Tag Archives: New York City

The war comes home

Protestors outside One Police Plaza, 5/7/08

It’s easy to forget about how many Iraqis and Afghans are killed by the U.S. military each day – they’re halfway around the world and we can always change the channel if some nasty images pop up on TV.

Doing so is a bit harder when the chaos occurs in your own backyard, and is caused by the very people sworn to uphold the law and protect you. To add injury to insult, these same people can and do get away with murder.

On April 25, the three New York Police Department detectives whose 50 shots killed Sean Bell and wounded two of his friends were acquitted of all charges by a judge, having waived their right to trial. Although there was ample evidence to convict these detectives, the Queens District Attorney gave a sterling example of the courts’ complicity in police misconduct, subjecting dubious witnesses to cross-examination by the defense while refusing to call the three detectives to the stand for the same treatment.

There have been large, vociferous, and peaceful protests across the city following the verdict, and more are expected throughout a long, hot summer. There is a movement to press Albany to appoint an independent prosecutor for cases of police misconduct, and the Justice Department is deliberating a civil rights suit against the NYPD.

Some have argued it will be hard to prove the police intentionally set out to violate Sean Bell’s rights. Last time I checked, racial profiling was a violation of said rights, and the record number of stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD in the first quarter of 2008 back that record up.

Of course, Sean Bell’s murder does not exist in a vacuum. The increased militarization of American law enforcement, begun during the Reagan era as part of our failed War on Drugs (anyone who debates this point, please watch The Wire), has exacerbated this country’s long history of racism and placed minority communities in the firing line.

Take, for example, the beating of three unarmed black men by Philadelphia cop last week. Though not as close up as the Rodney King footage,  the events are no less savage. Police say they were suspects fleeing the scene of a drug-related shooting. No gun was found in the car and the men have yet to be charged with any crime, though officers claim a “fourth man” bailed out of the vehicle prior to their arrival (anyone remember the NYPD pulling the same stunt in court this winter?)

We get this sort of profiling and hair-trigger response coast-to-coast as well. Last Sunday, LAPD officers shot two unarmed 19-year-old black men in Inglewood whom they suspected of being involved in a nearby shooting. One, Michael Byoune, died. As it turns out, neither Byoune nor his wounded friend were involved in any such incident, nor was a gun found.

This is the end result when you combine America’s draconian attitude towards drug policy and the plight of its post-industrial working class with the post-9/11 decimation of our civil liberties. When the LAPD’s abuse of Rodney King aired in 1992, there were riots. If anyone tried the same thing today, the Air Force would drop cluster bombs on Queens or South Central. Something has got to give.


Filed under Civil Liberties, Mental Environment, Social Justice

Criminal neglect

Lost amidst the tumult of primary fever was the ninth anniversary on Monday of Amadou Diallo’s infamous shooting by the NYPD’s street crime unit.

On the morning of Feb. 4, 1999, the Guinean immigrant was cut down by a hail of 41 bullets in the doorway of his Bronx home. Was he carrying a Glock? A Desert Eagle? A live grenade?

Diallo was holding his wallet in his hands. The officers had mistaken him for a serial rapist and panicked when Diallo reached inside his jacket to produce identification. All four cops were acquitted in a jury trial that had been moved Upstate because Bronx residents, in the eyes of the court, were biased against the NYPD.

 Although the incident caused nation-wide outrage and touched off days of heated protest in front of One Police Plaza, not one New York or national news outlet opted to cover the anniversary. For many New Yorkers, particularly black and Latino residents, the Diallo case is a shining example of NYPD over-policing in minority neighborhoods.

Moreover, Diallo’s death is frequently invoked in the discussion of another high-profile NYPD shooting of a 23-year-old black man, that of Sean Bell in November 2006. Bell’s trial is set to begin later this month, and although the trial will remain in queens, the three detectives accused of his murder will be tried by a judge instead of a jury.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

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Filed under Civil Liberties, Politics, Social Justice

The New New York and Postmodernism

This is the way Postmodernism arrived. Not with a bang but a whimper. I stepped into a taxi several months ago, my first cab ride after moving back to New York City following a five-year absence. I was shocked to discover that many taxis had installed monitors in the back-seat partition during the interim. This particular one offered me a news report from one of the local network affiliates.

