Nearby Café Home > Art & Photography > Photocritic International

Film the Police (2)

A. D. Coleman, January 2015. Photo by Anna Lung.According to this December 4 Washington Post story by Max Ehrenfreund, one Eddie Bautista, the Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, claims that “zoning regulations have concentrated shipping and industry” on the North Shore of Staten Island, suggesting that this may have caused or aggravated Eric Garner’s asthma and thus contributed to his July 17, 2014 death at the hands of local police.

Thus opines someone who has clearly never set foot here, nor done any proper research before issuing this unsupportable opinion in the name of his organization — or someone who deliberately opts to muddy the waters in order to curry favor with the NYPD, by suggesting some specious environmental issue at play that would mitigate police responsibility for Garner’s demise. Either of which discredits Bautista and his organization, and should embarrass both.

Port Ivory pump house under construction, Staten Island, ca. 1907

Port Ivory pump house under construction, Staten Island, ca. 1907

Speaking as a North Shore resident for almost half a century, I can state with confidence that we don’t have any “industry” to speak of. The breweries that once dotted my neighborhood are long gone; the last of them had already closed down when I got here in 1967. Procter & Gamble closed its Port Ivory facility a quarter-century ago, in 1991; at its peak, in the ’60s, it employed 1400 people, and supplied the eastern seaboard with the P&G line of cleaning products, plus Crisco and Duncan Hines baking goods, and Citrus Hill orange juice. Unless you count a major direct-mail operation and some scattered sweatshops, that’s it. None of these, past or present, has contributed notably to air pollution of any kind.

There were still a few docks operating here in Stapleton when I moved to the island in 1967, but the last of them closed decades ago. The Howland Hook Container Terminal Wharf on the northwestern edge of the North Shore is our only “concentration” of shipping. It’s in a substantial expansion stage (having acquired the old Procter & Gamble site), but aside from that there’s no radical increase in either “shipping” or “industry” even in the planning stages.

New York Police Department logoIn short, Staten Island, never much more than a bedroom community, had become almost exclusively so by the time I arrived, and has remained such ever since. Even the few vegetable and dairy farms that still operated toward the southern end of the island, which hardly qualify as “industry,” closed down in the late ’60s. Here’s how the New York Police Department describes the area at the NYPD website: “The 120th Precinct is located on the North Shore of Staten Island north of the Staten Island Expressway. The area consists of residential communities and commercial districts. The residential communities consist of detached homes, multiple dwellings, apartment houses, public housing developments and federally subsidized housing.” (See also this 2005 report on the state of the borough’s economy, and this projection for its future at the end of this decade.)

Landfill at Fresh Kills, Staten Island (just opposite Carteret, NJ), 1973. Photograph by Chester Higgins, Jr. Courtesy Environmental Protection Agency.

Landfill at Fresh Kills, Staten Island (just opposite Carteret, NJ), 1973. Photograph by Chester Higgins, Jr. Courtesy Environmental Protection Agency.

More to the point of Garner’s asthma, New Jersey sited much of its most noxious and toxic industry on the Garden State’s eastern border. The poisonous air of the so-called “Chemical Coast” gets carried reliably our way by the wind across the Arthur Kill, the narrow stretch of water that separates that stretch of New Jersey from the island. And, until it was closed in 2001, the Fresh Kills landfill, largest in the world (visible from space!) added its own unhealthy effluents to those from our neighbor to the west. Most of that garbage wasn’t generated here, but came from other boroughs for dumping. (The siting of that landfill here was forced on Staten Islanders by the city government.)

That air pollution flows over rich sections, middle-class sections, and poor sections of the island indiscriminately. Few of the neighborhoods where poor and minority residents cluster actually sit closest to the sites of any imported or local pollution. Uninformed blather like Bautista’s helps no one understand what happened to Garner.

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, 7-15-14

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, 7-15-14

For causality, then, look to the fact that, as in Ferguson and elsewhere, on the North Shore you have an ethnically, racially, and geographically diversified citizenry patrolled by (mostly) white men with badges and guns — white men whose encounters with people of color and/or people from other countries, outside of their jobs, doesn’t qualify as extensive. A 2007 study conducted by the Associated Press indicated that the NYPD had reached something close to a 50-50 blend of white and non-white uniformed officers, but, as someone who has seen police here since 1967, I still find it rare to come across a non-white officer.

As David Jarman points out in his Daily Kos report of January 18, 2015, “Poll shows Staten Island is a world apart from rest of New York City,”

“A whopping 6,021 of 206,255 people in the labor force [on Staten Island] are in law enforcement, and there’s no prison in Staten Island. They’re all police. In other words, 2.9 percent of the workers in a county of 472,000 people are all police officers. Among only counties with a labor force of over 100,000, that makes Staten Island the second-heaviest concentration of law enforcement officers anywhere in the country, behind only Pinal County, Arizona, at 3.3 percent—and again, Pinal County is known for containing nine prisons, a mix of state, federal, and private facilities.”

