegal fireworks

Growing up in Yonkers, New York, which borders the Bronx, the fourth of July was always a time for fireworks and fun. I would stay up as late as I could watching people light up firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, and other fare. I’d jump at the fearsome boom of M-80s. On the fifth of July I’d go outside to ride my bike and step into what looked to me like a war zone. Paper from expended fire crackers lined the gutters, leftover powder from unexploded ordnance glinted in the sun. One time I saw a metal garbage can that had been split in half and turned upside down by a blast of something, looking like a sad metallic banana peel.

When I first moved to New York City as an adult, I lived on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park, Queens. A few blocks down the street was famed Gambino Crime Family boss John Gotti’s old local headquarters, the Bergin Hunt & Fish Club. Gotti had been in prison for several years by that point, and the Mafia was a shadow of what it once was, but the Teflon Don had thrown big parties in Ozone Park every Independence Day and his presence was still looming large enough to draw a large police presence. I could not look out the window of my small studio on July 4th of that year without seeing the NYPD.

When my brother was visiting the next year, we managed to get onto the roof of the building I lived in. While we could see the fireworks off in the distance happening over the East River, it was much more fun to see the illicit explosions spreading it spider light over the skies of Ozone Park. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of the firework lighters and the police added to the intrigue.

Years later, when I lived in Inwood in Northern Manhattan, I walked down to where Dyckman Street met the Hudson River, hoping to see fireworks of some capacity over the water. I was too far away from the official celebrations to get a good view of anything and I went home. But the volume of illegal fireworks being launched in Inwood was enormous, and I got a better show from my living room window than I could have had anywhere else.

I have been back in Queens for almost seven years now, this time in Northern Queens on the Flushing-Whitestone border.

Our co-op apartment building houses two addresses that do not connect except in the basement and on the roof. The roof is normally not accessible, but one of the buildings is without its elevator, so residents can take the elevator to the top floor of our side and cross over the roof.

On the fourth of July the skies over New York City were lit with legal and illegal fireworks alike. With one girls falling asleep early, my wife and I took turns bringing our other daughters up to see what there was to see. We knew there was a lot going on in our neighborhood as the evenings leading up to the fourth had at least one or two substantial barrages of fireworks audible and in close range.

From all sides of the roof we saw fireworks in the distance. A string of lights on the roof added to the festive air. The official Macy’s show over the East River started up at 9 p.m., and other legal displays could be seen over some of the country clubs of Douglaston and other well-to-do neighborhoods. But the most compelling sights were the ones going on right over the tidy homes of Whitestone.

The fireworks would burst into a glowing flower of streaking fire and fade almost as quickly. “Where go?” asked my youngest daughter, pointing to where the colorful display had just been. Another family from the other side if the building was on the roof as well. “Happy Birthday America!” one little boy called out as the colorful bombs burst in air.

The Saturday after July 4th, our family visited friends for a celebratory party. There my older girls got to experience sparklers for the first time. They enjoyed holding the fizzing light, aware it could burn them but marveling at how pretty it was. It was what the older people and the big kids were doing, and they were glad to be involved in the tradition. I didn’t get to hold sparklers until I was in fifth or sixth grade, and my parents would not have allowed me to partake if I had asked them. I was at a neighbor’s house and the grown-ups were lighting off the bigger stuff, using a candle on the ground to help light things. When police sirens could be heard in the distance, someone would blow the candle out and we’d retreat to the dark shadows of trees near the house until the danger of being caught had passed.

Of course there are dangers to fireworks, and no shortage of stupid people who set them off dangerously and without regard to safety or consideration for others. But we can’t let stupid people ruin our good time. Just as we shouldn’t stop loving our country because stupidity is on the ascent in our leadership and public discourse, we shouldn’t stop loving the celebration because morons are in the mix. The idiots will be there until common sense or well-placed fireworks weed them out.

Colonists won their freedom with blatant opposition to oppressive laws and plenty of gunpowder. It’s that heritage of the outlaw patriot we celebrate with fireworks at this time of year. It’s a tip of the hat to our revolutionary history. May it never die.

 

An indictment in the Bronx is an indictment of our city

A few weeks ago I saw a man get arrested at the 23rd St. N/R Station. As two NYPD officers tried to cuff him he broke free of them, and shoved them, shouting ridiculous blather about being treated unfairly and fearing the police. One of the officers pulled his Taser and I thought the man, who looked significantly larger than both of the cops, was going to get Tasered. Instead one of the officers talked him down and he soon put his hands behind his back and allowed the cops to cuff him. A witness told me he was being arrested because he was mentally disturbed and had been on the train tracks.

