Over the course of this pandemic, we have been repeatedly confronted with the callousness of our elected leaders. Whether it was the image of Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiling a bizarre “art” project wall of PPE masks that (most likely) had been sent with the intention of being given to frontline workers, or Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent proto-authoritarian protest ban in NYC, or Chief Judge Janet Difiore’s unwavering lack of empathy for people jailed in the city — it’s clear that those who run NYC do so in cold blood. They scapegoat each other and point fingers, while the media blithely complies and celebrates them for proving “to be the leader [the] nation needs.” And all this, while standing behind their superficial and false “commitments” to challenging racial inequities during COVID-19 as communities of color bear the brunt of this pandemic
Why should we praise politicians who have left thousands of Black and Latino New Yorkers to die? Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio, NYC Chief Judge Janet Difiore, District Attorneys Gonzalez, Katz, Vance, Clark, McMahon, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea make up a complicated matrix of politicos who have the power to stop thousands of preventable deaths. In reality, the stories our elected officials tell to the media would be laughable if they weren’t so deadly. New York City’s rates of infection have far surpassed the rest of the country, and even as the rate slows here, many deaths — for example, in the Bangladeshi community — remain uncounted.
Of the 20K+ deaths in NYC, the majority of them have been Black, Latino, Asian, concentrated in the Bronx & Queens. People of color, particularly undocumented immigrants, have either comprised the majority of essential workers or been left unemployed without federal economic relief. Between the dates of April 24 and May 1, NYPD arrested 200 people to send them to die in a pandemic, even though jails like Rikers and the Metropolitan Detention Center are some of the leading sources of infections, along with nursing homes.
Compared to New York City’s 2.15 percent rate of infection, however, in Rikers the rate remains at 9.53 percent (95 infections per 1000 people). This rate of infection is the highest it has ever been in Rikers, due to miserable conditions inside, and lowering of even the most minimum standards of healthcare. Those who are sick receive abysmal care, and those who aren’t — well, it’s only a matter of time. Just last week, frontline nurses working at Rikers led a protest to demand more soap and running water to treat people inside the jail. Earlier, two dorms of 45 people inside Rikers led a labor strike to demand PPE and cleaning supplies, targeting DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, to no avail. This isn’t to say the city’s released no one — as of April 30, the decline in jail population was around 1,800 since Jan 1. In their reporting, however, they take credit for the work that’s been done by bail funds to get over 200 people out on bail. But that’s less than half of its total incarcerated population, with more than 2000 people still held on pre-trial (unconvicted) charges, and criminalization back on the rise. All this, despite report after report evidencing that mass releases will significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19 both inside and outside jails.
Brand new reporting data from the Board of Corrections also shows that that over 75 percent of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the jails are Black and Latino. Similarly, 67 percent of all deaths accounted for in New York City are of Black, Latino, or Asian people. Even inside nursing homes across the city, the majority of deaths have been of residents of color, with rates ranging from 46 percent in Queens to 88 percent in the Bronx, according to data collected by NPR. This is what continued racial apartheid looks like. And the names above — they’re all responsible.
And then there’s the police. In the last week, we learned that of 40 arrested on racist “social distancing violations,” 35 were Black and 4 were Latino. We also learned that 81 percent of social distancing summonses were for Black or Latino people. Viral videos of typical police brutality from NYPD went viral, as the city unleashed 1,000 police on subways to throw people out. Instead of opening vacant housing or cancelling rent, the subways have been shut down at night and houseless people are literally being thrown into the street.
On April 16, Mayor de Blasio released his war-driven austerity budget, which includes more than $800 million in cuts to education alone, and the total elimination of the city’s summer youth employment program. Despite these draconian cuts and unprecedented revenue shortfalls, two city departments came out of the revised budget process not only unscathed, but with a budget increase and guaranteed capital-growth: the NYPD and the Department of Corrections (DOC). As others have written, we can’t police ourselves out of a pandemic.
For unconvinced readers, allow me to spell it out. COVID-19 is spreading through prisons and jails due to terrible — albeit standard — conditions inside, meaning that it will continue to contribute to rising infections throughout the city — for this, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann is at fault. Thanks to NYPD Commissioner Shea and the District Attorneys, thousands of people held pre-trial will be exposed to a deadly disease and increased criminalization will lead to new people in jail. Thanks to the New York City Council and its mayor, precious public funding will go to four new central borough-based jails (and up to 12 other satellite caging facilities). With cuts to programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program that thousands of young people of color rely on, it will most likely be the Black and Latino youth that police decide to surveil for social distancing this summer. When they arrest people, it’ll be Black or Latino New Yorkers. When the majority of people die, it’ll be in jail, nursing homes, or in the Bronx, and it’ll most likely be Black or Latino or Asian New Yorkers. The best this city’s leaders have to offer is a “Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity” that has no current plans to respond to the crisis inside jails. When instead they could choose to free them all for public health, close Rikers Island, stop building jails, and invest in care infrastructure.
Against the backdrop of Cuomo’s budget cuts, and the ones being considered by the City Council this week, NYC’s COVID-19 story is one of austerity. To distract from their own dismal mismanagement, Cuomo and de Blasio have instead relied on nonprofits and private sector investors like the Gates Foundation to “reimagine” education rather than fund the schools we already have, while Cuomo uses his moment of political goodwill to cut Medicaid. Not only is this moment unexceptional, but the city’s deployment of a COVID-19 shock doctrine is possible only because of the deep existing racial and economic fissures within New York City. By slashing budgets for education and housing, but by driving billons towards new jails and police, not just now but for years, the city’s leaders have enabled and supported a continued racial apartheid in America.
We have seen this strategy in New York before, and we know the results. The 1970s and 1980s policy approach of planned shrinkage and benign neglect divested in the South Bronx and other Black and Latino neighborhoods while heavily policing and criminalizing these same communities for emerging public health concerns, substance use and HIV/AIDS. That toxic mix of racist policing and racist public policy led to an extraordinary rate of preventable deaths, as neoliberal politicos sought to “clean up” the city and balance the budget. As history seeks to repeat itself, we refuse to adhere to this violent logic and let a balanced budget come at the cost of our lives.
As the first bout of social distancing wanes, and we inch closer to a vaccine, New York City’s political echelons will rally behind each other while gaslighting the public into believing that this crisis was handled well. They’ll pat each other on the back and say the lives lost were collateral damage, while lowering the city flag to half mast for fallen police on stolen land. We’ll never learn the names of people found dead in the subway or in their Rikers cell, preventable casualties of public austerity and incalculable racism. But as people who love and live in this city, we should recognize their shock doctrine at play. Even as the public learns what we’ve always known; that courts can be closed and evictions cancelled; police presence lowered and people released; people housed in hotels and hospitals built overnight, these plutocrats will have sold the city out and called it “equity.”
Mon Mohapatra and Marlene Nava Ramos are organizers with the Free Them All for Public Health campaign in New York City.