120th Police Precinct, NYPD, 78 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, NY. Courtesy Creative Commons

120th Police Precinct, NYPD, 78 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island, NY. Courtesy Creative Commons

According to this July 28, 2014 report from the New York Daily News, “Seven of the city’s top 10 most-sued officers — and 14 of the city’s top 50 most-sued officers — are assigned to a Staten Island narcotics unit working in the territory of the 120th Precinct, a Daily News review has found. The unit has racked up a staggering amount of lawsuits despite being the smallest narcotics bureau in the city.” This despite Staten Island having the smallest population of any of New York’s boroughs, well under 500,000.

For example, less than a year before they caused the death of Eric Garner, plainclothes narcotics cops dispatched from this same precinct unlawfully arrested another African-American, 57-year-old George Pringle, for possession of “crack cocaine” that turned out to be candy mints. That happened outside a barbershop two blocks away from me, just a few doors down from my first apartment on the island. (This miscalculation cost the taxpayers $42,500 in a settlement.) Led by Officer Jon-Michael Raggi, these were not the smartest puppies in the litter, clearly, and the same goes for whoever trained and supervised them.

Former U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R), Staten Island

Former U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R), Staten Island

Though I’m visibly of the melanin-deficient persuasion, when I go out of the house in my usual sport shirt, jeans, and Nikes, sometimes sporting my (very first) hoodie, I don’t look much different from most of my neighbors. I smoked my last cigarette in 1972, but I feel confident that if I (or convicted local Italian-American felon Michael Grimm, known hereabouts as “the Italian Scallion”) carried some, and gave or even sold them to strangers on the street, no local cop would think to question me, much less arrest me. Nor would I (or Michael Grimm) likely spend 27 hours in the slammer because I had a packet of cellophane-wrapped mints in my pocket. Things like that don’t happen to white people here — not nearly as much as they do to black people, at any rate — though white people certainly buy and sell loosies and crack around these parts.

Despite that, Jarman’s Daily Kos story notes that, according to Quinnipiac’s first poll of New York City since the December 20, 2014 murders of two NYPD officers, Staten Islanders differ radically from the rest of New York in their attitudes toward policing. They think police treat blacks and white just the same; they consider the death of Eric Garner understandable, and not the fault of police policies and procedures and biases.

Policeone.com logoThe response by police nationwide to the Garner homicide has proved lamentably predictable: as cops see it, cops can do no wrong. To protest what they view as unjust accusations of racism, members of the NYPD have undertaken an unofficial work slowdown, consisting primarily of eliminating all but “necessary arrests.”

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner dogpile by NYPD officers, 7-15-14

Cellphone video screenshot (YouTube), Eric Garner dogpile by NYPD officers, 7-15-14

One surely unintended result of this has been its highlighting of just how many “unnecessary arrests” they normally make — arrests intended primarily to swell the city’s coffers with fines for minor offenses, most of them for misdemeanors, and most of them, needless to say, involving poor to working-class individuals, a large proportion of them non-white. In short, these “unnecessary arrests” function as an undeclared tax on poor and minority people, the proceeds of which go to fund, among other things, the salaries and benefits and perks of the city’s civil-servant class, including … the police, the district attorney’s office, and the courts. Quelle surprise!

The secondary purpose of “unnecessary arrests” is to demonstrate the arbitrary power of the police by keeping the lower classes in line. Ironically, the selling of “loosies” that provided the police rationale for the killing of Eric Garner by Pantaleo and his crew numbers among those infractions the same police now deem it “unnecessary” to pursue. I’m sure that’s a huge comfort to his grieving family.

NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo at the scene of Eric Garner's homicide, July 17, 2014, Youtube screenshot

NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo at the scene of Eric Garner’s homicide, July 17, 2014, Youtube screenshot

The killing of Eric Garner fits a larger pattern. This pattern prevails on Staten Island, where, just a year earlier, officers from the same precinct beat another black man, Irving Mizell, so badly that he later died. It fits a larger city-wide pattern of illegal chokehold use and other forms of police brutality by members of the New York Police Department; here’s another instance, from the week just before Garner’s death. And its fits a nationwide pattern of police brutality directed against poor and minority people — including the frequent use of chokeholds, even if forbidden and illegal, and the killing of unarmed men, women, and children.

Polaroid Cube

Polaroid Cube

Disgracefully, the state of Illinois — notorious past and present for its corrupt police and judiciary — actually wants to make it illegal to film the police. This at a time when statistics prove that racial profiling and other forms of racist behavior (not to mention police corruption) are pandemic and systemic among police forces nationwide.

My new policy: Film the police anytime I see them interacting confrontationally with members of the public. I recommend you do the same. (I now carry a Polaroid Cube digicam whenever I leave the house — smaller and less conspicuous than a cellphone camera, with better resolution than my intellectually challenged cellphone.) The website Photography is Not a Crime provides all the documentation you need to justify photographing and filming and audio-recording the police in any circumstance.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The price of freedom from a police state is constant surveillance by the citizenry of those who benefit most directly from the creation of a police state — the police.

(Part 1 I 2)

For an index of links to all posts related to this issue, click here.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>