The cops had every right to Taser the guy, and if I was in their shoes I can honestly say that would have been my inclination. I was impressed with the cops’ ability to avoid violence in the situation. Police don’t always have that option.

Lost among the media coverage of two terror attacks in England and the U.S. President’s declaration about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, a New York Police Department Sergeant was charged with murder in the Bronx.

Sgt. Hugh Barry responded to a call last October to find a mentally ill woman threatening officers with a pair of scissors. He managed to talk her down and she dropped the scissors, but she then retrieved a baseball bat and swung at the sergeant, who shot her twice. That’s a very clear case of an officer being threatened with deadly force and responding appropriately.

But soon after the incident New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police Commissioner James O’Neill condemned the officer, claiming he violated department procedure by not calling for the Emergency Service Unit or using his Taser. Last week, the Bronx District Attorney filed murder charges against the sergeant.

It’s a travesty that should be inciting outrage nationwide. And not because we adhere to some warped notion that all cops are heroes and we should get behind anyone with a badge. This indictment should elicit outrage because Hugh Barry is a human being who has a right to stop someone trying to murder him. This indictment is an affront to decency because #FactsMatter.

New York police are rightfully angry.

The indictment of Sergeant Barry is not the action of a truthful or serious people. It’s the action of an ignorant and myopic ruling class that by sacrificing the right innocent people, they can somehow forge a tenuous peace in a volatile society. We’ve seen this before. Many of the most well-known cases in recent years that spurred large-scale protests and questionable prosecutions were manufactured controversies that didn’t stand up to a desultory examination of the facts. In places like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, grand juries correctly rejected politically-motivated criminal charges against police.

But a large segment of the body politic insists that any death at the hands of police fit a certain narrative, a narrative that’s been undercut by the facts at almost every turn. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill bought into this narrative despite very clear evidence to the contrary. They would rather appease an extremist activist movement than work to protect our citizens.

If our city still has any respect for the truth, Sgt. Barry will be back on the job by this time next year and Bill de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill will be looking for work.

The mad carnival that is the New York City Marathon

My wife’s cousin Erin ran the New York City Marathon and several of us planned to go meet her along the route. Erin had arranged things so that friends and family would meet her at several points along the 26.2 mile run. We were scheduled to meet her about halfway through the run in Long Island City, Queens.

Taking two toddlers onto the 7 train is one of the most torturous mass transit experiences you can have. We gave them munchkins from Dunkin’ Donuts and that sated their hunger but made them thirsty. We had no water for them, only giant coffee drinks that they couldn’t have. They cried and tried to wrestle free. Where on the 7 train they intended to go we had no idea, but they cried and screamed to be free of us.

Time slows down when you are the couple who brought crying children on the subway, but we eventually reached the Vernon-Jackson stop on the 7 train in Long Island City. Not wanting to take a double stroller onto subway, we brought backpack baby holders to carry them around in, but we had to hustle off the train to have space on the platform to wrestle the girls into those. We emerged from the subway stop into the cool November air. The weather was perfect for the race, and the marathon was close by and well under way.

The New York City Marathon is a somewhat of a crazy carnival. People show up with funny signs and runners often jog by in odd costumes. People show up to push their own causes: people handed out pamphlets for Bernard Sanders and solicited donations; the Jewish group Chabad had a space set up with a PA and hospitality to cheer on the runners.

There were a plethora of inspirational signs: ‘You CAN even!’ and ‘Run like the METS Depend on it’ were two of the more clever ones on display in Long Island City. A few held up signs that read, ‘Welcome to Queens!’ A few groups had enlarged photos of their friends and loved ones in the marathon. A couple near where we were standing had two large neon-colored Ls, their daughter’s initials. She gave them big hugs and was moved by their presence.

The runners reflect the city’s diverse patchwork of oddities as well. There were lots of runners dressed in the spirit of Halloween. I saw one competitor wearing a sheep suit and many more dressed superheroes such as Superman or Iron Man.

The runners are also an inspiration and represent all that is good about New York. They showcase the perseverance of the human spirit. There were runners that looked like they had to be in their 60s or 70s, including one elderly runner hobbling along with forearm crutches. One marathon runner was blind and was being helped along by some guides.

Lots of runners had their names on their jerseys and it was easy to root for them by name. More still had ear buds in their ears and were listening to music and so shouting encouragement to them was in vain. I decided I would shout, “Vive La France!” at French runners. They seemed to appreciate my support.

