“Our elected officials are threatening hard-fought reforms designed to counteract the historic – and present – racism in law enforcement that targets my neighbors and eventually will target my son. Meanwhile, they fail to invest in our communities.”
I am a public defender. But more than that, I am a Black woman and a mother raising a three-year-old boy in East Harlem. When I watch him ride his bike down the sidewalk, filled with joy, saying hi to our neighbors, my heart swells with pride and love. Then just as quickly, when we inevitably pass a police officer on my block, my heart breaks. It breaks because I look at this curious active boy, and I wonder how many years he has before he is viewed as a suspect. How long can I let him enjoy the lights and sirens of a police car, before I have to start explaining that the police are not here to protect him? How long before I have to explain that he is the person the police are here to watch? That he is not protected, but rather the one who they are protecting other people from?
I have lived in East Harlem for almost two decades. For all these years, I have walked home alone late at night and at every other hour. I have never felt unsafe. I have never been harmed. As a public defender serving this community, I am deeply aware that the police view my neighborhood as “high crime” and that we are subjected to targeted surveillance. I know that people are arrested and accused of violent crimes in my neighborhood. But as a resident of this community, violence has never been a part of my life.
I am never afraid for myself or my family. But I am afraid that as my son grows up, he will face violence. But not from his neighbors – from the police. While the data shows that there is only a 0.6 percent chance of being a victim of violent crime in New York City, my son will have a 1 in 3 chance of being arrested because of the color of his skin. For a Black man, it is far more likely that he will face arrest, rather than be a victim. When the news of yet another death on Rikers Island has occurred, I do not think that at least my son is safe in his community. Instead, my heart breaks for another tragic and preventable loss. I think about that person’s mother and his family. I fear that my son will one day face the same fate.
I believe there is reason to continue to fear. Our elected officials are threatening hard-fought reforms designed to counteract the historic – and present – racism in law enforcement that targets my neighbors and eventually will target my son. Meanwhile, they fail to invest in our communities.
East Harlem has been able to withstand the tide of gentrification that swept across our city. But I see the signs that we won’t last much longer. Just this month a treatment center and a family-owned grocery store on my block were shut down because a developer is knocking down the buildings to put up another high rise. The family that owned the store are my neighbors, there is now a “For Sale” sign outside of their home. When I walk from my home in East Harlem to my office in Central Harlem, I see this pattern on repeat. The residents of the shelters that are now closed are in the street, the small business owners are moving. These are the issues that impact my community.
If our elected officials truly want to keep us safe, small businesses need support. Families need access to affordable, stable, and dignified housing. We need functioning shelters, treatment centers, and programs. These are the things that have been proved to reduce crime and promote safety in communities.
But instead of talking about the root causes of instability, instead of asking what resources our community needs, our leaders are heeding the siren call to undo much needed criminal justice reform. Jailing my neighbors does nothing to keep me safe. The data proves this. What my community needs, what my family needs, is to reform policing, invest in my neighbors, and treat us as equals. We do not need polices that revert to over-policing and more investment in the rich.
Alice L. Fontier is the managing director at Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem