‘What we are witnessing on the UWS is a group proudly boasting their shared belief that their perceived safety and protection of property values matter more than the lives of others, and have always mattered more than the lives of others.’
Last week, the city committed to ceasing relocation of additional people experiencing homelessness from dangerously crowded shelters to vacant Upper West Side hotels. It’s been a jarring scene to witness against the backdrop of the neighborhood I grew up in, where my parents have called home since 1976. Wealthy, politically powerful, predominantly White Upper West Siders claim these relocations have somehow violated “their” right to a “safe” neighborhood. They’ve elevated the long defunct, vigilante Guardian Angels (and their extremely problematic founder, Curtis Sliwa) to some ridiculous righteous relevance. This could be laughable if it were not very real and positively terrifying.
An enormous amount of this conversation has been dedicated to a particular narrative about the “city’s lack of transparency” in their placement process. Many claim that had the city hosted a public forum to involve the community in this process…well, I’m not sure exactly what they claim would be different.
A transparent process would have changed little – except perhaps the uproar would’ve started sooner. A brilliant friend noted: “There is a belief, conscious or unconscious, in this cry for transparency that they could have changed the outcome had they known ahead of time. (And perhaps they could have, because that’s how privilege works.)”
Demanding focus on the purported failures of bureaucracy allows those who feel self-conscious about the fact that they, too, do not want “these men” here – but just don’t want to be the ones to say it – to keep a comfortable distance from the actual conversation while still channeling their apoplexy somewhere. Scapegoating the city’s famed incompetence is a sleight of hand of the worst sort. This is also why the transparency cries are so often accompanied by declarations of compassion (“I care deeply about the issue of homelessness in our city, but I cannot get past the lack of transparency on the part of the city. It’s outrageous.”) And rage the Upper West Side has, in one way or another, in spades.
Any of us who have been following closely know these conversations largely ignore the fact that the Upper West Side is not housing a “disproportionate” number of people experiencing homelessness in hotels or anywhere else. Folks have been moved from crowded shelters to hotels all over the city. (A reminder: These relocations are part of a public health effort to reduce the spread of COVID and prevent people from dying.) You will find people in every neighborhood experiencing homelessness because housing insecurity is a protracted crisis that predates but has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
What we are witnessing on the UWS is a group proudly boasting their shared belief that their perceived safety and protection of property values matter more than the lives of others, and have always mattered more than the lives of others. Too many are showing their true character and it looks like Amy Cooper. At best. This is liberalism in 2020. It is not a bastardization or coopting of liberalism in 2020. And under this banner, yes, the Upper West Side is a raucous bastion of liberal ideals.
These liberal ideals include both evicting vulnerable people seeking shelter and refuge during a pandemic, and increased reliance on police and vigilantism to “bring the neighborhood back to its former glory.” It sounds like White supremacy. It is White supremacy. And let me be abundantly clear: Both things are profoundly likely to lead to violence against and death of Black and brown people. Advocating for these things is advocating for more violence against and death of people who were already far more likely to be subject to violence and death.
As of this writing, over $100,000 has been raised by the “get these men out” gang to hire high-profile lawyers, cowering loudly under the guise of “keeping our streets safe.” This amount of strategically organized financial and political capital toward a proposed “solution” that will result in violence and death should be a clear signal to us all about who is protected and who is not; about whose lives matter and whose do not.
These days I hold an intense bitterness for a neighborhood I haven’t lived in for some time but is, really, my only home. I do have to actively caution myself against saying things like “the Upper West Side has become a place I do not recognize” though you can bet that bounces between my ears all the damn time. These types have always been here. They have categorically more wealth and power than they did during the era of my childhood, that’s for sure. But they are not alien forces. They are a pillar of whiteness. A whiteness that kills. And for that whiteness I have long vowed to take responsibility.
So, what really is my point here? I want the people I pass on the street to care about dignity and safety for all people. I want those same people to understand how conditioned whiteness makes it hard for us to see how dangerous we can be, how dangerous we too often are, to others. Part of whiteness – something no one chooses to inherit nor will any of us soon escape – is believing chiefly in our “right” to comfort.
Conversations about community safety are deeply complex, perhaps now more than ever as the language of abolition finally creeps (or creeps back, depending on your historical perspective) into the mainstream. There’s a lot to reckon with. The fact of systems dismantling is by nature unsettling, including for those of us in favor. And as with so many things in this country, we have to be diligent about our unlearning. We are responsible for interrupting the rhetoric we’ve been spoon-fed our entire lives. When safety is only an entitlement for some, what is our safety worth?
Tonight on @WBAI‘s Max & Murphy Show: The Upper West Side homeless controversy with @HelenRosenthal and @UWSOpenHearts … and will schools be ready even after the mayor’s delay? We’ll ask Asamia Diaby of @AQE_NY. Live at 5 on 99.5 FM or here https://t.co/ih85FhZElZ— Jarrett Murphy (@jarrettmurphy) September 2, 2020
Lastly, and wow does this one still need to be said: Don’t call the cops on people. Don’t call the cops because you’re “suspicious.” Suspicion is deadly when weaponized by whiteness and White bodies. Privileging White folks’ comfort (which we’re already drowning in) is not community safety. It is oppression. Instead, if you find yourself in a situation requiring intervention, consider one of these alternatives to calling the police: Don’t Call the Police and/or NY Peace.
I wish for a more wholly compassionate future where community safety is neither a tool nor a privilege of the rich, but a right recognized by and for all.
Meg Sullivan grew up on West 100th Street and has lived in Harlem since 2012. All thoughts reflected here are her own (under profound influence of James Baldwin and E.S. Glaude) and do not represent any institution with which she is affiliated.