After tracking her via smart phones, our family group saw my wife’s cousin Erin as she approached us. She was in great spirits and chatted with us for a bit while waiting for her running partner. She munched in a snack, gave us hugs, and was off again. She finished the race in good time.

Here’s to all the marathon runners and everyone hitting the pavement and chasing your dreams.

Jury Duty, the Right We Have Come to Despise

Civic duty is much nobler in speech than it is in action. Jury duty is an honorable civic duty that most citizens do everything in their power to avoid.

I received a jury duty summons in the mail to serve in my home borough of Queens. But rather than get a definite day to report, the system keeps you guessing and requires you to call by telephone to see if you must report the following day.

So for a few days I lived with the Sword of Damocles over my head wondering if I was actually going to serve. I called on a Friday after 5 p.m. per the instructions on the notice only to be told to call again on Monday. At 5 p.m. Monday I called and learned I’d have to be in Kew Gardens the next day. Fantastic.

It was a warm Tuesday and I took the wrong subway and ended up taking a very long walk along Queens Boulevard to the central jury room, which is actually in Queens Borough Hall across 82nd Avenue from the large criminal court house.

I arrived a half hour late but was not the last one there, and I filled out a few notices and settled in for a long wait. The waiting room was filled with people that reflected the wide ethnic diversity of Queens, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is definitely interesting and good to meet people from faraway lands and learn about their language and cultures; it is bad when a sizable portion of your jury pool can viably fake not understanding English.

I had my work laptop with me and just as I was starting to make some progress on things, my name was called. About 40 of us were lined up and brought to the court of Judge Gene Lopez. We filed into the audience and the clerk randomly drew names and those called took a seat in the jury box. Both attorneys and the accused were there.

The defendant was an elderly Chinese man who had a Mandarin interpreter with him. He was charged with several serious crimes including assault with intent to maim, causing grievous bodily harm and menacing with a firearm, among others. I almost wanted to serve on the jury just to find out what the hell went down.

Judge Lopez appears to be a distinguished and amiable jurist. He has also probably heard every excuse known to man as to why people can’t serve on juries in his court.

Just about everyone wanted out and was willing to say anything to be excused. One women, a chiropractor, said that if she were chosen to be a juror she would be so emotionally distraught that it would affect her impartiality. Several people requested private conversations with the judge in order to discuss personal or medical issues. Each time both attorneys and the stenographer had to position themselves on the far side of the bench from us. The success rate for these private conferences was very high. Most people got out of being on the jury after one of these.

People who voiced religions objections were let go without any questioning. The first man let go said he was a Jehovah’s Witness and said he couldn’t sit in judgement of another person. He even cited a Bible verse. Good for him if he did the research on that religion to come up with that. I don’t know if it’s possible for jury duty to be so bad as to forgo a lifetime of Christmas and birthday celebrations.

The only juror that got excused on a language excuse that seemed believable was an Asian woman who didn’t recognize her own name being called. She was gone pretty fast. The others hammed it up and got some righteous guff from the judge.

A typical exchange went like this:

JUDGE: Miss Kwan. You say have an issue understanding English?

Ms. KWAN: Yes.  I don’t understand some things so good.

JUDGE: What is your profession?

Ms. KWAN: I a nurse.

JUDGE: Are you a licensed, registered nurse?

Ms. KWAN: Yes. Registered nurse.

JUDGE: And you had to take an exam to get your license, yes?

Ms. KWAN: Yes.

JUDGE: And was that exam in English?

This could go on for a while. The results were never different: if you could pretend you didn’t know English that well, you would eventually be excused. Eventually more than half of the potential pool was excused and the rest of us were called to the jury box except one person. By the time we were seated it was 4:30 p.m. and the judge let us go home early with instructions to be back by 9:30 a.m. the next day.

The next day I got to the court house with time to spare. In the lobby of the court building, a gruff female court officer who sounded like Harvey Fierstein directed foot traffic in the main entrance of the criminal court building.

I had no problems getting through security on my first day, but as I entered court on day two of jury duty they discovered the multi-tool knife in my bag, and the key tool and the handcuff key on my key ring. Those court officers on duty are sharper than the police who arrested me (twice), other court officers in every other court I’ve been to over the past 17 years, and countless TSA agents. I’d had that handcuff key on my key ring since 1998. They told me I wouldn’t be getting it back. It’s OK though. I have others (and you can pick handcuffs with a staple as well). They gave me a voucher form so I could get my knife and key tool later.