The top story? A pending taxi strike, of course, spurred by conflicts between cabbies and City Hall over the installation of screens in the cars. I didn’t dare ask the driver for his opinion on the matter. My mind couldn’t take so many levels of meaning, irony and coincidence at the same time.

Postmodernism, that nebulous intellectual burden of all scholars, is nothing new. Indeed, it’s grown so old that one wonders why it hasn’t died a quiet, dignified death yet. But getting smacked by it in the back seat of a New York cab was just too much.

 The Hearst Tower in Manhattan

This wasn’t the first time Postmodernism intersected with something so intrinsically New York. For architectural examples, take a walk by Norman Foster’s new Hearst Tower for a view of a skyscraper rigorously deformed from the all-too-common rigid lines and boxy contours of blah modernism. And then there is Philip Johnson’s Sony Building (nee AT&T Building), that snarky, self-referential strike at the glass box by one of its greatest formulators and practitioners. Architectural tempers have rarely been so inflamed as they were by the ridiculously superfluous pediment Johnson plopped atop his design. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all rotund and curvilinear, is an obvious marker of a new style.

Literary New York, meanwhile, was almost perfectly depicted in the works of Brooklyn native Paul Auster. Beginning with “The New York Trilogy” and continuing through many of his subsequent novels, the city became a playground for intertextuality, for finding the hidden underneath the ordinary surface of life and for extended wanderings through shifting ideas of identity and mystery.

But Postmodernism appeared in my life long before Auster, Johnson or that absurd taxicab experience. It showed up rather randomly at the beginning of sophomore year at the elitist New York private school I attended.

“And once we get through all that, we’ll even talk a little about Postmodernism,” my teacher intoned after describing the course of study for her yearlong history class.

A sharp taskmaster with a passion for discussing the French Revolution and a talent for inspiring dread in slackers, she had listed off a catalogue of subjects from the Enlightenment to the Marshall Plan, generating little but ennui from the student body. But when Postmodernism was announced, it drew forth oohs and aahs from the assembled pupils.

Postmodernism (and it seems so momentous and ostentatious a word that it requires constant capitalization if not perhaps the insertion of some foreign diacritical marks for added prestige) was one of those nebulous terms of the intelligentsia that us academic neophytes had heard but never truly understood. It somehow seemed too advanced for high school students – like Ulysses or the French New Wave – something that our parents would tell us not to pursue until our intellects had caught up with our curiosity in a few years. So Postmodernism’s inclusion in the syllabus gave us all a sense of maturity, far more than the average 15-year-old kid probably had.

Postmodernism seemed an appropriate conclusion for our two-year whirlwind tour through the history of the world (or rather, the history of Western civilization, though no one would admit it). The year before, I had a gangly, effete teacher with a mid-Atlantic accent a bit more American than Cary Grant’s. His constant, needling question, also spoken with the gravest of tones: “At what price modernity?” I never truly uncovered the answer.

Ultimately, we didn’t get as far as Postmodernism during sophomore year. Hampered by length discussions of modern art and “The Communist Manifesto,” our class was stuck on the Cold War when it wrapped up in June. But when I graduated from college six years later, I had as firm a grip as anybody on what Postmodernism meant – namely, everything.

I was delivered harsh doses of Postmodernism in college. The subject hardly seemed to matter; history, political science, art history, English, film – all ceaselessly elicited the P-word, most often from professors but increasingly from students as well.

The only class I am sure did not include Postmodernism was inferential calculus. Differential calculus, on the other hand, was taught by a chain-smoking native of Tblisi prone to exclaiming in a thick Georgian accent, “Now look at this super-duper equation.” It was almost a constant exercise in meta-mathematics.

Meta, of course, became the preferred prefix in those days, and its attachment before many words seemed to stir furrowed brows and more abstract discussion than anything else. And why not? Survey courses in history, which became my major, were invariably dragged down by the details. Discussing the study of history rather than history itself was far more intellectually rewarding, so I have no complaints about my education. The only enduring disappointment was never coming across the term meta-Postmodernism in any text. But there it still time.

