‘These deleterious media representations, offered with no counterbalance, send Brownsville residents out into the world with a Scarlet Letter on their souls, and this scarlet letter B is one that marks us wherever we go.’
In mid-September, I watched a multi-segment cable news project centered on Brownsville, Brooklyn. That project was initiated as a media response to the fact that there had been an increase in murders in Brownsville over the summer, 22 people, in comparison to last year’s count of 11. The incidents of people being shot had doubled from the year before.
It is notable, however, that gun violence rates have spiked throughout New York City as a whole from 2019 to 2020. Overall, all other crimes have decreased not only in Brownsville but in the whole of the city, and have been steadily decreasing over past years. But that kind of demographic reality somehow never seems to make the news.
As a person who grew up in Brownsville, trust it only took about 10 minutes of watching that cable news show before I knew this was the same old story, one I’ve grown tired of watching play out and I am fed up! Nobody wants to hear anything positive about Brownsville because the narrative has already been written in stone. And that’s part of the larger scenario of how America defines and dismisses disenfranchised communities, condemning these neighborhoods to intractable crime and unsolvable social issues.
These deleterious media representations, offered with no counterbalance, send Brownsville residents out into the world with a Scarlet Letter on their souls, and this scarlet letter B is one that marks us wherever we go. In my work running Power of Two, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping families and children heal from the toxic stress of marginalization and historical trauma by building on the power of social relationships, I know very well that media pieces like these are intent on re-traumatizing my people. By amplifying the negative aspects of the community with no additional context, the media portrayals have made Brownsville a place where neighbors are afraid of their own neighbors and worst of all, it has had detrimental effects on the neighborhood’s social fabric and sense of self worth.
Because of Brownsville’s lack of adequate internet infrastructure, cable and broadcast television are how many residents get their media. This is especially true of the neighborhood’s older generations who are often the caretakers of their grandchildren. Thus, this harmful sense of mistrust and hopelessness in the neighborhood they live in, and their perceived dismal prospects and negative sense of self is passed down to the next generation, making my role as educator and healer in the community even more challenging.
Older media consumers who rely on broadcast and cable services are not offered portrayals that speak to the good that is being done in the neighborhood by the many organizations striving to improve the lives of residents. Instead, the negative media portrayals present residents with only one solution—policing. By not putting the story of Brownsville in historical context and with a focus on and exploration of the many underlying and unaddressed issues, the people hearing these stories have no way to clamor and hold accountable the people who really can help stop the violence. Namely, the city agencies that could invest meaningfully in the community with jobs, health services, mental health services, education, and job preparedness.
A review of news coverage on Brownsville, since the start of the pandemic and since the citywide uptick in gun violence, shows a pattern of reporting centered on a law enforcement point of view. Missing from these news pieces are voices from community leaders, who would frame the crime rates within a comprehensive context addressing the underlying causes. Outlets such as ABC 7 News, NY Daily News, CBS New York and NY1 have all walked in lockstep in their depictions of Brownsville, with particular emphasis given to their descriptions of an impoverished, unkempt neighborhood where fear and violence permeate everyday life. Descriptors such as “a ramshackle building,” and a “trash strewn storefront,” are used and are followed quickly by interviews with community members who express fear for themselves and their loved ones, often culminating in a desire to leave the neighborhood altogether.
When possible underlying causes are addressed, they have focused on rap music as a possible cause. One particular NY1 segment titled “Gangs, Rap Music, and Social Media Are Behind Sharp Increase in Violence in Brownsville, Police Say” attributed the violence to the listed items in the title, rather than to the socioeconomic factors underlying incidents of violence. Even the heightened stressors of the pandemic take on a law enforcement point of view when the coverage is in Brownsville, like one ABC 7 News piece that covered a ride along with police officers handing out masks in Brooklyn. That piece opens with the statement: “Police officers tried to break up a party on a Brownsville block. The group instead threw bottles at them—and then there was a standoff.” This piece fails to frame the animus towards law enforcement within the historical over-policing of the neighborhood and of the over indexed suffering that Brownsville has endured during this national health crisis.
Now, Brownsville’s 73rd precinct is taking on federal assistance through a task force done in conjunction with federal authorities titled “Safe Streets,” which Terrell Anderson, a deputy inspector and the 73rd precinct’s commander described as “ “a task force between the NYPD and FBI where we are bringing up federal charges on a selected few who are committing these shootings.” In discussing the task force, NY1’s “Inside City Hall” host Errol Louis remarked to Brooklyn North’s new commander Assistant Chief Judith Harrison, that he was really struck by the fact that if the same crime is committed two miles away, where the task force is not operating, you face a completely different set of sanctions. The federal system, for example, does not offer parole and is a “much much heavier set of sanctions.” There is no clearer example of the investment that law enforcement has made in showing only one possible remedy for violence and crime in Brownsville than this escalated use of policing.
What is missing from the vast majority of news covering crime in Brownsville is the history of multi-pronged financial disinvestment in the community across all sectors, and the over policing that gives Brownsville one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. This 20-block neighborhood has long served as a concentrated scale model for the predictable effects of poverty, disinvestment and negative reinforcement through media portrayals that has served up Brownsville as an unwilling guinea pig in a working lab to make the case for policing and incarceration. Brownsville has become the criminal justice system’s proof of concept, and this is by design. The choice to make an example out of over-policing in Brownsville also makes the case for the law enforcement profession and for the need for oversized city, state and federal policing budgets.
Because of its concentrated footprint, Brownsville could very well also have served as a model in how addressing the causes of poverty and violence could turn the tide in a neighborhood. Society had a choice in which remedies and outcomes it would choose to employ, and it chose ever-increasing over-policing to pen a community into ever greater poverty, despair and violence. Through its coverage of this neighborhood, it is also evidently clear that the media has served as law enforcement’s public relations machine that has made Brownsville residents themselves complicit in their own entrapment.
In a post-George Floyd era, nothing could be more dangerous than representing an entire neighborhood as being inherently criminal and offering increased and disproportionate policing and incarceration as the only viable answer. I challenge the media to provide as in-depth an exploration of the legacy of poverty and continued disinvestment in the neighborhood, and to present that in conjunction to the added challenges of the global pandemic, in which Brownsville was also disproportionately affected. And I challenge the media to reflect back to Brownsville the important work that is being done by grassroots organizations like Power of Two to shape Brownsville’s sense of possibility, and children’s pride in their community. I believe that is a story worth covering.
Erasma Beras-Monticciolo was raised in East New York and Brownsville. She is co-founder and executive director of Power of Two and serves on the board of the New York Zero to Three Network and the Citizens’ Committee for Children. She is also an Aspen Institute Healthy Communities Fellow.