Eventually we were all gathered and jury selection resumed. The prospective jurors ran the gamut: a NYPD police detective who worked in the department’s bomb squad, a Kentucky-born actress who managed a deft exit after a private sidebar with the judge, a future law student trying to decide between the University of Virginia and Fordham University law schools, a few college students, an accountant, a music producer from Whitestone, and an elderly retired nurse, among others.

After another battery of questions from the judge and the prosecutor and defense attorneys, we were sent out of court to wait for a while until being called back in. And from these 16 last remaining from the jury pool, none of us were selected. Of the 40 or so that were called, only two had made the cut. We were sent out of the court room and a court officer told us to be back in the central jury room by 2:15 p.m.

I got my lunch at a deli and went to Maple Grove Park, a small area on the side of the court building. The small and underused park is basically a wedge between Queens Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway. I noticed the park from the third floor of the court building and saw only one person use the park: a homeless man sleeping on a bench. He was gone when I went there. I used a napkin and some of my water to clean away a film of green pollen so I could sit down without looking like I was sodomized by the Incredible Hulk. There was construction going on in the area around the park and construction vehicles came and went under the direction of a flag-waving hardhat worker. A few other people followed my lead and brought their lunch to the park, but it was relatively solitary.

After I was done eating, I had the chance to do something I hadn’t done in a long time: sit on a park bench and read. If nothing else, this jury duty outing gave me a half hour or more of peaceful, unconnected living of the kind we used to take for granted.

I still returned to the central jury room before 2:15. I sat and read some more as my phone charged in a corner along with other smart phones soaking up power from some inconveniently placed outlets. I kept a cautious eye on my phone while it charged and waited for some kind of announcement. I looked around for people I recognized from the panel and didn’t see any. Finally they called up people who had been to court earlier that day and gave people letters signifying that they had concluded their service. After they were given out, I and one man from my panel were left.

“What about us?” we asked the clerk.

She went back to the office and found another stack of jury ballots with two letters. “They called these at one,” she said before handing us our letters. I was one of two lucky or unlucky people who waited an extra two hours. I got to read a book outside in the nice weather and enjoy a leisurely lunch, so I regret nothing.

I made my way home in the pre-rush hour traffic but still couldn’t avoid a packed Q44 bus. I should be safe from jury duty for another four years.

Our Divided City

As we head into the holidays, New York is a city divided. It has always been a place of vigorous debate and contested policies, but the latest controversy over race and policing has dialed up the vitriol and indicates a further departure from civilized debate.

The past summer Eric Garner, a black man on Staten Island died in police custody after being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. A video of his arrest and scuffle with police was widely broadcast. A grand jury declined to indict the police involved in his arrest and the finding was met with instant and widespread protests throughout the city.

Some of my friends are out on the streets getting arrested or leading protests against the police. Some of my friends are in law enforcement or are retired cops who question the motives and the tactics of the protesters.

The Eric Garner grand jury findings came only a few days after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri declined to indict a white police officer for the shooting of a black teenager there. In Missouri, the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in the shooting of Michael Brown has resulted in several nights of looting and rioting and at least one blatant and under-reported racial killing.

The question is whether protests are going to hobble travel too much. The police are determined not to let that happen, but when thousands and thousands of people take to the streets at once, it’s usually the best the cops can do to try to steer them in a direction that doesn’t clog things up too much.

New York has had its race riots in the past but is less likely to have them today despite being one of the many epicenters in the country for racial disharmony. While we have the same constant churn of racial and ethnic distrust and ill will as the rest of the country, we don’t have the critical mass of complete hopelessness and depravity in large areas that usually act as a crucible for riots. And while our population of professional protesters helps promote a climate of racial grievance, it also knows it has to keep things from getting too violent if it wants to stay in business.

There used to be a gentlemen’s agreement between police and protesters. Years ago, protesters would sometimes block streets or buildings and get arrested. They wouldn’t get too aggressive and the police in turn would process their arrests on the spot and then let them go. Under Giuliani that changed. Police started putting protesters through the system, which can often mean a night in jail or at least several long hours in a police holding cell. Mayor Bloomberg generally kept to those policies.

I urge protesters not to attempt to stop the subways and busses from running; however just you think your cause is, when you throw a monkey wrench into the fragile works of the New York City mass transit system, you are playing with fire. Hell hath no fury like a New York City commuter purposely delayed.

The protests will continue and no minds will be changed by them. The divisions that existed before these latest incidents will remain and people’s views will only be intensified by what they see as the excesses or the ignorance of the opposition.

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