There was much to enjoy about Postmodernism But to the poorly informed and the pseudo-intellectuals, Postmodernism became an academic crutch. It could explain anything if used vaguely enough, as was often the case. And when people employed the word, they were most often simply describing literary or artistic references as crass as the ones that begin and end this article.

The final word (and perhaps the most intelligent one) on Postmodernism belonged, of course, to “The Simpsons,” that singularly thorough satirical chronicler or American life.

The plot of “Homer the Moe,” an episode in the 13th season of the TV series, depicted Moe Szyslak’s attempts to refurbish his eponymous tavern into a swanky nightclub. The perpetually perspiring schlub soon reopens his bar as “m” and quickly attracts a clientele consisting of the hipster elite. When Homer Simpson and the rest of the gang from the old Moe’s Tavern arrive, they are disappointed to find the television broadcasting a large image of a blinking eye. The décor, a regular explains, is Postmodern, or just Po-mo for short. When Homer tries to turn the TV to a football game, he is greeted with widespread hostility, though one clubgoer says watching football is OK if it’s done with irony.

Well, Po-mo did to Postmodernism what D-Wade, J-Kidd and K-Mart did to basketball nicknames. The Poetry-in-Motion folks probably weren’t too happy, but the hyphenated conflation of Postmodernism rendered it a merely overused byword for the world’s youth and pop culture consumers.

No endless college classroom discussions on the methods of history could outdo this. And so, for several years, I thought that Homer Simpson, large blinking eyes and the worst fictional bar in the world had taught me all I needed to know about Po-mo. And then I stepped into the back of a cab on the Upper West Side.

Ah, Postmodernism! Ah, humanity!

written by Adam Bloch


Filed under Mental Environment

Kill the poor

So it’s official.

The country is plunging headlong into a recession and not even New York City, home of Wall Street and the last bastion of prosperity in the plummeting real-estate market, is exempt.

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that the city would be slashing its budget for the new year as a result of the market’s recent troubles. The numbers speak for themselves. In June of last year, the city projected $16.8 billion in revenues for Wall Street firms. Current estimates put estimated revenues for 2008 at $2.8 billion – a 600% decrease. If that’s not a recession, tell me what is.

If the richest of the rich are feeling the effects of the market crash, then what about the rest of us, left behind in this age of record inequality? As a result of the subprime mortgage crisis (which is mushrooming into a broader credit crisis), millions of working poor or lower-middle class Americans will be put out of a home by year’s end, or hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Hundreds of thousands have already lost their homes, largely in majority-minority neighborhoods from the Outer Boroughs to Inland Empire.

So what is the solution? Does the government increase taxes for the top 10% of Americans, who reap the majority of this country’s wealth? Think again. The Federal government opts to enact a stimulus package that does nothing, I repeat, nothing for the growing number of working poor – there isn’t even an increase for food stamp allowances at a time when biofuels and international market pressures are pushing food prices steadily upwards. President Bush wants to make his infamous tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the wealth, permanent.

So how do struggling municipalities stay attractive to businesses and the wealthy without demanding they give up a greater share of their income to balance out the vagaries of the market?

Poor taxes!

New York is at the forefront of this initiative. Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted congestion pricing initiative hurts everyone but the small segments of New Yorkers wealthy or lucky enough to live below 86th street in Manhattan. Outer Borough residents and business owners who rely on cars rather than far-flung subways, as well as those driving in from New Jersey, Long Island, and Upstate New York (where almost all of the city’s bulk merchandise comes from).

The recent subway fare hike, vigorously opposed by riders and the subject of an incessent Daily News campaign, passed even though the spectacularly inept (whisper it, corrupt) Metropolitan Transit Authority was running a budget surplus. Base fare stayed constant at $2, which is terrific for the legions of tourists here for the day, but does not help everyday commuters who can’t afford $81 monthly passes and live on $10 and $20 Metrocards, which now provide fewer free rides.

More outlandishly, Governor Eliot Spitzer raised the sales tax on sales of malt liquor and cigarillos, and enacted a stamp tax on drugs seized by police. That’s correct – not only is it more expensive to drink away your sorrows legally, but New York State will now tax you $3.50 for every gram of weed they seize from you. It’s not legal to possess, and you still will face narcotics charges, but at least the state got some cash out of you!

There is no comparable tax on caviar, Cristal, or imported cigars.

