Various activist groups were joined by the relatives of young people arrested during recent so-called “gang” raids in New York City’s public housing developments on Thursday, as they rallied and marched from City Hall to the Manhattan Correctional Center to demand an end to the raids, as well as freedom for those who have already been arrested.
“We’re here today because one year ago, very early in the morning, over 700 officers, including federal and local agents, kidnapped 120 young people from their houses in Eastchester Gardens in the Bronx. Most of those young people are still in prison at Manhattan Correctional Center,” said Jocelyn Cohn of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the groups that helped organize the march. “And we’re here to support the families and we’re here to tell the local and federal government that this has to stop.”
Over the last few years, the New York City Police Department has collaborated with various federal agencies to conduct militarized raids in multiple New York City Housing Authority public housing developments around the city. During these raids, police have arrested hundreds of young black and brown men, charging them under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — a law originally used against the mafia. From the 2014 Manhattanville-Grant raids in Harlem to the 2016 Eastchester Gardens raids in the Bronx to the Kingborough raid in Brooklyn earlier this year, the police and the feds — often using local tragedies and drug war propaganda as a pretext — have violently invaded people’s homes and destroyed families and communities under the auspices of supposedly protecting them from drugs and gangs. Now, activists and the relatives of young men arrested in some of these raids, particularly the Eastchester Gardens raid, are trying to support those who are locked up and help prevent more young people from being caught up in future raids.
The Eastchester Gardens raid, loudly touted as the city’s largest raid, has — in particular – served as a catalyst for political mobilization. Numerous families had their doors broken down in the middle of the night by armored, heavily armed cops and federal agents. Police used classic drug war rhetoric, local tragic deaths, and even social media activity to justify labeling people as “gang members.” They then enacted collective punishment through violent home invasions and mass arrests.
“As alleged, these individuals engaged in open-air drug sales near homes and schools in the Bronx, pushing poison onto our streets,” then-NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton said at the time. “Allegedly, they also committed numerous acts of violence and at least eight murders in the course of their illicit operations.”
Some of the 120 men who were arrested in that raid — known as the Bronx 120 — have been put in solitary confinement since September, which has been called a form of torture. But their families have continued to speak out and demand their freedom.
“How long must we continue to suffer under this oppressive government that has seized our kids in the early morning,” asked Paula Clarke, another mother of the Bronx 120. “Bob Marley said ‘No woman, no cry,’ but we cry! We’ve been crying since last year, and we’re still crying today because our sons were ripped away from us. They were taken and put in the prisons, like the plantations of yesterday, for slave labor and for profit. Our neighborhood is void. It’s empty. There’s no one there. Where are the children? They’re gone. They’ve all disappeared. And we’re constantly reminded of their absence.”
Dozens of activists began gathering at City Hall at around 3 p.m. on Thursday, where families spoke out and called on local government officials put an end to the raids. They then marched to the U.S. Attorney’s office located next to the NYPD’s headquarters and spoke about how the raids are used to evict families and make way for gentrification, how the drug war is used to round up young black and brown people for cheap labor inside America’s prisons, and how mainstream media makes all this possible by demonizing young, poor people of color.
“Throughout history, Africans have been painted as criminals, lazy, shiftless, uneducated, lacking self-control. Anything to allow other Africans to turn a blind eye to each other’s incarceration,” said Shannon Jones, of the anti-police brutality group Why Accountability. “Fast forward to now, the same governmental forces that want the African to perform uncompensated labor must come up with novel ways and new iterations of getting the African to work for free. And one of those ways is through the penal system.”
The protesters then made their way to Manhattan Correctional Center, where many of the Bronx 120 are currently being held, for a noise demo. People locked up inside the jail could be seen flicking their lights on and off and could be heard banging on their windows as the activists shouted out anti-police and anti-prison chants.
“A lot of speakers talked about it today, but it’s really community control over people’s own lives, an end to prisons, an end to the police,” Cohn said, when asked what her ideal solution to the raids would be. “The police and prisons were started from slavery. Police, as most people know, were started from slave catching. Prisons were started to hold and discipline people who didn’t fit into the white, bourgeois society that was developing in this country. We feel that serves absolutely no purpose for us now. It never has. It’s time to end it, and we know how to take care of our own.”
The activists are planning another noise demo outside of Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, another jail where some of the Bronx 120 are being held, on May 13. The families say they won’t stop fighting until their arrested relatives are freed and the raids are ended.
“It’s torture in there for these young men. It’s dirty and filthy, and it breaks my heart when I go to visit my son and see him in these conditions,” said Ms. Smith, a mother of one of the Bronx 120, who used a pseudonym to avoid retaliation from the authorities. “My hands are tied, but my voice is not. I’m not giving up. They’re going to free my son out of this mess.”