Gangs of New York.

Over at The Nation, Simon Davis-Cohen has a piece up that will surprise no one who follows #blacklivesmatter. What’s new here, at least to me, is not the NYPD’s over-the-top militarization, or the disproportionate targeting of communities of color for aggressive over-policing. It’s not even that in the United States of La-La-Land, the criminal justice system does not work the way we whites think it does, the way were propagandized to believe it does. It’s that as the system’s tactics morph, new and different harms continue to befall these communities in unexpected—and unexpectedly devastating—ways. With apologies to our cephalopod friends for the unfair comparison, the tentacles of state violence are constantly shape-shifting without reason, compassion or constraint.

Backdrop

A few years back, the NYPD aggressively targeted black and Latino men with its notorious stop-and-frisk policy. This would eventually be declared unconstitutional in 2013, after the Center of Constitutional Rights brought a class-action lawsuit alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as racial bias. In the meantime, however:

“As it became clear that the NYPD was losing the battle to defend stop-and-frisk in the courtroom, the media, and the political arena,” [CUNY law professor Babe] Howell argues in the University of Denver Law Review, “the NYPD issued dire warnings about the dangers of gangs.”

That was a real head-scratcher, because (a) violent crime in New York City was at record lows, and (b) “according to the city’s own statistics, between 2000 and 2013 gang-motivated and -related crime accounted for less than 1 and 2 percent of crime in the city, respectively, while 15–20 percent of homicides were ‘gang-related’ in 2007–12.” But the relatively low numbers did not stop the NYPD from marshaling resources to fight the alleged gang problem by launching Operation Crew Cut 2012, quadrupling the size of its gang division and installing $64.6 million worth of CCTV cameras at 15 targeted housing projects. Since 2014, there have been at least 23 roundup operations, including one on April 27 of this year in the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

[It] would be the largest gang raid in modern New York City history. Seventy-eight people were arrested and 120 indicted, all on conspiracy charges. The men arrested—24 years old on average—are being held collectively responsible for eight murders, and a handful of firearms and narcotics charges dating back to 2007.

And the NYPD had help from the feds, including “ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, DEA, ATF, the US attorney general’s office, and a US marshal.”

RICO

The alleged gangbangers caught up in all of these raids are being charged with conspiracy under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The law was intended to bring down mafia dons who control organized crime networks even if they do not personally commit crimes. Such prosecutions necessarily hinge on guilt by association, and as Davis-Cohen observes in The Nation:

Though it may make sense to give prosecutors broad powers in order to bust mafias that corrupt legitimate organizations—like labor unions—the use of those means to nab petty criminals and residents of public housing, where associations and affiliations are easily blurred and mistaken, is quite another story.

It certainly is. And it’s worth noting here that during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, young black men experienced disproportionately high unemployment and job loss compared to other demographics: only one in four black men in the city aged 16-24 had a job.

Ground-zero of the April 27 raid was the Eastchester Gardens public-housing project.

Residents there are baffled by an official narrative that paints the young men as highly organized gangsters terrorizing the community. “They had no guns, they had no money, they had no nothing,” says Tonya Washington, mother of two young men who were taken. “They picked up a bunch of young struggling bums… if you’re still living with your parents, you’re young and struggling.”

“It’s devastating for all the parents,” says [North Bronx resident Paula] Clarke. “The community is devoid of all the youths, there are no more youths—the parks are empty. It’s like, ‘Where are all the young men?’ They are no longer here.”

Unfortunately, it looks like they will not be back for a very long time. Listen to this:

With residents facing decades behind bars, the application of RICO has families up in arms.

In one example, some of the indicted are being accused of conspiring to murder a 92-year-old woman who was killed by a stray bullet, even though someone in the “gang” already pleaded guilty in state court and is doing time for the murder. Not only are those in the “gang” being held responsible, the murderer is now being retried for the murder under the federal conspiracy charges. The dual sovereignty doctrine holds that double jeopardy isn’t violated because both state and federal governments have the right to prosecute crimes committed in their respective jurisdictions—even if one or the other has already convicted you. In addition, some defendants are being tied to the alleged gang by crimes they have already served time for, according to mothers who have read the sealed discovery materials and spoken with some of the indicted. This, too, is standard practice in RICO indictments, says [CUNY’s] Howell. Double jeopardy isn’t violated because the charges differ—this time you are being charged with conspiring to commit the crime. And all of your “associates” are also held responsible.

“They hit people with conspiracy, why?” says Marcus Wray, 28, longtime resident of Eastchester Gardens. “Because when you hit someone with conspiracy you can get every. Person. Around. The person sitting on the bench. Because I know that person, I might get indicted with him.”

Another reason? Because it’s easy. Before the April 27 raid, law enforcement served over 100 warrants to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Howell argues, “you [the police] get on Facebook, you pay attention to everything they say, and then you hold them responsible for the worst thing anyone in their circle has done.”

Race

The racial implications are only too obvious, but bear spelling out.

The broadening of RICO to apply to street gangs has drawn scorn, and accusations of severe racial bias. Local and federal authorities are quick to equate crime committed in minority neighborhoods to organized gang activity, while crime in white neighborhoods is addressed individually. One study of publicly available RICO gang indictments shows that 86 percent involve gangs primarily affiliated to blacks, Latinos, or Asians. In contrast, the KKK is not treated like a gang or indicted on federal conspiracy charges.

Nor, I suspect, are members of right-wing and anti-abortion “gangs” facing decades in prison on RICO charges for murders and other violent acts committed by their “associates.” I wonder why that is?

Strangely, in twenty plus years of living in New York City, I have never once been stopped-and-frisked, and it is virtually inconceivable that there would ever be a large-scale, military-style gang raid where I live in the West Village. Crimes happen here, sometimes horrific crimes, just like they do everywhere else. And when they do, the 6th precinct generally does a fantastic job of bringing the perpetrators—and only the perpetrators, not their friends, family members or Twitter followers—to justice. Why the NYPD cannot do this when the same crimes occur around housing projects is beyond me.

More galling still: while the NYPD and the Feds throw enormous resources at black and brown “gangs” in poor neighborhoods, the C-suite banksters of Manhattan prowl around glistening palaces atop soaring skyscrapers without a care in the world, except perhaps where to build their eighth mansion. I am sure I don’t need to remind readers here that these are the very people who knowingly and deliberately sold their customers housing derivatives while they themselves were betting against them. If those motherfuckers are not deserving of RICO indictments, then no one is.

Why doesn’t NYPD focus instead on, say, the scourge of rape and sexual assault? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because such crimes just do not lend themselves to exciting military-style raids: policing’s just not as much fun if you don’t get to play with helicopters, flash grenades and army surplus machine guns. Or perhaps it’s because the perpetrators might turn out to be a little too close for comfort, and not virtually guaranteed to be dark-skinned, poor and unemployed.

And let us not forget that the enormous injustices of mass incarceration and the drug war are constantly being reconjured in the name of fighting terrorism.

Pretty sure old Orwell is spinning in his grave.

One thought on “Gangs of New York.

  1. When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11, I had a gut feeling that things were gonna get extra shitty fast (relatively speaking, and based on experience working in certain agencies). I really, really wish I’d been wrong.

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