Things are no better on the West Coast. Rocked by record foreclosures and fearful of a statewide recession, some California politicians are moving to ease the fiscal burden on landlords and allow them to reap greater profits by repealing the state’s rent control laws. 1.2 million Californians live in rent-controlled properties. On the cusp of a recession, the country’s largest state could very well expose over a million residents to higher rents and possible homelessness.

All this in a “classless” society. It’s only a matter of time before something gives and people snap out of their American Idol-induced stupors.  Without a new crop of mind-numbing sitcoms, that could be sooner rather than later. At least some good could come from the writer’s strike…

written by Ali Winston


Filed under Economics, Mental Environment, Politics, Social Justice

NYC public schools, video surveillance, and the criminalization of a generation


[Stuyvesant students walking to class under video monitoring. Photo by Ali Winston for City Limits]

What do cameras cure? System gets own scrutiny. 

Now in the fourth year of citywide operation, the New York City public school video surveillance program continues full steam ahead even as many parents, advocates, elected officials and students raise serious questions about the system’s effectiveness and transparency.

By the end of 2008, more than 300 middle and high schools in 130 buildings will be equipped with some 6,000 cameras belonging to the Department of Education’s $120 million Internet Protocol Digital Video Surveillance (IPDVS) system, intended to help reduce violence in public schools. Although school officials consider IPDVS a success, problems have cropped up with both its technical workings and people’s ability to gain access to the footage. Read on at City Limits.


Metal detectors and math classes.

The Internet Protocol Digital Video System is only one aspect of New York City’s school safety program, a joint Department of Education – New York Police Department effort that some student advocates consider so aggressive, they’ve dubbed it the “school to prison pipeline.” In addition to security cameras, the public school atmosphere today includes more than 4,500 uniformed officers patrolling the halls, enforcement of zero-tolerance behavior policies, and thousands of predominantly minority students attending “Impact” schools – a designation given to the most crime-ridden – who must walk through metal detectors and past armed police officers just to get to class. Read on at City Limits.

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Filed under Censorship, Education, Mental Environment, Social Justice, Surveillance

From Luxury Comes Tragedy


[Worker safety circa 1932 – some things never change]

On Monday afternoon, two workers fell from the incomplete hulk of Donald Trump’s Soho Hotel. One man, a Ukrainian immigrant from Greenpoint, was decapitated during the fall, while his more fortunate colleague miraculously survived.

Leaving aside the fact that the men were employed by a construction firm with clear mafia ties and a rash of code violations, and the Trump building is going up in spite of zoning violations and vehement protests by residents, this was the second incident inside a month where workers fell to their death from New York City high-rises. Edgar Moreno, an Ecuadorean immigrant and window cleaner, died on Dec. 8th after falling 43 stories from a scaffolding while washing windows on a skyscraper. In both instances, improper construction or safety procedures were deemed culpable.

This is the dark side of New York City’s soon-to-end real estate boom: worker safety.

Construction accidents were on the rise as recently as 2006, until the media got caught up in the housing bubble and accompanying paid advertisements by realtors. In 2007, accidents at high-rise sites resulting in injury or death rose 83 percent, according to the New York City Building Department.

Real estate, and construction in particular, are industries driven by the bottom line. Profits are management’s prime concern, and the highest margin is best achieved by skimping on construction costs. This includes safety training, equipment, and following proper construction procedures designed to lessen the chance of mishaps. At the Trump Soho, substandard construction procedures were documented in photos taken minutes before Yuriy Vanchytskyy met his fate.

In a climate where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency in charge of worker safety, issues fines of $3,500 for failure to provide proper security devices, what incentive do contractors have to comply with existing regulations? $3,500 is pocket change when compared to the lucrative profits taken in by boom-time construction firms. Furthermore, New York City’s Building Department is stretched thin, with a dearth of inspectors to examine the myriad of unfinished or under-construction projects.

Until tragedies like these occur, blue-collar workers simply do not rate in the minds of New York City’s new generation of “urban pioneers.” Their multi-million dollar glass-and-steel lofts are literally paid for in sweat, tears, and blood.

But do they care? Hell, no, they’ve got more important things to worry about: The new Macbook Air is out!

written by Ali Winston


Filed under Economics, Social Justice