Last week’s incident caught on video of a Black woman at a city welfare center having her toddler viciously yanked from her arms so that the police could arrest her has again put the New York Police Department (NYPD) and its treatment of communities of color in the spotlight – and the mayor’s response has left many unsatisfied. Jazmine Headley was held on Rikers Island for four days before being released and reunited with her son and family. It took three days into her captivity, after the video going viral and making headlines across the world, for the mayor to issue a statement.
The mayor has stood by his claims that New York City is the “fairest” big city in America, most recently on his weekly radio appearance, and challenged the suggestion that he has had a blind spot for necessary reforms to ensure fairness for all New Yorkers.
But as Black women call out the mayor on police reform, he ignores their voices and has been largely absent from calling for stronger transparency, accountability and disciplinary consequences for police misconduct. On social media, the mayor’s Press Secretary, Eric Philips, claimed police reform advocates are “fringe activists,” and don’t grasp all of the progress the mayor has made on police reform, suggesting they live in a “parallel universe.”
Who are those “fringe activists”? Actually, some of the city’s most tireless and tenacious police reform advocates are Black women whose loved ones were killed by the NYPD. Among them is Gwen Carr, who has been waiting for over 4 years for the de Blasio Administration to hold accountable any of the officers involved in her son, Eric Garner’s killing. Gwen Carr and other mothers, and sisters have been calling for justice through accountability, discipline and consequences for the misconduct, brutality, and murder that has often met Black lives at the hands of the police. Our organization, Make the Road New York, supports their efforts because we believe those most impacted by racial injustice will guide us towards the transformative reforms necessary to bring us all justice. They grasp the reality that, for Black communities to fundamentally change the power dynamic between the communities and law enforcement, reforms have to center accountability, transparency, and consequences.
The calls of these Black women have fallen on deaf ears in the administration. The mayor’s office is the first Administration in over 30 years to withhold police misconduct records from the public. An expose from Buzzfeed news revealed hundreds of officers receive little or no disciplinary consequences for serious misconduct. As reported by the New York Times last April, Police Commissioner O’Neill regularly downgrades the disciplinary recommendations put forth by the Civilian Review Complaint Board.
Why has the mayor been so dismissive of the reforms that Black women, through their inscrutable pain of loss, have been advocating for? The Jazmine Headley incident is a visceral reminder that fairness in this city and across the country still has a ceiling for Black women, Black communities and all low-income communities of color. Taking a look at how Black women are fairing across the city and with agencies that are supposed to be supporting them should put in context just how far we have to go to break through that ceiling.
While the nation focuses rightfully on the horrific family separation policy at the border, here at home the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) continues to disproportionately take Black children away from their mothers. Black children account for over half of all children separated from their families and placed into foster care. In the fairest big city in America, Black women are 12 times as likely to die from childbirth related causes than white women. An August report by the City Comptroller’s office demonstrated that the wage gap for Black women in New York City is the largest in the country. In our public schools, Black girls are 13 times more likely to be arrested and 7 times more likely to receive a summons than their white peers. In New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) housing, where Black children make up 29 percent of all children living there, families have been inhaling lead paint for decades while officials covered up the real scope of the problem. The largest concentration of public housing is in Brownsville, a neighborhood that is 76 percent Black, and where life expectancy is 11 years shorter than the life expectancy for those living in the Financial District.
Of course, these disparities have developed over the course of many generations as a result of a number of factors: historical segregation, structural and overt racism, and intentional divestment from communities of color. But what happened to Jazmine Headley, Eric Garner, and Deborah Danner were not “inappropriate” or unfortunate incidents. For members of Black communities, they are a painful reminder that any day, the same fate could befall your mother, sister, brother, father, or grandmother, and justice for your family will remain elusive. Whereas Human Resources Administration (HRA) has swiftly moved to discipline the agency peace officers involved, the NYPD has fully absolved their officers, despite video footage clearly showing NYPD officer tearing Jazmin’s baby from her arms and indiscriminately waiving a dangerous weapon at bystanders.
The mayor had an opportunity to address a clear-cut issue of police accountability and at the same time demonstrate accountability to Black women, and Black communities. He failed.
Sienna Fontaine and Kesi Foster are, respectively, the Co-Director of the Legal Department and Lead Organizer at Make the Road New York. On Twitter: @MaketheRoadNY